Is News Limited officially campaigning against the idea that democratically elected local community representatives should be constitutionally allowed to receive direct funding from the federal government? Seriously? Is it that petty and negative?

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is reportedly preparing to announce she will keep her signed 2010 promise with the crossbenchers and proceed with a referendum coinciding with the September 14 election to make it constitutional that Canberra can directly fund local councils. The Murdoch press have so far unloaded with three completely unhinged attacks on the proposal, which, both intellectually and factually, were nothing short of hysterical pap.

It started with Greg Craven,  former chief of staff to Jeff Kennett’s old attorney-general Jan Wade, who produced an opinion piece in The Australian on March 20. Craven failed to disclose he was part of a government that summarily sacked all Victorian councillors in 1994, suspending democracy in the sector for three long years. This move demonstrated perfectly clearly that Australia doesn’t have three tiers of government because all councils are a creation of state governments, which usually believe in local democratic representation.

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Former Liberal MP Peter Reith also popped up in The Australian a month later, attempting to defend his political legacy of having led the “no” campaign against the last proposal in 1988 to amend Australia’s key governing document to acknowledge the reality of local government. The April 23 piece was utterly fatuous, creating images of Big Brother bureaucracies when the minimalist proposal is directly responding to High Court decisions that have cast serious doubt over federal programs such as Roads to Recovery.

Reith also openly and disloyally begged Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to break his solemn promise to the sector that he would support the minimalist addition to the constitution so that section 96 would read: “Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State or to any local government body on such terms and conditions as the Parliament sees fit.”

The sky is hardly going to fall in with that change, and state governments will still be able to abolish all councils at will.

Craven and Reith can at least be forgiven for their partisanship; the same can’t be said for David Penberthy, editor of Adelaide’s Sunday Mail, who produced a piece of populist dross published in News Ltd tabloids over the weekend.

As he recently married Gillard government cabinet minister Kate Ellis, you would think Penberthy would have some vague concept of what councils actually do and the government’s specific proposal. The detail of this was spelt out in this recent City of Melbourne motion, which was unanimously supported by councillors right across the political divide. According to Penberthy, the core business of local government is “picking up rubbish and processing development approvals”, and people who seek higher office after first gaining experience at council level are “blowhards, self-promoters or activist crackpots”.

Here is a brief roll call of conservative political talent that emerged from councils:

  • Pat McNamara: former Victorian deputy premier
  • Campbell Newman: current Queensland Premier
  • Tim Nicholls: current Queensland Treasurer
  • Jeff Seeney: current Queensland Deputy Premier
  • Warren Truss: set to be deputy prime minister in an Abbott government
  • Mark Vaile: deputy PM under John Howard.

Even James Menzies, father of Sir Robert, was once president of the Dimboola Shire Council.

Truth be known, local government has long been one of the largest suppliers of Australian political talent, up there with the union movement and political staffers. On the Labor side it has produced people like Lionel Bowen, Geoff Gallop, Chris Bowen, Joel Fitzgibbon, Harry Jenkins, Mark Latham, Steve Conroy, Frank Sartor, John Watkins and John Thwaites — there’s a longer list at The Mayne Report.

As for the scope of what councils do, News Ltd should remember its own community newspapers receive many tens of millions in annual advertising revenue from local governments explaining the vast scope of their operations. For instance, the City of Melbourne even gives about $70,000 a year to News Ltd’s Melbourne Storm business.

Take a look at the City of Sydney balance sheet and you’ll see $7 billion in assets, $52 million in annual rental income and $40 million a year in developer contributions. It’s a huge business. Councils run the vast majority of Australia’s road network, along with most libraries and public swimming pools.

At Manningham City Council we owned 24 kindergartens, employed 400 people delivering aged-care services and maintained a magnificent 20-hectare network of public open space.

If Penberthy and Ellis ever start a family they will no doubt learn to appreciate the council-run vaccination program, maternal and child nursing services and the organisation of a mothers’ group in a local council facility. If South Australia’s Labor government suddenly cut this service, why should it be unconstitutional for future PM Abbott to step up and reinstate funding for the benefit of all Adelaide mums?

*Stephen Mayne is a former News Ltd employee, Kennett government staffer and City of Manningham councillor who now serves on Melbourne City Council

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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