This is not the time for smaller local government

If there's one idea that won't fly in these COVID critical times it's that we need less government in our lives. And yet it is precisely that idea that some in our community are advocating.


If there's one idea that won't fly in these COVID critical times it's that we need less government in our lives. And yet it is precisely that idea that some in our community are advocating.

The Federal Government sensibly put ideology aside to deal with the crisis. Not so some loud, local voices. They are banging the same old drum. Cut, cut, cut.

As all tiers governments have understood, this crisis requires spending not cutting. The old constraints have had to be put aside. Having been bushwhacked by reality, even the neo-liberals of the federal government have adjusted their way of thinking about the role of government: bigger is suddenly necessary.

We have seen federal and state governments throw out the old mantra of 'balancing the budget'.  Debt is now the saviour—and the only way to reconstruct the economy on more sustainable lines. Indeed, an ultra-cheap money supply gives us the opportunity to expand rather than contract the services provided, to democratically deepen the connection between all tiers of government and their citizens.

The City of Port Phillip must also change its way of thinking—not just as a temporary measure in response to the pandemic but as a means of serving its communities better in what will be a different world.

Much as we might hope, this will not be a post-COVID election. The pandemic itself will still be with us and its economic effects will be profound and permanent. The relationship between municipality, businesses and residents will inevitably be changed.

Now is the time for a more expansive vision of the City, not a time to shrink. The old solution of cutting expenditure will not get us out of this continuing crisis but will only deepen it. Yet the tired old idea of cutting Council expenditure is the only one the conservatives have.

A progressive coalition on Council can pivot and transform this crisis into an opportunity.

As we see from the response of the City of Port Phillip, local government understands that what is essential at this time and into the immediate future is to support the community through a wide range of direct interventions. We are not in a situation where reducing services or leaving it to business is a rational response. Businesses, we have discovered, do not exist in some world beyond government: businesses need governments to survive. So do residents. Never has the broad range of services provided by the local municipality been more necessary.

And they will continue to be necessary for the foreseeable future.

This is not a time to shrink local government. If Port Phillip Council were shrunk to providing a few 'essential services' such as roads, rubbish and footpaths it would not be able to respond to the ongoing crisis. And there will be no magical return to normal because what is 'normal' will be very different.

This is not the time to let the small government ideologues take over Port Phillip. What is needed now is progressive councillors who understand that the world—and the City—have changed. The future will not look like the past. Old solutions will not do.