Local government is about more than roads, rates and rubbish. But it’s not about Middle East meddling and international diplomacy, one Sydney mayor and president of the local government alliance insists.

“Foreign policy is clearly a federal responsibility,” said Genia McCaffery, the North Sydney mayor and president of the Australian Local Government Association. “We’ve got more than enough work to do without intervening.”

Across the harbour, the Greens-dominated Marrickville Council sparked a fierce debate, spilling over to last month’s NSW election, by enforcing a trade boycott of Israel. But discussions about the role of local councils have been ongoing — they’re bigger, richer and more political, so what exactly should they be doing?

“Clearly one of our primary roles is roads and rates and rubbish. They remain very important,” McCaffery told Crikey.

“But a modern council does everything from childcare to libraries to community events. Many of our regional councils provide key cultural infrastructure. If council wasn’t doing that people would have to travel to major cities to see a work of art or see … a show. All of those services are vital for the health of a local community.”

And it’s more than that still, according to Professor Graham Sansom, director of the UTS Centre for Local Government. They’re democratic institutions, he says, “that enable people in local communities to pursue all sorts of shared agendas and objectives”.

“That debate has raged on,” he said. “On the one side you have people very much focused on sticking to the service delivery and generally to keep out of the way. On the other side I think there’s now a pretty broad consensus that it’s more than that. Particularly in NSW, across Australia right now, local councils are required to prepare broad-based community plans.”

That includes economic and environmental management, community wellness programs and beyond. Sansom broadly calls it “civic leadership”, though the definition is open to interpretation.

“The debate is how far do you push that,” he said. “They are democratically-elected organisations and to that extent the elected members can make policy statements. If they go too far in terms of stretching the brief of local government … then presumably constituents will throw them out.”

There are 560-odd municipalities across Australia, from tiny rural town halls to the most populous in the Brisbane City Council (almost 1 million residents) and the largest geographically in the Shire of East Pilbara (covering 379,000 square kilometres). According to the Local Government Association, some 6600 councillors and 178,000 staff spend about $20 billion annually.

Council amalgamations — most recently and controversially in Queensland, and in Victoria and South Australia in the recent past — have beefed up many councils. State governments have demanded greater responsibility and accountability, Sansom says, blurring the areas of delivery (he cites rural medical services as one state government function some councils have stepped into).

McCaffery, an independent among an almost entirely non-partisan council, says she’s “sympathetic” to the Palestinian cause — but Marrickville Council went too far. It’s jeopardised her push for long-argued-for constitutional recognition for local government, which she says is important to better manage the flow of funding from state and federal governments.

“If we start to do things like this that undermines what we’re doing,” she said.