Dr Katrena Stephenson knows a thing or two about local government.
Taking up the role of Local Government Association of Tasmania chief executive in 2013, Dr Stephenson was the first woman to be named chief executive of the 100-year-old organisation.
Recently returned to her role for a five-year term, Dr Stephenson spoke to Fairfax Tasmania to outline her perspective on the local government sector and its future.
“We have some issues that are perennials and some are new, and often driven to respond to federal and state agendas,” she said.
Rates, roads and rubbish
There remains a belief that a local council has little role in the community outside setting rates, managing roads and infrastructure, and dealing with waste and recycling.
Dr Stephenson said that concept was no longer accurate – the role of a modern council was one of community leadership, management and support.
“It’s so much more diverse, it’s one of the reasons I’ve lasted ten years in the sector,” she said.
“We’re talking about things like rejuvenation and reform and connecting to communities – there’s a whole lot of roles that council has.
“Councils can really shape communities.
“We are important, we’re often undervalued but we are important.”
Infrastructure and strategic planning undertaken by councils had far-reaching consequences for the vibrancy and life of a community, Dr Stephenson said.
The third level of government
Against arguments that local government is unnecessary, or should be reduced significantly, Dr Stephenson said “place-based delivery” was becoming increasingly important, taking into account the local needs and perspectives when creating regulation, social development and infrastructure.
“The more I’m in local government the more I see all the different roles we play, and that other levels of government really do rely on local government to deliver services at a local level,” she said.
“Councils are often the best place to deliver those things. We’re starting to see some really different spaces where councils are playing in.
“You think of Dorset council for example and the role they’ve played in reinvigorating Derby.”
We’re starting to see some really different spaces where councils are playing in.Dr Katrena Stephenson
Dr Stephenson said it was councils who picked up on gaps in delivery, and could accurately represent the challenges faced by a community to the state and federal government.
“We’ve seen that happening more and more in terms of things like councils in having a role in provision of medical services in their community, or playing a more active role in economic development and industry attraction, which used to be mainly the province of state government,” she said.
“The critical thing to any of that type of activity is to understand what is it that you’re trying to achieve? What are the functions of council?” Dr Stephenson said.
Mayors and councillors
“They’re highly undervalued, they work incredibly hard, they have long hours, they’re basically expected to be available 24/7.
“They’re making these huge decisions about their community, often oversighting large budgets and work forces.
“They do that for a fairly paltry allowance for the most part … most of them are motivated about giving back to their communities.”
Without their efforts, she said the community would feel the loss of support on the local level.
Dr Stephenson said LGAT was “the envy of other states” with its good relationship and clear communication between the sector and the state government, even when in disagreement.
She said there was plenty of work still to do, and the association was increasingly working with other peak bodies to try out new ways of working, cost-cutting and sharing resources.
“Often local government is on the cutting edge of emerging policy movement, and in Tasmania in particular we’re often a very attractive place to pilot things,” she said.
Planning reform still looms large on the agenda as the state government works on its new legislation, with plenty of the work on local government’s shoulders.
Developing the local provision schedule … that will take up a lot of energy this year.Dr Katrena Stephenson
“Developing the local provision schedule … that will take up a lot of energy this year,” she said.
“We still have the unresolved issue with TasWater and we’ll be seeking to sit down with the state government as soon as possible to try and initiate a new more open dialogue and see if we can break the impasse.
“We’d certainly like to do that very soon before they get too far down progressing legislation.
“If we can try and find a compromise and a collaborative way forward, that will be critical.”
The question of waste and recycling management is also increasingly pressing as councils on the mainland look to shut down recycling after China banned the import of Australian waste.
Dr Stephenson said councils would likely feel the impact of that change in the near future.
“The other big one is we have local government elections in October, so for LGAT it’s quite a busy time.”