Local Government Reform: Lessons from the West

Today I was invited by the Local Government Association of Tasmania to Launceston to talk about the lessons learnt in WA on amalgamations and local government reform.

Tasmania is just starting on the reform process in Tasmania and is keen to see what the key lessons to be learnt from the extraordinarily long and ultimately unsuccessful amalgamations process in WA. To put it bluntly, so they don’t make the same mistakes.

It was a good opportunity for me to reflect also on what WA should do differently next time. Here’s the super abbreviated summary of what I said.

  1. The Local Government Reform process should be evidence based and not politicised. The WA process got off to a bad start when it was inextricably only the 30 metropolitan area councils up for amalgamation not the 110 often more marginal, regional ones. The Robson Report also lacked the detail and supporting evidence to show why reform was necessary.
  2. For local government reform to work the process needs strong State Government financial support where costs are shared fairly. In WA it was broadly acknowledged it would cost $60-100 million for local government boundary reform but the State Budget only included $15 million in grant assistance and $45 million in subsidised loans. This got a lot of local governments offside and further reduced the necessary support for the process.
  3. The State Government needed to proactively advocate for the benefits of reform. It needed to sell the positive case for change and not leave it to the “no brigade” as happened in WA where poll provisions enabled a fear based misinformation campaign to dominate and ultimately turn community opinion.
  4. Voluntary reform rarely works and if it is to be successful it will need major incentives. If not some big carrots then some big sticks. No point starting with the voluntary unless these are in place (along with #1).
  5. There is no magic population number. Capacity to deliver major projects and services are more important than a residential population and focusing on a magic minimum number like 100,000 misses the point. Unfortunately that is what happened in WA.
  6. Get it done. Don’t drag it out. I almost called my presentation “How to pull off a band aid really slowly and painfully”. Because the slow, stop-start and overall tedious approach of the WA approach is set the process up for failure. WA started LG reform in 2009 and it collapsed in 2015 after almost getting to the finish line. There are better ways.

Local Government Reform in WA will inevitably come back to the fore. I hope my small bits of WA experience at least mean the Tasmania’s have by then implemented their process and can then share their lessons and experience with us in the West.


About Mayor of Fremantle Brad Pettitt's blog
City of Fremantle Mayor

4 Responses to Local Government Reform: Lessons from the West

  1. Paula Amaral says:

    I’ve been told on good authority that the idea for the WA amalgamation came from UWA’s then vice-chancellor, because the uni grounds spread over 3 different councils, and they ( university) wanted to deal with one council only.
    When the idea was floated to the State government, someone at that meeting just said “we might as well do the whole city of Perth”, and off they went.
    No thinking, no preparation, “let’s just do it” kind of attitude.
    Which explains the shambles it turned out to be.

  2. Phillip Blight says:

    It is interesting Mayor Petit that, of all the Mayors and Presidents and others qualified to speak in WA, you are the one asked to speak on this subject to the Green dominated state of Tassie.
    I hope that you made it clear in your presentation that this was your opinion of what transpired, not necessarily how everyone in WA saw it.

    • I am not sure the apolitical Local Government Association of Tasmania would quite see it the same way Phil but I’d be fascinated to hear how you saw it differently from a Wagin perspective. I tried to be as even handed as possible but open to feedback. Cheers

  3. Mark Taylor says:

    No matter which side of the issue of LG reform, or which side of politics for that matter, nobody should wish that kind of shambolic process on another state. The key points that Brad mentions here would be good advice in almost any change process: be evidence based, explain the rationale, look to the detail, and be decisive.

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