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Publications archive - International Activities and Commitments

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Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Australia's report to the UNCSD - 1995

Implementation of Agenda 21
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1995
ISBN 0 6444 3152 0

Local Government

Chapter 28 of Agenda 21

Australia has approximately 770 local authorities which vary widely in terms of population, budget, and geography, from outback councils covering thousands of square kilometres with only half a dozen staff to Brisbane City Council servicing almost 3/4 million metropolitan residents with a budget of over A$0.5 billion. Sixty per cent of local councils are in rural areas and many Aboriginal Community Councils are gaining local government status.

Established by State Government legislation, the functions of local government also vary, according to jurisdiction, but usually include land use planning and development control, environmental health regulation, waste management, pollution control and monitoring, water supply and sewerage, road building and maintenance, traffic management, parks and open space, recreation facilities and community services.

Local authorities play a significant part therefore, in the construction, operation and maintenance of the economic, social and environmental infrastructure of Australia. They oversee planning processes, establish local environmental policies and regulations, and assist in implementing national and sub-national environmental policies. Local Government's 'local' nature, flexibility, experience in environmental management and ability to respond rapidly to local expectations means that it plays a vital role in educating, mobilising and responding to the community in the promotion of sustainable development.

The need to integrate social, environmental and economic elements and to respond to local, national and international expectations is often best achieved at the local level. A number of reform processes have been under way in Australian Local Government in recent years in recognition of this and in the pursuit of improved economic efficiency and service delivery goals.

Intergovernmental relations

Most local authorities in each State and Territory are represented by their respective Local Government Association which provides information and services (such as industrial relations and legal advice) to councils and acts as a collective voice in relations with other Governments and organisations. The associations are represented nationally by the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA). The President of the ALGA is a member of the Council of Australian Governments and has representation on the Intergovernmental Committee for Ecologically Sustainable Development which oversees implementation of the National Strategy for ESD.

State and Territory Governments administer relevant legislation and oversee Local Government activities within their jurisdictions, but there has been an overall tendency in recent years towards devolution of powers and responsibilities to Local Government resulting in increased autonomy.

The Office of Local Government, part of the Commonwealth Department of Housing and Regional Development, acts a focal point for Commonwealth - Local Government Relations. Local Government representatives meet annually with the Prime Minister and senior Ministers to discuss issues of priority and mutual concern. Commonwealth general purpose financial assistance to Local Government for 1994-95 was approximately A$1.32 billion, which represents about 15 per cent of total Local Government revenues.

Policies and programs

There is an increasing realisation that much of the real change that is necessary in managing the environment can only occur at the local level. Local Government has many advantages in this respect such as its local base, its flexibility to interpret national and international agendas to suit local circumstances, its experience in environmental management and its capacity to respond to problems in a short space of time. The Prime Minister's 1992 Statement on the Environment recognised that much of the effort to protect the environment occurs at the local levels of community and government. He acknowledged that more than three quarters of Australia's local councils have taken on specific environment programs - not only in recycling and waste management, but in the wider fields of maintaining biodiversity, coastal management and greenhouse issues.

Australia's implementation of this chapter, by necessity, requires local authorities and local government interests to develop local responses. The Federal Government is facilitating this process through funding a number of measures to help Local Government implement Agenda 21. Local responses include a review of national, state and local programs, development of material and publicity to assist local authorities to interpret Agenda 21 and to encourage the development of local strategies, the development of a generic guide for the preparation of local Agenda 21 plans, assistance in establishing a comprehensive consultative process applicable at the local level, and a national awareness and skills building program for Agenda 21. Several local councils have already put in place their responses to Agenda 21.

Additionally at the national level Australia has two complementary programs which build local authorities' capacity for integrated management:

The principles of ILAP are being increasingly applied by councils and local communities as a means of addressing complex environmental issues such as in coastal management. The Commonwealth Government has funded a project in north-east Tasmania to develop a best practice approach to the development of a comprehensive coastal management strategy for 20% of the Tasmanian coastline. The project involves the active contribution of three spheres of government and other key players. The project is being guided by a local level steering committee with representation from all three spheres of government, the private sector and the local community. It is expected to the completed later this year.

The Australian Government also provides indirect support to improved environmental management through the Local Approvals Review Program (LARP). Better cities, healthy cities and healthy localities are other related programs. A number of local authorities have developed local strategies that reflect some of the principles of ecologically sustainable development, most notably in Victoria with the Local Conservation Strategy (LCS) program, and to a lesser extent in other states with local environment plans/policies and catchment management strategies.

Local Governments are also encouraged in their efforts towards the adoption and implementation of sustainable development principles through national and State based awards for environmental management.

Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 specifically addresses the role of Local Government in achieving sustainable development, however the implications of Agenda 21 for Local Government are clearly far broader than this chapter. The Commonwealth is assisting Local Government to improve its ability to address many of these issues and is attempting to improve its own program delivery with the benefit of local expertise and knowledge. If Local Government is to take on an even greater role in the implementation of sustainable development initiatives, it needs more involvement in the development of policy, the opportunity to share solutions, and assistance to implement these initiatives.

Areas of assistance and cooperative work between the spheres of government include health advancement, urban development and management, Landcare, water quality, and waste management. The Federal Government is also assisting Local Government to develop local and regional biological diversity management plans. Further measures to incorporate Local Government involvement will be coordinated through the implementation of the draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity as well as in the National Greenhouse Response Strategy, and the proposed Commonwealth coastal policy.

Australia's international policy

As a member state of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Australia supports IUCN's work in the field of local authorities' strategies for sustainable development. Australia will provide $100 000 as a core contribution to IUCN in 1994-95.

The Federal Government also contributes to strengthening Agenda 21 activities at an international level through its development assistance program. AIDAB's ESD policy document, Towards a Sustainable Future, emphasises the importance of people's participation in development. This includes community involvement in the design and implementation of aid activities and the strengthening of organisations and processes of civil society, particularly at the local government level. AIDAB activities also encourage the participation of local NGOs in implementing socially responsible sustainable development.

Examples of projects that involve local authorities include community water supply, maternal and child health and rural development in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. These projects emphasise interaction between local authorities and communities in the design and delivery of sustainable production and services.

An Australian NGO initiative which the Federal Government has supported is the 'Clean Up the World Campaign', a capacity building project to mobilise local governments or community groups in all regions of the world to hold a clean-up day, and to link the participating cities or communities.

There is capacity to strengthen the exchange of experience and programs with other countries also undertaking similar programs in response to this chapter. A means by which local programs can benefit from such exchange needs to be developed. Representation and reporting, at the project management level, to international forums and networks could be considered. Many local authorities and their peak representative organisations are members, however, of the International Union of Local Authorities which provides an avenue for networking and information exchange.

A number of local councils and there representative bodies are themselves active internationally through organisations such as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. Many are keen to share their information and experiences with local authorities in other countries.

Case Study

For further information contact:

Office of Local Government