Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Are we really serious about local government reform?

Post the October 2014 local government elections, four politically clear years stretch ahead for the State government and Tasmania’s councils to finally sort out some long-awaited and much-needed reforms.

No, not amalgamations.  Need I refer you again to the work of Dollery et al and numerous others that point out how pointless amalgamating is?  That joining up a series of financially challenged entities just means a bigger financial black hole and, worse, even less representation of community with consolidation of political control into the hands of a more powerful few?  Sorry Property Council people, you just haven’t made any testable economic arguments, which is surprising, given who you say you represent.

Reforms.  Yes, actually sitting down to sort out what it means to be a local government in the twenty first century in the Australian Federation.

Reforms which sort out not only who gets what, but as well, who does what. 

Not phaphffing around the edges with territorial adjustments and lengthening the unemployment queue by sacking a few General Managers – for Tasmania, given its spread of population and geographical restraints – territorial adjustments (for which we read amalgamations) are a zero sum game.  We did this in 1906, and in 1993 – raise your hands anyone who saw the much promised drop in rates and financial subsidies?  Hmm, I didn’t think so.

(And seriously Parliamentarians, do you really want two super-Councils of Greater Hobart and Greater Launceston?  Just think carefully of the political power that may deliver into that hands of party-based politicians using local government for their own ambitions.)

A quiet perusal of the PriceWaterhouseCoopers report on cost-shifting from Federal and State governments to local councils is illuminating reading on how much this practice has affected Council’s bottom line and the rate of rates increase.

So what is cost-shifting?  As the PWC report defines it:

Cost shifting has occurred in Australian governance with two basic types of behaviour. The first is where local government agrees to provide a service on behalf of another sphere of government but funding is subsequently reduced or stopped, and local government is unable to withdraw because of community demand for the service. The second is where, for whatever reason, another sphere of government ceases to provide a service and local government steps in.

And it has been going on since 1901!  What makes it so easy is the pressure of local communities on local elected people to continue with services once the money has stopped or because there is no other way for the service to occur.  For which we read, the free market just doesn’t provide.  And for which we read, lots of promises from local government hopefuls come election time.

Yet in the absence of a decent public transport system that reaches into Tasmania’s rural areas, how else can a rural council ensure the travel safety of its young teenagers in the absence of a bus service to get them home late in the evening from work or events? 

When the State is asked to fund a local tourism travel centre to attract people to a region, and the State Premier says, we get them here, it’s up to you to look after them, what else can a local council do but divert rates for funding the same? 

And what else can local government do when the State is simply so debt-racked from its own mismanagement, or has prioritised funding for its own purposes, but step in, in the hope of funding down the track?

So what is needed is a complete rethinking of what local government means for Tasmania and indeed, just what responsibilities the State government needs to be taking back and delivering.  

The Local Government Act 1993 is so broad in stating what Councils can do, that local government now does all sorts of things.  Seriously, can’t so much of what local does be done more efficiently and socially and environmentally effectively at the State level?

Here’s some tests for deciding on the relevance of what local government does:

Does the issue or service affect everyone in Tasmania?  (employment, health, energy, education, clean drinking water, safe disposal of sewerage, maintenance of and building roads, environmental management, economic development, agriculture, tourism, as some starting points) 

Is the issue or service only relevant to the people and communities within a particular region?  (regional employment, water catchment, forestry, agricultural land use, just off the top of my head) 

Does the issue or service only really relate at a township level? (local history, local foreshore and parks, local festivals, streetscape planning, that stuff that you do to build community)

If you answer State to any of the first two, then we really need to question why local government has taken over any responsibilities in statewide or regional issues.

Remember the Australian Constitution?  When it was debated and finally signed off on, local government was expected to gradually disappear, that the new States would subsume into itself all the activities local government then carried out.

Well, it hasn’t happened. 

Local government still exists, and State by State, let alone Council by Council, is taking on more and more activities in the absence of effective State policy, or indeed, in spite of it.

And it’s not as if there is effective communication between the two tiers, despite all the attempts to get this.  So when State bureaucrats have thought bubbles about policy matters affecting local government and don’t bother to actually consult because they operate in silos, we get all sorts of unintended outcomes.  Let alone at times a reversal of the original policy intention. 

A small matter, but indicative of the wider problem.  Have a look at the debacle of solar panel installation regulations foisted on local councils to enforce after people are encouraged to install solar.  And yes, nice to have the income from compliance where people install more panels than the State government thinks they should, but isn’t that really a stupid approach that penalises people who want to be more energy self-reliant, who want to reduce the cost of energy to their family budgets? And doesn't it ruin the relationships between local councils and their communities in having to enforce a State Government initiated policy?

So here’s a radical thought:  In a State the size of Tasmania, does it make sense that twenty nine councils each deals with waste management, roads, financial planning, and overall planning and funding for assets that we all have, use and share (roads, bridges, stormwater, etc)?  Is it not time for a re-think of what local government can really mean, and do and achieve, and stop taking on the costs of State and Federal responsibilities?  What if local government was actually “local”?  What sorts of cost efficiencies and better planning in managing assets would Tasmanians actually then get?  What sort of structural changes are then needed to implement some meaningful reform that retains Tasmania’s famous attraction of local representative community?

After all, it’s not as if we are all born, live and die in the same hamlet these days, is it?  Hands up those of us who regularly travel through at least three municipalities for work each day?  Hands up those of you who live in one municipality, and work in another, or have a shack in another or holiday in another?  Hands up whose children grow up in one municipality and get a tertiary or diploma education in another?  Hmm, near on 99.999 per cent of you.  You have to ask, are territorial municipal boundaries even relevant anymore?

Local councils used to raise the funds and provide the management for health, education, cemeteries, surrounding roads and libraries and so on, until the State finally took on its responsibilities in these areas to sort out the duplication, waste and general confusion.  And some comments aside on policy success, generally having a statewide approach has been successful and got a better outcome for all us.

So, today, what does a municipality do well?  Outside of Greater Hobart and Greater Launceston, a municipality is usually made up of a collection of towns, separated by rural areas.  Lots of towns mean lots of identity.  And as we’re tribal creatures, identity is good.  It means we try to make the places we live in better.  We have pride in where we belong and the communities that we are a part of where we make our family homes.

So local government today is very good at delivering local programs (bushcare, park management, local festivals, sporting grounds) and facilitating people’s connections into the wider world (family health and well-being, internet hubs, local transport services).  Just a pinch of examples here – have a look at a few Council websites, and you’ll be amazed at the services and programs provided.  The question of course is, having the money to provide the quality of service communities need and ask for.

So isn’t it time local government was exactly that?  Isn’t it time to give up the territorial markings and think about local government as a service entity and what reasonable outreach it can provide in its communities?

Dare I raise the idea that we talk about local government reform in terms of people catchment and a more fluid approach to what people need to keep their local communities, rather than sticking with outdated municipal boundaries as borders?

Authorised by Eva Ruzicka, 10 Congress Street, South Hobart

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