Unlocking the democratic value of localism

Tanveer.Ahmed's picture

Unlocking the democratic value of localism

As I reflect on my first eighteen months being a local councillor, my key memories relate to the passions and proximity of local residents while they argued their views and interests. It is like watching pure democracy in action, as a wide range of voices passionately put forth their views directly adjacent to their elected representatives. There is no equivalent at federal or state levels of government. I am thankful that I have not yet been embroiled in corruption scandals, so often the public face of local government, particularly in New South Wales. But there is a broader potential of local government and the ties to their communities that is not being fully unlocked.

Throughout the Western world, in particular Britain, there is something of an experiment to devolve greater responsibility to locally derived, citizen driven initiatives as part of the so called "Big Society" push so championed by Prime Minister David Cameron. This notion of localism, while not necessarily an extension of local government, has significant relevance to Australia with the emergence of a Conservative-led government sprouting the slogans of greater individual responsibility and smaller government. The notion has been linked closely to food culture through movements surrounding locally sourced organic food and gatherings like farmer's markets which have become ubiquitous.

But localism has far more potential than great produce, as lovely as that might be. In an age when many of us live a significant portion of our psychological lives in the virtual world or on social media, and many commute across cities and countries to work, the importance of the 'local' is under question. 

In many dense urban areas, people may never interact with their neighbours. Modern networked societies are less tied to geography and spatial neighbourhoods than to communities of interest, be it around ethnicity, profession or leisure pursuits. But there is a growing sense that, amidst the broad disengagement, many people still value the mechanisms of politics and civic engagement, with a flourishing democracy being dependent upon people being able to take part in what happens in their own backyards. If they feel they lack a power to influence decisions over the street they live on, what chance is there of having a say on climate change or our interactions with foreign powers?

Unlike our English and American cousins, local government in Australia has no firm roots. It rose haphazardly, lacks real authority, and regularly endures corruption scandals. The weakness of local government is reflected in its limited funding. The local government share of the Australian tax base has fallen from about 6 per cent in the 1970s to about 4 per cent today, making it the fourth-lowest among the 30 industrialised nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It is essentially dependent upon grants from state governments.

I have been pleasantly surprised by the breadth of work my role has entailed, from environmental spills in the local estuary to water recycling projects to discussions and decisions over the future of public libraries. Constituents often feel more empowered to get involved in decision making when they feel that their local representative is more accessible. I have already seen several reactions from ratepayers of utter joy and surprise that a request or concern has been acted upon, however trivial. It has often been their first experience of responsive government and encouraged some to expand their involvement and newly discovered sense of civic engagement into other spheres. In this respect, local government's great strength lies in its proximity to the people. It is the most transparent, responsive and accountable form of democracy we have. At its best local government delivers services and facilities on a human scale. It is responsive to local needs, provides leadership and advocacy, fosters civic pride and reflects local priorities in a way state and federal governments never can. It is the most accessible form of democracy, for candidates and for citizens.

Economist Oliver Marc Hartwich argues in a report for the Centre for Independent Studies in 2009, titled Beyond Symbolism; finding a place for local government in Australia's constitution, that municipal governments have enormous potential to enliven policy. "Local government with more decision-making powers can generate more competition and diversity. It is conceivable, for example, that a political system could assign primary and secondary education to the local level. In other countries there are local school boards administering the school, thus giving parents a greater role. This would leave considerable scope for tailoring schooling solutions to the needs of local communities—which is far better than providing them with a one-size-fits-all solution for the whole state."

There are some potentially positive signs towards more decentralised, localised decision making, such as the movement towards local school boards. But overall, from where I am sitting, the potential of local governments and the localism for which they can be a conduit is drastically under-utilised, be it in schools, health or law and order.

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a Councillor at Canada Bay Council, and has also worked as a psychiatrist, author and media commentator.

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