‘The importance of Local Government’ by Local Government Minister Paul Fletcher

Opinion Piece


26 November 2015

Circulated to Australian Local Government Association members following the recent National Local Roads and Transport Congress

Recently Prime Minister Turnbull appointed me as Minister for Major Projects, Territories and Local Government. This is the first time for some years that there has been a Minister whose title includes specific reference to local government.

There are at least three important reasons why the Turnbull Government has chosen to underline the importance of local government in this way.

The first is to explicitly and formally recognise the vital role that local government plays. The sector is an important part of our national economy, employing 188,900 people and annually spending $32.7 billion in providing services to Australians according to 2013–14 ABS statistics.

A wide range of critical functions, such as planning, waste disposal and infrastructure provision (including roads and footpaths, parks and sporting grounds, and in many areas sewerage, water and even power) are delivered by local government. If it were not for local government, many of the services that Australians take for granted simply would not be there.

The second important reason for this decision by the Turnbull Government has been our ambition to demonstrate a better integration between all three levels of government. When Australians engage with government, nothing annoys them more than buck-passing and finger pointing between different governments. Of course it is true that different levels of government have different responsibilities—but all of us have a responsibility to work together to deliver the best possible outcomes for citizens and residents.

As a legal and constitutional matter councils are creatures of state government. Certainly the Commonwealth does not intend to trespass on the territory of state governments; indeed any attempt to do so would be legally ineffective.

At the same time, though, there is a highly important relationship between the Commonwealth and local government. For one thing, we provide a substantial amount of funding to local government; this year the Financial Assistance Grants to councils around Australia will total some $2.3 billion, and for many councils this forms a significant part of the council's overall budget.

In addition, in many policy areas local councils are key delivery partners for the Commonwealth, in getting services to Australians. One obvious area is roads funding, where major programmes such as Roads to Recovery and Black Spots involve the Commonwealth working extensively with local councils. This year total funding under the Roads to Recovery Programme is the highest annual figure to date, with $1 billion to be provided to councils all around the country.

A third reason behind the establishment of a portfolio with specific, stated responsibility for local government is because of the important nexus with the Turnbull Government's priorities when it comes to cities and infrastructure. As Prime Minister Turnbull has made clear, he sees a renewed role for the Commonwealth in working to support and plan for the growth of our cities—which collectively in 2011 contributed $854 billion to our national economy according to the Infrastructure Australia audit issued earlier this year.

Clearly, when it comes to each of our major cities, the city council is a critical player. At the same time, in regional and remote Australia councils are very important as providers of local services, and as drivers of growth and prosperity in the local economy.

The Turnbull Government's cities agenda complements the traditional priority which Coalition governments have applied to advancing the interests of regional and remote Australia. In both of these important policy areas, local government must be a key partner of the Commonwealth.

As a nation, and at all levels of government, we face a rapidly changing economy—but with a focus on creativity, innovation and agility Australia can continue to be one of the world's most prosperous and successful nations. Local government has a key role to play—and as the Minister charged with leading the Commonwealth's engagement with local government, I look forward to working with our partners in councils all around Australia as we work together to serve our nation and our local areas.