There are “growing opportunities for direct co-operation between the Federal Government and local government”, according to the Prime Minister, John Howard.
Addressing the Australian Local Government Association, Howard reiterated his view that “my philosophy and the philosophy of the Government is very much that we’re not going to be hidebound by a particular model or a particular framework of relationship between another level of government, but rather as we demonstrated in the attitude we took to our programme of providing funding for local roads that if the better outcome, the more efficient outcome, the more economic outcome was to deal directly with local government and to bypass state governments we would be willing to do so.”
The government’s attitude to local government is significant in relation to Australia’s federal system in the light of the government’s looming majority in both houses of parliament and the fact that all eight state and territory governments are held by the ALP.
Transcript of the closing address by the Prime Minister, John Howard, to the National General Assembly of the Australian Local Government Association in Canberra.
Well thank you very much. Councillor Montgomery, Jim Lloyd my ministerial colleague, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a great pleasure to again have the opportunity of addressing the delegates to this conference and to formally close the conference, and in the process address a few thoughts to you not only about the significance of local government around Australia, but the shape of the future so far as the roles of government at different levels in this country are concerned.
When I had the very welcome opportunity of speaking on election night about the result, I made the observation that I believe that Australia stood on the brink of a new era of very great achievement. And that was no idle piece of election night rhetoric, it was a statement of a very passionately held belief of mine that by reason of a set of circumstances this country does stand on the brink of a new era of tremendous achievement. And to realize that opportunity requires the marshalling of cooperation, not only between the governments collectively speaking and the people of this country, but also cooperation between the different levels of government.
The economy of this country is strong. The spirit of the Australian people is robust and positive, and the respect for this country around the world is impressive. Those three things do give us as a nation extraordinary opportunities. We are a nation that has the linkages; very profound linkages with our own region, very strong linkages with Europe, and very strong linkages, of course, with the most powerful economy and nation that history has seen – the United States.
Here in Australia our very strong economic conditions must not only be nurtured and further sustained and progressed by a maintenance of the momentum of economic change and reform. Economic reform is always a work in progress. It can never be said that the process of economic reform has been completed, and it will be one of the goals of the Government in its fourth term, which will be, in a formal parliamentary sense, inaugurated next week when the new parliament sits for the first time and the Government’s plans will be outlined in the Governor General’s speech, it will be the intention of the Government to maintain the momentum of economic change and economic reform. Not in a way that threatens the orderly development of the community, but in a way that says to the Australian people and to the rest of the world that we do not intend as a government or as a people to rest in any way on our economic laurels or our economic achievements. But also couched in a way that recognises that, despite the impressive national economic achievements, there are people, there are regions, there are groups within our society that are not experiencing all of the success and all of the bounty that the nation as a whole is experiencing, and it is always the task of government in a fair and compassionate way to do what it can to ensure that the benefits of economic growth and economic strength, the opportunities of it, are made available to as many people and as many groups as possible.
It’s now eight and a half years since I had the immense privilege of becoming the Prime Minister of this country, and over that period of time of course one develops impressions about the attitudes of our people towards government, towards policy, and towards the different layers of government in this community. I think it’s fair to say that over the period of eight and a half years I have been struck by the increasing nationalism of the Australian people. Australians increasingly demand national outcomes or outcomes that are important to the nation as a whole. They are increasingly conscious of the identity of the Australian nation, they are increasingly conscious of the need to dissolve barriers to the full realisation of our national identity. Simple things such as a common starting age for school children around Australia; barriers that impose disabilities on people who move from one part if the country to another. All of those things collectively suggest to me a growing sense of demanding of governments, whether it’s the federal government, the state government, or local government, a state of affairs where if you move from one part of the country to another – and increasingly Australians do that – then, of course, you shouldn’t be subject to any kind of penalty or any kind of disability.
I also believe, and this will be welcome to all of you, that there is a growing sense of local identity. I think side-by-side with this sense of national feeling and national identification and demanding national solutions, people are increasingly looking to the importance and the vitality of their local communities. Now I think those two sentiments of nationalism and localism are the dominant sentiments of the Australian people in the early part of the twenty-first century. That naturally suggests that the role of local government, so far from being a diminishing role, is a role of growing relevance and growing interest and growing importance to the Australian people.
I don’t seek thereby to impose a particular model about the shapes and the sizes of local government units, they will determined by local communities and state governments as they always have in the past. But at a general level I make the point that I don’t find declining interest in local outcomes or the role and the behaviour of local government units, in fact I find an increased interest on the part of the community, including the young in our community, regarding their local amenities and regarding decisions that are made by local governments.
There is of course a long history by reason of the legal and constitutional development of our country, a long history of the relationship between local government and state governments. And I know that you have debated issues relating to constitutional recognition, but it remains the case that for the foreseeable future the dominant legal control and legal influence on local government in this country will of course be exercised by state governments. And the principle debates that you will need to have with other levels of government in Australia regarding your powers and responsibilities will remain debates with state governments.
But it is true as your president said that over the recent past there has been a growing relationship between the Federal Government and local government. My philosophy and the philosophy of the Government is very much that we’re not going to be hidebound by a particular model or a particular framework of relationship between another level of government, but rather as we demonstrated in the attitude we took to our programme of providing funding for local roads that if the better outcome, the more efficient outcome, the more economic outcome was to deal directly with local government and to bypass state governments we would be willing to do so. That’s not done out of any spite to state governments, rather done out of a recognition that often the greater efficiency is achieved by dealing directly with local government. And many of you will be aware that not only has that been the experience in relation to local roads but it’s also been the experience in relation to the Federal Government programmes concerning the Natural Heritage Trust and Federal Government programmes regarding the enormous problem of salinity.
And so let me say to you will it be approach of the Government in relation to the funding of some $2 billion that we’re committing to the establishment of the National Water Trust, which is designed at a national level to deal in an appropriate way depending on the challenge in different areas of Australia with the great conservation challenge of our age as I see it and the Federal Government sees it and that is the issue of the availability of water. Clearly, because of their control of so many involvement and so many of the water authorities around Australia, states have a critical and important role, but not an exclusive role to play in relation to projects affecting the supply and the availability of water. And I take this opportunity of making the observation that as we seek expressions of interest in concerning water projects and as we set about establishing the National Water Commission, which will be I hope a body jointly contributed to by the Federal Government and the state governments, but it’s our intention, as I indicated in my letters to the Premiers of two weeks ago, that we intend to proceed quickly with the establishment of that body and we’re in the process of nominating the Commonwealth representatives. But as we seek expressions of interest those expressions of interest will not be restricted to expressions of interest from state governments so far as projects are concerned, but will also involve expressions of interest from local government and from individual industries and individual consortium and local groups. And depending indeed on the size and the shape of projects, and I think particularly of that segment of our programme which is designed to encourage the wise use of water resources by local communities, I can see a very significant and very heavy involvement by local government.
I mention the water issue because it is the great conservation challenge of our age. And I wouldn’t want it to be thought that the Federal Government sees its partnership with government in relation to issues concerning water as simply as relationship between the federal government and state governments. This is an area, particularly with some of the larger local government units, an area where I believe there is a very significant role to be played by local government.
Can I say that generally speaking we are very conscious as your president pointed out of the extraordinary diversity of the local government units that come together to compromise this conference. And the differences between the small local government units of many of the city municipalities and the extraordinary challenges of rural shires which have been brought about by the tremendous social and economic change in country Australia and the enormous challenges of all of the droughts and other climate challenges that country Australia has experienced over recent years I know has imposed not only enormous pressures on the rate revenues but has also meant a growing social and community role thrust upon local government around Australia. And this is a very good opportunity for those concerns to be brought to the attention of the Federal Government and particularly to the attention of Jim Lloyd who a few months ago, and I unhesitatingly reappointed him to the position after the election, has assumed responsibility for local government matters, as well as of course responsibility for road funding within the Federal Government.
The decision of the Government to renew the Roads to Recovery programme was a recognition of a number of factors. It was a recognition of the need for continued renewal of local roads, it was a recognition of the fact that particularly in country areas the impact of economic change, particularly the drought, had played havoc with many of the revenue streams of local councils. And also a recognition that by dealing directly with local government we could provide ongoing, efficient economic support for part of the basic infrastructure of this country.
You will of course be aware that in the same vain the Deputy Prime Minister announced some months ago the commitment over a period of years of something in the order of $11.5 billion for the Auslink programme which is designed to bring about in a more integrated national fashion the provision of federal government support for not only road construction but also other support for different modes of transport within our community. There were additions announced to that $11.5 billion programme during the course of the federal election campaign and those commitments of course will be fully honoured over the timeframe that was laid down when the announcements were made. And all of those things together contribute to a very heavy investment by the Federal Government in the transport infrastructure, and not only roads but also the transport infrastructure more generally of our community.
One of the greatest challenges that faces the different levels of government in this country is of course the issue of cost shifting. I have to say to you that the community has no patience with cost shifting or buck passing between different levels of government. One of the phenomena of modern politics of course is that when prime ministers regularly use, as I do because I regard it as a very important method of communication, talkback radio. I am constantly reminded that Australians are not the least bit interested so much in whose responsibility it is to solve a problem, rather they are interested in getting a problem solved. And one of the greatest turn offs in a way to an aggrieved constituent or an aggrieved residents, wherever he or she may live, is to be told by the Prime Minister, by a Premier, or indeed may I say by a local mayor, well I wish I could do something about that but it’s really the responsibility of somebody else, it’s the responsibility of the state government or the federal government or it’s the responsibility of the state government or the local government.
Now whatever our views may be and whatever our politics may be I think we should collectively recognise that we all have a responsibility to make the system that we have work better. We may wish it were a different system, we might dream that if we were starting this country all over again, which we’re not, we might design a different system of government. But we really have a responsibility to make the present system of government work as efficiently as possible and one of the ways in which we do that is to recognise that nothing is more destructive of the efficient working of the present system of government than for any level to engage in cost shifting, to recognise that if you do have a division of responsibilities and particular levels of government are given resources they have a responsibility to use those resources wisely to discharge their responsibilities.
Over the past few weeks we’ve had a great deal of debate, in general, about the different responsibilities of the Federal Government and the state governments. And that debate undoubtedly will go on for I guess many years into the future. But my reading of my mail from the Australian people and my interpretation of the mood of the Australian people is one of the growing impatience with buck passing and a growing desire to simple achieve a satisfactory outcome and a growing impatience with interminable of debates as to who is responsible for what and irrespective of what level of government delivers the outcome it’s the outcome that matters and it’s the right outcome that’s important to all Australian citizens.
So my friends can I again say how much I have enjoyed coming to these conferences now over a number of years, to share a few thoughts with me not only about the health of the country but also about the relationships that exist between the Federal Government and local government. It’s a cliché of course but it’s nonetheless a true description to say that local government is that level of government which is closest to the Australian people. I think the growing links between the Federal Government and local government are important, they are to be encouraged, the limitations of them are to be recognised, we’re not going to have some kind of dramatic constitutional change overnight and the relationship on a legal and charter basis between local government and state government is going to remain. But there are growing opportunities for direct co-operation between the Federal Government and local government, we have utilised those in the past and I’ve outlined to all of you today some areas where I believe they can be utilised in the future.
I want to pay tribute to the contribution that your president, Councillor Montgomery, has made to the workings of the Council of Australian Governments, a body that brings together on a periodic basis the Federal Government, the representatives of the state and territory governments and also through your president local government. He’s put the interests of local government in a very coherent and very effective fashion. I thank you for coming to Canberra, I hope your conference has been effective and productive and I wish all of you well for the year ahead.