Local government Archive


NSW council amalgamations deadline looms

Yet another NSW government deadline looms today for local councils under the threat of amalgamation, and this time it looks likely to result in a number of significant amalgamations in Sydney and other large urban areas.

The Baird government has pursued a deliberate strategy to encourage councils to agree to amalgamations without using the full force of their legal power, through a combination of carrots (funding for councils agreeing to amalgamate) and sticks (the threat to immediately sack councils which they merge if they don’t cooperate). Up until the latest round of the process, most Sydney councils rejected amalgamation and insisted on standing alone.

With the release of the flawed Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) “Fit For the Future” report, which declared most Sydney councils to be ‘unfit’ due to their size despite giving them the tick on all financial criteria, the state government imposed today, 18 November, as another deadline for councils, with the clear threat of sacking for those councils which don’t consent to amalgamations.

It’s been very unclear as to how much power the state government has to implement amalgamations, short of passing legislation through a Legislative Council which at the moment is opposed to amalgamations. The government has some power to sack councils, and to refer changes to the boundaries commission, but whether they have the power to do this with councils which haven’t consented is unclear.

The Greens have argued that the state government doesn’t have this power, but they have also suggested it will be easier to do so if a council has given a stated preference for amalgamation, suggesting the question of the state government’s power is less clear – and clearly there are quite a few councils which don’t believe that the government doesn’t have the power to force through its agenda.

Councils have been asked to fill in a form indicating their preference for amalgamation, and they have only been given room to write 50 words explaining their decision. In numerous cases, councils have indicated that they agree to a particular amalgamation preference on the understanding that their preferred option remains to stand alone.

It’s hard to pull together information on which councils have made decisions, but here’s a summary of information I’ve found:

  • Randwick and Waverley have previously agreed to amalgamate. Woollahra remains opposed to amalgamation – while the remaining existence of a Woollahra council doesn’t cause immediate problems for a new Randwick-Waverley council, Woollahra would be an unusually small council compared to its neighbours, making it a likely target for a forced amalgamation.
  • Auburn, Burwood and Canada Bay councils have also previously agreed to amalgamate, but their amalgamation only really makes sense if Strathfield, which sits in the middle of the proposed council, is included. Strathfield is strongly opposed to any amalgamation.
  • The City of Sydney remains strongly opposed to any merger, although Marrickville has indicated a second preference to merge with Sydney.
  • Ashfield, Marrickville and Leichhardt have previously been opposed but the three councils all passed similar motions that indicate a preference for the three councils to merge, and the three mayors have met with the minister. The merger appears one of the most likely to proceed.
  • Rockdale and Kogarah councils have indicated a preference for a merger of their two councils with Hurstville to create a St George regional council. Hurstville is open to merging with Kogarah but explicitly rejects a merger with Rockdale.
  • Canterbury sits between the potential St George, Ashfield/Marrickville/Leichhardt and Auburn/Burwood/Canada Bay mergers, but is not part of any of them. It could merge with Bankstown, but it would be an awkward shape for a council. I think it’s likely Canterbury will survive unscathed.
  • The Hills council continues to campaign for a hostile takeover of its neighbour Hawkesbury, and Hawkesbury continues to resist.
  • Warringah continues to be strongly supportive of a single Northern Beaches council, taking in its northern neighbour Pittwater and southern neighbour Manly. Both its neighbours prefer to stand alone, but they have both indicated a second preference to split Warringah between them to create Greater Pittwater and Greater Manly. The planning minister, Pittwater MP Rob Stokes, has advocated for the abolish-Warringah option.
  • Holroyd remains strongly opposed to any merger, which would presumably be with Parramatta. It’s unclear where Parramatta stands on such a change.
  • There’s a series of small councils on the lower north shore, stretching from Hunters Hill to Mosman. As far as I can tell, none of them have expressed an amalgamation preference, with North Sydney gearing up for a fight.
  • The two Central Coast councils of Gosford and Wyong, which already cover quite large areas and quite large populations, have agreed to merge. This isn’t a backup option if standing alone is rejected – it’s their first preference.
  • It was previously assumed that Newcastle and Lake Macquarie were being pushed together to form a Greater Newcastle council which would take a majority of its population from Lake Macquarie, but neither council prefers that option. Lake Macquarie expressed a preference for merging with Wyong, but Wyong has indicated a preference for merging with Gosford, leaving Lake Macquarie on its own.
  • Last night, Newcastle Council voted against voluntarily amalgamating, but expressed a backup preference for a merger with Port Stephens.

This is basically Lake Macquarie’s position:

Feel free to use this comment thread to discuss what comes after today’s deadline.


IPART declares NSW councils “unfit”, set for merger fight

The NSW Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) has today released its report into the “Fit for the Future” process, which has been the program whereby the NSW Government has been pushing for wide-scale council amalgamations across New South Wales. Despite the rhetoric, the report tells us nothing about the sustainability of local government, while giving us an insight into the state government’s amalgamation agenda. Despite the sheen of objectivity, IPART’s assessment works on the basis that local councils must be bigger, and for those councils which fail to meet the size criteria set by the government, their financial position is largely irrelevant.

The NSW government set a variety of criteria which it expected councils to meet. One of these criteria was the vague concept of “scale and capacity”, which seemed to be code for “bigger”. Today IPART, following the very much non-independent criteria set by the state government, has declared a majority of the state’s councils as “unfit” – most of those declared unfit were because they failed to meet the arbitrary “scale and capacity” criteria, which appears to have been applied to different councils of similar sizes.

The NSW government has used rhetoric that implies that there is no alternative but to merge for these councils, and that they need to do so to be sustainable. Yet most councils declared “unfit” cleared the financial criteria set down, and instead were declared “unfit” because of a big-council political agenda being pursued by the government. It is laughable to call this process “independent” when you consider how the criteria have been framed. Read the rest of this entry »


NSW redistribution, council amalgamations and SA reform

There’s been a lot of electoral news this morning! I’ll try to run through it all really quickly. I’ll be putting together the new NSW electoral map over the next week and I’ll try to find some time to cover the other issues.

NSW redistribution

The Australian Electoral Commission has released the draft map of the new New South Wales federal electoral boundaries.

The federal seats of Hunter and Charlton in the Hunter region have effectively been merged. The seat takes in more voters from Charlton, but has maintained the federation seat name of Hunter.

The seat of Throsby (covering the Southern Highlands and southern Illawarra) has been renamed Whitlam after the former prime minister. The seat of Parkes has taken in Broken Hill, while Farrer and Riverina have consolidated into southern NSW.

In inner Sydney, Grayndler has shifted north, losing Labor areas in southern Marrickville and Ashfield and gaining Balmain, Annandale and Drummoyne. The seat of Barton (currently held by the Liberal Party on a slim margin) has shifted into that gap, and presumably will become a notional Labor seat. The seat of Cook, which covers Cronulla, has jumped the Georges River to take in parts of the St George region.

I’ll be working on my map of the boundaries, which is likely to take most of the next week.

We would normally expect Antony Green to calculate the seat margins for the redistribution, but he’s currently in Canada for Monday’s Canadian federal election. I’m not currently equipped to do the calculations for such a large state but will look into it if we haven’t heard from Antony by the end of next week.

NSW local government amalgamations

We’re still waiting to hear from the NSW government about it’s plans for council amalgamations across Sydney but we’ve gotten a seemingly well-placed report in today’s Daily Telegraph with some details about the proposal, although they are in part contradictory.

In one part, it suggests that Sydney’s councils will be cut from the current 42 to about 20, and that about one third of the state’s 152 councils will be cut. But in the article and on the map there are seven council mergers proposed, which would cut the number of councils by eight – a long way short of cutting 22 councils from Sydney.

It also talks about “as many as 30 rural and regional councils” being abolished, but also suggests a reluctance to touch rural councils – 30 rural councils being abolished is a lot.

The mergers proposed are:

  • Manly and Warringah
  • Canada Bay, Burwood and Strathfield
  • North Sydney and Mosman
  • Hornsby and Ku-ring-gai
  • Bankstown and Canterbury
  • Randwick and Waverley
  • Auburn, Holroyd and southern parts of Parramatta (Granville mostly)

There’s an interesting mix here. Some very small councils such as Mosman, Burwood and Strathfield are on the chopping block, but other small councils such as Hunters Hill and Woollahra appear to be saved. Large councils like Warringah, Randwick, Bankstown and Hornsby are also set to merge, sometimes with reasonably large neighbours.

Considering these discrepancies, it appears these might only be some of the mergers planned.

The report also suggests a delay in council elections until March 2017, although it’s unclear if this would only be for affected councils, or the whole state.

Watch this space.

South Australian electoral reform

The South Australian government has announced plans for a raft of electoral changes, including introducing the possibility of double dissolution elections to resolve deadlocks.

Interestingly, it also involves the abolition of preference voting for the Legislative Council, moving instead to a party list system using the Saint-Lague counting method. This is very similar to how most proportional systems work in Europe.

There won’t be any preferences, with only primary votes used to distribute seats, according to a method which involves dividing the number of votes by a party by the number of seats they have won.

It’s quite a good system to use for list elections, as it is much much simpler than the way we elect our proportional houses in Australia, but it is problematic if it’s used in elections where not that many candidates are to be elected. It would work much better in SA if they also moved to four-year terms for the upper house, and thus elected 22 candidates instead of 11, but I can’t work out if that’s part of the package.

The reforms will be put to a referendum in 2018.


WA council elections – new ward map posted

Western Australia is currently undergoing regular council elections. It’s taken a while to pull together, but I’ve now completed an updated ward map for these elections.

You can download the 2013 and 2015 ward maps from the maps page. It’s quite a difficult task as there’s no central repository of information on wards, or how they’ve changed. If you notice any errors, please let me know.

Most WA councils conduct their elections via postal voting, apart from a few small rural councils which run their own elections. The election day is in less than two weeks, on October 17, although in practice most postal votes will be cast well in advance.


Redistribution updates – ACT and Brisbane

While I’ve been focusing on other projects, two of the ongoing redistributions have been finalised.

I covered the release of draft boundaries for redistributions for the ACT Legislative Assembly and the Brisbane City Council. In both cases, the final boundaries have now been released.

The ACT boundaries were first published as a draft at the end of March 2015, and were finalised in May. No changes were made between the draft boundaries and the final boundaries. You can read my analysis of the boundaries here.

The Brisbane City Council draft boundaries were released in July, with the final boundaries release in late August. There were a series of small changes to wards, while a majority of wards underwent no changes. The newly-renamed ward of Garden City reverted to its former name of Macgregor in the final version. Read my analysis of the draft boundaries here. I haven’t made any changes to my estimates of margins on the draft boundaries, as no polling places were moved on the final version.

You can download the maps from the maps page.

Brisbane ward boundaries are included in the Queensland wards map, which is currently incomplete as a number of other councils are still undergoing changes.

In other redistribution news, we’re expecting the draft boundaries for federal redistributions in NSW and the ACT to be released this month, and then we’ll be looking to see the final versions of the NT Legislative Assembly redistribution, the WA state redistribution and the WA federal redistribution.

I’m currently collecting information on WA ward changes, and in October and November will post updates of Victorian and Queensland wards in time for their 2016 elections.


Map update – WA ward maps

Western Australia will be holding council elections on 17 October 2015 – over the course of the subsequent year, there will be local government elections across Australia’s four largest states.

Since the 2008 elections, I’ve produced ward maps for councils in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, but until now I’ve never done maps for Western Australia.

Over the last month or so, I’ve been working on a map of Western Australia’s local council wards, as of the last council election in 2013.

You can download the map here.

I’m now working on updated ward maps for Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia. Conveniently, the electoral commissions provide a neat summary of which councils are changing their wards, along with the timelines and all relevant information. I’m not so lucky in the case of New South Wales and Western Australia.

In both cases, I am going to assume that councils without wards are undergoing no changes, and then go through the painstaking process of identifying which warded councils require changes, and identifying the new boundaries for those councils which are undergoing changes. If you have information about a warded council in NSW or WA, I’d appreciate it if you posted the information as a comment.

In the meantime, you’ll likely hear from me next when the next round of draft boundaries from the various federal, state and territory redistributions are released.


Brisbane – draft ward boundaries released

BCCredistThe Electoral Commission of Queensland on Friday released its draft boundaries for the 26 wards covering the City of Brisbane – Australia’s biggest local council.

The process is similar to processes followed for state, territory and federal electoral redistributions, a number of which are currently taking place. In December, I posted about the prospects for the redistribution.

Despite the twelve northern wards being substantially larger than the fourteen wards south of the Brisbane river, the ECQ has chosen to not draw a ward crossing the river, thus leaving the north with twelve wards, all slightly larger than the fourteen on the south side.

In this blog post, I will describe what changes have taken place, and what they mean for the electoral landscape of Brisbane. I’ve also included an interactive map of the new boundaries.

You can now download the draft boundary map here. In the next few months I will also prepare updated maps for all the other councils in Queensland undergoing ward redistributions, as well as those in three other states.

Read the rest of this entry »


Local government mergers – in WA and New Zealand

While New South Wales is currently undergoing a process of considering metropolitan council amalgamations, Western Australia has recently reached the unsuccessful conclusion of a similar process – which ended with a number of overwhelming ‘no’ votes in local referendums and an abandonment of the process in February 2015. New Zealand, which already has much larger councils than in most of Australia, is also currently considering a number of council mergers.

Read the rest of this entry »


NSW government pushing for council mergers

Local councils across Sydney are currently going through a process of making submissions to the state government’s ‘Fit For The Future’ program, which is aimed at judging councils on a bunch of criteria, seemingly with the goal of consolidating the number of local councils, producing a smaller number of more populous councils.

In practice, the criteria are largely arbitrary, based on some vague concept of “big is better”, and attitudes of local councils towards amalgamation seem based on base politics, with various councils effectively promoting hostile takeovers of their neighbours in ways that will help their political party solidify its hold.

Through the course of this month, each council in the Sydney region is making a submission to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) about how their council meets the criteria set by the NSW government as to whether they are ‘fit for the future’. This process has involved many councils undertaking consultation, and coming to decisions about their recommendations, which have focused on whether councils support amalgamating with their neighbours.

The criteria cover the capability of the council, along with its efficiency, financial sustainability and management of infrastructure. The other criteria, ‘scale’, seems to be particularly arbitrary – the government has set a presumption that councils should have a substantially larger population than they have now, which necessitates significant amalgamations regardless of how a council performs on the other criteria. No number has been set for this criteria, with various figures suggesting different figures throughout the process.

While the process is requiring councils to produce public submissions, there is no such requirement for the state government to be transparent in their decisions – the IPART decisions will remain secret, and we won’t know whether any decisions by the state government to recommend amalgamations was made based on an IPART recommendation, or despite IPART’s recommendations.

There are undoubtedly some parts of Sydney which could do with local council amalgamations (hello, Burwood and Hunters Hill), but it is very unclear how much Sydney councils would be improved through amalgamations. While there may be some efficiencies, these in part could come from reductions in duplicated services, which may not be appreciated by their residents, and there will be a substantial cost to amalgamate different councils. Different councils provide different levels of service, and it remains unclear whether amalgamated councils would raise all parts of the council area to the highest standard, or lower services to the minimum.

Many councils are already benefiting from efficiencies created by cooperation between councils, sharing procurement and other parts of a council’s work, through the existence of regional organisations.

Looking at the list of councils who have expressed an openness to amalgamation, it has little to do with which councils are in most need of amalgamation, but more to do with politics – larger councils attempting to take over their smaller neighbours, and councils finding ways to design new boundaries that benefit the politically-dominant faction. In some cases, councils which are not considered to be in any need of merger have launched attempts to take over their neighbours.

In most of these cases, these councils are run by Liberals or Liberal-aligned independents.

Warringah Council, which is already well above the average population, has launched a bid to merge with its neighbours in Manly and Pittwater, neither of which support amalgamation.

In the north-west, The Hills, another large conservative council, is seeking to take over Hawkesbury Shire, which has about one third of the population but covers a large swathe of north-western Sydney. Hawkesbury, despite its small population, was not targeted for amalgamation because it covers such a large area. Hornsby Shire has also proposed a merger with Ku-ring-gai, who have refused the overtures.

In the inner west, most councils have opposed amalgamation, but in some cases councils have adopted ‘back-up options’. Leichhardt Council has proposed an amalgamation with Canada Bay and Ashfield councils, which would produce a strange Y-shaped area, but would conveniently weaken the Greens, who topped the poll in Leichhardt in 2012.

Further out in the inner west, Auburn and Burwood councils both agreed to a merger with Canada Bay council, but Canada Bay rejected the proposal. The three-council merger proposal was already strange, as it would leave Strathfield council alone (one of the smallest with a population of 37,000) surrounded by a new council on three sides which would include a population of over 190,000. It’s even more ridiculous without Canada Bay, because Burwood and Auburn do not share a boundary. Auburn intends to still push for the merger despite Canada Bay’s objections.

While Auburn is eager to merge with councils to its east, it has been resistant to joining an enlarged City of Parramatta with Holroyd (which is also anti-amalgamation) and Parramatta, which is generally supportive. One wonders whether this is linked to the political make-up of the councils, and where the centre of gravity would lie in an Auburn-Burwood-Canada Bay council compared to a City of Greater Parramatta.

The most ridiculous case comes in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. The original proposal from the independent panel was to merge the councils of Botany Bay, Randwick, Waverley and Woollahra into the City of Sydney, so that Sydney would cover the entire eastern peninsula. The other four councils all oppose this option, but their tactics to prevent it have varied.

Waverley and Randwick councils, which both have substantial numbers of Labor and Greens councillors but are currently dominated by conservatives, have both supported mergers with Woollahra and Botany Bay councils respectively, and possibly as a merger of all four councils. In Randwick, the Greens have come on board with the Liberal plans to launch a hostile takeover of Botany Bay council, which is dominated by Labor and strongly opposed to a merger.

Woollahra council, which is also dominated by the Liberal Party, also rejects amalgamation – unlike its neighbours to the south, the Liberal Party has a solid hold on Woollahra which is unlikely to change. It seems like those ‘marginal Liberal’ councils may see amalgamation as a way to solidify their hold on the east.

Of course, we have no idea how seriously these local council positions will be taken. Apart from Randwick and Waverley, no two other neighbouring councils support merging with each other. So any mergers will require the overriding of councils, at which point it seems far more rational to draw new boundaries where the government sees the most need, rather than drawing them according to the short-term political interests of sitting councillors.

We also don’t know what other reforms could come along – the independent review panel also recommended direct election of mayors, and possibly other structural reforms. I would personally like to see larger councils (including those large councils that already exist) given a larger number of councils than the current limit of 15 – but the trend seems to be in the other direction, treating councils as ‘boards of directors’ which are easier to manage with less representation.

While local government in New South Wales isn’t perfect, triggering a frenzy of amalgamation pushes across Sydney won’t do much to improve it – so much of the problems local councils have relate to the costs that have been imposed on them by other levels of government, and the ways in which they are restricted in finding funds to cover their work. Consolidating local councils into larger units won’t do much at all to fix that fundamental problem, but that’s a story for another day.

The deadline for local council submissions is next Tuesday, 30 June, so we may well see solid proposals for council amalgamations, likely forced, later this year, in time for council elections in 2016.


Why can’t Greater Sydney be run as a democracy?

There was a story yesterday about plans by the NSW government to form a “Greater Sydney Commission”, which would take charge of planning for development across Sydney, and seemingly also have some kind of responsibility for infrastructure and transport.

Apparently the Commission was announced in 2014, although I missed it at the time. It appears to be linked to the government’s ongoing plans for local government reform (which I will cover later this week), with the Commission effectively including both council and state government representatives and would take control of setting housing targets and a variety of other Sydney-wide planning concerns.

The Sun-Herald described the Commission as ‘London-style’, but there’s a critical difference. In London, where there is a city-wide Greater London Authority alongside local borough councils, the Authority is a democratic organisation, run by a directly-elected Mayor and a 25-member Assembly, elected using proportional representation.

Instead, the proposed Commission would appear to have twelve members. The senior public servants covering roads, transport and planning for the NSW government would be represented, alongside three “independent members” (who knows what that means – just NSW government appointments?) as well as six representatives of local councils. It appears that six regional organisation of councils will each have a representative on the Commission.

So this body that would be taking over responsibilities from the democratically-elected state government, and from democratic local governments, would always be at least two steps removed from the will of the voters – voters elect councillors, who elect regional representatives, who elect Commissioners, while state government representatives are public servants appointed by the relevant ministers.

I can see a lot of value in a body that would look at planning issues for the whole of Sydney, in a way that is hard for either the state government or small local governments. But there’s no reason this can’t be democratically run.

There are two places in Australia where a democratically-elected government effectively covers an entire city, but no more – the City of Brisbane, which covers a large part of the Brisbane urban area, and the Australian Capital Territory, in which nearly all of the population lives in Canberra. In both cases we have ‘big city government’ that prioritises the city as a whole, rather than small parts of the city, or a bigger area of which the city is one part.

There’s a tendency amongst those pushing for local government reforms to push for any mechanism which takes the decision a step away from the voters: creating panels of mayors (thus excluding the vast majority of local representatives), or creating apolitical commissions. It’s almost like democracy is a necessary evil, and where possible it should be pushed into the corner.

There are real political issues to be debated across Sydney – which areas should receive the brunt of the new housing needed for current and future population growth, and how much investment should go into public transport or roads. But they should be debated in democratic forums.

I don’t see a good reason why such a body couldn’t be democratically elected. It could be elected at the same time as the next local government elections in September 2016. You could elect it using the same voting system, with a number of large ‘wards’ or electorates covering a number of local government areas.

Sure, such an elected Greater Sydney Assembly would be likely dominated by members of the political parties, but that’s democracy, and such an election would have different dynamics to state and council elections, and would focus attention on the needs of Sydney as a city, in a way that doesn’t happen in NSW state elections.

It appears this Commission will have a lot of power over planning Sydney’s future – and that power should go to a body that represents the people of Sydney. If things work out well, such a body could then go on to take on other responsibilities currently sitting with state or local government.