Why local is best

Published: 4th September 2020

G’day folks, this week I wanted to take you on a little journey through history, philosophy, and the sciences, to emphasise why local is best and has been for time immemorial - as is if we didn't already know - via the concepts of Genius of Place (Genius Loci) and Subsidiarity.

It is timely as local government continues to demonstrate our value and importance to this state, both through councils’ response to COVID-19 and our collective and individual State Election priorities.

Genius of Place springs from Roman times where in classic Roman religion (not Catholicism) a Genius Loci was the protective spirit of a place. Genius of Place is often depicted in Roman iconography as a protective or nurturing spirit. Back in the day, the Roman Empire had 265 local districts, each with their own unique Genius Loci. Similarly in Asian cultures, numinous spirits of place depictions can still be found in public shrines, outdoor spirit houses and indoor shrines. It was fundamental to their culture too.

Importantly, we have our own First Nations culture in which the connection to place is all defining.

Western civilisation incorporated the Genius of Place concept into art and literature and even biology and while it didn't have the same religious significance as it did in Roman or Asian culture, people would talk about “the spirit of a place”; its ambience. The great landscape artist and philosopher Alexander Pope wrote the following poem:


 “Consult the genius of place in all,

That tells the waters or to rise, or fall,

Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,

Or scoops in circling theatres the vale,

Calls in the country, catching opening glades,

Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,

Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines,

Paint as you plant, and as you work, designs.”



Subsidiarity is best described as a principle that in politics or administration decisions should be made at the most local level. It stemmed originally from the Catholic Church (Quadragesimo anno) but was best enunciated in the Maastricht Treaty (European Union) which stated: “matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralised authority”. 

It is also a basic tenet of liberal philosophy, i.e. the individual, family unit or the local community is more important than the State. Think about the late George Bush senior’s famous reference to “a thousand points of light”, in both his 1988 Presidential nomination acceptance speech and at his 1989 inauguration, he was also pushing subsidiarity and the merits of localism.

Interestingly in Australia, the last person to give the principal of subsidiarity a good run was Kevin Rudd in his first stint of Prime Minister, unfortunately it never really got off the ground. In part he had another crack in his second stint as PM with his self-scuttled attempt at a referendum to recognise local government in the Australian constitution. Unfortunately, any concept of promoting subsidiarity has died on the vine with successive Federal Governments accreting power rather than decentralising it.

So there you have it folks, local government is bloody important and has been for millennia.

Next time someone at the pub says councils are a waste of money and time, hit them with Pope’s poem on Genius of Place and the Maastricht Treaty declaration on subsidiarity, that will shut them up.