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Local council reform input highjacked by sack threat

New South Wales Local Government Minister Paul Toole is scheduled to appear this afternoon at the inquiry into local government reforms, despite media reports on the weekend that the NSW government intends to sack all 152 councils anyway.

Nervous cabinet ministers representing the outer parts of the state are said to be behind the leaked report that the lays out a plan to force council mergers over the objections of their elected representatives. The plan echoes the strategy used by then Victorian premier Jeff Kennett in 1994 when he sacked 210 councils overnight and merged them into 78, and indeed last year Kennett advised Premier Mike Baird to do just that.

So far only five metropolitan councils out of the NSW’s 152 local governments have put up their hands for mergers.

The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal, which was asked to perform the role of expert advisory panel, will decide whether each individual council is “fit” or “unfit” under the government’s Fit for the Future criteria. IPART is scheduled to report by October 16, but after that date, there has been no stated plan for what happens next.

The government is planning a television advertising campaign to convince more councils to agree to merge.

The NSW upper house inquiry, which began as a peace offering to irate councils over being left out of the process, is holding hearings in Western NSW and Wagga Wagga today listening to rural and regional local councils. Last week it heard from suburban Western Sydney councils concerned that amalgamations will be forced on financially solvent local governments.

‘Expect civil disobedience’

Local Government NSW association president, councillor Keith Rhoades (pictured), said he’s spoken with Minister Toole but didn’t get a straight answer to whether the government intended to carry out any part of proposed. Rhoades told The Mandarin it would be “a slap in the face” if the government went ahead with these plans after promising councils they would be listened to:

“I know the premier was very disappointed there were only five metropolitan councils putting their hand up to voluntarily merge, they are intend on reducing the number of councils in NSW, I believe the only possible way open to them is to force those council’s to merge.”

Rhoades has told the inquiry of examples of forced amalgamation in Victoria and Queensland, where “it simply did not work”.

He has a warning for the NSW government. “I’ve had phone calls yesterday from local government, they’re talking about civil disobedience, protesting …

“You need to realise these communities have been consulted over the last nine months by these councils and they’ve come out very strongly against force amalgamations. They want to work with their local councils. They talk with them weekly, some talk with them daily. Try doing that with your state or federal MPs, pretty impossible.”

Yesterday in a media statement, Rhoades said polling over the last four months by Micromex showed 85% supported their council standing alone. “Less than one in five — just 18% — supported the government’s proposal to create Mega Councils.”

He rejected suggestions rates would decline with larger councils:

“After the 2008 Queensland amalgamations, total council rate revenue in that state grew by 27.4%, compared to NSW growth of 13.4% over the same period.

“The Commonwealth’s most recent Local Government National Report shows Victorian council rates average $692 per capita compared to $499 in NSW – a difference of nearly 40%.

“This is despite amalgamations in 1994 that reduced the number of Victorian councils from 210 to 78.”

“The Australian Centre of Excellence in Local Government criticised the perception that municipal consolidation will result in gains through efficiencies in scale, saying there was clearly ‘insufficient robust research’ to support the proposition.

“More recent research demonstrated no discernible economies-of-scale efficiencies in bigger councils, and found amalgamated councils did not deliver better performance than non-amalgamated councils on any of the Fit for the Future performance indicators.”

Update:

NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole gave a statement to The Mandarin:

“Yes the minister can rule out taking this course of action. The government has no such plan.

“We are undertaking much needed reform of local government in NSW.

“As part of that reform an independent tribunal is assessment [sic] individual councils’ fitness for the future.

“The government will then give the report careful consideration before deciding on the next step forward.

“It does not involve any such plan as described this morning.”

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.