Local government's role in fostering social cohesion

Melissa Gibbs's picture

Local government's role in fostering social cohesion

Last week I had the privilege of representing ACELG at a forum convened by the Australian Multicultural Council (AMC) to canvass opportunities to strengthen and support local government's social cohesion initiatives at the local level. Also in attendance at the forum were representatives from the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV), the Federation of Ethnic Communities in Australia, and the Australian Human Rights Commission. 

The AMC highlighted in a recent report that Australian government and non-government stakeholders have undertaken much activity in the area of social cohesion. There are many effective place-based programs advancing a broad social cohesion strategy at a grassroots level. At the forum, local government representatives spoke about local government's role in supporting social cohesion, and a number of similar themes emerged.

Notwithstanding the many similarities in role and function, local government representatives highlighted the stark differences in size and capacity of local governments across the country. Rural-remote and Indigenous local governments face particular challenges as most are dependent on grants to provide core services, yet they play a key role in remote Australia as the public face of government in many communities. 

We also noted that local governments have many different roles to play in social cohesion. Local government can be a direct provider of programs, an enabler of others, a collaborator, an advocate and an educator, so we should be acknowledging the full range of contributions made by local government across a wide spectrum of activity.

Perhaps an area of potential development is local government's role in building the capacity of local multicultural communities to become engaged in civic life, encouraging participation in our democracy and system of government, while at the same time retaining culture and values. The remote Indigenous regional councils of the Northern Territory and the Aboriginal Shire Councils of Queensland have a track record of working with local Indigenous communities to transition into a system of local government. This has involved encouraging local communities to become engaged in local government, engaging in discussions about governance, voting systems and the like, and there could be opportunities to examine what has worked in those locations.

Local government's role as an employer should also not be forgotten. Local government is a significant employer, employing over 192,000 people – many more than the Australian Public Service, which employs 160,000 staff. Data analysis undertaken by ACELG suggests there are opportunities for local government to increase the participation of culturally and linguistically diverse people in its workforce. Soon to be released research by ACELG into the recruitment of CEOs in Western Australia shows that those involved in the recruitment process tend to recruit from a pool of currently serving CEOs or senior managers because the essential criteria generally focuses on the importance of knowing the Local Government Act, financial accounting and compliance. Leadership capability can be way down the list, yet the increasing complexity of local government requires strong and inspirational leadership. We know from our profile of the local government workforce that 75% of local government CEOs and directors are male and over the age of 55, so continuing to recruit from this pool will not see us make advances in gender and cultural diversity. 

As the Australian Multicultural Council has observed, many local governments have in place effective place-based programs advancing a broad social cohesion strategy at the local level. Any broader national strategy would need to take account of the good work currently being undertaken by local government. It would also need to be based on detailed consultation with the sector to determine what sort of strategy is needed and would be of value to the sector. Local governments love to steal from learn from each other – and they often resent top-down approaches to policy development – so a sector-led approach would work best.

The role of the states and the territories should not be forgotten, and any discussion about national frameworks or strengthening local government's role would necessarily need to include the states and the Northern Territory, as they are constitutionally responsible for local government. 

At the forum, the ALGA and MAV specifically reinforced the critical need for policy leadership from the Commonwealth when it comes to settlement services and meeting the needs of minority groups – a sentiment echoed by ACELG – and a collaborative approach between the three spheres of government that would help to ensure all the government stakeholders play their part.

Melissa Gibbs is the Deputy Director of the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government.

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