The dangers from Council Amalgamation are complex and interrelated. At the highest level there is the role of local governments and their constitutional status, at the lowest level is the myriad of ways we relate to them and our suburb. As with any complex matter it’s valuable to consider the elements of the problem separately.
The WA Constitution says that the legislature (Parliament; by passing law) has the power to constitute local governments. However, despite the Liberal Party having a majority in both houses, Parliament has refused to consider changes to the law sought by the Barnett Government that would allow it to re-constitute metropolitan local governments.
The Government of the day answers to the people, as do local governments, it is very significant for a WA Government to attempt to circumvent the law. Respect for the law and the ultimate sovereignty of the people is a fundamental, it should be beyond question.
Local government is closest to the people and thus plays an important role in fostering engagement with the broader political system. People entering politics frequently begin by serving in local government where they learn procedures and gain relevant skills. This factor is particularly relevant now because both Liberals and Labor have experienced decades of falling memberships leaving them collectively with less than one half of one percent of Australians as members. This is inadequate as a talent pool for policy formulation or candidate selection. It is also about a tenth of the number needed to be credibly representative.
It is a responsibility of Cabinet to scrutinise the actions of government and this means doing the due diligence on planning. Not only has the Government failed to economically justify, it has refused to fund the proposed changes and has ignored expert assessment of similar ideologically driven amalgamations done in other states. Assessments have shown that amalgamations that are not sought by locals fail to meet objectives and increase rather than decrease costs.
Before the last election Mr Barnett promised there would be no forced amalgamations. Minister Simpson promised the Government would fund almalgamations if they were sought. Further, after the state elections councils were misled into believing that they could be legally forced to amalgamate.
Before the last election the Government commissioned a report from professors Robson and Tannock. This report was claimed by the Minister for Local Government to justify a reduction in councils but, in fact, the terms of reference dictated by the Government were couched only to show how a reduction could be achieved. The financial viability of amalgamations of councils was not addressed in the Robson Report.
Sense of place and belonging
At the top of the list of considerations that need to be taken into account under the law in relation to proposals to change the borders of a local government is community of interest. The law is common sense because it is self evident that people feel a sense of belonging and perhaps pride about where they live. To many, probably most, where they live is a major part of their identity. It is part of what people expect to be fostered by their government.
Small tightly knit local communities are a source of strength to a nation, just like families and sporting teams. Even if an economic argument could be made for the amalgamations the Government wants, forcing them on people is a gross miscalculation on the place of a government to it’s master, the people.