Local governments play an important role in Queensland’s society as they continue to provide vital economic, social and environmental support for local communities. To meet the needs, interests and aspirations of individuals and groups within their communities, local government responsibilities have steadily expanded over the decades. At the same time, they have experienced declining levels of federal and state funding, which has seen them rely more on own-source revenue. Rates, fees and services now account for about three quarters of total local government revenue, with farm businesses facing significant rates increases to make up the shortfall in rural and regional areas.
The Financial Assistance Grants (FAG) provided to local governments by the Federal Government are based on a local government’s rateable value of land across residential, commercial and industrial or rural land use sectors together rather than separately. This formula is inequitable for smaller and rural and regional councils with lesser developed commercial and industrial sectors than larger centres so they lack the ability to raise revenue other than through own source options with their ratepayer base, being mostly farmers, having a lesser capacity to pay.
These challenges are exacerbated by the Crime and Corruption Commission’s recent Belcarra Report and subsequent Bill introduced to the Queensland Parliament to ensure compliance with legislative obligations relating to local government elections and process. When operational, some of the new conflict of interest obligations may not be practical in rural and regional councils due to the nature of business and land interests in these areas. Furthermore, the proposed amendments place a significant burden on councillors not only to comply with the requirements of this now highly scrutinised and regulated profession, but for their compliance to be maintained. This could potentially increase councillor churn in regional areas, resulting in valuable experience and capacity being lost.
There is no question that this reform is needed to ensure confidence in local government – every taxpayer wants and deserves transparent, accountable government. But without increased government funding through the mechanisms like the FAG, the benefits for rural and regional councils and their communities will be harder to achieve.