Can Scott Morrison change the game for local government?

The annual local government National General Assembly takes place in Canberra later this month.  Council delegates will propose motions, which may be carried and put into the political system for a response. Few have an impact; fewer still are big picture.

Last year, resolution 49 requested a review of the national guidelines for powered wheelchair access to buildings.

The federal election result, however, just changed the game. Queensland and other parts of the country evidently sense Scott Morrison could be the man to bite the bullet on the most strategic of issues: subsidiarity, the devolution of decision-making to the lowest practicable level.

Australia has, at different times to different degrees, grappled with the age-old question of the collective versus the individual. When is it in the public interest to exercise centralised authority, such as on national defence, and when isn’t it?

It’s a balance rather than an either-or. That said, nations like ours have, over recent decades, made a concerted push toward the personal freedom end of the spectrum, mindful of the democratic ideal that government should be of the people, by the people, for the people.

Re-establishing connectedness and belief in the human spirit cannot be made to happen. It’s an organic, bottom-up process dependent on trust and on-the-ground moral leadership.

It’s not so much that all politics is now local. That was always the case. What’s different is the Canberra overreach has exceeded its use-by date, something the Prime Minister, far more than most, appreciates.

Inverting the three tiers of government

To build modern Australia, the relative importance of the three tiers of government was inverted. We placed our faith in a top-down approach that, by its very nature, expects money, concentrated power and rules-based structures to achieve systematic outcomes. Though not made explicit, the quantitative was put before the qualitative, head before heart, ideology before people.

And while this has been worthwhile, a reckoning is now upon the West.

Donald Trump, Brexit and One Nation are not random or temporary phenomena. The protagonists seek to highlight – often in a crude, inarticulate manner – we’ve sacrificed something and that the hitherto formulaic success isn’t satisfying, in terms of what human beings really value.

Any paradigm shift, of course, is resisted by elites and the mainstream media, convinced as they are that more of the same will eventually save the day.

Ironically, Break O’Day Council was actually on the money with its resolution last year. Everyday issues like wheelchair access in regional Tasmania is where real change can occur.

While necessary, regulations and technical standards aren’t sufficient. What empowers people and nurtures a shared sense of purpose and belonging is individuals, business and community leaders working together, in good faith, on solutions that reflect local conditions, not some one-size-fits-all requirement imposed from above.

Australia has been well served by secular liberalism. But as in America and elsewhere, we’ve overshot the mark and, in the process, diminished the deeper connections that truly bind us. And now, a defensive establishment finds it difficult to see, let alone accept, the next step is qualitative, to do with grassroots concerns beyond its bureaucratic reach.

A transformative figure?

More trusting of his instincts and silent majority sentiment, Morrison has a genuine opportunity to be a transformative figure, someone who leads from behind.

A suggestion, then, for a coalition in need of a strategic agenda with bipartisan appeal: openly acknowledge the limitations of a Canberra-centric ethos and commit to reforming the federation, consistent with the principle of subsidiarity.

Give local government, properly resourced and supported by a patriotic vision and fit-for-purpose federal and state systems, a chance to spearhead the restoration of Australia’s depleted social capital.

Mark Christensen is a Brisbane-based economic consultant. You can read more from him here.

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