It was a startling contrast with the work I have been doing in New Zealand contributing to public debate on the government's proposed local government reforms - which are largely designed to pull local government back to its 'core' activities and restrict it from straying too far into promoting social, cultural, economic and environmental well-being.
Among the distinguished international speakers (in this case by video link) was Prof Ed Glaeser from Harvard celebrating the extraordinary success of cities as mankind's most significant invention, essentially showcasing local government's triumphs.
At the Congress I had the privilege of chairing a presentation by John Walsh of PwC on Australia's proposed National Disability Insurance Scheme which came out of a Productivity Commission report into disability care and support. It is to be a national scheme with common standards and conditions of entitlement across Australia, and national level governance. Crucially, however, services themselves are to be determined and delivered locally with an expectation that community-based organisations and other local networks will be the principal service providers. It is a clear endorsement of the importance of the ‘local’ in facilitating the effective delivery of services to meet nationally determined needs.
Which way is the pendulum swinging? In New Zealand's direction of restricting local government (and, by inference, community initiative); towards Ed Glaeser's vision of cities as mankind's greatest achievement (and thus a celebration of the success of local government); or towards Australia's acknowledgement of the crucial role of community-level determination and delivery of services to meet specified needs?
The weight of evidence, and current experience (as an example, the English emphasis on open public services which is again a clear statement of the pivotal role of community based decision-making) suggests a stronger role for communities and their governance, including local government. The pendulum is definitely swinging, but its direction is towards greater local autonomy and a stronger, not weaker role for local government and local governance.