By Paul Hemsley
New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell and his Local Government Minister Don Page have a new electoral headache to deal with in their efforts to sell the controversial idea of council mergers in the state.
New polling research commissioned by the Independent Local Government Review Panel in New South Wales has revealed that constituents in the Sydney and Hunter regions largely recoil at the notion of council amalgamations – but they are open to potential rate rises if it means they get better local services.
The findings are not likely to be the news that amalgamation advocates had hoped to hear from grassroots ratepayers.
The research by commissioned the Local Government Review Panel is part of a greater effort to “develop options” for improving the “strength and effectiveness” of local government in NSW, the Panel commissioned Iris Research to conduct a poll to help create a picture of how the public views local government.
Iris Research interviewed 1,003 residents in the Sydney Region over 38 local government areas and a further 500 residents in the Hunter region over nine local government areas to provide the Panel with a mandate about how to shape a future direction for councils in NSW.
But the poll has revealed a deep divide between public opinion and the Panel’s preferred direction for local government as the poll’s feedback revealed a public aversion to potential amalgamations because respondents were concerned about local government areas becoming too large and there would be a “loss of local representation and identity”.
This contrasts with the Panel’s recommendation to the Barry O’Farrell government in April 2013 to encourage “voluntary amalgamations” as a workable option for councils facing financial difficulties, which has fuelled the controversial issue of amalgamations because opponents are against NSW travelling a similar path as Queensland where amalgamations were forced upon councils by the Anna Bligh Labor government in 2008.
However the election of the Campbell Newman Coalition government in March 2012 led to a reversal of these forced amalgamations where certain Queensland former local government areas were given the option to divorce from the larger councils with which they had merged.
As a curious reflection of the negative sentiment towards amalgamations in NSW as illustrated by the Panel poll, Queenslanders in the former council areas of Noosa, Livingstone, Mareeba and Douglas voted overwhelmingly in favour of breaking away from their merged councils and reinstating the former councils that were dissolved in 2008.
There has even been a conservative revolt against council amalgamations in Western Australia where Premier Colin Barnett’s own Liberal party room stood against his ambitious plan to half the number of councils in the Perth metropolitan area coupled with a grass roots revolt from Perth’s more prosperous and powerful residents.
A real challenge for the NSW government policy is the Panel’s poll revelation that residents are open to the idea of paying more in council rates if it meant the quality of services improved as rates are seen as “fairly good value” by the respondents.
That sentiment goes directly against the kind of political thinking that forced rate-pegging onto NSW councils to keep a lid on what state governments perceived as ballooning charges to residents.
Rate pegging has been imposed on councils since the passage of the Local Government Act 1993, which limits the total amount that a council can charge to its rate payers in exchange for council services.
As NSW is presently the only state in Australia that enforces rate pegging, it has been a source of frustration for councils feeling burdened by a lack of funds and cost-shifting, causing a collective struggle to maintain services and infrastructure.
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