Image Source: Fit for the Future
By Brodie Blades
What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘Council’? Are you transported to a dynamic world of smiling faces capable of efficient decision-making, logicality and world-class customer service? Or the complete opposite? If you are in the latter category, it may surprise you that today’s typical Australian local government is an organisation that is becoming increasingly cognizant of the importance of efficiency and service delivery – even so far as progressing towards a more neo-Liberal ‘business model’ operation in which the achievement of self-sufficient, financially viable organisations is of paramount importance. One method of achieving enhanced viability, cost-effectiveness and efficiency in the local government sector is through Council amalgamations.
The NSW State Government is currently exploring this issue under the ‘Fit for the Future’ program of local government amalgamations, in which NSW’s 152 Local Government Areas (LGAs) have recently been required to submit their blueprints for change in a top-down State shake-up that could see many Councils merge or close.
The NSW State Government argues that change is necessary, as more than one-third of the state’s Councils are either financially unviable or simply unable to provide the planning and regulatory capacity required to deal with unprecedented housing and infrastructure demand. Although a number of NSW’s Councils are receptive to the idea of amalgamation, most have indicated that they are opposed to the idea due to a range of issues such as an actual and perceived loss of local identity, employment opportunities and community services. This begs a key question: do Council amalgamations always result in positive outcomes, particularly for the communities that they serve?
The residents of Queensland’s Douglas, Livingston, Mareeba and Noosa Shires would certainly argue not. Although the Sunshine State is no stranger to the notion of a ‘mega-Council’ (Brisbane City Council is the largest Council area in Australia, providing municipal services to over 1 million residents), these Shires recently ‘de-amalgamated’ from their parent municipalities created by the Queensland State Government’s forced Council amalgamations in 2008. These amalgamations – which resulted in the slashing of LGAs in Queensland from 157 to 73 - led to the emergence of grassroots community movements such as the ‘Free Noosa’ movement and the ‘Capricorn Coast Independence Movement’, which ultimately escalated to form an election platform for the opposition Liberal government who promised to give Councils an opportunity to plead their case for de-amalgamation if elected. Having won government, responses were sought from affected Councils in which nineteen submissions were received and four were deemed to be financially viable. The issue was put to a referendum of local residents in each of the successful municipalities, in which the majority voted for de-amalgamation in all four instances. The Shires of Douglas, Livingston, Mareeba and Noosa were officially de-amalgamated from their parent municipalities and officially recognised as de-amalgamated, independent LGAs on 1 January 2014.
Similarly, in the wake of the Kennett Government’s 1994 Victorian Local Government amalgamations, residents in the Shire of Delatite successfully sought the de-amalgamation of the LGA into the Shires of Mansfield and Benalla after eight years of amalgamated operations. The story of Delatite’s de-amalgamation is often cited as a successful case study of bottom up resistance to forced government amalgamations, and – until the recent Queensland experience – was one of the few examples of successful municipal de-amalgamation within Australia. In more recent times, the ‘Sunbury Out of Hume’ movement is a further example of de-amalgamation that could potentially occur in Victoria in the coming months.
No doubt the experiences of the recent local government amalgamations in both Queensland and Victoria would be weighing on the minds of NSW’s communities, Councils and State Government as the State moves closer to resolution of the ‘Fit for Future’ amalgamation package. Perhaps the key lesson from the Victorian and Queensland experience is that the galvanised willpower of local communities to determine how they will be governed at the local level should be the primary guiding factor when it comes to local government in Australia. After all – regardless of efficiencies or cost-effectiveness – is community not the fundamental purpose of local government?
What have your experiences been? Have you lived or worked in a Council that was forced to amalgamate with a neighbour? What effect did it have on service delivery and efficiency? How was it received by the community?
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Fit for the Future Council Amalgamations (NSW State Government)
Queensland De-Amalgamations (Local Government Association Queensland)
Sunbury out of Hume (Hume City Council)