Friday, May 08, 2015

Politics, as does Nature, abhors a vacuum: What defines political reality in local government reform in Tasmania?

After the dust of the talking tour around Tasmania’s Councils has long settled, after each Council has gone into committee to talk it over, it appears the Minister’s desires for wholesale amalgamation may have to go unappeased if local reporting of Council decisions across the State is considered any reasonable evidence.

So it begs the question of how what appeared to be a straightforward policy process has skewed off the path local government was expected to follow?

Some Councils are willing to entertain each chipping in up to $50,000 of ratepayer’s money for Treasury-chosen consultants to explore some of the possibilities around amalgamation.  Note that such support has been hinged around with all sorts of caveats on top of the Minister’s expressed four aims.  And that’s not to say the votes were unanimous in those Councils either.  A number of Mayors pointed out there needed to be some agreed guiding principles and outcomes before actually entering into any consultancy process.  So here’s the Minister expecting consultancies to commence according to his timeframe, and that timeframe already looks like being derailed.

(For the record and in the interests of transparency, I’ve voted against amalgamation, arguing it’s waste of money and people’s lives in pursuing an already disproved policy idea, but hey, you’ve probably picked up by now the long view I’ve managed to develop after sixteen years in local government and not been surprised by my initial vote.  So cards on the table, having read the peer-reviewed and industry evidence and comment from the last 150 years or so of local government reform, I’m in favour of a different approach other than just amalgamation in the Tasmanian context.  While it is the underlying subtext of these blogs, I’ll make this clear now, if new evidence arises, I’m open to reconsideration.  Life’s too short to be hard and fast where people’s lives and communities are at stake.)

Now Minister Gutwein made it very clear in the Treasury PowerPoint road show (see,_MP,_Minister_for_Planning_and_Local_Government_PowerPoint_Presentation_at_Voluntary_Council_Amalgamations_Regional_Meetings_Feb_2015.pdf ) he had no belief in the capacity of shared services to work or it was any preferred path he or his preferred consultants wanted to dally on.  The frank and fearless advice of Treasury was that evidence was lacking of any effectiveness in this approach, it was crisis-driven, had few cost-benefit analyses to back it up and lacked strategic direction.  Neither did he as the elected Minister see just a few amalgamations as any evidence of success for his government within his timeframes (see ) especially where there is the strong risk of cash-strapped smaller Councils creating larger entities with similar problems or even larger Council subsuming smaller ones to share their debt load.  The 2009 Glamorgan-Spring Bay/Break ‘O Day process has left its scars on the collective Treasury psyche (see ).

So guess what has eventuated? 

After the road show left town and debates back in Council chambers were had, preliminary reports to the Minister suggest that 16 out of 24 Councils, especially the strongly rural ones, now want to look at strategic shared services as well as amalgamations.  Only the largest, Hobart and Launceston, seem in any way favourable regarding amalgamation. 

(Creating two very large Councils that would take up most of the politically volatile seats of Bass and Denison seems a risky proposition given our Hare-Clark driven State elections; that’s another blog another time save to comment that if major parties are having trouble coping with minor parties and independents now, creating future political spaces for more politically ambitious players to springboard out of local government is hardly the stuff of wise moves.)

The President of the Local Government Association of Tasmania, Mayor Barry Jarvis (Dorset Council), started 2015 with the comment local government believed “a lot of resource sharing has been through necessity rather than strategic...We believe resource sharing should be bigger, so whether it’s on a regional or statewide basis, that’s what we need to look at.”  It was even something to be considered in a national context.  (The Examiner, 16/1/2015, p. 14)

It seems that smaller councils believe they have more to lose from amalgamations and have acted accordingly.  Meander Valley, Northern Midlands and West Tamar are particularly keen to benchmark strategic shared services and have extended an invitation for Kentish and Latrobe to join in.  George Town is keen to be a part of this also, “as a defence against amalgamations” as was reported in The Examiner (20/4/15, p. 7). 

Waratah-Wynyard, King Island, Burnie City, Circular Head and West Coast Councils have created their own “Murchinson Plan” for resource and service sharing, “not looking to amalgamate at this point” as the Mayor of Circular Head, Darrell Quillam, was reported in The Examiner (23/4/15, p. 10).  Better access to services for money spent is a strong driver in the more remote areas of Tasmania, if the reporting is anything to read.

Kingborough doesn’t want to marry Hobart, rather preferring the rural charms of Huon Valley, however Huon Valley has rejected such advances and instead wants to look at boundary adjustments (presumably taking in the more rural parts of Kingborough’s Channel area). 

Smaller councils Tasman, Brighton, Sorell, Southern Midlands and Huon Valley have all been reported as starting “efficiency moves that could head off mergers” with a Common Services Model (The Mercury, 11/2/15, p. 12; 12/2/15, p. 4).  In the words of Mayor Tony Foster of Brighton Council, “I haven’t met anyone who says we should be merging.  The noise seems to be coming from cities where they pay higher rates.  If the noise is in the cities, get the cities to fix the problem”.  Now, is Mayor Foster really referring to where the Property Council’s membership is largely located, noting their active campaigning in past years for amalgamation via its front organisation, Tasmanians For Reform?  

Certainly someone has the journalistic ear of those that thunder pro-amalgamation from the editorial and political reporting pulpits of The Mercury and The Examiner.

Flinders Island Council rejected outright any idea of amalgamation, indicating that the $380 airfare off the island was prohibitive, and especially as they already buy in services as needed. 

(Mind you, this would be an ideal set up for virtual meeting attendance now the NBN is being rolled out.  Sadly the Minister is totally opposed to such an idea, thus isolating Flinders and King Island from any amalgamation prospect in the better interests of their ratepayers and dooming West Coast and Central Highland staff and Councillors to travel treacherous winter roads to get to work and appointments with their ratepayers.) 

And here’s a comment from Devonport City Council Alderman Justine Keay (The Advocate, 30/1/15, p. 7): “I think we need to talk about local government reform in a way that creates a large council responsible for the financials across the region and the works area, and then you can still have local councils make their own decisions”. 

Councillor Shane Broad of Central Coast stated any move towards a Greater Braddon Council would result in the politicisation of Tasmania’s local government (i.e. party-dominated and voting along party lines), with larger Councils becoming mini-state governments.  (The Advocate, 27/1/2015, p. 11)  “The size of a greater Braddon council would also mean that small communities would struggle to be heard or represented.”

West Coast Mayor Phil Vickers, quoted in The Examiner (4/1/2015, p. 13) made the point that he worked in local government in 1993 when council amalgamations were last successful.  The “West Coast went from three separate Councils to one.  Even back then there was definitely no clear indication of any real benefit to the community.”

Any conclusions, Minister?

So what is this telling us, the mere public, about what is driving local government behavioural preferences vis a vis amalgamations and shared services? 

And what then can we logically conclude from most of the 29 Councils delivering shared services in common with their geographical neighbours?

If Councils are intent on shared service delivery over amalgamations, does it beg the question this a trend capable of being replicated for the many similar services delivered across the State? 

And, for me, the real question becomes whether these are, by a large, the same services the Tasmanian State government was originally set up in 1901 under the Australian Constitution to deliver?  I refer you to my earlier blog

Remember, once local government delivered all sorts of services that the State now does.  What changed?  We did.  Transport, telecommunications, community demographics, electoral rights, economies of scope and scale, etc. etc.

And to get to the point of it all...

So it brings me to today’s little academic discourse on power.  My previous blog introduced you to Flyvberg’s ten propositions.  Today I want to make sense of what is going on by exploring Proposition One: Power defines reality, as a means of understanding what is, and is not, happening with reform of Tasmania’s local government in 2015.

Given how many small Councils are wanting to go down the non-preferred line of resource sharing, rather than amalgamation, the question is does evident power define the current reality?

By evident, I mean the State government’s constitutional and legislative power over local government.  It is said the State can make local government disappear overnight.  Hence the oft-quoted “creature of the State” comment you hear around the local government traps.  And yet, it hasn’t happened.  We just get endless rounds of reform.

As an elected Minister in an elected State government, Minister Gutwein believes he has the power to define the reality of the current reform process.  He has done so, down to the consultants, timeframes and the preferred outcome.  See again

In particular, he has often stated that amalgamation will only take place if it is in the interests of ratepayers, would improve service levels, would maintain local representation and would strengthen the financial status of those local government entities wanting to amalgamate.

So it seems fairly clear that the power to create the reality of amalgamated local government in Tasmania resides with the Minister’s preferred policy process alone.

And then again, does it?

Some in local government believe the power for change lies with the State yet they are clearly mixed on whether power equates to success.  Burnie City Council, for example, was reported (The Advocate, 2/1/2015, p. 3) as saying “State government leadership will be needed if council amalgamations are to occur”, wanting to advise Minister Gutwein that “past experience in working towards voluntary amalgamations demonstrates that leadership is required from the state government to ensure all parties remain committed to the process”.  Curiously it also noted the failed State government push in 1998 for forced mergers had hit strong community opposition, as well as contributing to the downfall of the Liberal government of the day.  So wasn’t the Rundle Liberal State government displaying leadership?  Yes, but of the top down, we’ll dictate the process and how we see the outcome, leadership. 

The events of 1998-1999 have already been well documented in other places, save to say every State government since then has backed voluntary, rather than State imposed, mergers.  It would seem then that the power that is deciding the policy reality of Tasmanian local government reform is not located at the State level; rather it more found at the local level, and not just only in the institutions of local government.

So what does the public think?

Viewing letters to editorial pages, the writers range from strong support for local government to weak, from viewing local councils as mini-empires in need of toppling, as financially wasteful, as unable to organise a chook raffle.  Amalgamations are seen as a viable solution for creating larger-scale operations and efficiencies in service delivery. 

Yet these same ratepayers and industry lobby groups also decry the creation of TasWater (a now whole of State water and sewerage service entity once managed by local government) now that everyone is starting to pay similar fees for water infrastructure across the State and for fixing up the works that smaller regional councils were unable to pay for. 

And then some consider that the delivery of services should be the same for everyone in the State and see amalgamations as the means of delivering that.  One noted (The Mercury, 10/12/2014, p. 19) that “if the Tamar Valley Councils were merged, all we will notice will be reduced representation, reduced services and loss of local identity unless we live in Launceston...Local government is the level of government closest to the people and change, if it is necessary, should only come from within and never be imposed by a higher level of government”.

Lots of mixed messages there. 

If you were the Minister, listening to and trying to make sense of conflicting public comments while being visited by various lobbyists, and at the same time trying to stick to what you believed in, you too might be tempted to take a very single view in order to progress further a set of politically driven, election-timetabled, goals.  Sitting in Parliament, there is the strong temptation to believe you have power to effect the sorts of changes important to why you stood in the first place.

So, to conclude

If power defines reality and we posit power as being solely with the Minister, what then can we predict for this current round of reform?

If the Minister pushes down a timeline coercing reluctant smaller councils to act, there is every likelihood resistance will mount in small communities.  After all, there is one of him and 200 plus elected people in local government.  In reality, they get to talk to a whole lot more voters a whole lot more often than he ever will.

If the Minister fails to meet his deadlines for reform, there is every likelihood political opponents will present this as weakness and failure, and act accordingly in their best interests.

If the Minister’s process reveals that amalgamation will not be in the best interest of ratepayers, etc etc (his four pre-set objectives, see above), then significant monies will have been forgone by local government communities, and this negative news at the local level will reflect upwards, and be seized upon by political opponents.

I could go on.  But there is another reality.

If power defines reality, and the reality is that power does not reside wholly with the State government, but also with local government and the community to effect meaningful reform and change, then there another reality that might well achieve the Minister’s four pre-set objectives, not just at the local level, but also Statewide.

Let’s reword them a little and place them in the context of reform of service delivery by both State and local governments working together to reassess how each can work smarter:

  • Best interests of Tasmanians
  • Improve service levels statewide
  • Maintain effective representation
  • Strengthen Tasmania’s financial status

Now, wouldn’t that be a legacy?

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