Over the past decade, all State Governments and the Northern Territory have embarked, in some form or another, along the path of Local Government boundary restructure. Although there have been a few instances of individual Councils being split into smaller units, the majority of restructure processes have aimed to reduce the sum total of Councils in a particular State.
State Governments have employed various tactics to 'encourage' or even coerce Councils to accept their blueprint for the future. This includes Victoria, where legislation under the former Kennett Government led to new boundaries being declared by the Minister of the day, leaving no recourse available for Councils, or their communities, that did not support the new arrangements. Moreover, elected representatives played no role in the shaping of Victoria's 78 Councils, as State appointed commissioners ran the new Councils, in some instances, for over two years.
No other State has tried to pursue such a coercive model which shut democratic processes out of the picture and, for quite a period of time, totally destroyed any notion of Local Government and the State Government working in partnership for the better governance of communities. All Victorian Councils, except one, had some change made to their external boundaries. This was very much a whole of State process resulting in the total number of Councils being reduced by almost two thirds.
Tasmania also undertook a major restructure that saw the number of Councils reduced from 46 to 29 in the mid 1990s. However, a few years later the then Government attempted to revisit amalgamation, pressing for another major reduction in Council numbers. Council and community unrest about this was a contributing factor to the Government losing the ensuing election. The current Tasmanian Government came to office pledging that any future amalgamations would be voluntary.
The South Australian Government also achieved a substantial reduction in its Council numbers through informing Local Government that it aimed to halve the number of Councils in the State. The Government requested Councils begin discussions about voluntary mergers with their neighbours.
However, the Government warned, if these 'voluntary' mergers where not forthcoming the Local Government Boundary Reform Board could then step in and make its recommendations. Preferring to take control over their own destiny rather than be governed by an outside decision, quite a number of Councils agreed to amalgamate. As the final number met the Government's target of a 50 percent reduction in Councils, those Councils that had failed to, or had not bothered to broker a merger retained their current boundaries.
In New South Wales, the Government has also taken the approach of voluntary amalgamations. Requesting that Councils talk to their neighbours and prepare a merger proposal, some 24 Councils, which would have seen the formation of eight new Councils, initially put up their hands.
Although some of these have now fallen over, two new Councils have been proclaimed with six other possible mergers still on the drawing board (refer to article entitled 'NSW progresses down the path of voluntary amalgamations').
Therefore, the recent history of amalgamations has taken a variety of forms. What is clear is that State and Territory Governments tread a precarious path if they force a restructure process onto Councils and communities. Forming a unit that best meets local needs is the hallmark, and very much the essence of Local Government.