By Jodie Harrison
The Newcastle Herald
By voting “yes” in the upcoming federal referendum, people all around Australia will be saying yes to safer roads, all-abilities playgrounds, modern libraries and sports facilities in their local communities.
Much of this critical infrastructure exists as a result of direct funding from federal governments to local councils through programs such as roads to recovery, regional and local community infrastructure, regional partnerships and the Regional Development Australia Fund.
The roads to recovery program alone has injected more than $350 million each year into local communities and brought significant community benefits, but this funding model is now under threat.
Recent cases in the High Court have made it clear that the door is open to legally challenge direct funding programs. These legal challenges have brought into doubt the ability of federal government to provide such funding because the Australian Constitution does not expressly recognise its powers to do so.
The referendum is about eliminating this uncertainty so that things can continue the way they have over past decades. That is, through an efficient funding model that avoids unnecessary bureaucracy and helps get crucial projects happening on the ground in our regional, rural and remote areas.
Direct federal funding has certainly benefited the community in Lake Macquarie, with federal government investment in major local infrastructure projects including the Red Bluff shared pathway, Lake Macquarie Variety Playground and the Fernleigh Track.
These landmark projects have together received more than $7.8 million in federal funding under programs such as the regional and local community infrastructure program.
Further federal grants to council have enabled Wangi Point playground to be built and funded a huge facelift for the Toronto foreshore.
This funding has delivered excellent facilities that not only meet the needs of our community in Lake Macquarie, but create a better life for all who live in and visit our city.
Sporting and recreational facilities build healthy communities by creating opportunities for fun, physical exercise and social connectedness. The Fernleigh Track is an excellent and popular example of this, as is the Lake Macquarie Variety Playground, which has been designed and built as a place for people of all abilities to come together and have fun.
Roads in Lake Macquarie have improved significantly in recent years through roads to recovery funding, with an allocation of $6.37 million for the period 2009-10 to 2013-14. Over the five-year period, this funding will see 62 projects implemented to improve the safety, quality and longevity of roads in the Lake Macquarie area.
Roads to recovery has demonstrated that direct funding can create a relationship that supports and drives collaboration among all three levels of government.
This successful model has delivered great results for local communities all around the nation, and it makes good sense to see it continue in the future.
A majority “yes” vote in the referendum will ensure this can happen.
Between now and the referendum, people will hear fearful comments that the proposed change will give state governments less control of local government bodies. This is not the case. Councils will still be governed through state legislation. The proposed change to the Constitution makes this quite clear. The exact wording is “the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State, or to any local government body formed by a law of a State”.
Clearly, a successful referendum won’t change the status of local government, its powers, or its relationship with state government. It will simply formalise what has already been happening for more than a decade under governments from both sides of politics.
Including local government in the Constitution will simply confirm the ability of current and future federal governments to continue to provide funding directly to councils to address local and national priorities such as safe roads, places for our children to play, and built environments that promote healthy lifestyles and nurture social connectedness.
A “yes” vote is needed so that councils can continue to provide the services and facilities their communities expect.
Jodie Harrison is the mayor of Lake Macquarie.