By Julian Bajkowski
South Australian and Mayor of Marion, Felicity-ann Lewis, has been elected as the president of the Australian Local Government Association, beating outspoken Queensland Central Highlands councillor Paul Bell in a ballot at the organisation’s annual general meeting held in Hobart.
The election of Mayor Lewis comes as the peak body faces renewed uncertainty over whether it will be able to muster enough political support in Canberra to guarantee direct funding for local governments from the Commonwealth.
The move would require a referendum to be put to Australian people on whether or not local governments should be formally recognised through an amendment to the Constitution a mechanism that would provide certainty on direct federal funding.
Although the push now appears to have bipartisan support, the core question is whether parliamentarians believe there will be enough electoral support for the proposal to succeed at the next election – or whether it is better wait and try to keep building support.
So far ALGA has welcomed the referral of the proposed amendment to a parliamentary committee, however the Gillard government has already indicated that another proposed referendum question on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians is unlikely to be put to voters in the federal next poll.
Mayor Lewis vowed immediately after her election that constitutional recognition will stay a main priority.
"The whole question of adequate and certain federal funding for local services is of great concern to councils and communities alike," Mayor Lewis said.
The new president has also singled out the mess surrounding Financial Assistance Grants (FAGs) for local governments, which is now under review, for attention.
"FAGs were designed to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of local government but ALGA has long argued that the amount provided to councils is not adequate and does not reflect increased costs to local government in construction and wages,” Mayor Lewis said.
"The Federal Government recently announced a review of FAGs for local government and while ALGA has welcomed the Commonwealth review, we have also stressed the need for the review to be broad enough to address the issue of whether current funding is sufficient.
Mayor Lewis said ALGA wants to see Canberra assess whether the amount of money provided by FAGs is enough – and particularly whether indexation was adequate “given that the annual cost increases faced by councils do not reflect the CPI [consumer price index].”
“Local government cost increases are related to increases in construction costs and wage levels and these have been well in excess of the CPI, which means that the value of the FAGs for local communities is falling,” she said.
Many councils are understood to have been angered by the shuffling of dates and amounts of the latest round FAG payments that tore unexpected holes in budgets. The issue was further inflamed by some state governments attempting to muzzle councils from speaking out on the problem.
Mayor Lewis’s election as ALGA president for two years follows a brief spell when she was elevated from vice president to president following the retirement of the Mayor of North Sydney, Genia McCaffery, who stepped down from local government in September.
A statement from ALGA said Mayor Lewis “has been a member of the ALGA Board since 2009 and served as ALGA vice president between 2010 and 2012. She is the City of Marion's first female Mayor and the longest serving Mayor of more than ten years.”
"As ALGA President, I am also looking forward to continuing to promote better alignment of all three levels of government, especially in areas such as infrastructure and planning, which rely on place-based solutions,” Mayor Lewis said.
“Meaningful partnerships between the levels of government can only improve the quality of government decision-making for all Australians, and confidence in elected representatives."
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