Monday, October 27, 2014

D-Day for local government in Tasmania

As the close of local government polls looms closer to 10am on Tuesday morning, so does D-Day for local government in Tasmania.  A bit dramatic?  No.  The Hon Peter Gutwein, Treasurer, Minister for Planning and Local Government intends to write to all Mayors once the polls are declared to start asking about reforms and how local government can take on more economic responsibilities. 

And he’s going to get it all wrong.

And worse, miss one of the best windows of opportunity for whole of government reform Tasmanians will ever likely support in current times.

What! you ask.  Well, he doesn’t like to use the “A” word, but if you’ve listened to him at the TCCI breakfast and the STCA AGM and a few other venues, you get the feeling that local government’s futures is going to get more complex because it’s the massive elephant in the room that no one wants to challenge, even if it is three more years to the next State election.  Resource sharing only goes so far.  We need different thinking.

Bendigo Pottery anyone?

This is what is getting me irritated about the level of conversation on government reform in Tasmania.  The Minister keeps asking how local government can contribute more to economic projects.  He talks about the State dropping payroll tax, land tax, etc to attract economic projects.  He wants local government to consider waiving rates and charges as well.  As a case in point, apparently the goats grazing at the Inveresk site in Launceston is getting him a tad upset.  And I am too given the amount of taxpayer money invested in the site, so whatever’s gone wrong there in the site’s inability to attract economic projects, it doesn’t need more money thrown at it, which is what the Minister wants to do, and local government to throw a few wads as well.

So if one of his solutions to fixing Tasmania’s economy is to start a race to the bottom with taxes, rates and charges in attempting to attract economic investment to Tasmania, hasn’t he learned any history?  Previous Lib/Lab governments have tried this, with no lasting success.  Bendigo Pottery upped and left once the corporate welfare tap was turned off, and they joined any number of businesses that desert this island when the economic tide turns.  More so since the global economy really got going.

And what would be the impact on local communities?

Doesn’t the Minister realise that local government raises rates and charges to actually pay for the services people use, which are used in the local locality, not for projects at the State level? 

Give him his due, looking from the outside he sees within the Dorset municipality the economic opportunity of six or eight sawmills that could be re-purposed for value-adding timber production.  He wants other Councils to think about what they identify in their own municipal areas to add to Tasmania’s economic success.  Nice thinking, but it’s limited.  Limited to how many are actually in the room contributing to the conversation.

And every time you ask him about his intentions, he just can’t seem to move his head away from keeping Tasmania in its current state of political infrastructure and refusing to consider grasping some innovation as well in political structural reform.  Suggest reform, and all he comments on is how bad amalgamation is.  There’s this image of a Minister’s thinking curled into a political foetal form.

So how does the Minister see the problem?

Okay.  My money is that it’s all in the mindset.  Public policy rule #1: If all you’ve got is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. 

If the only person setting the policy has got an economic rationalist philosophy, and experienced Tasmanian economic realities in Opposition, is influenced by Property Council lobbyists and suchlike and has inherited a healthy political yellow streak/set of scars caused by previous amalgamation failures, then perhaps the Minister isn’t able to really think about reform outside of his government’s political comfort zone. 

Perhaps it’s the fear of loss of government, of losing the levers of government after years in the political wilderness for the Liberal Party of the 20th and 21st century in Tasmania.  Every time a government got near (and here we’re also talking very late 19th century) the ideas of local government reform (albeit in not very original terms), they either lost government or came so close as to have to form a coalition or found reform blocked in the Legislative Council and all that time spent arguing and drafting and lobbying wasted.

I’m not saying local government is that powerful.  Other factors play their larger part.  Yet what is constantly being threatened every time reform is being talked about is something the State government, whether Labor or Liberal, can’t comprehend or take into account or simply ignore every time reform is suggested.  (More on this later in some other blog.)

Reform is needed, but what sort – that’s the question.

What I’m trying to say now is that it’s ridiculous for a State the size of Tasmania to have twenty nine councils, each with their own infrastructure systems and people, and policy programs, when it’s clear from the water and sewerage debacle, it’s possible to have a single system for those functions which reasonably could be managed Statewide.  Times have changed so much from the isolation of the 19th and early 20th centuries for Tasmania’s communities.  Focus on what can be provided on a Statewide basis here.

And I’m not saying get rid of local government either.

I am saying, it’s time for the State to take on its constitutional responsibilities, and let local government get on with what it actually does really well – manage local things.  Community halls, parks, gardens, festivals, facilitating the interaction between local communities and State and Federal departments/politicians, sending through the messages when populations and needs change, so the levers of policy and finance can be adjusted accordingly.

Yes, there is a need for overarching management of infrastructure and policy, but at the ground level there is the need to for some sort of local body able to finetune the messages in meeting community changes and expectations.  That’s where local government can make a real difference. 

And to this extent, if the Hon. Minister Gutwein does anything of merit post the local government elections, it has to be getting all the Mayors and all the elected members of State and local government into one room, sign them all up to Chattam House Rules, and talk about really reforming governance of Tasmania.

Think about the value of a State government actually acting like one.

The Minister may be getting irritated about the Inveresk Rail site but there are bigger wastes of money going on right now all over the State.  It’s the problem of the State not yet having caught up with the 21st century in sorting out what it must be doing, and taking back from local government all the cost-shifted responsibilities of the last two centuries. 

For example, what is the point of having a Department of State Growth if it is disconnected (which it effectively is) from the three regional growth lobbies (Cradle-Coast Authority, Northern Tasmania, Southern Tasmanian Councils) in forming policy and finding opportunities?  And not just economic ones. 

What is the point of asking Mayors in one by one, in isolation, to talk about economic opportunities within their own localities when other factors, social, environmental, just don’t make the cut, or they are so up their necks in the swamp they can’t see opportunities on the nearby shore? 

What is the point of Tasmania’s two major cities working on population growth strategies, and finding themselves having to ask to be at the table, to get data, to share information and work on policy, and then finding bureaucrats and State politicians are ignoring policy suggestions?

What is the point of the State looking away as more and more services and programs are cost-shifted to local government?  What is the point of asking local government to lower its rates and charges in the absence of a coherent statewide assessment of what is possible, or indeed in the absence of any cost-analysis or business case of the real costs of such a policy? 

Local government is fiercely protective of its local community.

I can just imagine the reception the Minister is going to get from individual Mayors when he calls them in post the election and presents his view of their future, and they are actually asked to lower the quality of life of their individual towns and hamlets.  I suspect most Mayors are thinking that it’s some other part of Tasmania that will bear the burden of economic sacrifice.  Perhaps the larger cities will get it in the neck, like they are still getting with the water and sewerage reform?  I’m sure that thought has crossed at least one rural Mayor’s mind on occasion.

Here’s the thing.  Lowering rates and charges on a Council by Council basis in an effort to attract economic opportunities to various municipalities – in effect, picking winners funded by ratepayers - will lead to worse than a race to the bottom for local communities in lowering the capacity to provide services.  It will lead to destructive competition and duplication, if not a perpetuation of the stupidity of rivalry between the North, the South, the North West.

Guess what might happen if instead of an economic race to the bottom, Tasmania’s elected representatives agreed to re-purpose each tier of government?

Would it not be better to say to local government, it’s okay.  Keep your local representatives (you may not need so many in this day and age of IT communications), keep your Mayors, keep your municipal boundaries and town and community halls.  Keep working on what makes your locality so special and attractive to people.  Indeed, you can actually de-amalgamate into township authorities if it makes it easier to devolve highly local responsibilities to smaller more local committees if it’s to your community’s advantage – business case notwithstanding.  (Okay, we’ll talk about allowances and staffing and budgets and insurances later – it’s the ideas we’re riffing on now.)

Because even if the State takes on roads, stormwater, water, sewerage, waste management and other services that can be provided on a Statewide basis, there is still great value in local government in its ability to facilitate and communicate between government and people at a very immediate and intimate level. 

And just because we do it one way now, it doesn’t mean that is the way it has to always be done in the future. For goodness sake, there is life beyond management by committee practices that have been in place since the 16th century!

So yes, you can keep on raising rates and charges for identifiably agreed local services on agreed business-cases, and you’re happy for the State to take on its financial responsibilities for statewide economic development so there is no need for the Federal government to keep on manipulating the relationship between the pair of you.

And imagine, if we could we have that mature conversation, then yes, local government will more likely concede financial and legislative changes as the State takes on more responsibility.  After all, it happened in the years 1990 to 1993 in the first successful reform of local government since 1906, and again in the early naughties in sorting out financial charges between the State and local government over rating and valuation.

Ever thought about the value of synergy for Tasmania?

And what was the secret to the success of reforms that endure?  Rather than the Minister saying what he wants according to how he sees the world and expecting local government to agree, a top-down approach, it is more the case of the bottom up approach that succeeds.  Remember that comment about hammers and nails?  What would happen if we provided a whole box of tools for Ministers and Mayors to play with?  If you have all sorts of ways of seeing the world, problems would then take on different dimensions.

Here’s a suggestion.

What if the Minister decided to get all the Mayors into the room to talk about what economic development means?  Would 29 viewpoints plus his (and a few minders) result in solutions different from how he currently frames it? 

I’m not talking about involve the Local Government Association of Tasmania – it’s history and structure can often get in the way of constructive discussion – it’s so process driven.  And I’m not talking either about using the Premier’s Local Government Council – if that body were of value and treated with any seriousness by the State Government, we’d have had some decent reform discussion ages ago.

Let’s think bigger.

If the Minister got all the elected members into the same room (State and local), then what’s the chances they would all talk together about opportunities and ideas for the State, with the synergies of different viewpoints from around the State.  Especially if you made the rule that no Mayor could talk about their municipality, or Parliamentarian about their electorate (thus avoiding regionalism and pork-barrelling policy behaviour.

And because entry to any discussions would be with agreement of staying away from the gaze of Tasmania’s destructively parochial media, and with Chatham House Rules, and an iron rule of no media releases until there was final agreement on various ways forward, what opportunities and ideas are therefore more likely to gain oxygen? 

Either of these bottom up approaches would surely gain more political support, especially when that all-important electoral date rolls around, because we’d all be part of the solution, especially the bits that nobody likes but would make Tasmania more resilient in the long run?

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