Should ratepayers across New South Wales facing council amalgamations get a direct vote to settle the issue before their local governments are forcibly merged?
That’s the thorny question the Baird government is diligently ignoring but will soon have to front as grass roots resistance and public campaigning on the issue intensifies over coming weeks and months.
The Premier and his Local Government Minister, Paul Toole, on Tuesday conspicuously put households and property owners front and centre of their latest attempt to make progress. The R-Word (that’s ratepayer) was the crux of the effort to paint councils as recalcitrant, inefficient and so stubbornly self-serving that local government electors and the state are being economically harmed.
The core sell to constituents of state and local government elections from Macquarie Street is that mergers will create efficiencies that can be reinvested into sporting fields, libraries and rate reductions.
All well and good assuming that ratepayers want bigger councils in exchange for improved services or lower costs.
But this implicit contract with the community falls apart if citizens are opposed to the idea.
Just as importantly, the level of community hostility to forced amalgamations can increase sharply if those on the receiving end believe they have been cut out of the process, especially in an electoral system where voting in local government elections is compulsory.
There are about 3 million rateable properties in NSW according to peak body Local Government NSW (residential, business and farmland) – of which 2.7 million are residential.
Obviously there are some challenges of fairness of representation in some cases for referenda on mergers – such as whether a big council can unfairly swing a result over a small council – but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be explored as an option.
Some stakeholders believe one of the biggest problems of the present consultation and negotiation process is that the state government started out by asking the wrong questions to the wrong people.
The idea that local government representatives will voluntarily put their hands up to be sacked or downsized just defies basic human nature, especially when there is no incentive to exit the arena.
A more tenable approach would have been start marketing the merger option directly to the community as a way to increase efficiencies, more equitably distribute resources and improve services.
If the proposals and the numbers stacked-up for those on the receiving end, it’s more difficult to argue a dud deal has been foisted on the ratepayers when they took a decision and consciously voted for it.
When Government News canvassed stakeholders on condition of anonymity, two models for a vote on mergers stood out.
The first was a vote by residents and ratepayers, potentially weighted, on a specific amalgamation proposal or a strictly limited number of options.
1. Council A + B
2. Council A + B +C
3. Council A + C
4. Council B +C
The second was a state-wide poll on a general question to determine the electorate’s level of overall support, again potentially with a weighted majority.
A further option, and one that could work to the government’s advantage, is allowing a vote but making it voluntary rather than compulsory, the logic being that if people feel sufficiently strongly on an issue they’ll bother to vote.
Of course elections don’t come cheap, but they could be about to become a lot cheaper.
The NSW Electoral Commission has proven itself a world leader in electronic and online voting, a technology that could make an increased number of plebiscites on a range of issue feasible and affordable – and create a new sense of electoral enfranchisement.
A very tangible risk for the Baird government is badly underestimating the ability of local governments to communicate effectively with their constituents.
Councils, which naturally have greater autonomy than state government agencies, have for the past decade been honing their online community engagement skills for everything from consultations on land use and redevelopment to how council budgets are carved up.
Put more simply, councils are demonstrably more engaged with residents and ratepayers than they have ever been, making the sales job of amalgamations without community buy-in all the more difficult.
There are also runs on the board in terms of running localised referenda to decide how a local government area is determined, not least Queensland where the recently deposed Newman government used the mechanism to let people decide if they wanted to unwind mergers that had been forced upon them – amalgamations that often resulted in poorer services at a higher cost.
As groups like Urban Taskforce have pointed out, there are alternative and effective ways to reduce council running costs by standardising back office processes, procedures and systems so there is consistency and commonality across the sector.
That approach, coupled with procurement reforms, has already been successfully applied by the Baird government and resulted in standout successes like Service NSW and the technology reforms instigated by Finance minister Dominic Perrottet.
Extending the cooperative buying power of the state government into the local government sector makes a world of sense and Perrottet has already said he is open to council buying off the state’s procurement schedule.
Given that local government in NSW is already effectively running its own procurement business, the question begs as to what sort of savings could be extracted by simplifying council HR, IT and management systems – as opposed to trying to integrate siloed applications when councils – if councils – are forcibly merged.
The benefits for business are also demonstrable.
The Baird government has had a dream run in terms of reforming customer facing state agency services including transport. It would be a shame to see that run falter and the valuable political capital it has earned squandered because of a botched attempt to create cumbersome super councils.
Not as easy as it sounds
Deputy Director of the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government (ACELG) at the University of Technology Sydney, Melissa Gibbs, says while the idea of a plebiscite or referenda may sound appealing, there are still plenty of questions to how they might operate – including whether they would be binding.
“Everyone loves democracy, but what do you put to the people?” Ms Gibbs told Government News, adding that people might be in favour of some mergers but not others.
Then there’s the issue of how much of a say people have over boundaries and the implications that flow on from that.
“We don’t get a vote on (state or federal) electoral boundaries,” Ms Gibbs notes.
Another question in the mix is whether having raised the issue of local government reform before a State Election it won convincingly, the present state government – to which local government is subordinate – should have a mandate implement its agenda without going back to a vote.
Added to that is a question of what issues need to be taken to a vote and where to draw the line, Ms Gibbs says.
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