Local Government Amendment Bill 2013

Date: 

Wed, 19/02/2014

HON ROBIN CHAPPLE (Mining and Pastoral) [8.23 pm]: I think we need to put on the record that the Greens (WA) will not be supporting these amendments because, in essence, the amendments are about deceit. We only need to go to the fifth paragraph of the second reading speech, which reads —

The Liberal–National government has decided not to legislate for new local government boundaries. Instead, the government will use the mechanisms —

That is, deceit —

already available in the Local Government Act 1995.

This bill contains provisions for the reform of the local government sector that were required, according to the minister, to strengthen the structural viability of local government. The minister has failed to explain what is meant by “structural viability”. I am at a loss to understand why structural viability matters more than social, cultural or indeed financial viability. I was a former councillor for the Town of Port Hedland, and one of the things that the Town of Port Hedland always suffered with was economics due to state agreement acts and the ability to have a rate base.

It is something that is still going on out there. I am mindful that my own Shire of Derby/West Kimberley cannot now attract up to 18 officers because it is financially not capable of paying for them. Yes; fine; it is supposedly all about structural viability.

The minister referred to the fact that Western Australia is the only Australian state that has not yet achieved structural reform, but the proposal fails to refer to the experiences of other states that have already gone through such reforms—for example, Victoria, and I will quote some material, but not yet. The Centre for Local Government at the University of New England evaluated local government amalgamations in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania and came up with the following conclusions. Regarding Victoria, it stated in its working paper —

Real savings from Victorian council mergers have been assessed at about eight to nine per cent ... The Kennett government regularly stated that huge savings from amalgamations of up to $400 million had been achieved. Yet Australian Bureau of Statistics figures comparing Victorian local government operational expenditure between 1991–92 and 1996–97 in real terms suggested that operating costs had increased so that strong grounds existed to argue that local communities had not made any substantial economic gains ... Other factors associated with the reform process had additional cost implications and distracted staff away from their normal duties into areas in which they had little training and experience, complicating the establishment of new service levels and increasing the burden on already diminished council resources ...

The conclusions on the South Australian local government reform state —

The South Australian Local Government Association sponsored Inquiry took place seven years after the South Australian local government amalgamations process and it is noteworthy that the FSRB —

That is, the South Australia Financial Sustainability Review Board —

reported that there was not a strong relationship between a councils size and having a strong financial position or good annual performance. Further, the size and density of councils seemed to play little role in explaining the differences in the sustainability of the long-term financial performance and position of South Australian councils ... The FSRB also suggested that fewer, larger councils were not a panacea, that amalgamation brought considerable costs and often exaggerated benefits, and that there were intermediate forms of cooperation or integration between councils with amalgamation being the most extreme and confronting ...

In Canada, the Commissioner on the Future of Local Governance used the term “viability”—a term we have heard mentioned—when talking about the ability of communities to develop and sustain themselves effectively over time. Again I quote —

A viable local government ...

·          Governs and democratically represents the interests of its community with significant community support and involvement

·          Carries out administrative, service and infrastructure responsibilities in accordance with provincial legislation and local by-laws.

·          Provides necessary services and infrastructure at reasonable costs

·          Funds services from local resources and through partnerships

·          Contributes actively to the demographic, social, cultural, environmental and economic well-being of its community

Those were the drivers, not some mystical fiscal ideology that seems to be coming out of the Premier’s office. It continues —

A local government is less viable when it has ...

·          A small or declining tax base

·          A lack of land available for industrial, commercial and residential growth

·          A small, aging, and / or declining population

·          Continuing council conflicts, or a lack of interest in the community and/or its council

Certainly, that is something that has been acknowledged in Queensland with the amalgamations of councils there. People have lost connection with their councils. The New Brunswick fact sheet continues —

·          A lack of adequate staff

As I just mentioned, that is a problem facing many of our rural councils —

·          Difficulties in providing the full range and level of services required under legislation and by residents, at reasonable costs

·          A lack of cooperation with other local governments

Again, we have seen much progress within the administration of local governments whereby we are now sharing infrastructure and managing our fiscal issues better that way. However, that has been by a voluntary process and not by some form of forced amalgamation. The fact sheet went on to state —

·          Increasing the population base

·          Accommodating future growth

·          Increasing interest in serving on council

·          Obtaining better administration services (more capacity to hire adequate staff)

·          Reducing costs by avoiding duplication of services and/or by achieving economies of scale

These are the sorts of things that WALGA has been very much pursuing and, indeed, many councils have taken them on board —

...

·          Providing for required infrastructure, facilities and equipment

·          Increasing financial stability by combining tax bases and by strengthening and diversifying the economic base

I would be really grateful if, at some stage, the minister responsible for local government could enlighten me on whether these viability criteria have been considered or are even relevant to WA. What criteria were used to determine the lack of viability? According to the Minister for Local Government, WA local governments are characterised by a high level of bureaucracy, decreased efficiency and ever-increasing costs to the WA ratepayers. I would appreciate more details on what local councils he is referring to in this assessment. It seems that a lot of glib words are being spoken about what can be achieved, but without any base information. It is an ideological view that we should amalgamate councils. I will go back to amalgamation shortly, as well as many of the debates that occurred around 1975 when the Dadour provisions were brought in. It would be really important if the minister representing the Minister for Local Government in her response can identify where the problems with decreased efficiency, which the minister referred to in his statement, seem to lie.

According to the minister, the outcome of this reform aims to facilitate an efficient and well-regulated system of local government that is responsive to the needs of the community today and in the future. It is a very, very good statement because the key words there are “responsive to the needs of the community today and into the future”. Now the community across the board is saying, “We do not want forced amalgamations.” I know members opposite will say that there are no forced amalgamations in this, but we are using smoke and mirrors; we are using stealth fighters. It is just amazing that we can go through a process that is against the very principle that was established in 1975 when we implemented the Dadour provisions.

It appears that three key performance indicators are the preferred outcomes of the government reform—namely, efficiency, being well regulated and being responsive to the needs of the community. This bill gives significant independence for major decisions about the restructure of local government in the metro area to the Local Government Advisory Board. This is an independent statutory body established to advise government on local government matters. Its main role is to assess any proposals and provide recommendations to government about their merit. Currently, this board consists of five members. The board will in future consist of nine members, including two members representing the interests of the community and two appointed from a proposed list by WALGA.

The Western Australian Local Government Association proposal will make a number of recommendations to the minister and the minister will cherrypick out of those recommendations. One would suggest that the minister will cherrypick people who are more or less supportive of his ideology.

We are fully supportive of the idea of more community involvement in this process and, indeed, of eventually having a larger board. However, the board should maintain its independence, which really depends on who is appointed to the board. The board members and the minister have significant influence here in choosing all the members of the board, who sit for a five-year term. I acknowledge that the WALGA representatives are chosen from a list of candidates that went through a WALGA selection process, but the minister is free to select candidates who are supportive of his political agenda. Also, the appointment of new direct community representatives is not clear. Can people self-nominate? Can elected groups propose people? What criteria would a candidate have to fulfil to become an eligible board member? I hope that the minister will be able to expand on how that will occur in the future. I saw the debacle when Elizabeth Carr was appointed to the board of the Environmental Protection Authority by the minister. We then found out that she was fully conflicted as she had been part of the government agency that had processed the same liquefied natural gas development proposal that she then sat and deliberated on as a board member of the EPA. Therefore, we know appointments can be flawed.

Another committee involved in the local government restructure process is the Metropolitan Reform Implementation Committee, which was established by the minister to provide advice and oversight for the amalgamation of local governments and held its first meeting on 29 August 2013. Members of the Metropolitan Reform Implementation Committee are local government representatives, the director general of the Department of Local Government and Communities, the Western Australian Local Government Association and Local Government Managers Australia WA. It is really important for the minister to clarify the relationship that will exist between the Metropolitan Reform Implementation Committee and the Local Government Advisory Board into the future. How will they work together? Are they in competition? What will happen there?

The Local Government Act, as we know, contains the Dadour provision. Nothing has been done to change the Dadour provision, which allows the voice of electors to be heard and gives a veto right to electors if 50 per cent of participants object to a proposal and a participation rate of 50 per cent is reached. This provision is not proposed to be changed by the bill. I want to go back and enlighten people on what was identified in 1975 when Dr Dadour introduced the provisions. Dr Dadour was a former Liberal and then an Independent member who was very, very well respected in the community. He was a founding member of the Subiaco —

Hon Ken Travers: Local GP!

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: Yes, he was a local GP and a founding member of the Subiaco Football Club, if I am right. I know very little about football. It is important to quote some of the things that Dr Dadour said when introducing the amendment. He said —

The important thing, as far as I am concerned, is that democracy still lives with this Bill of ours because under it people will have the right, by referendum, to learn where they stand. In this way we will maintain the true democratic system of the three tiers of government as we know them.

Something that the Greens hold very, very dear —

If the Federal Government interferes with the State Government boundaries, it is God help it. If the State Government starts interferring with local government boundaries, the local authorities should be given the same authority the State Government has in respect of its boundaries.

We told the people we would submit this amendment and we are honouring our obligation. It is only right that this legislation should be introduced.

A number of local authorities have stuck together through this fight for an amendment. They are the City of Subiaco, the Town of Claremont, the Town of Cottesloe, the Town of East Fremantle, the Town of Mosman Park, the Shire of Peppermint Grove, and the Shire of Bassendean.

I must commend the town of East Fremantle because the Johnston report recommended that the town be almost doubled or trebled in size to include parts of Fremantle and other neighbourhood authorities. Despite this, the Town of East Fremantle stuck to its guns and it still supports the Bill. This will probably jeopardise its ever getting the extra lands virtually offered to it under the Johnston report.

It is important at this point to add another piece to this debate. There have been many attempts to amalgamate local authorities. The White report of 1954 recommended two alternatives—a reduction to 11 authorities, or 19 authorities in the metropolitan area. The Local Government Assessment Committee of 1968 recommended that the number of councils in the state be reduced from 144 to 89, with the number of metropolitan councils being reduced from 27 to 17. Neither of these recommendations in the White report was implemented, and the recommendations of the Local Government Assessment Committee in 1968 were not implemented. Further, the Local Government Boundaries Commission in 1972, which was set up by Hon R.H.C Stubbs, recommended that the number of metropolitan councils be reduced from 26 to 18. That recommendation also was not implemented, because the government of the day wanted to listen to the community. Those are lovely words—listen to the community.

Hon Kate Doust: They must have had their hearing aid turned off!

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: Yes!

I will go back to what Dr Dadour had to say. He said also —

What we are doing is correct because it is right that the people should be given the opportunity to determine whether they wish to join another local authority, and if so, which one, or whether they wish to retain the status quo. That is all the Bill seeks to achieve. It seeks to amend the Act to require a petition before two or more municipal districts can be united to form one municipality; and to make it mandatory for ratepayers in districts which would be affected to be given the opportunity to demand a poll when a petition seeks certain boundary alterations, and for the alterations to be prohibited if the poll negates the proposal.

Clearly the thinking at the time was that a government should not be allowed to do away with councils or amalgamate councils. It was never anticipated that this government would, many years later, try to use the deceit of disbanding a council and then modifying the boundary, which in essence is nothing more than the amalgamation of two councils. Yet because it does not fit within the words contained in the Dadour provisions, the community is silenced and marginalised.

I will now move on from what Dr Dadour had to say about the issue to make some other points.

This reform will be implemented through boundary changes rather than amalgamations. It is to circumvent the Dadour provisions. If the amalgamation of local governments, which has been acknowledged by all governments over time, has some validity, what is the minister afraid of by listening to what the community and the councils have to say? We have certainly amalgamated Geraldton with Greenough. That went through with the community and the councils’ involvement.

Hon Ljiljanna Ravlich: I think they might have just disaggregated it.

Hon Ken Travers: We did not; they did it themselves.

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: That is right.

Hon Ken Travers: It was not the local government minister forcing it.

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: No; that is right. It was their decision.

A member interjected.

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: The issue here is that we really —

Hon Ken Travers: The National Party is supporting forced amalgamations now—unbelievable!

Hon Ljiljanna Ravlich: In the wheatbelt!

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: They will be amalgamating the Shire of Derby/West Kimberley with Kununurra shortly! We know that they are all in financial trouble up there.

Hon Ken Travers: I think we should have a forced amalgamation of the coalition!

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: We will never do that. I will move on.

The Minister for Local Government would have to be interested in the view of the community as one of the aims of reform is to meet the needs of local community. He says it is meant to meet the needs of local community, yet he is afraid to listen to local community. Having wide community support would therefore, in my view, be one of the prerequisites to achieving the goals. In the Pilbara, we have seen the Shire of East Pilbara, the Town of Port Hedland and the Shire of Ashburton come together and actually amalgamate many services. They have not amalgamated councils but they have achieved economies of scale by working together. That can be done with many metropolitan councils; they do not have to amalgamate. Councils can certainly work together to reduce costs. As I have already pointed out, previous reports into amalgamations have found that in essence they have not achieved any fiscal benefit anyway.

I have prepared an amendment—which I will now talk to briefly, although I will read it in a little later—to reinstate the intent of the Dadour provision; that is, should two councils amalgamate, which is the removal of a council, the Dadour provision remains. It is a simple word change that two councils amalgamate to be effectively one council; removing them gets the same provision as Dadour.

Hon Ken Travers: Whilst I do not necessarily oppose Hon Robin Chapple’s proposed amendment, I do not think it is necessary. If the member goes to the Northern Land Council case, it will be found that the government incorrectly —

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: I am coming to that shortly.

Hon Ken Travers: But to put it beyond doubt it may be worth supporting Hon Robin Chapple’s proposed amendment, but I do not accept the premise of what the government is doing will be found to be legal anyway.

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: We will go to Toohey in a minute; I will cover that shortly. Quite clearly that is what the problem will be. If the government accepts the amendment, it is great—it will not have Toohey coming down on it like a tonne of bricks—but if it does not accept the amendment, we will see them in the courts.

Hon Ken Travers: It reminds me very much of its native title legislation.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Hon Simon O’Brien): Order! Hon Robin Chapple is trying to address the Chair and Hon Ken Travers, who will no doubt seek the call, is distracting him. Hon Robin Chapple, when you are ready.

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: Thank you, Mr Deputy President. Yes, I am ready to resume.

The idea is section 8 of the Local Government Act 1995, schedule 2.1: to reduce the minimum number of districts to be affected from two to one. This will ensure that in any case of amalgamation that results from the termination of one local government body, the electors are to be heard upon the request and can veto the dismissal by boundary or go through the whole thing through a proper process of amalgamation of two or more councils.

I have already drawn the attention of the house to the motivation of Dr Dadour when he proposed the amendments in 1975 and I have already read in what he had to say about this. Those commitments still ring true and it is quite interesting going back over the whole debate that it was actually the opposition of the day, and I am not having a shot at anybody here, that was actually looking at amalgamations and it was the Liberal government that was bringing in regulations to stop amalgamation and to enshrine the Dadour provision. I just hope members on the government side understand the history behind this.

Hon Ken Travers: When are you claiming that to be?

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: It was 1975.

The Dadour provisions were amended several times and I hope my proposal to strengthen the Dadour provisions for this reason finds good support.

On 5 February the local government minister launched an online reform toolkit preparing both practitioners and elected members with tailor-made information stepping them through the process in the lead-up to July 2015. The project, managed by the Western Australian Local Government Association, was jointly developed by three partners including the Department of Local Government and Communities, Local Government Managers Australia and WALGA. The toolkit contains principles as guidance for the transitional period: embrace opportunity and strive for best practice; attract and retain quality staff and develop career opportunities; engage the community and work together; increase local government capacity and improve community outcomes; reduce local government bureaucracy and streamline systems; and deliver open and transparent communication. Those are the sorts of things we really should be focusing on in local government rather than this notion that amalgamation will be the panacea for everything. On 4 February 2014, one day before the toolkit came out, the Local Government Advisory Board invited public submissions on 34 proposals submitted during the metropolitan local government reform process. The LGAB received 21 proposals from local government, 12 from the Minister for Local Government and one from the electors of the City of Cockburn. The closing date for public comment on the submissions is Thursday, 13 March 2014.

I remember quite a while ago going to a meeting of local government managers, it was very early on in the piece, and the words being bandied around in the very early days of amalgamation were, “We are going to force amalgamation.” There was a great deal of fear among councils that unless they put forward an amalgamation proposal, they would be sidelined. Therefore, many of those amalgamation proposals came forward because of the threat, not because of a genuine desire. I find it really untenable that in the early part of the debate, when there was all this talk about forced amalgamation, we were actually coercing or forcing councils to put forward amalgamation proposals.

WALGA and the overwhelming majority of the local government sector in WA supports the need for reform, and that is stated in many WALGA documents, but they are adamant that the participation needs to be voluntary to ensure community support and to help enhance the prospects of any changes being sustainable for the long term.

One only has to look around the world—that sounds like a Blues Brothers’ comment that goes something like, “You only have to look around the round, round world”—to see that at any time governments or local governments are forced to do something that they are not interested in doing, they do not end up with a good result. They end up with internal conflict and a lack of desire to progress because they do not have that level of —

Hon Helen Morton: You have never had to push anything through. You have never been in government where you have had to make something happen.

Several members interjected.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Hon Simon O’Brien): Order! Hon Robin Chapple has the call.

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: Thank you, Mr Deputy President. I must apologise to the member opposite, because I am not wearing my headphones—I have made this comment often—I find interjections very difficult to hear. So keep them coming because I cannot hear them!

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I can hear interjections and they are unruly. Hon Robin Chapple will be allowed to continue his remarks without them.

Hon ROBIN CHAPPLE: The bill also proposes other minor changes to the Local Government Act 1995, so in some regards it is a bit of an omnibus bill because it will tidy up a number of other issues. The bill makes provisions on the limitations of severance pay to local government employees who lose their jobs in a restructure. Permanent employees will get compensation equivalent to two years’ pay. For other employees, compensation is limited to one year’s salary without regard to the duration of an individual contract. These provisions seem reasonable and have the support of the Greens.

I want to also comment on the proposed amendments to increase the discretion of the Local Government Standards Panel about whether a complaint is investigated. A withdrawal of complaint will no longer directly terminate an investigation. Further reasons have to be provided by the standards panel about any decisions made and will now include the rejection of a complaint as vexatious. The Greens support these changes and I hope the house will support my amendment to the Dadour provisions.

It is also important to touch on this matter and to refer to the interchange I had with Hon Ken Travers earlier. On Christmas Eve 1981, the High Court ruled in R v Toohey; Ex parte Northern Land Council that an extension of the City of Darwin made by the administrator under regulations was invalid as it was made for illegitimate purposes to defeat a native title claim instead of for planning purposes. This ruling clearly will have an impact on any such decision, and the verdict might provide good arguments against forceful amalgamation through boundary changes. It would be interesting to get a response from the minister to say whether she believes, on behalf of the Minister for Local Government, such legal action is possible in this state. Obviously, the action is only available through the court. My proposed amendment would clarify that and resolve whether future governments and/or local governments have to take legal action against the state for forced amalgamation using boundary changes.

That is all I have to say. I found it very enlightening to read the Legislative Assembly documents around Mr Dadour. It is also important to refer to one other pertinent comment made in the debate by Mr Rushton, the then Minister for Local Government, who stated —

I hasten to say that none of the metropolitan local authorities which were asking for amalgamation or the annexing of areas during the turmoil when the previous Government was in office and was attempting to bring about amalgamations has requested amalgamation at the present time.

It brings the situation into focus when it is realised that we are making provision for councils which come to agreement by negotiation to have the power to make changes, as they should have, being elected by the ratepayers; but when the decision of the councillors is not in accordance with the wishes of their neighbour who is seeking to amalgamate the ratepayers are entitled to have a say.

I consider that boundary changes are more likely to be achieved by negotiation, and this is the aim of the amendment.

That is, the amendment moved by Mr Dadour. It continues —

Previous efforts to force boundary changes have generally been unsuccessful, and I contend that people prefer to be led than to be pushed. This is what we are endeavouring to achieve with this legislation.

I hope that those words ring true to members opposite.

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