Mayors across Australia are celebrating a tangible boost in political clout for their councils under the re-elected Turnbull Government after the Local Government ministry was elevated into Cabinet and given to Nationals Senator Fiona Nash.
The move is the second substantial win for the grass roots sector since Mr Turnbull took leadership of the Coalition and builds on the previous restoration of a named Local Government ministerial function after it was conspicuously expunged by jettisoned PM Tony Abbott.
Senator Nash takes over from Paul Fletcher who has been given a bolstered Urban Infrastructure ministry, a move that creates a clear differentiation between metropolitan issues and projects and those affecting regional areas.
The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) – the peak national body for councils which also retains a seat next to the states on the powerful Council of Australian Governments – has immediately applauded the move to Cabinet along with the retention of other key ministries.
“This appointment illustrates the importance of preserving and strengthening the partnership between federal and local government to ensure the sustainability of local communities, and to ensure the continued and consistent coordination of national policies at the local level to deliver positive outcomes for Australian communities,” ALGA President Mayor Troy Pickard said.
“Senator Nash’s appointment as Minister for Local Government will also be particularly significant when it comes to the Federal Government’s regional development policy, which Minister Nash has stated will be released in 2017.”
The ability of councils to influence federal policy and funding has been on a roller coaster ride over the past decade thanks to a revolving door of federal ministers set spinning by persistent leadership spills and reshuffles set off by changes in Prime Minister.
Councils’ fortunes now look to be on the rise again, with not only a dedicated Cabinet Minister but also a Minister for Infrastructure and Transport – Darren Chester – and Minister for Urban Infrastructure – Paul Fletcher – to lobby in Canberra.
“We look forward to continuing to work with Minister Chester and Minister Fletcher on the infrastructure and transport issues under their portfolios that are of critical importance to local government,” Mayor Pickard said.
The ALGA President also want to see money from Canberra more evenly shared around to stop regional areas falling behind.
“ALGA’s 2016-17 State of the Regions report, released at our National General Assembly last month, highlights the widening inequality in our regions,” Mayor Pickard said.
“We must start the conversation now on how these issues can be addressed, how to accomplish a more even spread of prosperity for our communities and how to facilitate better coordination between the three levels of government to assist Australia’s struggling regions.”
A major money issue that remains unresolved is the ongoing legality of Canberra directly funding projects at the Local Government level after pivotal High Court ruling created grave doubts over whether a raft of major schemes – including the $3.2 billion Roads to Recovery project – are now unconstitutional.
Known as the Williams cases, the long-term impact of the precedents prompted a sustained but ultimately doomed push for a referendum to authorise a tweak to the Constitution that would create recognition for councils as financial entities.
While the 2013 referendum push was conspicuously backed by key Nationals including Barnaby Joyce, support inside the Liberal Party eventually fractured amid fears by some Senators such a move would erode the standing of the States.
Since then, ALGA and many state Local Government Associations have mounted a concerted campaign to not only keep federal funding channels open, but also halt the increase in so-called ‘cost shifting’ of functions onto councils’ books.
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