By Julian Bajkowski and Paul Hemsley
Attempts in Western Australia to push through reforms that would allow the government to halve the number of metropolitan councils have come conspicuously unstuck after local government reform proposals triggered a fiery backlash inside Premier Colin Barnetts’ own party room.
The WA Premier this week ducked putting the issue up for a vote in his party room after government several members publicly indicated the matter would be given short shrift as resident anger over the amalgamations continues to forment.
A big headache for the Liberal Barnett government in trying to push the mergers is that much of the grass roots revolt is coming from Perth’s most prosperous and powerful residents that have traditionally backed conservative state governments.
Mr Barnett’s troubles are likely to be viewed with trepidation by members of New South Wales’ Coalition government led by Premier Barry O’Farrell who is negotiating a similarly delicate situation on the east coast where another report has found many existing stand-alone councils will soon be economically unviable.
The president of the WA Local Government Association (WALGA), Troy Pickard, this week rounded on the Premier, saying that Mr Barnett has no mandate to force the issue of council amalgamations because he “intentionally took the issue off the table” months before the election campaign for last election.
A key point WALGA is pushing is that the state government’s plans for structural reform in local government were removed from the re-election agenda because the Barnett government announced four months prior to the March 2013 state poll that it would not put its position on local government reform forward until well after the poll.
That delay is being interpreted by many as a commitment not to force through mergers in the current term and have changes, which are unlikely to be popular, put up at the next election.
Many of the issues driving the merger push have come out of a Metropolitan Local Government Review Panel which submitted the Robson Report for the government’s consideration. The report recommended a major overhaul of council boundaries and amalgamations in Perth.
Mr Pickard says that discussions about the findings should have been had prior to the election on local government reform in order for the government to claim a mandate.
“The community didn’t get a say on the state government’s position at the Election because it was not presented so it is democratic that the community should be able to be heard on the newly proposed changes,” Mr Pickard said.
Mr Pickard has also hit out at the state government for removing community consultation on council amalgamations by suspending poll provisions, which he called an “effective removal of the democratic process”.
This suspension by the state government has led to Mr Pickard underlining that divisions had emerged among Liberal Party Members of Parliament over the government’s plan to lock out the community from voting on changes to their councils.
In response to the government’s elimination of poll provisions, the members present at the WALGA annual general meeting voted to condemn the removal while the most recent State Council meeting aimed to set a compromise framework to ensure the community has some “prospect of a say on amalgamations”.
“The position of WALGA and Local Government is that the community should have the opportunity to have their position heard on changes to the structure of their Local Government,” Mr Pickard said.
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