Does Local Government Matter?

By September 9, 2012Climate Change, Politics, Society

Yesterday Bev voted in the Eurobodalla Shire Council elections. We have a holiday house  right on the cliff overlooking the sea, a house we bought as retirement approached. We both love the sight, sound and smell of the sea. Bev renovated the house, and it is a lovely place, in a lovely setting. But we did not ever relocate there. There was simply too much to do in Canberra, and we got involved in other things. In fact, as time passed we went to our ‘coast house’ less and less often, then put it on the rental market, and are now selling it. More of that at another time.

When local government began in New South Wales you could only vote if you were a ratepayer, on the principle of ‘no representation without taxation’. That was changed by the Lang Labor Government in the mid 1920s, and now the boot is on the other foot: all residents can vote, whether or not they own property there, but non-resident ratepayers like us have to register, and only one of us is entitled to vote. Bev knows more about the coast and coastal politics than I do, so we nominated her, and we travelled down so that she could do her democratic duty. Yes, she could have obtained a postal vote, but that involved more bureaucracy, and in any case she needed the candidate material.

I sat outside while she joined the long and patient queue at the polling place in our local school, and puzzled about local government. It is at the bottom of the pecking order in Australia, and is a creation of the State Governments. When I was interested in the domain while doing postgraduate work, the NSW Local Government Act of 1919 was an inch thick. It laid down in minute detail how councils were to operate, and allowed the Minister to suspend a council, and to put in an administrator, if there had been goings on. This was a power frequently used, and in fact yesterday’s elections were the first in 17 years when no shire or municipality was under administration.

When I lived in the US in the mid 1960s I discovered a new world of local government. In the American colonies local government came first, as settlers moved into new areas, and it remains powerful. The city of Ann Arbor in Michigan had its own police force, its own hospitals, and its municipally funded schools were magnificent. The reach of the State Government in Lansing extended to the University of Michigan, at which I was a postdoc, but otherwise it was the city and Washington DC, the home of the Federal Government, that seemed most important.

And attitudes toward local government – indeed, government of all kinds – was just different. Whereas we Australians were inclined to say, of some problem, ‘When are they going to do something about X?’, my new friends and neighbours would more likely say, ‘Let’s do this about X!’ It is still the case that the most committed citizens I have ever met have been Americans. We mostly take citizenship for granted; they do not. And instead of rates, they paid annual property taxes at about one per cent of value – that’s a lot more than we pay  for either of our houses.

The learning curve for those elected to a shire or municipal council is a steep one, and it is not surprising either that councils rely so much on their general managers or that they get into trouble. Nor is it surprising that the people who do get elected include those who are interested in property development, and those who are interested in stopping them. Every council needs growth in population and rates in order to provide the services that people expect. But in every shire and municipality there are plenty of people who like things just the way they are, and want no change at all.

During election day I learned that the NSW Government had decided to lift the instruction to councils that they take serious notice of the IPCC’s projections about possible sea-level rises during this century, so that councils need not tell property-owners that they must do this or that, or not do this or that. The new ruling does not affect us, since our property is at least twenty metres about high tide. But it is a victory for commonsense. The IPCC projections are possible scenarios, not predictions, and it is difficult enough to determine sea-levels right now, let alone in fifty or a hundred years’ time.

Local government is important, and I salute those who engage in it. But I’ve never had the urge to do so myself.


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