The Local Government Act 2020 is quite clear in its expectations of a broad scope of responsibilities to be undertaken by local councils, a scope that requires delivery of services and infrastructure to build the economic, social and environmental sustainability of our neighbourhoods, including mitigation and planning for climate change risks.
We have all been reminded of life’s essentials during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Shelter in a safe home, access to fresh food, public open spaces, clean air, music, art and connection to friends, family, neighbours.
We have also come to understand that these wellsprings of life are supported more often than not through collective rather than competitive human effort – our public health services, our local councils’ care of open spaces, government support for the arts; and in the private sector, the cooperative efforts of farmers and small and larger businesses to grow and distribute our food. And for the first time, early childhood education and care has also been recognised as an essential service supporting a prosperous community and economy.
Government, derided for so long as being too ‘big’ has deservedly experienced a resurgence of support as the democratic mechanism that enables us to care for each other. Whether as individuals, businesses, or community enterprises, we all turned to government when the crisis hit.
Of course, the crisis has also highlighted areas where that collective effort of governments has been failing some of us. Most obviously, this is apparent in the chronic shortage of public and social housing, the heavy reliance on precarious and insecure employment in so many industries, abysmally low rates of unemployment benefits, under-funding of universities followed by the exclusion of some of us from the JobKeeper and JobSeeker schemes.
So how do we now see ‘essential services’ locally?
As campaigning slowly begins in the lead up to our Council election in late October, leaflets are appearing in letterboxes advocating ‘cuts to essential services’ and ‘a Council budget blowout’.
But such references to 'essential services' not only beg the question, they are deceptive. They suggest the phrase has a commonly agreed meaning when it does not. And while parading as non-political—as if this was just common sense—the phrase disguises a deep political bias. Depending on their understanding of the role of local government, people mean quite different things by 'essential services'.
There are those who see essential services provided by local government as limited to taking care of roads and rubbish. This, they say, would enable rate reductions by stripping back what they consider unnecessary Council support for other essentials, like childcare, the arts, the aged and effective local action to counter the impact of climate change. ‘Roads, rates and rubbish’, these are the proper purview of local government, they cry!
But are they?
The new Local Government Act 2020 is quite clear in its expectations of a broad scope of responsibilities to be undertaken by local councils, a scope that requires delivery of services and infrastructure to build the economic, social and environmental sustainability of our neighbourhoods, including mitigation and planning for climate change risks.
So, beware of what is meant by essential services in any election material you may receive. Ask the candidates standing in your ward what they mean when they talk about essential services. And think well before you vote about what might be lost, if a mean-spirited, self-interested view of Council activity should prevail.
Vote for candidates who understand and embrace the important role our Council can play in building and supporting our diverse community through a wide range of local services and activities that we now know are essential for our collective wellbeing and a positive future.
If we want to emerge stronger from this crisis, the Councillors we elect in October need to ensure we have good roads, reasonable rates, and sustainable rubbish management; but they also need to have a plan to deliver the services essential for living in our neighbourhoods in the 21st century.