The proposed amalgamation between Fremantle and East Fremantle has been getting a bit of press lately as the close of the East Freo poll on February 7th approaches.
Recent full page ads by the “Vote No” camp have blamed the Freo Council of everything short of enslaving small children to secretly demolish the Round House. We have chosen not to respond to this often ridiculous fear-mongering as I am sure that most East Freo voters are informed enough to make a sensible decision on whether a merger with Freo is in their best interests. Freo Council has never supported a hostile take-over of East Freo and that is why we’ve kept out of the debate and let the democratic process run its course. While I personally think the State Government has got Freo’s future boundaries about right it is important that East Freo resident have a say on that too.
East Freo council member Michael McPhail has published a thoughtful piece in the Gazette today and the full version is below. It is worth a read.
The A-word that has whispered through the leafy green streets of East Fremantle for much of its history is again causing a flurry of self-reflection.
Soon, amalgamation will soon be the topic of discussion in all households with the impending arrival of ballot papers for the February 7 poll.
A number of people who smelt the whiff of the Minister’s starting gun last December have been admirably active over the holidays.
The announcement of the February 7 poll has seen a resurgence of people answering the question: has the Town of East Fremantle served our suburb well ‘till now?
This is relatively easy to answer: for most of the Town’s 118-year history, yes.
However, few people are asking the far more important question (perhaps because it is more difficult to answer): what sort of local government will best serve our suburb for the next 118 years?
The decision on February will present the option of merging the Town of East Fremantle (7000 residents) with a new City of Fremantle that will double in size to 66,000 residents (taking in areas that generate significant rates to the south and east).
I think it is fairly well accepted that the State Government’s management of this process up until now has been tortuous.
However, whether by design or happenstance, the proposed City of Fremantle is arguably the best design of all amalgamation proposals in the region.
Nevertheless, whilst this may be of regional benefit, there are more immediately important arguments that need consideration for February 7.
The State Government frequently trots out arguments of reduced rates to support amalgamation. Generally speaking, this is an intellectually bankrupt argument.
Those who disparagingly wave their finger eastwards correctly identify few obvious cost savings.
In some cases, expenditure increases because of a new-found capacity to provide large-scale infrastructure (think Gold Coast light rail).
In the academic world, whilst the jury is still out on economic efficiency, it’s fair to say that benefits are not automatic. Furthermore, these benefits can be somewhat achieved through shared service agreements.
So if not economic efficiency, why else might this be a good idea?
Strategic Direction & Capacity
The Town of East Fremantle was formed just as Western Australia entered the 20th century. In those days, local government was expected to do little more than the holy trinity: rates, roads and rubbish.
The nature of metropolitan local government has changed significantly since then due to changes in community expectation and State law.
Heritage protection; economic development; community welfare; urban planning; state and commonwealth lobbying. These were foreign concepts when the Town was formed nearly 120 years ago.
The Town of East Fremantle is a local government structure suited to the needs of the 20th century.
The 21st century has presented a series of looming challenges, challenges that are already straining the Town’s ability to find and fund solutions to significant strategic issues.
Many talk about East Fremantle’s low debt and low rates. What people don’t talk about are impending significant that would make an accountant blush:
The East Fremantle Oval; The Royal George; The River Foreshore; upgrading Canning Hwy footpaths. These issues couldn’t have been foreseen when our founders rearranged Fremantle East to become East Fremantle.
Let’s turn to another major strategic issue: the Perth Freight Link.
The most significant event that is to happen to our community in the next decade will be the construction of the Perth Freight Link, a six-lane freight freeway from Kewdale to Stirling Bridge. This new freeway will lead to a doubling of port freight (and carcinogens) through our suburb in the next decade, as well as removal of Marmion Street access from Stirling Hwy.
The Town of East Fremantle has not been at the table for ongoing discussions that have shaped this proposal. It has not effectively resisted Melville’s significant lobbying efforts.
This is not to slight the good work that the Town does in lean circumstances. It is a reflection of the limited technical capacity to represent the community’s interests for significant strategic issues like this.
Local Government is now more than footpaths and rubbish. Anyone who disagrees need only listen to the increasing rumble of B-Doubles as they tear through our suburb, rattling the Royal George on their way to port.
The ability of Perth’s second smallest local government to effectively advocate for your best interests is limited. A more technically capable entity will be better able to represent East Fremantle’s interests.
Local Democracy & Governance
So, the record on representing the community’s interest for significant issues such as the Perth Freight Link is not strong. How about the more fundamental issue of local representation and democracy?
Does being the second smallest local government in Perth provide better, more accountable government than the alternative?
Having a high number of Councillors for our suburb does not automatically equate to good governance. In my opinion, there are two more important factors that guarantee the good use of public money: the quality of elected members and accountability.
The first is strongly influenced by elections. The most recent election was the first proper contested election in my living memory. When door-knocking, people mentioned to me that they can’t recall the last time an election was held.
Simply put, having such a high number of Councillors for a small area is not representation at all if elected members aren’t actually elected. Our structure is not geared towards the selection of a high quality decision-making group.
This is not to diminish anyone on the current Council. All are fine representatives.
However, structure is important when thinking about a local government that will best serve us for the next 118 years.
The primary function of having a Council is to have a body of people that act as custodians of your money. This requires accountability. A Council that is constantly held to account is more likely to spend its people’s money efficiently and more in line with their wishes.
It has been said that, due to their size, very large local governments can suffer from a lack of accountability to its electors. I would say a similar problem is true for very small local governments like East Fremantle, but for a different reason: lack of scrutiny.
Local governments are no longer held to account as they once were: through attendance in the public gallery. The now empty public gallery has been replaced by a strong social media presence, online blogs, e-newsletters (as well as the continued presence of local newspapers).
Being a small entity means we fly under the radar. A weak history of engaging in these mediums hasn’t helped.
We don’t attract as much attention; our decision making isn’t as public, our conduct goes largely unnoticed; your elected members are not consistently held to account for acting on your behalf.
I’m not suggesting anything untoward. What I am saying is that when mistakes and misinformed decisions are made, they often go unrecognized until its too late. Poor lines of communication make it difficult for necessary information to flow through to change it.
Holding your elected members accountable to your wishes is more cumbersome than in other Councils that have a much deeper involvement in online mediums. In contrast, this is something that is done particularly well in Fremantle.
If both very large and very small local governments have issues with remaining accountable, I would suggest there is a sweet spot in the middle. At 66,000 people, the new City of Fremantle would be the third smallest local government in Perth (post-amalgamation).
In my view, this is the Goldilocks size: not too large, not too small, but just about right.
A number of academics have proposed models of local government reform that are far more nuanced and thoughtful than the options we have on the table for February 7.
I lament that the State Government ran a process that would make a flock of ostriches proud. Indeed, this seems the standard approach by all State Governments when they discuss local government ‘reform’. The hope of getting a more enlightened set of options to choose from is as low as Colin Barnett’s approval rating.
The decision we have to make on February 7 is not whether the current structure served East Fremantle well over the last 120 years, but whether it will serve us well over the next 120 years.
This is not an easy question to answer and people will have different opinions. However, I wanted to highlight that the answer to this question requires far more thought that some would have you believe.
Forming the Municipality of East Fremantle made a lot of sense 118 years ago and served our suburb reasonably well for the 20th century.
However, I do think the challenges that face our suburb are becoming and will be far more advanced and substantial than our little local government was designed for.
Significant change is always difficult to back. It requires stepping outside your comfort zone and relying on vision rather than history.
However, when I ask the question: will our current structure be the best structure for the next 118 years? I can only but answer no.