By Paul Hemsley
Councils across Australia have warmly welcomed federal Minister for Local Government Anthony Albanese’s injection of $150 million to share between councils and shires to help build and renew community infrastructure.
Formally announced at the National General Assembly of Local Government (NGA) in Canberra this week, the funding measure formed the centrepiece of an event where more than 1000 delegates from councils across the nation converged thrash out issues of national significance to the sector including the much anticipated referendum on Constitutional recognition of local government set for 14th September 2013.
Mr Albanese’s announcement that “councils are better positioned than the Commonwealth to establish local priorities for community developments” is of major importance to councils because the delivery and sharing of the funding will be based on the present distribution of Financial Assistance Grants (FAGs) .
The latest $150 million is a further injection into the local government sector and comes on top of $2 billion the federal government already allocated through FAGs funding.
It is also on top of the annual $350 million in federal funds provided by the Roads to Recovery program and the $1 billion the Commonwealth has delivered since 2007 for community infrastructure projects through the Regional and Local Community Program.
Local governments have consistently argued that a successful “no” vote in the referendum places Financial Assistance Grants and other direct funding from Canberra to councils at grave risk because of two High Court cases (Williams and Pape) that have cast significant legal doubt over the Constitutionality of such measures.
In specific terms, the breakdown of the latest $150 million has been allocated to individual eligible councils across the country in Round Five of the Regional Development Australia Fund – with most eligible to receive under $1 million, although super-councils Canberra and Brisbane will get more than $2 million each.
Mr Albanese is clearly intent that every council will get a prize in the latest handout. The smallest local governments have been given an additional protection and will receive a base payment of at least $30,000.
According to Mr Albanese, $105 million will be directed to rural and regional councils through the Regional Development Australia Fund and urban councils will share $45 million through the Liveable Cities Program.
Councils are certainly not complaining but remain worried whether they can get federal money in the future.
The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) and Local Government New South Wales (LGNSW) have both argued that direct funding to councils like Mr Albanese’s latest round requires Constitutional certainty to continue to prevent further legal challenges.
The joint president of LGNSW, Keith Rhoades, is keenly backing Mr Albanese’s nod that councils are better placed than the Commonwealth to establish local priorities.
“As the level of government closest to the community, we know what facilities need repair, the infrastructure that needs to be built and the essential community services our locals need,” Mr Rhoades said.
Mr Rhoades said the announcement of more money was “extremely heartening” as it confirmed the federal government’s “trust” in local government to determine priorities.
Australian Local Government Association President Felicity ann Lewis cited the announcement as another example of Constitutional recognition of local government was essential.
"Direct funding from the Commonwealth for community infrastructure is important funding that we need to protect and the only way to protect this funding is by including local government in the Constitution," Mr Lewis said.
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