Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Bring on a consititutional convention in 2007

Professor George Williams has described one of the greatest challenges facing Australians who want good government in Australia. He wrote: 'we need to fix our dysfunctional federal system.

Our foundation law, the Australian Constitution, needs to be modernised. It established a system of government that made a lot of sense in the 1890s, but now does not work as it should.
Instead of clear lines of responsibility, our two levels of government often seek credit for successes but blame someone else when faced with failure. In a state like Queensland, the impact is being felt in hospitals and schools. While the money lies in Canberra, the responsibility lies primarily with the state. This mismatch is undermining the quality of these essential services.

The Business Council of Australia has found that our inefficient federal system is costing taxpayers an extra, wasted $9 billion each year. The larger impact on the economy has been estimated at about $20 billion. This shows the cost of having two levels of government in a system that allows administrative duplication and political buck-passing.

This long-term problem is often neglected in the short period between elections. However, it is now so pressing and the consequences so obvious that 2007 should mark the year that Peter Beattie's call for a constitutional convention is taken up.'

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Reform Australian federalism - the priority of a Rudd/Gillard Government

Michael Brissenden reported on the ABC 7:30 Report on 5 December 2006 that Kevin Rudd has been working the themes that have emerged early as the defining planks of this new Labor team.

He said: 'Manufacturing is near the top of the list, with a clear indication that a Rudd/Gillard government would certainly be more interventionist.

Health and education, the relationship with the states and the need for a new reformed federalism. Industrial relations is there too, of course, particularly the impact on family life and values. All of it is wrapped in a rhetorical critique of uncompromising market fundamentalism.'

Kevin and Julia have got off to a cracking start. Finally Australians have a leader of a major political party that is prepared to engage the Australian public in the case for new federalism. The Greens and Democrats have long held positions for a radical overhaul of our dysfunctional federal system of government.

It is so refreshing to learn that Kevin Rudd has given notice of his intention to lead a federal government by showing the courage to take responsibility for education and health - functions essential for our national growth and well being. Federal intervention in these areas is long overdue. There is every indication that Mr Rudd's goodwill with State Premiers may well facilitate a smooth transition. Let's hope so. But Kevin has already shown the public that he has the intestinal fortitude to proceed in the face of vehement resistance.

At last we see a bold strategy to reverse the funding crisis in public health and education. This is a stark contrast to the current 'blame game' that originates from confused and overlapping federal/state responsibilities.

Our strong message to Kevin and Julia should be that regional organisations of councils and local government have a prominant role to play in Australia's new federalism. We want a new deal too, so that communities throughout Australia can receive the infrastructure and services that residents expect from us.

Only a new deal, under a new two-tier federalism, can deliver the required renewal of infrastructure and community development that regions need to grow and attract industry and manufacturing investment.

The Australian Labour Party leadership team need to promptly engage the executive of Australian Local Government Association in a dialogue before the 2007 federal election and map out our role in a future Rudd/Gillard government. We need to talk now.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Direct federal funding for local government

The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to undertake an independent analysis of the financial sustainability of local government in Australia.

A summary of their report gives a tantelising look at what could be achieved through improved direct federal funding of local government.

The report says that improved funding for local councils, would assist local communities by enabling councils to return important community infrastructure to an acceptable condition. Extra funding would clear backlogs in renewals and support regular maintenance to retain service levels.

Additional funding would assist local government to take full advantage of their ability to flexibly gauge and respond to the changing demands at a community level.

Since most councils face increasing demands for a broader scope and higher standard of community services and infrastructure, it's important that local government has the resources to set the priorities and consult with the community on the trade-offs between council provided infrastructure and services.

Enabling a council to respond directly to the service and infrastructure demands of an informed community would:

  • Strengthen local communities by ensuring and adequate standard of key facilities for the ongoing provision of a range of significant social and recreational services.
  • Provide for greater choice and consultation on council provided services and infrastructure that would encourage more participation in community activities raising levels of inclusion and wellbeing. This would promote increased community cohesion and safety, particularly in rural areas.
  • Enable the implementation of local programs to meet and include the diverse needs of the community that support cultural diversity, access and equity, equal opportunity, involving minority groups.
  • Support a sustainable environmental strategy for each community to improve local environmental outcomes.
  • Enhance business and community links with regional areas to promote regional equity and development.
  • Promote further economic development and the generation of employment benefits through links with the business community.
  • Improve the quality of life of local residents through the support and alignment of health and welfare agencies within the area.
  • Support local recreation, arts and culture and an appreciation of heritage in order to promote vibrant and active communities.

PwC developed 11 recommendations based on a 'twin track' approach for improving financial sustainability through the pursuit of:

  1. Internal reforms by some councils to improve their efficiency and effectiveness and
  2. Suggested changes to inter-government funding for improved financial sustainability to primarily assist the types of councils with sustainability challenges.

Internal reforms required by some councils is likely to be assisted with the release in 2007, of the Asset Management Module of the Local Government Managers Association 'Good Practice Tool Kit.'

The area of inter-government funding is the key element to sustainability of Australian local government. Disappointingly, the PwC report lacks vision, merely applying oil to the ox-cart and giving the driver a new whip. What local government desperately needs is a massive injection of funds through efficiency savings from migrating local government out of state control and under one federal Local Government Act.

If federal parliament does nothing new, by continuing to underfund councils, then we will see community assets over Australia quickly deteriorate and become unserviceable. States have a bad record of failing to pass on federal funds to local government. States are known to indulge in asset stripping of public utilities under their responsibility and they have a long history of demanding payments from councils to support the voracious appetite of state treasuries. We need to retire the ox-cart and driver that have been used to deliver local government services for a century before federation. In this new millenium, shouldn't we be embracing a leaner and more effective funding structure that says we expect 'value for money' and this should be without the unneccessary overheads.

Cities and towns will not only look shabby and run down but essential transport, sewage and water infrastructure will eventually start breaking down, making the conditions ripe for growth of the ghetto and all that goes with it. Australians deserve better. Politicians have applied the blow tortch of structural reform through such bodies as the ACCC and the Productivity Commission on all other segments of our economy except their own. Its time to realise the estimated $50 Billion savings from a two-tier level of government in Australia.

Making local government accountable

To keep local government employees and officials honest .... Internally, we have our supervisors checking subordinates, Managers overseeing supervisors, directors overseeing managers, the GM overseeing directors and councillors holding the GM accountable. We induct our staff with our Code of Conduct for local government employees, we have an internal reporting policy designed to protect 'whistleblowers', internal audit, external audit, we have declarations of interest registers, a gift register, independent tender review, checks and balances built into computer systems and payment systems. We have corporate development training and review to continuously improve the way we do things such as the move towards electronic tendering and contract disclosure.

Externally we have our professional associations to provide us with good practice tools and for independent oversight we have the ombudsman, the local government pecuniary interest and disciplinary tribunal, the department of local government inspectors. We can be 'surcharged' (pay -up from our own pockets), for any act of negligence!. Occasionally, there may be a sting operation by the independent commission against corruption. The courts pour over subpoena documents from councils. Agencies check up on the expenditure of funds with strings attached, to ensure each string has been tied and the ACCC hold us accountable as do local newspapers, local radio, TV's stateline, bloggers as well as the residents and applicants attending council meetings to 'keep an eye on local government'.

To keep state governments honest, we have the bear pit.
A few careers have been cut short of late under intense scrutiny under NSW parliamentary privilege and media exposure. Health care, transport planning, education all a mess but there is always Canberra to blame. Little accountability - the auditor general's office complains and complains but little progress is ever made.

To keep the federal government honest, .... Ministers go to extraordinary legal lengths to prevent information coming into the public's attention through Freedom of Information applications by the media. Ministers have revealed they relied on their well paid, well connected mates at AWB to tell them the truth. They didn't. No back up plan - despite the indications that Sadam was profiting from the arrangements for trucking and inspection. Australia's biggest corruption scandal followed, dragging Australia's international reputation as an honest broker, down in the process. Commissioner Cole seemed to exonerate the politicians and the federal civil servants - they were, after all, outside his inquiry's terms of reference. Where is the accountability supposed to fall under our current system of government?

It seems accountability under our current system of government is inversely related to the government's power and resources. Given local government's superior (but never perfect) systems of checks and balances, and over a hunded years experience of working under oversight, doesn't it make sense to divest to local governments more power and resources? At the local level at least, greater resources goes hand in hand with greater scrutiny. If nothing else, the community grape vine will see to that.

Why State Laws Need to Be Replaced by Federal Laws

Do Australians deserve better government - the way we are governed?

We need leaders with a vision for Australia to show the way forward. Centralist state governments by the nature of their legislative processes and traditional mindsets, offer little opportunity for regional diversity where local innovation and flare are what's called for. That's because state laws and regulations are generally so prescriptive.

Yet where uniform Australian standards not only make sence, but are blindingly obvious, common sense is nearly always the first casualty. The plethora of differing state laws and regulations cause needless grief, particularly to the interstate traveller or national business. Jim Snow has provided the following examples in a paper he gave to 'Beyond Federation' in 2003:

  • A child moving from one state to another should not be upset and discouraged by quite different education standards.
  • A child moving from Victoria to Queensland might expect to cope with local emphases on environmental or workplace requirements but should not have to be bored with English already covered and distressed by Mathematics for which there has been no introduction.
  • A cancer patient visiting relatives in Canberra should not have to be distressed and horribly inconvenienced by the refusal of a pharmacist to supply medicine on the prescription of a NSW Doctor.
  • A Doctor from South Africa accepted for practice in a Victorian town on the Murray should not be barred from practicing in a NSW hospital which lacks a Doctor and is just over the river.
  • When an accused law-breaker is not extradited for trial because of state differences there are delays in justice, further crimes can be perpetrated and lives threatened. When a criminal has fled interstate there can be long delays in extradition.

Those examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Federal Minister Tony Abbott suggested that States should be cut out as funding agents for schools, hospitals and public services. He has listed a multitude of problem areas where State administration is unnecessary, costly or unfair:

  • Health
  • Adoption
  • Drug control
  • Food standards
  • Doctor, pharmacy and nurse registration
  • Forestry
  • Railways – travel and freight transport and different systems
  • Road transport
  • Driver Licences
  • School starting ages
  • Basic school curriculums
  • Professional and technical requirements
  • Consumer protection and labelling
  • Safety standards
  • Flora and fauna
  • Industrial law
  • Company law
  • Partnership
  • Probate
  • Aviation

Jim Snow has stated in a recent posting to the Beyond Federation' group, that local government is essential in any rationalisation of government.

He said: ' local government cannot expect to be fair, efficient, just and equitable unless it is also powerful. For that reason we must consider alternatives that would entrench local government power in the national structure.

My own view is that the Senate can be the vehicle for that power with the present decision making arrangements. A whole range of options could be available.

(Option) 1. Senate electorates to be the regions or groups of local government councils with an assembly for each region or group.

(Option) 2. Estimates committee responsibilities would be transferred to House of Representatives.

(Option) 3. Senators would be elected to both the Senate and a regional assembly at the time of local government elections - that is as members of both levels of government. Their appointments would be in addition to local councillors or regional representatives.

This would require constituional change and the imptus would have to come from the people for it would weaken political parties and factions.

It would give geograhic areas the effective power of review originally intended for the senate. I have over-summarised my idea for the sake of simplicity but believe that a range of variations would all work.'

I hope more of our federal politicians can be convinced to overcome the defeatest attitude that constitutional change is ' too hard'.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Australian health funding is a dog's breakfast - Health Minister, Tony Abbott

Kevin Rudd has got off to an excellent start with his first question as leader of the federal opposition in parliamentary question time on 4 December 2006.

Kevin Rudd asked: "Why has the Prime Minister rejected major reform of the health system, despite the fact that the Health Minister has described the current funding arrangements between the Commonwealth and the states as a dog's breakfast?" he said.

Mr Howard replied that the Government had already taken "a large number of very significant measures" to end the blame game.

Comment: The most significant measure Mr Howard could take would be to take up the offer made by the Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie to the federal government in August 2005 to take over the state's health system. Until that happens, the blame game will continue unabated!

Government structural reform can help fund $14.5 billion infrastructure back-log

A study undertaken for the Australian Local Government Association by PricewaterhouseCoopers was released today,4 December 2006. The report confirmed 10-30% of Australian councils have significant sustainability issues together with a backlog of $14.5 billion in infrastructure renewal work.

A similar independent inquiry in NSW headed by Professor Percy Allan reported last May that NSW had a $6.3 billion infrastructure backlog, growing at the rate of more than $500 million annually.

The President of the NSW Local Government Association, Cr Genia McCaffery, said councils Australia-wide were in need of an injection of more capital funds by both Federal and State governments. "The reality is that our aging infrastructure is collapsing, and with static or falling populations, at least a quarter of councils cannot expect to find their own funding solutions from rate revenue alone.”

Where can the billions of dollars be found to renew? At the 2002 National General Assembly of Local Government, the following resolution was carried unanimously:

‘The General Assembly calls upon the federal government to review the effectiveness, efficiency, responsiveness or the adequacy of the current three-tier system of government, with a view to structural reform, by calling for a national convention of mayors and elected members of the state territory and federal parliaments to review the structure of the 1901 constitution.’

Isn't it time that the federal government, opposition, minor parties and independants responded with an achievable, long-term strategy to resolve this crisis, before it gets any worse?