ACU researchers lead national research on changing attitudes to local government

There is a sharp generational and gender divide when it comes to how Australians view the role of local government, according to a new national survey by ACU researchers.

Associate Professor of Politics Mark Chou and Dr Rachel Busbridge led a survey of more than 1,300 people across Australia last year.

Most people surveyed agreed there was a place for local government to engage with contentious issues, particularly relating to climate change. More than three-quarters of respondents agreed that local government should have a role in issues such as declaring climate emergencies and achieving net zero emissions.

Assoc. Prof. Chou said the results reflected important changes in how everyday Australians understand the changing role of local government.

“Gone are the days when the community simply wanted their local councils to stick to 'roads, rates, and rubbish',” he said.

“Instead, more Australians now want local councils to tackle bigger issues - something which became particularly important during the height of the pandemic when communities across Australia came to depend on their local government.

“We need a new and more expansive debate that reflects the role local councils play in Australia today.”

Assoc. Prof. Chou said a growing number of local councils around the country had been active in ideologically contentious issues like Australia Day, the climate emergency and pill testing.

“In almost all cases, media and state and federal governments have accused councils taking these actions of over-reach,” he said.

“But our survey showed Australians want their local councils to act on these issues.”

At least three-quarters of the youngest group, aged 18 to 34, consistently agreed that issues concerning climate change and the LGBTIQ+ community should be addressed by local governments.

Younger respondents were also more likely to support greater power for local government.

Younger people identified health and planning for the future as the most important services, linked by a care for people's long-term wellbeing.

Those in the 55+ age group were the least likely to support a role for local government in contentious areas like climate change and Indigenous issues.

There were also divisions along gender lines. Non-binary people and women were more likely than men to see a place for local government involvement in contentious issues.

Female and non-binary respondents supported a role for local government in providing a range of social and advocacy roles, including acting as a forum for community discussion on national issues.

By contrast, male respondents were more likely to feel that local governments should focus on providing basic services only.

However, the majority of those surveyed agreed councils should go beyond the ‘3Rs’ – roads, rates and rubbish – and focus on future planning, health and community development.

Views on the Role of Local Government: A Summary Report is available online.

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