Local government or bureaucratic symbolism?

One of the advantages of our federal system is that local governments ensure that local issues are addressed by political representatives who are closest to the people. But recent fires and floods prove that council mergers have replaced political representation with bureaucratic symbolism that falls short of local expectations.

Last week I was interviewed about the financial situation challenges facing NSW councils surrounding the ACT. Especially, Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council launched a public consultation program to examine ways to increase rates deal with rising costs before requesting a Special variant to the NSW government Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART).

In New South Wales, local government rate increases are ‘ankle‘ by IPART. At this time, councils cannot increase rates by more than 2% without asking IPART for a special variation above the fixed rate. The Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council (QPRC) is consulting with voters before requesting a special amendment under IPART rules, which take into account “the level of awareness in the community and how effectively the council manages its finances “.

QPRC was formed as part of a voluntary merger of NSW local governments under the Baird Coalition government in 2016. The merger save money of about $13 million over ten years based on the board’s own estimates, with KPMG estimating more than $17 million in profit over the same period.

But recently newly elected QPRC Mayor Kendrick Winchester cried poor and started the community consultation asking for a special variant to be implemented. three potential tariff increase scenarioswhich will see the prices increase either:

    • 12% each year for three years,
    • 18% each year for three years, or
    • 28% the first year, 25% the second year and 23% the third year.

    Each scenario has different service impacts, with Scenario 3 being the only scenario where the board feels it can deliver service and maintenance levels that meet community expectations.

    In 2004 the Carr Labor government forcibly merged the NSW regional councils despite winning the 2003 election on a promise not to. Nearly 20 years later, the failure of this policy is realizing itself.

    In general, board mergers promised to reduce costs and improve services. But rising inflation and material costs, severe fires, a global pandemic and recent flooding have not helped local governments provide services or perform adequate maintenance. Until recently councils in the southern region of New South Wales were working with surpluses ranging from 1 to 12%, so it is clear that the problem is not systemic. The QPRC operated with salary expenditures around 10% lower than other neighboring councils, so the potential for outsourcing or other cost-cutting measures is moot.

    Although comparative financial results after 2020 are not readily available, rising costs and a series of road-damaging fires, floods and rains have undoubtedly eaten up most councils’ modest surpluses. But NSW regional councils still charge significantly less for fares compared to nearby ACT fares.

    Homeownership rates in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) are much higher than those in southern New South Wales. But Canberrans tend to receive a much higher level of service and better access to high-quality infrastructure compared to regional towns and rural communities within local government areas (LGAs) of NSW. It really is a case of “you get what you pay for”.

    Take for example Gundaroo in the Yass Valley Council region. While property values ​​are close to Canberra’s, Gundaroo has no running water or sewage system, and residents rely on water and septic systems to provide what Canberra residents expect. normally services provided by the territorial government.

    When Queanbeyan voluntarily merged with Palerang, the council also took on the added cost of rural roads in addition to an otherwise regional operation of the city. For the QPRC, the problem is exacerbated by the combination of trying to provide city amenities while accommodating rural realities.

    Regional LGAs in NSW are diverse and represent a variety of communities ranging from towns and cities with surrounding rural areas such as Goulburn-Mulwaree and Yass Valley, to large sparsely populated rural areas such as the Upper Lachlan Shire. But recent events call into question the rationale for mergers, especially when those mergers have been imposed on taxpayers.

    Local councils can do little without the support of state and federal governments, especially when it comes to addressing rain damage to major local roads. The Upper Lachlan Shire, Yass Valley and Queanbeyan Palerang councils, in particular, have major regional roads that allow residents to access the ACT. Many of these roads are effectively impassable to conventional passenger vehicles at the time of writing.

    The problem was highlighted recently when a traffic incident on the Barton Freeway near Canberra forced motorists to use regional roads back onto the Hume Freeway. Northbound traffic was heavy and many conventional vehicles were parked on the narrow shoulders to repair flat tires resulting from the potholes. Normal things for area residents, but not what one would expect under normal road conditions indoors Hello of the national capital.

    A major issue for local councils is the anguish experienced by residents following bushfires and, more recently, floods. There are growing calls from residents of southern New South Wales for local councils to be demerged.

    When your village is flooded and four days later, you ask the mayor: “Where was the council? And the answer is: “We weren’t aware of the flood…” The local council system is clearly failing citizens. And such a lack of trust in local government can lead to its very demise.

    Wingecarribee County Council is currently in administration after the councilors were sacked in 2021. Wingecarribee will remain in administration until the 2024 election. Infighting and a toxic culture were responsible for the council’s inability to function, but it emerged during the public inquiry that, in the ‘black summer bushfire wake‘, the advice ‘just wasn’t there’. A similar situation is emerging following the recent floods.

    The biggest challenge in delivering local services is that someone has to pay. Either taxpayers pay higher rates or other savings or revenue increases must occur at the state or federal level to cover the shortfall. Council mergers were supposed to solve these problems, but recent experience in New South Wales confirms 2016 research which has demonstrated that board mergers do not deliver on their promises.

    In the small village of Gunning, Council’s response to recent flooding which affected high street businesses has been slow and generally seen as inadequate. Disamalgamation is back on the agenda as the rumor mill races with gossip about the Council’s dire financial situation, proposed asset disposals and lack of maintenance of local spillway flood gates contributing to the emergence of the flood amid fears that the already -sparse local services will be further cut.

    Natural disasters reveal the inadequacy of local government in Australia. Well-paid bureaucrats hold the reins, and local government centers are increasingly concentrated in remote towns. Mergers have taken the “local” out of local government.

    Our local elected officials receive honoraria for their symbolic role while being held accountable for emergency responses over which they have no effective control. Meanwhile, unelected bureaucrats are responsible for budgets already overstretched to the point that a small village on the outskirts of their perimeter barely attracts attention.

    Bringing back the “local” requires a serious rethink of the functioning and financing of local authorities in Australia. The current system is failing us and only the federal and state governments have the ability to make it work. A survey of the function and funding of local governments in Australia in the post-fire, post-pandemic and post-flood period is now due. Citizens deserve nothing less.

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