QLD amalgamations: the next stage of reform

By Angela Dorizas in Cairns

The Queensland Government’s controversial reform of local government, including council amalgamations across the state, was high on the agenda at the annual conference of the Local Government Association of Queensland, held in Cairns this week.

The 112th annual conference of the LGAQ is the first since the Queensland Government introduced amalgamations to reduce the number of councils within the state from 157 to 73.

The Queensland Minister for Main Roads and Local Government, Warren Pitt, told conference delegates, councils faced a number of challenges and choices throughout the reform process.

"The past 12 months have been a very dynamic time for local governments in Queensland – and that’s an understatement,” Mr Pitt said.

“We have undertaken the most comprehensive structural reform to local government in Queensland in its 150 year history.

"Now that the structural phase of the reform is mostly behind us we can focus on the next stages of reform that are needed to ensure that the local government sphere is strong and sustainable into the future. A key part of this next stage is the legislative reform that is currently underway.”

The Minister said proposed changes to the Local Government Act would provide councils with greater flexibility.

"Our next round of reform will enable councils to rise to the future challenge of providing services to dynamic and growing communities,” Mr Pitt said.

A new evaluation framework

Minister Pitt warned that greater flexibility and power would come with newfound responsibility. Changes to the Act would lead to greater accountability and transparency, as ratepayers would be enabled to compare and evaluate council performance.

“Rather than be accountable to the State Government, you will in future be more accountable to the communities you serve. In order for local government to be truly democratic, ratepayers must be able to compare councils, evaluate performance and provide feedback.

"This will require a new reporting and evaluation framework model with councils. This is being developed with the active involvement of the LGAQ, LGMA and constituent councils. The new model will regulate reporting and evaluation methods for all councils.”

The Minister reassured conference delegates that this would not mean that smaller councils would be in competition with larger, metropolitan councils. Nor did it mean all councils would be “out for themselves.”

"Council will be able to learn from their neighbours and from their contemporaries and from this finetune their departmental structures, funding arrangements and service of policies,” he said.

Outgoing LGAQ president, Cr Paul Bell, said he welcomed the reform so long as state government recognised the diversity of local government regions.

“Evaluations must be done with sensitivity and recognise and compare like with like,” Cr Bell said.

Cr Bell told conference delegates that the fight against council amalgamation in Queensland was now over and the LGAQ was not “shell shocked” by the changes.

“I have no interest in re-prosecuting lost fights,” he said.

“There is no Cold War with the Bligh Government.”

He said the issue now facing Queensland’s amalgamated councils was financial sustainability.

“Sorting out a state government package of financial assistance for amalgamation costs would be a great start and a real sign of a new beginning,” he said.

“The job of reforming local government is only one third complete. On the state government’s own measures councils are far from sustainable.”

Cr Bell said the LGAQ was now campaigning for local government’s constitutional recognition that would address the “vertical fiscal imbalance.”

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