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Regional Op Ed - Respect all three levels of government

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With both Federal and State elections locked in for this year, the role of different levels of government will be magnified. One important element to this focus will be understanding how well each level works with each other, and why it is so critical that they do.

Regrettably, one of the shared hallmarks of our current governments – both state and federal – during and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic has been a lack of cooperative engagement with, and respect for, local community, through their elected councils.

Federally, this was the case when there was no seat given to local government, as the voice of communities, in national cabinet. Communities deserve a say in the decisions made at this specially formulated cabinet, as they were and remain wide-ranging and far-reaching.

Each level of government has an important role to play in community well-being. The vital role of councils is never clearer than during times of emergency such as the current flood response in NSW and Queensland or the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is in the national interest to adopt a constructive approach and ensure the voice of local government is heard.

At a state level, the lack of willingness to genuinely consult with and listen to local government has been evident across many portfolios and policies, including circular economy, sex work decriminalisation, and planning.

Most recently the social and affordable housing proposals which have subsequently been dropped highlighted how the government’s refusal to respectfully engage the concerns of councils can lead to lost reform opportunities.

The Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) is supportive of increased social and affordable housing. Unfortunately, the State’s lack of consultation with local government led to the poorly thought through rates exemption. Working respectfully with local government is critical to achieving positive outcomes for our communities.

As we lead into this year's Federal budget (March 29), the MAV, alongside the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), will be advocating for local voices to be heard.

We understand that the role of local government is often underestimated in the federal political debate and we will seek to remind candidates this year that councils are a significant player in the Victorian economy – particularly in regional and rural areas.

In Victoria alone, we employ nearly 50,000 people across some 300 different occupations.

As well as being a significant employer, councils are also a driver of economic activity across many industry sectors including construction, public administration, community services and public infrastructure.

Current funding models for local government are unsustainable.

When you consider that councils only collect 3 per cent of tax revenue, you can see how Victoria’s rate capping policy and increased demands from the State Government to save its own budget has increased the pressure on local communities to fund their local services. These factors have also led to an increased reliance on Commonwealth support, most prominently through the Financial Assistance Grants program.

Local Government Financial Assistance Grants are a vital component of the financial sustainability of many Victorian councils especially smaller and rural councils.

MAV will continue to highlight the importance of these grants and the advantage of their ‘untied nature’. Untied funding means each council can allocate the money to their specific local needs. This is a key element of ensuring the best possible outcomes for each individual community across the state.

Another important issue for both the federal and state elections will be roads, paths and transport infrastructure. We will support Victorian councils who are calling for better support from both levels of governments to deliver safe, well-maintained and more efficient transport networks for all users.

MAV will not only focus not just new transport projects, but also funding for the ongoing maintenance of our transport network. This will include on foot and bike paths, because streets belong to everyone.

During the last two years, the joy of exploring our local neighbourhoods by walking or bike riding has become routine for many, so the MAV will call for upgraded streets so that whether you walk, bike ride, play and drive, everyone is welcome to enjoy them.

When considering funding for projects, the federal government must remember that locals know what locals need. By listening to local councils and communities, they will help ensure funding keeps pace with our rapidly growing residential and commercial areas.

As the voice of communities across the state, it’s critical local government is at the decision- making table. The broader community is best-served when all three levels of government work collaboratively together.

Cr David Clark
Municipal Association of Victoria

This opinion editorial was published on 12 March 2022 and appeared in the Ballarat Courier, Bendigo Advertiser, Border Mail and the Warrnambool Standard.