Expert warns against WA council mergers

By Angela Dorizas

The West Australian Government has broken an election promise by pursuing council amalgamations to suit its “pro-development agenda”, according to Professor Stephen Jones from the University of Queensland Business School.

“The WA Government has already broken an election promise with the Minister indicating he is willing to use force to make councils amalgamate,” Dr Jones told GovernmentNews.

He said Local Government Minister John Castrilli had offered the “standard arguments” for council amalgamations used in other states, such as improvements to service and efficiency, but his real agenda was to create councils that were “more malleable and effectively coordinated to carry out state-derived programs and policies.”

“In WA’s case, the new State Government is trying to reinforce its pro-development agenda and by bullying local governments they can be seen to be doing something quickly,” Dr Jones said.

“The Minister is a very strong supporter of economic development. Local councils have been another, often difficult, hurdle for developers in WA and the development lobby will be pushing very hard for these changes to go as far as possible.”

Dr Jones said councils with low populations and financial sustainability, along with rural and remote councils, will be a “soft target”.

He added that council amalgamations in other states have already provided the clearest example of state governments “wielding their power over local government” and carrying out major reforms without consulting local residents or paying attention to the “democratic and social role” of local government.

“The experience of Queensland councils shows that change will be strongly linked to the development approvals process [and] this will be reflected in WA as the Minister has indicated financial sustainability will not be enough justification to avoid amalgamation,” he said.

“WA councils can also learn from the Victorian amalgamations in the late 1990s where there have been no demonstrable improvements to service as a result of economies of scale.”

Dr Jones said research had shown that there was no systematic relationship between the size of a council and its economic efficiency, adding that if councils were to be restructured in should be done so on the basis of performance, not size.

“A rational argument would be one where councils that can show they work effectively, including on regional projects, should be left unscathed: whereas inefficient small councils should be clearly identified and considered for amalgamation,” he said.

Dr Jones offered his advice to councils currently preparing submissions to the Minister, which are due within the next six months.

“The fundamental principles for determining local government boundaries should be that they are small enough to capture a strong sense of community interest and civic engagement; yet large enough to be financially viable,” he said.

“Metropolitan councils around Perth should be focussing on financial viability, sustainability, strong representative leadership, regional cooperation and transparent and timely processes.

“Rural and remote councils will be placed under the strongest pressure to amalgamate, particularly those in the resource rich north of the state. They need to work closely with their National/Country Party representative for political leverage if they are to have any hope of surviving their current form.”

Dr Jones also advised councils to keep in mind the Minister’s own experience in local government and his agenda of regional economic development. He warned that the Commonwealth was unlikely to provide any assistance to local government as it supported the amalgamation process and had offered no help to councils during the recent Queensland amalgamations.

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