Mike Baird mustn’t have known what he was in for. If the New South Wales Premier could have predicted the long and bitter slog thrown up by the council amalgamation process, you wouldn’t have blamed him in the slightest if he had turned to Paul Toole one day and said ruefully, “Actually, maybe let’s not bother.”
The New South Wales Government took the line that “doing nothing was not an option” – councils needed to tighten their belts, or, more accurately, have someone else tighten them – and indeed, fiscal sustainability is of utmost importance. But, surely there was a better way than plunging the sector into turmoil: bringing in the administrators and haemorrhaging senior council staff, fending off court battles, ushering in parallel realities for councils across the state (some operating business as usual, some not going to the polls for another long year).
Not to mention the immediate political ramifications for the State Government itself, which is looking more unpopular by the minute and, by extension, the popularity of the Federal Coalition Government at the polls back in July.
Not even the (alleged) plot to oust Clover Moore from her Sydney stronghold came off. Instead, Clover dug in her heels and came out of the September election unscathed – smiling and waving as enthusiastically as if stood atop a Mardi Gras float.
The fallout from amalgamations is always going to be messy – as State Governments from years past know all too well – and it’s a brave government that forges ahead. But the question has to be asked: is it even worth it?
Surely other State governments will heed this warning shot from the disgruntled former councils of New South Wales. But, it seems there are amalgamation rumblings in Tasmania and South Australia, and, when probed on talkback radio recently, Victorian Local Government Minister Natalie Hutchins suggested amalgamation of her State’s councils isn’t out of the question either.
A recent report commissioned by the Australian Services Union (ASU) and undertaken by the McKell Institute and University of Sydney wagered that “the link between local government revenue and local government expenditure is broken”.
The report, ‘Giving local governments the reboot – improving financial sustainability of local government’, concluded that, among other things, amalgamation is a tired and not overly-effective idea: “the well-trod paths of local government reform are not paying the dividends which reform proponents might wish them to”.
Instead, “The most important thing we can do is re-establish the link between demand for local government goods and services and willingness to pay.”
The answer then is not simply changing council borders, but rather long term, strategic reform that examines the entire revenue framework for local government. Although, lacking any constitutional clout, the local government sector can still easily be bent to the whim of its state, and remain subject to politicking that is out of its hands.
It will take particularly sage State and Federal Governments to understand and listen to the needs of the sector and create financial reform that will work and will last.