Forced council mergers: the genesis of the full-time local councillor?

Dr Who Experience
Will local government councillors regenerate into ambitious, professional local politicians?


The days of local government councillors holding down a proper day job could be over by next March.

As the great NSW amalgamation machine grinds onward, forced council mergers threaten to create a new breed of ambitious, full-time local politicians drawn from the faceless ranks of major political party machines rather than the community at large.

With the dawning of a new age of super councils looking increasingly likely, those councillors left standing from the state’s 1,500 councillors will represent a much greater number of ratepayers – up to three or four times as many – and cover a larger geographical area. They will also need to be across a lot more issues.

Questions remain too about whether councillors of the newly merged councils would be expected to work full-time and if so, whether their pay would reflect this.

Should councillors get work full time and get paid accordingly?             

Becoming a councillor has always been considered an act of public service – arguably even altruistic, although the recent goings on at Auburn Council have contributed little to either sentiment – and not about the fees.

While councillors’ fees vary enormously, nowhere are they high. They swing from between 8,330 to $11,000 for a councillor in a rural area, going up to $18,380 for a metropolitan/regional rural councillor, like Manly or Tamworth. Councillors sitting on a Metropolitan major or major city (Parramatta, Wollongong, Newcastle) can be paid up to $27,550 and principal city councillors (City of Sydney) up to $36,700.

When you are on call pretty much around the clock and your mobile number is on your council’s website, it’s small potatoes.

Fees are obviously higher for mayors, many of whom are already considered by their councils to be full time.

The pay ranges from $8860 for a mayor at smaller rural council rising to between $18,000 and $40,000 for Metropolitan mayors; $62,000 for a mayor in a metropolitan centre and a maximum of $80,000 at a Metropolitan major or a major city. The biggest wedge of cash is reserved for City of Sydney mayoralty, which can pay a maximum of $201,500.

Local Government NSW President Keith Rhoades said councillors were underpaid, particularly because being a local councillor was considered as a second job so they were taxed 39 cents in the dollar.

Mr Rhoades said there had been “absolute silence” from the government about whether councillors would be expected to work longer hours or be paid more if mergers progressed.

The Local Government Tribunal 2015 annual report recommended that “remuneration should be increased in recognition of enhanced skills” but noted that legislation set a cap of 2.5 per cent on public service pay rises, including mayors and councillors.

The NSW government backs two-year terms for mayors and suggests the position of mayor and deputy mayor in larger councils and major regional councils could be “expanded to a full time office and remunerated accordingly.”

Associate Professor Roberta Ryan who heads up the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government (ACELG) and the UTS:Centre for Local Government at the University of Technology Sydney said she could see both sides of the debate: paying people more as councils become more complex, multi-million dollar organisations or keeping the role mostly voluntary.

“In local government the idea is that elected people are in a sense just there to represent ordinary citizens. Do you want more professional politicians?” Ms Ryan said.

She said party politics already held more sway in NSW local government than they did in other jurisdictions and paying people a living wage could reinforce this.

“You risk it becoming a much more party politics dominated, people being in the business,” she said.

A corps of full-time councillors might also be aggravating for senior council staff, “Senior staff don’t want ten or twelve people in their office every day telling them what to do. They have a job to do.”

The key to councillors managing what is likely to be a heavier workload in a new council is to emphasise that their job is a strategic and leadership role, not an operational one.

“It’s not about councillors having the skills to run a council,” Ms Ryan said. “Their role is to be strategic and to reflect the ambitions and desires of their community, to be able to account for what happens and get involved in the strategic planning. It’s not their job to manage the organisation on a day-to-day basis.”

In many councils, councillors no longer dealt with development applications, independent planning panels did. Councillors tended to be more involved with the strategic side of land use planning, looking at which council areas would grow and which sites to protect, “Councillors are increasingly less involved in the DA process, which is really where the sticky things can happen.”

She said they would not necessarily have more power in new, larger councils and their roles would basically stay the same.

Loss of councillor diversity

Mr Rhoades said the changes could mean candidates who were not affiliated to a major party would be squeezed out of council chambers, particularly in metropolitan Liberal-Labor dominated areas.

“It’s very difficult for an independent to be able to afford to run a profile campaign where you may have to send out 200,000 letterbox drops,” Mr Rhoades said.

“It potentially could lead to the demise of the independent members of local government in NSW, particularly metro, because of the party machines and that’s a real shame.

“People go into local government to do the best they can by the local community with an independent mind and are not bullied or forced into the policy position of a major party and that’s what we need more of.”

But Ms Ryan disputes that larger councils would translate necessarily into fewer independent councillors. She said there was limited evidence for this, although she added that major political parties became did not tend to preselect representative numbers of women and ethnic minority candidates.

Despite this, she said independents could still get elected to larger councils through well-known independents running a ticket, for example Port Macquarie Council, but they needed to organise.

“City of Sydney’s Clover Moore, she runs a ticket. She is personally very popular and she helps local candidates get elected. People who are well known in their communities can get elected in larger councils as well as smaller ones.”

Alongside fears that independent councillors would be locked out of council chambers, some have argued that the proportion of women and ethnic minorities would fall too.

At a recent public inquiry into council mergers in Sydney’s Inner West, several people said they feared councillors could become less diverse and less representative of their populations if the mergers went ahead.

Ashfield Mayor Lucille McKenna said: “In a large council it’s unlikely that independent or minority candidates would win elections.”

Ashfield Council has a diverse group of councillors, one-third are independent, half are women and half come from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Local representation

Many opponents of forced amalgamations have voiced their anxiety over a loss of local representation.

For example, one of Marrickville Council’s twelve councillors currently represents 6,946 residents; an inner west mega council formed by merging Marrickville, Leichhardt and Ashfield would see 12 councillors representing 15,499 residents each.

Ashfield councillors would have an even greater culture shock if they won a spot in the new set-up. They currently represent 3708 residents each.

Asked if councillors could cope with representing a lot more residents, Mr Rhoades said: “Well, it’s physically impossible, isn’t it?”

But Ms Ryan said concerns about access to councillors in new larger councils, although understandable, were not borne out by research.

Representation is, she says, “very uneven now” with dramatic differences. For example, each of Hunters Hill’s seven councillors is at the beck and call of 2,098 residents, whereas Blacktown’s fifteen councillors deal with 21,676 residents each.

ACELG’s work has included asking people what their sense of local representation is like. Ms Ryan said there was no discernible difference in how well represented residents in larger councils felt compared with those in smaller ones.

“A lot of people want to know their councillors are there but wouldn’t have contact with them from week to week, year to year,” she said.

Local councils already employed imaginative and practical ways to link citizens with local democracy, such as precinct committees; community boards (which followed Auckland council mergers); council committees, such as an affordable housing committee; councillor portfolios, community surgeries, online consultation and social media.

“The trick is bringing the community into the dilemmas that councils face. It’s just a question of how effectively local government can step up to the challenge and councillors finding ways of sharpening their engagement and understanding of communities.”

Ms Ryan said Brisbane City Council, where 27 councillors represent around 1.1 million people (and 41,000 residents each), was incredibly good at community engagement.

Australia had gone from 1000 councils in 1910 to 556 in 2002, she said.

“This is a trend that local government across Australia has been dealing with a long time. People would say that local government in Victoria is pretty effective but it is a lot of work for the staff and a lot of changes for the councillors.”

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One thought on “Forced council mergers: the genesis of the full-time local councillor?

  1. Any new ward structures imposed as a result of the NSW mergers should have no less than, and preferably more than, three Councillors per ward to keep the quota for election at 25% or lower of the vote. Two Councillors per ward pushes the quota up to 33%, which I would say is in unnecessary entry requirement for local government in that it sets the bar too high for most independents and minor party candidates.

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