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Leadership as a vocation in government and government reform agendas

The current round of calls for local government amalgamations raises a number of questions about what leadership means in government today.

Firstly, why do we have local government at all in a State with a population of around 500,000?  Okay, it’s an historical thing for Tasmania – look at my earlier blogs on the State’s local government development and the excellent historical writings of Dr Alison Alexander and James Boyce on early Tasmania.

And, for Tasmania alone, geography/geology and demographics have all played a significant role in shaping government/governance.  The isolation of much of the State that existed pre-Imperial British invasion is still with us today, despite roads and bridges (and I might add, fragile ones at that given how easily flood and fire and government neglect impair their efficiency).

And here we are today, with 29 Councils all with varying levels of financial competence and capacity being held up as ripe for reform.  Yet no one is talking about a State Government whose financial competence and capacity to cope with its place in the Federation and global economy is also a matter of concerned debate.

So the question then is, given we have local government in Tasmania as an historical, financial, governance artefact of nineteenth and twentieth century policy decisions, is there value in continuing to govern (and I use that word, governing as in governance, not administration) at the local level?

For this blog, I’m looking at the dichotomy of local representation and leadership that affects local issues; and central representation and leadership that is constitutionally set up to look at a various State/Federal matters.  Local government has no constitutional recognition as other than as a responsibility of the State Government.  (Various Federal politicians from both sides have mouthed support for changing this but backed out at the last minute or hemmed and hawed when asked for a definitive policy position.  No State government has ever supported local government recognition in the Australian Constitution.)

Now scratch the surface of any local government representative or indeed any local person, and see what response is garnered from a discussion of transferring local control to a central body.  Apart from anecdotal comments made by a range of elected local government members over time, quiet discussions over the Christmas/New Year convivial drinks has elicited an interesting response from the ordinary ratepayer around the State.  Something along the lines of a reluctance to cede any local control to “them over there” or “you lot in Hobart” is not an uncommon response, even if better services result. 

There just isn’t the trust that local needs will be properly met.

Neither was the belief that only local people had the knowledge of local issues an isolated comment.  Indeed, the contempt with which State and Federal politicians were held regarding their local knowledge and understanding of governance and economy is getting somewhat legendary.  Just what happens to their capacity to know their electorate once they get elected?  (I have some ideas on this – a later blog perhaps on the problems of span of political management in western democratic government – Taylorist ideas still have some currency.)

And this brings to mind that what policy writers have reported as “community of interest” is a strong a driver in debates.  (Mind you, rationalist policy writers then fail to enlarge any further on what “community of interest” really means and how it can be quantified as they simply just don’t have the right tools for analysis.  Indeed, if you’re a policy wonk, then you’ll notice the dominance of quantification over qualification seems to be the approach used in western economic democracies, Westminster or otherwise.)

So this brings me to ask whether the current debate on reform is being framed around quantitative issues only at the State level, while at the local level, the language is more concerned with qualitative issues.  Careful reading of the documentation issued by Minister for Local Government, the Hon. Peter Gutwein MHA, to various regional groupings of Mayors, Deputies and General Managers in the February 2015 reform talkfests/death by powerpoint presentations, causes a person to ponder the old policy saw – if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Seriously, does the State Minister for Local Government actually have a handle on his portfolio of local government or is he really first and foremost addressing the reform debate as the Tasmanian State Treasury Minister, and therefore seeing all things through the policy lens of finances?

On a broad twenty first century analysis, the fact is that the issues facing Tasmania’s State Government, are in fact rooted in its history of cost shifting to local government of one type or another since the 1820’s.  (Yes, as early as that.  The history of Road Trusts in Tasmania is a litany of Colonial financial management unable to afford - at the end of the Napoleonic Wars - to maintain this prison colony’s roads.  You can just guess what happened.  It was all downhill from there, even as the wealthier settlers fought tooth and nail to resist taxation, and some say, continue to do so to this day.)

Read the full, fascinating article, Eva Ruzicka’s website, HERE