Equal partners?

12 Aug 2005

Community and Local Governance in Australia
edited by Paul Smyth, Tim Reddel and Andrew Jones
UNSW Press, April 2005, 232 pp, $39.95

Reviewed by Liza Hopkins

THE APPEARANCE of a book examining the themes of community building and local governance is indeed timely, given current government concern with service delivery via partnerships, networks, place based initiatives, and community capacity building. This book arose out of a three year research project examining place based policy activities in Queensland, which culminated in a major international symposium examining place based initiatives in Australia and overseas. The papers which make up this book were originally presented at the symposium and thus cover a wide range of area studies and sectors of interest. Whilst most of the authors are senior academics, there are also some contributors who either are or have been employed in local and state government departments and in third sector organisations.

The symposium format comes through in the range of papers which have been included in the volume, including a brief overview of the comparative international situation, a focus on state level strategies, especially in Queensland and Victoria, and a series of ‘special interest’ chapters examining areas such as feminist approaches, economic development and aboriginal issues. The final section of the book examines the administration and governance of policy which takes the local level, ‘new regionalism’ or place based approach.

The chapters in this book are generally strong on what the current government rhetoric is at federal, state and local level, and the historical context in which this rhetoric needs to be placed. It is less strong, understandably, on how the policy might translate into actual partnerships on the ground, particularly given the risks that Geddes outlines in the first chapter of the book. These include: the problem that even with a national program to support area based initiatives, there are always areas which remain outside; the potential for area based programs will displace problems to other areas; the need to addressing issues faced by non-spatially based communities of interest; a tendency to focus on local experiences, rather than the macro causes of disadvantage; and the risk that, if place based initiatives have limited success, governments can blame local actors, rather than policy limits.

Although the book outlines some examples of successful regional approaches, such as the one at Playford in South Australia, for much of the rest of the country the current funding model creates competition between agencies for the same bucket of public money and discourages rather than supports the collaborative or cooperative approach on which networked or associational governance is premised. Yet some community organisations, particularly the large, national agencies wield more power now than they did in the past because they are delivering many more services for government.

The whole of government approach is about changing the behaviour of public servants so that the bureaucracy is not set up or perceived to be set up in opposition to the community sector. Joined up government is only one side of the new governance approach. On the other side, and equally as important is the role of what is variously described as community building, community strengthening, and enhancing community capacity as well as facilitating the transfer of decision making and governance to the ‘community’. The authors of this book address geographic communities as well as communities of interest while neatly sidestepping the problem of what ‘community’ actually is.

Nonetheless, the authors of this volume have produced a thoroughly readable, comprehensive survey of current policy directions and the contemporary shift away from the ‘contract state’ and towards place and community based networks of governance. It will be interesting to see how these translate into practice over the next few years. How will partnerships survive when one partner (government) funds the partnership, but also has to support and resource the other partners? Can government ever really be an equal partner? And how will hierarchical bureaucracies manage flexible networked arrangements for service delivery? Perhaps the authors of this volume will continue their research and come back in a few years to tell us. •

Liza Hopkins is a research fellow at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research

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