By Julian Bajkowski
The federal ministry of Local Government could be the first of many administrative casualties in Canberra after the function conspicuously failed to appear in the publication of Prime Minister elect Tony Abbott’s first Ministry list.
In a document that provides a partial window into how the bureaucracy and machinery of government of the soon to be sworn in Abbott government will be shaped, the function that only a few months ago was due to be put to a referendum for Constitutional recognition simply doesn’t appear.
While local government has always legally been a subordinate domain of state government, the absence of a federal minister is likely to have state associations of councils worried that they could lose hard-fought influence over policy formed in Canberra – despite local government being given a seat at the Council of Australian Governments.
The most probable ministry for any existing federal local government functions to be rolled into is Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Warren Truss’ portfolio of Infrastructure and Regional Development.
Deputy Nationals leader and new Member for New England, Barnaby Joyce, had been a staunch defender of regional councils in his role as Opposition spokesman for Local Government but has been given the Agriculture portfolio in the new government.
Both the Nationals and Mr Joyce in his old role as a Senator had also been strong proponents of letting funding from Canberra to flow directly to council-based projects, like the Howard era $3 billion-plus Roads to Recovery program, to expedite outcomes and cut through sometimes hostile state government tactics red tape.
Mr Joyce had also defended the ‘yes’ case in a since scrapped referendum on recognition of local government that, if successful, would have formalised funding flows.
However the Nationals’ support for direct local government funding – especially important in rural regions that commonly face either deteriorating infrastructure or a lack of it altogether – provoked a strong backlash from right or ‘dry’ faction of the Liberals who publicly railed against what they regarded as an assault of states’ rights.
The big question now for Australia’s peak body for local governments, the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), is to whom they can oppress their case now that Canberra, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria and Western Australia are all held by the Coalition.
Aside from the staple issue of roads funding, many councils that had been hoping to benefit from the National Broadband Network are nervously waiting to find out what the Coalition’s plans are as the incoming government prepares to instigate a series of audits into the massive telecommunications build.
The Coalition has promised cheaper NBN rollout it says will be delivered to a greater number of people in a shorter space of time – a commitment regional councils are wary could lead to a ‘metro-first’ deployment to get runs on the board at their potential expense.
The parlous state of telecommunications in regional Australia, especially mobile phone coverage and broadband, has long been a friction point between the Nationals and their Liberal allies because of the comparatively high cost of delivering services to the bush – an expense that has traditionally been partly subsidised by taxpayers.
A number of regional communities had also pinned their hopes on the prospect that a combination of cheaper land prices and Fibre-to-the-Premises network in regional towns would attract both new residents and businesses to their areas and stimulate much needed new economic activity in the process.
They included Armidale in Mr Joyce’s seat of New England, which was held by independent member Tony Windsor prior to his retirement from the last parliament.
Mr Windsor extracted several concessions for his electorate in return for helping Labor hang onto power during a hung parliament, including being one of the first locations where the NBN was rolled out to homes.
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