BACK in July 2012, an Independent Local Government Review Panel in the early stages of the NSW government’s review of local councils had this to say about the task at hand.
“Boundary changes and council amalgamations have been one of the principal avenues of local government reform in all parts of Australia and internationally,” the panel said in its first report.
“In most cases, councils have strongly resisted such changes and sooner or later central governments have intervened to force major restructuring."
Three years on, and the essential truth of that second sentence must surely be hitting home to Premier Mike Baird, who inherited the Coalition’s Fit for the Future policy from his predecessor, Barry O’Farrell.
Deliberately or not, the government used the time-honoured method of dealing with bad news – the pre-Christmas dump – to release its plan to cut the number of NSW councils from 152 to 112. Sydney councils would be cut from 43 to 25. Elsewhere, the numbers go from 109 to 87.
Having used the 2012 review panel to get the ball rolling, the government called in the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal in April this year to “consider [the various merger] proposals independently and ensure a consistent, fair and impartial assessment”.
It was IPART, then, that crunched the numbers and came out with a report in October that recommended mergers between Lake Macquarie and Newcastle, and Maitland and Dungog.
Now, just two months later after taking another round of submissions from councils and the public, the government has opted instead for mergers between Newcastle and Port Stephens, and Dungog and Gloucester.
And these are far from isolated cases. Across the state, the government’s proposals vary dramatically from the IPART recommendations, making one wonder why they called for its opinions in the first place.
When I asked the office of Local Government Minister Paul Toole this week for some detail behind the Hunter Region switcheroos, I was told that “a full analysis of each proposal will be released in early January”.
Otherwise, the proposed mergers considered the views of IPART, the review panel, consulting firm KPMG – which has been providing advice to councils and the Office of Local Government – the councils and the community, while considering “the unique needs of each council and [the] characteristics of each council area”.
I was provided with fact sheets for the two Hunter mergers, which propose almost identical benefits in terms of rates, infrastructure, savings and government funding injections.
Indeed, the fact sheets for all 35 new council bodies are effectively cut-and-paste jobs, and none of the information provided explained why the government had departed so dramatically from the picture presented in October by IPART.
As Sydney Morning Herald journalist Anne Davies recently remarked, the proposed council mergers will test all of Baird’s much-vaunted political skills. The longer the process continues, the more it looks like the sort of policy that Sir Humphrey Appleby would describe as “courageous”.
Political junkies might be salivating at the impending clash between Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes and the King (alright, Mayor) of Port Stephens, Bruce MacKenzie, but the prospect of their two councils becoming bogged down in trench warfare does not augur well for good governance in the meantime.
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