With the government introducing a bill in parliament this week to give it the power to suspend councils for six months without a public enquiry it has taken the first concrete legal step to amalgamate councils in the Sydney metropolitan area. Whilst the Minister told Parliament the Bill was about dealing with councils that misbehaved (the Bill does not say that), there really is no reason, with a Local Government Review due to report in about a month or so, to do anything unless there is an ulterior motive.
The plethora of local government reviews that the Minister has currently taking place are all being done to justify council amalgamations. I have indicated to the local government industry that they should guard against the "Jeff Kennett Liberal Party Template". In Victoria the councils were sacked and amalgamated. As a sweetener to the people of Victoria Premier Kennett mandated by legislation a rate reduction, and it was game set and match. The sacked councillors and mayors were no longer public office holders, no longer held office or had any logistical support of an officeholder to mobilise the community, and the Liberals just steamrolled over local democracy.
In New South Wales the government does not have the legal power to sack councils without a public enquiry. Believe it or not, it was the former coalition government that implemented an election promise that councils could not be sacked without a recommendation of a public enquiry to protect local democracy. Now the Liberal party has gone full circle, in effect, repealed the very democratic protections that it itself had implemented, to enable it to sack Mayors and Councillors without a public enquiry, and without scrutiny.
The O'Farrell Liberal government has cleverly laid the groundwork to implement this "Kennett "style attack on local government by implementing local government reviews, asserting councils are not financially sustainable (but it can't name which one), and alleging some massive infrastructure backlog, (which is only minor compared to its own). It has done a deal with Keith Rhoades the President of the Local Government Association and will act, it will assert , at the request of the Local Government industry, and it will all be a "fait accompli".
In Parliament this week through some of its former Liberal Party Mayors and Councillors the Liberals started to lay the ground work to advocate the need for local government reform, and it will be dished up on a plate by Professor Sansom and his Independent Review Panel - all with the support of Sydney's Daily Telegraph.
In my more than three decades in local government I have seen many amalgamation proposals, and attempts by government to implement them. Ultimately those in the Sydney metropolitan area have not proceeded because they are deeply unpopular with local communities. Despite the frequent complaints about councils local communities like democratic representatives to be around the corner. Communities like the Town Hall to be down the road because they feel they have access to local decision-making and will be heard.
In the past local councils under threat of amalgamation have mobilised public opinion. Governments have listened and amalgamations have not proceeded. Where there has been a voluntary amalgamation, such as Drummoyne and Concord Councils, that voluntary amalgamation was deeply unpopular, and the local community has not really forgiven the the two councils for making that decision. It's only been the fine work of Canada Bay Mayor Angelo Tsirekas that has provided some unity within the amalgamated Canada Bay City.
This time after more than three decades I can tell when a government is serious. I can tell when all the ground work is being laid, and I can tell when the words "local government reform" is a genuine local government reform or just a sham.
The Local Government Act, 1993 which was an act introduced after 10 years work and shepherded through by a coalition government was a fine piece of legislation. At the time there were a number of failings of which I had drawn to the government's attention prior to its enactment. Those failings related to conservative philosophical positions which have been some of the major problems that have faced local government's structure. For example, contracting general managers, and removing certain qualifications that were required for general managers was always going to be disastrous; the philosophical view of of the conservatives that councils should out-source local services was a major failure because councils are local employers and provide local jobs, apprenticeships and traineeships and the outsourcing of services was a major loss to local communities particularly in rural New South Wales.
The biggest adverse impact upon local government has actually been the Parliament itself which constantly fiddled and meddled with what was once very good legislation, for political reasons or because of simple lack of competence.
I have no objection to genuine reform that is in the interests of communities. Proper consultation with communities is required and the community should be given a say. The Local Government Act provides a way in which the community can have a say and that is through a council poll or referendum. The government won't want to go down that path because it knows what the result of the referendum will be as do we all. The community will vote overwhelmingly no. To some the thought of a referendum will be, it costs money. Well democracy always costs money, a dictatorship is cheaper is it not?
Local government is not just a local government department providing services. It is actually the third tier of government in Australia that is democratically elected. It should be given the respect of a democratically elected tier of government and changes to the way it operates should be subject to the approval of the people in the communities.
I have expressed this view to Mayors and Councillors of both political parties, and I seem to be a voice in the wilderness. The Conservative Mayors have been given their riding instructions, Labor Mayors think is not going to happen and the Independents and Greens seem to believe that the Local Government Association will protect their interests and the interests of their communities. I wish I was wrong but by the time they all wake up as to what is going happen it will all be too late.
There was some debate in the Parliament this week and I attach herewith the link of what I had to say.