Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Effectiveness and efficiency – is that what local government is really about?

The Minister for Local Government, Peter Gutwein, and the Property Council’s Brian Wightman, are leading the charge for a more effective, efficient and amalgamated local government sector in Tasmania.  Minister Gutwein says he doesn’t have a pre determined outcome but wants to start the discussions (but only with a select few and on a regional basis).  Neither is the government willing to push things.  He wants the most competitive local government sector possible (competitive with what is not defined).  Whiteman says the costs of local government are too high and Property Council polling says there are too many councils.  Meanwhile, newly elected President of the Local Government Association of Tasmania, Mayor Barry Jarvis, says most councils are in favour of resource sharing rather than amalgamations.

What sense can be made of these statements? 

That amalgamation won’t happen.  The level of trust and co-operation is just not there to sustain this top down policy process, especially as the ordinary ratepayer is being excluded out of the most important discussion that affects their homes and communities.

That local government will continue to face erosion of its roles and responsibilities over time by State government policy fiat (water, sewerage, planning – what’s next?) and increasing amounts of debt as funding reduces in real terms.

That representation of local communities will continue to decline as Councils steadily shed their elected members each time the Local Government Board reviews a Council, and as the problem of population based remuneration of elected members is not addressed.

If Property Council President Tim Johnston says investors and developers in Tasmania are forced to play by 29 different sets of rules, structures and roles, making investment in the State unworkable, then he needs to start examining what the problem really is.

Let’s turn this discussion around.

Rather than ask whether we have too many Councils, how about we ask what it is we have in common?  Have a look at the table below of roles and responsibilities.

If we visit a locality, what will be different?

If we live/work/play around the State, is provided to everyone who uses it?

Community halls

Heritage buildings, infrastructure

Parks and gardens



Place-based demographic needs (multicultural, LGBTI, elderly, children, )

Arts programs


Streetscape retail

Place-specific village centres

Animal management

Local place-specific planning (soils, geography, landscape, etc)

Place-based representation and lobbying
Homelessness (urban central council areas)


(feel free to add to this list)



Roads and footpaths, parking




NBN and other communications networks

Health, hospitals, preventative care


Strategic State development projects generating wealth and income into the State Budget

Planning Scheme adjudication



Primary Industry development and management (forestry, mining, farming, fishing, etc)

Industrial and Service development and management (workplace health and safety, wages, etc)

Police, Ambulance, Fire and Emergency Services

Consumer Advice services

Justice services

Electoral services

World Heritage and National Parks

Environmental Controls and management

Population growth strategy

Quarantine – island biosecurity

Biodiversity programs (Parks & Wildlife)

Hunting, shooting, fishing, recreation


(feel free to add to this list)


So here’s two questions from the list.

Firstly, if we have particular things that our communities do, why should the State be involved (other than for reasons of public safety and equity?  Are they then not natural roles for a local government?

Secondly, if there are so many common roles and responsibilities, why isn’t State taking these on?

I know, I know, historical events and financial necessities and all that, has led us to this place.  Local government we have today in Tasmania is as a consequence of colonial and State government neglect of services and cost shifting.  Be we don’t all live and die in a bark hut in one place today.  We are (mostly) people who live, work, and play around the State.

So isn’t it time the State government grew up and took on its adult responsibilities? 

The Australian Constitution is pretty clear as to what the State should be doing.  And whatever their ulterior motives the Property Council is by default illustrating that the system is broken.  It’s just that their prescription for Tasmania economic and social ills, less representation, few councils, doesn’t equate to less rates and charges, less regulation.  One would have thought that the debacle of water and sewerage reform would have illustrated just what sort of Pandora’ financial/asset box is likely to be opened up.

Amalgamation is pointless in addressing Tasmania’s economic and social woes.  It just shifts the boundaries and makes the inherited problems bigger.  The Glamorgan-Spring Bay-Break’O Day Council’s suggested merger report is illustrative of Tasmania’s regional problems.  Most liked the concept, but there were no real financial savings.

Governance change can be used to address Tasmania’s economic and social woes – it will be a longer, messier process (and don’t politicians hate this) but it will provide clearer lines of responsibility and a revelation of the real flows of income and expenditure in Tasmania.

Lift the lid on the pork barrel of local government finances and you’ll find a rancid mix of State Grants Commission funding, federal grants programs, State grant programs and ratepayer funding.  And if you stir this mix up to add it to the larger barrels of amalgamated Councils, there is no guarantee of a sweeter product.  Larger councils equals less financial disability under the funding guidelines, which ultimately means less money coming in.  Combine this with a Federal government slashing funding to local government programs and freezing CPI increases, and you can see a financial squeeze coming on. 

The Property Council is complaining about the number of elected people, saying there will be savings if there are less elected.  Let’s examine this carefully – ask your local Council just what percentage of the budget is allocated to elected members.  I’ll think all of you will find the amount paid is risible for the time and goodwill and efforts put in, and more so in regional rural areas where travel times between communities is upwards of two or more hours.  Information communication technology would help this but this is still a long way off for much of Tasmania.  Lordy, my phone drops out in parts of Hobart!

What is really being said is that the Property Council dislikes elected people because elected people today are more likely to question whether what the Property Council wants as to whether it is in the best interests of their communities and how they’d like to see their communities evolve.  No longer is local government peopled by men of business (and I say, men, deliberately).

Larger Councils equals less local community representation and no guarantee that elected people will be full time councillors under the current allowance regime.

And I make no bones about it.  If Councils are amalgamated with no change in the roles and responsibilities of State and local government, your rates will not drop.  They didn’t in 1993.  The cost of water increased after reforms.  Your rates will not drop.


The local government we need in Tasmania will be as a consequence of speaking to the unspeakable – the State actually taking on its Constitutional responsibilities and local government becoming a place-based entity that represents only local concerns.  Now which State government has the guts for that?

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