Outback councils always do it tough, but is freezing local democracy the answer?

By Stephen Easton

October 8, 2019

Wilcannia, in the Central Darling Shire. Image: Rob Deutscher.

The New South Wales government will not allow residents of the vast but sparsely populated Central Darling Shire to elect a council until 2023 at the earliest, which will be nine years after their local government was first put under administration.

Covering a vast swathe of the parched interior of NSW, the area is a prime example of how the challenges of life in the outback extend to the councils trying to manage local affairs. It is the state’s largest incorporated local government area, covering 53,511 square kilometres, but has fewer residents than any other. Less than 2000 people inhabit the region, mostly in the towns of Ivanhoe, Menindee, Wilcannia, and White Cliffs.

Having very few ratepayers and minimal economic activity spread thinly across a massive region presents a clear financial challenge, but the state government’s approach to managing this in Central Darling is an “outrage against local democracy” in the view of the Local Government Association.

Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock says a further four years of administration will allow “a comprehensive long-term plan to be developed and implemented to ensure a stronger future for the council and its communities”. She praises the current administrator, Bob Stewart, and his predecessor, Greg Wright, for acting with “dedication and commitment” to put the council on a more sustainable footing in the past five years.

“This is a decision I don’t make lightly; however, following advice from the current administration, the Office of Local Government and LGNSW, it was agreed the extension is in the best interests of the community,” Hancock said in a statement.

The agreement the minister refers to must have been between herself, the public servants who work for her and the current administrators, as LGNSW certainly does not agree it is the best way to proceed.

“Central Darling Shire was put into administration in 2014, which means residents will have gone nearly a decade without having a say in the future of their community,” said the peak body’s chief executive, Linda Scott, who is also Deputy Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney.

“This is a very real concern, particularly when you consider the current drought and the ongoing debate over the distribution of water in Menindee.”

The peak body for local government agrees the council was in dire financial straits when placed under administration in 2014. It notes Central Darling Shire was $3 million in the red with an annual rating income of only about $1m, while necessary expenditure was estimated at about $20m, particularly due to the cost of maintaining a very large number of roads. But putting local democracy on hold is not the answer, Scott argues.

“The challenges — and those facing all councils in the remote west of the state — cannot be overcome by the removal of democratic representation,” she said. “It is time the NSW and federal governments admit that sustaining the far west communities and others like them involves increased and ongoing financial support.”

The state government promises “a robust and effective long-term plan to guide future governance and delivery of services and infrastructure to local communities throughout the Central Darling Shire” will emerge from four more years of administration.

“While progress has been made over the past four years, the council remains under significant financial stress, especially given the drought,” said Hancock.

The local state MP, Roy Butler of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, backs the state government’s decision. “There is still much work to do to strengthen financial management and organisational capacity and improve service delivery to the community,” he said.

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