OPINION: A new amalgamation agenda

By Graham Sansom

A visit to Western Australia recently brought the issue of council amalgamations back into sharp focus. This persistent theme in Australian local government just won’t go away, even though the average population of council areas is high by world standards.

Arguments continue between those who promote larger (in population) local government areas as a means to more efficient and effective service delivery, and those who believe the cause of local democracy and choice is best served by smaller units.

The efficiency argument for amalgamations was most evident in Victoria and South Australia in the 1990s. It was claimed that restructuring would reduce the cost of local government considerably (20 per cent or more was flagged in Victoria) and enable substantial cuts in property rates. Indeed, state governments moved to cap rate increases to ensure that the anticipated savings were passed on. However, available evidence suggests that actual savings were far less than claimed, and need to be applied to increased spending on infrastructure to address backlogs – not passed on as lower rates.

In any event, during the past decade there has been a significant shift in the amalgamation debate. This was highlighted in the 2007 report of the Queensland Local Government Reform Commission. The report was a very important milestone in aligning the amalgamation debate with the agendas of 21st century Australia: how can local government become the valued partner in the federal system that the Rudd Government says it wants? How do we deal with evident deficiencies in our arrangements for metropolitan planning and coastal management? In a competitive global marketplace, will we ever have enough highly skilled people to staff nearly 600 local councils? And so on.

This brings us back to Western Australia, where the State Government has urged its 139 councils to put forward proposals for both voluntary amalgamation and shared services within regional groups.

As in Queensland, the State Government’s avowed aim is a stronger system of local government, “to achieve greater capacity for local government to better plan, manage and implement services to their communities with a focus on social, environmental and economic sustainability”. The Minister has argued that local government in its current form is simply not sustainable, with 85 councils having populations of less than 2000 people. He has pointed to potential economies of scale, but has not advocated cuts in rates. Interestingly, he has also identified increased scope for larger councils to partner with state and federal governments and the private sector to further improve services to communities.

Initial responses from all Western Australian councils are now on the Minister’s desk. On current indications, many are holding out against significant change.

Professor Graham Sansom is director of the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government at UTS.

Read the full article in the November issue of Government News magazine.

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