Local Government Reform: Lessons from the West
July 24, 2015 4 Comments
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.