OPINION: Amalgamations help developers but damage democracy
AMALGAMATION of local government has been a desire of conservative state governments for years - as demonstrated by the Victorian amalgamations under Jeff Kennett.
However in New South Wales, while supporting it, the Liberal Government has not done so before, probably because it knows it is deeply unpopular with voters.
Now it's encouraging councils to 'voluntarily' amalgamate, with the threat of forced amalgamation if they don't.
The most frequent public argument in favour of amalgamation is that it's more efficient and delivers savings. However, research over many years, here and overseas, has shown this is dubious.
What amalgamation definitely does is reduce the democratic representation of residents because there are far fewer representatives for a much larger area.
It also sees a reduction in women's and independents' representation because one of the strongest factors in their being elected is being known in their local community.
Once areas are enlarged, that advantage disappears, and campaigning becomes more costly for candidates.
Local government was the first Australian form of government, yet it's not recognised in our Constitution and has the narrowest range of responsibilities in the world
This facilitates the election of candidates who are either well-heeled or, more likely, supported by political parties and their resources.
Who are the main beneficiaries of such a move? I suggest it's those in the development industry who have lobbied for years to reduce the influence of pesky locals.
An example of how this influence has already paid dividends is the removal from local government's determination of any developments considered to be of state significance, which almost inevitably sees unpopular developments approved.
The further the decision-maker from the development, the less likely it is that local voices are heard.
Local government was the first Australian form of government, yet it's not recognised in our Constitution and has the narrowest range of responsibilities in the world.
Yes, it's facing financial difficulties, but not of its making. For example, the fuel excise was initiated to improve roads and a large proportion was to be returned directly to local government because it's responsible for most roads.
Instead, only a fraction came back - and now the buzz-word for how the increased excise will be spent is 'infrastructure'. I'm sure we know where that will go.
Other examples are the devolution to local government of services without the commensurate allocation of funds, and increased reporting requirements that often need additional staffing - again with no funds provided.
A solution to local government's financial problems is for it to be recognised as a level of government, involved appropriately in government decisions about funding, and allocated the resources to do its job properly.
It's certainly not to ignore residents' wishes and impose more remote and smaller decision-making bodies on communities that already believe they're not being heard.
* Dr ROS IRWIN is a former Lismore Mayor, councillor and a former lecturer in political science at Southern Cross University.