Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Leadership as a vocation in government and government reform agendas

The current round of calls for local government amalgamations raises a number of questions about what leadership means in government today.

Firstly, why do we have local government at all in a State with a population of around 500,000?  Okay, it’s an historical thing for Tasmania – look at my earlier blogs on the State’s local government development and the excellent historical writings of Dr Alison Alexander and James Boyce on early Tasmania. 

And, for Tasmania alone, geography/geology and demographics have all played a significant role in shaping government/governance.  The isolation of much of the State that existed pre-Imperial British invasion is still with us today, despite roads and bridges (and I might add, fragile ones at that given how easily flood and fire and government neglect impair their efficiency).

And here we are today, with 29 Councils all with varying levels of financial competence and capacity being held up as ripe for reform.  Yet no one is talking about a State Government whose financial competence and capacity to cope with its place in the Federation and global economy is also a matter of concerned debate.

So the question then is, given we have local government in Tasmania as an historical, financial, governance artefact of nineteenth and twentieth century policy decisions, is there value in continuing to govern (and I use that word, governing as in governance, not administration) at the local level? 

For this blog, I’m looking at the dichotomy of local representation and leadership that affects local issues; and central representation and leadership that is constitutionally set up to look at a various State/Federal matters.  Local government has no constitutional recognition as other than as a responsibility of the State Government.  (Various Federal politicians from both sides have mouthed support for changing this but backed out at the last minute or hemmed and hawed when asked for a definitive policy position.  No State government has ever supported local government recognition in the Australian Constitution.) 

Now scratch the surface of any local government representative or indeed any local person, and see what response is garnered from a discussion of transferring local control to a central body.  Apart from anecdotal comments made by a range of elected local government members over time, quiet discussions over the Christmas/New Year convivial drinks has elicited an interesting response from the ordinary ratepayer around the State.  Something along the lines of a reluctance to cede any local control to “them over there” or “you lot in Hobart” is not an uncommon response, even if better services result.  There just isn’t the trust that local needs will be properly met.

Neither was the belief that only local people had the knowledge of local issues an isolated comment.  Indeed, the contempt with which State and Federal politicians were held regarding their local knowledge and understanding of governance and economy is getting somewhat legendary.  Just what happens to their capacity to know their electorate once they get elected?  (I have some ideas on this – a later blog perhaps on the problems of span of political management in western democratic government – Taylorist ideas still have some currency.)

And this brings to mind that what policy writers have reported as “community of interest” is a strong a driver in debates.  (Mind you, rationalist policy writers then fail to enlarge any further on what “community of interest” really means and how it can be quantified as they simply just don’t have the right tools for analysis.  Indeed, if you’re a policy wonk, then you’ll notice the dominance of quantification over qualification seems to be the approach used in western economic democracies, Westminster or otherwise.)

So this brings me to ask whether the current debate on reform is being framed around quantitative issues only at the State level, while at the local level, the language is more concerned with qualitative issues.  Careful reading of the documentation issued by Minister for Local Government, the Hon. Peter Gutwein MHA, to various regional groupings of Mayors, Deputies and General Managers in the February  2015 reform talkfests/death by powerpoint presentations, causes a person to ponder the old policy saw – if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Seriously, does the State Minister for Local Government actually have a handle on his portfolio of local government or is he really first and foremost addressing the reform debate as the Tasmanian State Treasury Minister, and therefore seeing all things through the policy lens of finances? 

On a broad twenty first century analysis, the fact is that the issues facing Tasmania’s State Government, are in fact rooted in its history of cost shifting to local government of one type or another since the 1820’s.  (Yes, as early as that.  The history of Road Trusts in Tasmania is a litany of Colonial financial management unable afford at the end of the Napoleonic Wars to maintain this prison colony’s roads.  You can just guess what happened.  It was all downhill from there, even as the wealthier settlers fought tooth and nail to resist taxation, and some say, continue to do so to this day.)

So let’s look at what language is being used to frame the debate both between the Minister for Local Government and Mayors, and between media commentators and the public.  It causes me to ask whether the choice of language and how the issues are framed is in fact skewing any meaningful debate.  What do we all really understand by the current calls for reform?  Qui bono?

Now I know you all want a quick and dirty analysis to match the time it takes to drink a coffee, however a little background reading is something that everyone really needs to do.  For starters, as always, I’ll send you to some websites as foundation for what this discussion is about.

1. The Department of Premier & Cabinet Local Government Division Role of Local Government project: http://www.dpac.tas.gov.au/divisions/local_government/role_of_local_government

And their document on Principles for Voluntary Mergers:

2. Professor Brian Dollery’s (University of New England) collected research and peer-reviewed publications on why amalgamation is a financial and economic dead duck for local government: http://www.une.edu.au/staff-profiles/business/bdollery  (and before anyone asks me for any contra peer-reviewed evidence, let me say I struggle to find any.  You can get lots of lobby documents, but none that stand up to evidence-based, peer-reviewed scrutiny – for which you may read the recent Deloittes report paid for by the Property Council, etc.)

There are many other publications however these suggestions should give a quick flavour of the underlying policy decisions and language.  And while you’re ferreting around the Local Government Board web page, have a quick look at the report on the attempt to amalgamate two East Coast Tasmanian councils – in particular the reasons why the LGB report said, don’t do it. 

At one level there is a central authority focusing on rational issues of financing and services, framed in terms of State government policy imperatives.  For the Minister in his recent presentations on voluntary council amalgamations, he wants Tasmania as the “most competitive and attractive place to live, work and invest in the entire country”.

Seriously, who’s going to object to that sort of statement?  Yet in the powerpoint presented in the attempt to get Councils to voluntarily amalgamate, there is no analysis of the issues confronting the State government in terms of economy, society or demography, only local government.  There is no analysis of how these challenges confront the State government at all in this whole debate.  It’s all about local government, as if it is an isolated entity, away from State and Federal decisions, away from global market decisions, away from the society in which we all live.  People are presented at ratepayers – a financial role as a human.

The language used makes the bold statement that it is all local government’s responsibility for the problems and it is up to them to fix it.  Shared services are dismissed as an option and voluntary amalgamations presented as the only way forward.

Now if any voluntary amalgamation must succeed, according the Minister it has to:

  • Be in the best interests of ratepayers;
  • Improve the level of services for communities;
  • Preserve and maintain local representation; and
  • Ensure the financial status of the entities is strengthened.

All well and good, but then where is the State in all this?  If we substitute the word “ratepayer” with “Tasmanian residents, businesses and visitors”, we then have a policy prescription approach to reform debates for both State and local government to work together in redefining what government constitutes at a State and local level.

Let’s consider water and sewerage as a past example of what this could mean, and contemplate roads and waste management as just two current issues ripe for reform.

Tasmanians outside of major population areas all know that water quality and security of supply has been a difficult issue.  Boil water alerts are not uncommon even today.  Septic tanks just don’t cut it when populations fluctuate and water tables end up contaminated – the very water that supplies townships or flows into waterways also end up near shellfish industry leases and contamination has a massive impact on local jobs and business confidence.

So despite the highhanded way it was done, and the haste with which it was implemented, we now effectively have a statewide water and sewerage supply service.  And as Tasmanians no longer live and die in the same bark hut in their lifetimes, but mostly live, work and play around the State, we also now pay and use around the State for these services either directly in our TasWater bills or indirectly as part of other goods and service supply charges.  If you live in Launceston and holiday on the East Coast, and travel to Hobart for business, you should reasonably expect that the water can be drunk safely and the toilet flushed with confidence the environment or the local fishing industry isn’t being stuffed in the process.

From a central policy strategy, water and sewerage infrastructure is now managed to meet needs with a finance base that individual country Councils could never match, and even urban Councils struggled at times to get the loan funds for.

So what about roads and waste management?  If the State government really wanted to improve the level of services for communities and in the best interests of ratepayers (or for that matter, read, Tasmanian residents, businesses and visitors, and in a way that ensures the financial status of local government is strengthened, shouldn’t the Minister also be thinking to manage roads/bridges and waste in the same way as water and sewerage, on a statewide basis?

After all, with the current downturn in Forestry Tasmania’s financial capacity, there are now many roads and bridges that service the State’s tourism and other industries which local councils cannot afford to maintain (they currently financially struggled to maintain what they have).  The State’s economy as a whole suffers.  And what other services local government provides can be opened to a statewide prescription for delivery?

According to the Minister, the “right” amalgamations have the potential to deliver:

  • Improved service delivery;
  • Greater opportunity to attract and retain skilled staff;
  • Increased capacity to comply with legislative requirements;
  • Improved risk management;
  • Improve the capacity of councils to respond to future major challenges; and
  • Better regional planning.

I’ll go one step further.  The “right” policy approach has the potential to deliver the same shopping list.  And for better regional planning, add in the words, “and State”.  Isn’t it time that the State government, and local government, sat down in the same room and discussed what services each should be responsibly undertaking?  In a State with a struggling 500,000 demographic with isolated communities and underfunded local councils, with increasingly burgeoning central urban areas, there is the strong risk that amalgamation will not deliver the Minister’s shopping list, but simply highlight the incapacity of local government to take on more and more of the responsibilities of the State. 

And it is not unreasonable to suggest that the levels of inequality will get worse as the more politically noisy urban populations get the greater funding opportunities.  In an age of increasingly interesting Parliaments, what State or Federal member will listen to any rural Mayors pleas for infrastructure or project funding when he/she knows there is better voting bang for buck in the denser population zones of the State’s five electorates?

I’ve put two questions in a previous blog, and I’ll repeat them here as a start point for the sort of discussions the Minister must undertake in any whole of State/local reform debate:

  1. If we visit a locality, what local and state services will be different?
  2. If we live/work/play around the State, what local and state services are provide to everyone to use?

Have a look again at this recent blog for my responses:

What would your list look like?

As a criticism that might seem to some protectionist, when reforms in local government are called for, there is a lot of talk about creating “efficiencies”.  For this, read, lowering staffing and tendering out services to the “free” market.  In some cases, I don’t have a problem with getting the local business sector to provide some services.  Let’s also acknowledge that in the small economy of Tasmania, choice is not at the same level as you might find on the mainland.  Competition therefore for the best provider is limited. 

However when you talk about the “right” amalgamations, and in particular attracting and retaining skilled staff, etc, is this really an argument that counters the calls for reform?  And if “efficiencies” means shedding employees does this ignore the fact that Council employees are part of the local economy (especially in rural areas) and have families and ties into the local community through volunteer, church, scouting, etc groups?  Get rid of staff and they inevitably will look elsewhere for work opportunities and our communities, especially the rural areas, will be all the poorer. 

If you think local government is demographically challenged now, think about the real cost of “efficiencies”.  I’m not arguing for “make-work”; on the contrary, there are better ways to do a job all the time.  However for Tasmania, the mountains and valleys and long roads and isolated communities existed in the past, exist in the present and are likely to be there for the future.  Sometimes, efficiencies cost us more both directly and indirectly, in the Tasmanian context.  So let’s be careful when we talk about reform.  Let’s consider the real cost of outcomes being called for.

And on a final note of criticism about the process and timetable currently being foisted on local government by the State’s demands for reform, if you were elected to local government, and you decided to investigate amalgamation with one or more other Councils, do you think that “up to $25,000” (two councils) or “up to $50,000” (three or more) would be sufficient to ensure a level of information, probity and confidence that this type of reform (using the Minister’s shopping list) will:

  • Be in the best interests of ratepayers;
  • Improve the level of services for your communities;
  • Preserve and maintain local representation;
  • Ensure the financial status of your new Council is strengthened;
  • Improve service delivery;
  • Create greater opportunities to attract and retain skilled staff;
  • Increase capacity to comply with legislative requirements;
  • Improve risk management;
  • Improve the capacity of councils to respond to future major challenges; and
  • Lead to better regional planning?

And actually deliver.

That’s an aweful (deliberately spelt this way) lot of questions for even a mere “up to $25,000”.  The previous round in 1997 resulted in many hours of local government officer time and resources being used up, and therefore other work and opportunities for ratepayers foregone.  It is nice that the State government is willing to provide some funding.  Would it not be money better spent by having the two tiers work together to sort out what each level can properly achieve, and not just focus on one tier in isolation? 

The funding offered is lacking to do the job asked for and in my opinion as an elected person in local government, just doesn’t seem to give any confidence that the business case alone for amalgamations will get the level of professional probity, analysis and scrutiny that is needed to ensure the best interests of the people we serve.

I started out with the statement of leadership as a vocation in government.  I’m still of the opinion that, in Tasmania at least, people get into power at the State and local levels to do some good.  And I know that Minister for Local Government, the Hon. Peter Gutwein MHA would share that opinion.

Yet it appears that the Minister has painted himself into a corner in focusing only on financial issues in local government reform.  The mark of a good leader is flexibility.  I’ll be diplomatic and say that even if he has got the policy debate off to a pre-determined start with a timetable that appears to fit more with mitigating electoral risks, there is nothing to preclude in any feasibility study terms of reference to include a direct analysis of what services local government should really only be providing at a local level, and then putting it those services left over back to the State to consider the greater good in acting on its constitutional responsibilities.

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