The Practice of Municipal Cooperation: Australian Perspectives and Comparisons with Canada
Municipal cooperation is an important feature of local and regional governance in both Australia and Canada. Many of the responsibilities of local governments cannot be addressed satisfactorily within the boundaries of a single municipality, whilst complex issues facing central governments often require complementary action at local and regional levels. This paper documents and evaluates the track record of Australian municipal cooperation within the context of the federal system, state legislation and policy, and the ongoing debate about the respective merits of joint service delivery and mergers. At first glance, Australian local government appears to exhibit a thriving culture of cooperation, but the evidence suggests that in practice most cooperative arrangements are shallow and fragile. No legislation compels municipalities to enter into joint undertakings or establish “upper-tier” authorities. The most common mechanisms for cooperation are non-statutory agreements or voluntary regional organizations, both of which enable municipalities to protect local autonomy and minimize the risk of state government intervention in their affairs. The paper also makes some comparisons with Canadian experience, drawing on research into inter-local agreements in Ontario and selected metropolitan regions, as well as Regional Districts in British Columbia. It concludes by outlining some key factors that will influence the future of municipal cooperation in the two countries.