By Kim Powell in Hobart
Local government should put constitutional recognition and the call for more federal money on the backburner and instead focus on community engagement and long term strategic planning, said Graham Sansom in a keynote address at the 94th Conference for Local Government in Hobart in June.
Professor Sansom is the director of the Centre for Local Government at the University of Technology in Sydney. He told delegates in Tasmania that local government appeared to be “constantly carping on” about constitutional recognition and a lack of money, and it was not doing them any favours.
“I think there’s a very clear message that’s starting to emerge at the federal level. They may be willing to increase grants, but it’s going to be targeted and it’s going to be much more conditional than in the past on seeing local government doing more to help itself,” Professor Sansom said.
He warned that by constantly asking for additional grant funding, local government ran the risk of becoming completely dependent on the other spheres.
“In the UK, local government is 70 or 80 per cent dependent on central government grants and when you’re 70 or 80 per cent dependent on someone else’s money, all the strings are attached,” he said.
“We could run the risk of getting into a mendicant mentality, that every time we have a problem the answer is to ask someone for a bigger grant rather than to look to what we can do ourselves. Financial strength is fundamental to policy influence. If we want to set an agenda and pursue an agenda then I think we have to maintain that financial autonomy.”
Professor Sansom called for political renewal in local government, and said that one of the mistakes local government had made was to go “too far down the road of managerialism".
“The underlying philosophy seems to be only of this ‘board of directors’ approach,” he said.
“I think that constitutes a dead end for local government. We need to support engagement with our local communities”
As well as worrying about finances and infrastructure, Professor Sansom said councils should also worry about the wellbeing of their communities.
“You’ve got to add community engagement to corporate governance, we’ve got to be treating people as citizens and not just as customers or clients and engage them in what we do,” he said.
“We can’t just regulate, we’ve got to be out there demonstrating leadership and entering into partnerships. Leadership is about motivating and inspiring people that you’ve got the right vision and they should work with you to achieve it. If we’re going to tackle the challenges facing our own communities, if we’re going to repair our financial base to ensure the infrastructure doesn’t crumble underneath us and we can provide decent services, leadership is going to be the order of the day.”
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