Friday, September 12, 2014

To represent or to amalgamate - will the rationalists triumph?

Have a look at today’s Mercury article: “Councils rebuff mergers”

In my first post I mentioned my time at UTAS was spent studying public policy – in fact I was one of the last Double Major’s in public policy, and the lecturers and tutors tried hard to train me to be a rationalist positivist.  In other words, to analyse political and public policy outcomes based solely on the evidence of facts, with rationality as the foundation of thought. 

Since Christopher Hood, the merest hint of sociological analysis (ie the behaviouralist school) has been largely avoided by “modern” public policy theorists or simply disregarded in any discussions.  All the inquiries, papers and publications I’ve found regarding reforming local government (and especially in Tasmania) have focused on constitutional, electoral, managerial, financial and economic matters.   The idea of “community of interest” has been mentioned but after that, it tends to disappear.  Since being elected to local government, it’s provided a wonderful opportunity to practice the theory of what I’ve been taught.  And guess what?  The real world is a more complex, messy place that we can ever seek to control or understand. 

And nowhere is this more apparent in the debate over amalgamation in Tasmania.

The Mercury article has some key phrases: mergers, resource sharing, no evidence of strong community push to amalgamate.  This must have been very frustrating for those continue to push for mergers.  Yet you have to ask the question in public policy – who benefits?

Local government is not only about rates, footpaths, shopping strips and development applications.  In the past, in the absence of any decent State government policies and programs, it dealt with everything from bush nursing, cemeteries, codling moth, jetties, law dispensed by magistrates, road trusts, schools, libraries – for far too much more, read K.R. von Stiegliz’s A History of Local Government in Tasmania.  Today, especially since the reforms of 1990, local government has got more complex, and even more diverse. 

Today, local government encompasses all sorts of people and their concerns, from refugees to elderly housing, from ensuring young people in rural areas have save transport, and farmers and their families at risk of suicide are supported in times of economic stress. 

It supports programs for people who love being connected to their local communities and cultures, people who love being identified with places where memories are created and shared.  You’ll find councils involved in tourism and regional economic development. 

Councils support people, their ratepayers and visitors, who choose the idea that the world is not all about making money; it’s also about lifestyle choices, friends and family; it’s about respecting the natural environment.  Local government responds to local people and what matters to them.  It’s not all about the balance sheet. 

And this is what being in local government has taught me.  When theory and practice collide, the politics of economic rationalism is found wanting when it gains supremacy over the everyday concerns of people.

Having sorted out the initial Bachelors degree, I embarked on Honours and decided the thesis would investigate why two sets of Southern Councils chose to enter resource sharing arrangements, rather than amalgamate.  At this point I had been elected for a few years and wanted to do some research that related to my local government role.  Now this is where I have to admit I, university-educated urban Alderman, thought I knew it all. 

Out I went to interview the Mayors and General Managers of these Councils, with the pre-set idea that it made better sense to amalgamate.  And did they send me back with my tail between my urban city legs!  It transpired there was something more important to them than economic outcomes when it came to local government. 

It came as a surprise to this city-dweller that outside of Hobart, there are groups of people in different Councils across the State who, having experienced the impacts on their little towns and hamlets of the 1990-1993 amalgamations, wanted to maintain what was left of their identities.  Post-1993, General Managers started conversations across the Council borders, had a few lunches and then got the Mayors in on the act, and so a number of resource-sharing initiatives commenced between the smaller non-urban Councils.  Where good leadership and continuity existed, this has continued and developed.  What we have now is three regional groups of Councils that work for significant social, environment, cultural and economic returns to their municipal groups.  And do so even when not all members benefit, but simply because they see value in group support.

What the field work for Honours taught me was that local identity was valued sufficiently highly in Tasmania for people to work to find economic reasons to maintain it.  Local identity actually had value, because it created all sorts of benefits.  Not the sort that you’ll find on balance sheets.  But you will find it in observing the practices of the people in maintaining successful, happy communities within their municipalities.   

Every year, there is some fresh campaign push for amalgamating local government.  So far we’ve had claims that amalgamation into larger councils leads to better management and the greater scale leads to lower costs/improved outcomes.  Yet claims of bigger is better, cheaper or leads to better services have largely fallen flat, such that amalgamation protagonists have now stopped chanting “cost savings” and started on “enhanced capacity”, whatever that means.  One size does not fit all; one policy prescription leads to unintended consequences, and people get left behind.

Numerous State and national inquiries into amalgamations have found that almost all have not met expectations or that the costs of amalgamation have been badly estimated.  Not only is there no relationship between Council size and cost, compulsory mergers often lead to dis-economies of scale.  Don’t take my word for it: I recommend following the peer-reviewed work of researchers such as Professor Brian Dollery:

Some of most recent findings of Professor Dollery, and the methodology he has used, now give us yet more evidence-based arguments for countering the resurgence of demands from the Property Council and its various fronts for amalgamation. See also:  I do not doubt that various media attention-seeking candidates in this year’s election will call for amalgamations, particularly for a Greater Hobart entity.  Today, such claims can be tested against good methodology based on the Sydney experience and the wealth of data, research and peer-reviewed evidence gathered by researchers such as Professor Dollery. 

Yet consider this.  Even if the Federal Government has put some nasty downward pressure on local government by cutting grants, even if the State government persists in the process of reducing local government representatives, will it really benefit Tasmania’s communities to be pushed into larger and larger local government entities? 

Good representation, even allowing for social media, is all about getting out into the community and meeting people face to face, and listening to what they are speaking about.  What do we lose when there are less and less local government elected people to speak for us, for our concerns? 

And here’s a quiet thought.  A Greater Hobart Council is in fact not in the best political interests of its residents.  Consider the political threat of a municipality greater in voting size than Franklin and Denison combined – what State government would countenance letting local government maintain its current roles and responsibilities, let alone representation?  Given the population numbers and capacity to influence opinion, it would be a State within the State.

Loss of grants doesn’t automatically have to mean forming larger entities find cost savings.  For cost savings, we can usually read less staff, as this is one of the biggest costs of local government today.  Is this a good move, in a State which is geographically dispersed, with surprisingly long travel times to get to Council centres outside of urban areas?  Pity the poor planner, building and plumbing inspector, parks and road works crews who have to service areas such as the East Coast’s Glamorgan-Springbay municipality or West Coast Council. 

And if any of you have waited and waited at the end of the line for call centre staff to pick up your inquiry, you may well agree that discussing a matter face to face often resolves complex problems earlier.  Urban municipalities are compact but outside of these, communities are not screaming out for mergers. There are opportunities for innovation in sharing resources, ideas and people, and to date, there have been some pretty good ones.  I firmly believe that council staff is not only a cost, they are a value in delivering services to our communities. 

Will the economic rationalists prevail?  Or will people elect representatives who take a broader view on what matters in making and maintaining a successful, happy community, who actually value the messiness, the complexity of their communities?

It’s up to you when the postal ballots arrive after 14 October.

Authorised by Eva Ruzicka, 10 Congress Street, South Hobart

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