Councils must not accept act’s final word

VIEW: Meander Valley mayor Craig Perkins shares his views on the changes to the Local Government Act.
VIEW: Meander Valley mayor Craig Perkins shares his views on the changes to the Local Government Act.

The Minster for Local Government Peter Gutwein recently announced a significant re-write of the local government act.

When announcing the release of the draft terms of reference, he made it very clear that amalgamations will not be part of the review.

He was right to make this statement, and he is right to insist on it. For local government however, it is not right to accept that once the act is reviewed, amalgamations should not be considered. In a moment, I’ll explain why.

For the lobby groups, business associations or any other headline grabbers, just demanding amalgamations because “29 is too many” does nothing more than strengthen the case for the status quo.

Why, because these calls are generally made without substance, a lack of supporting evidence, and a laziness that that shows little understanding of the workings of local government. They are easy arguments to de-bunk and they show little respect towards the knowledge and capability of their intended audience.

For local government, especially mayors and elected members, they must engage thoughtfully and objectively in the process of reviewing the act. People in local government have a lot to offer in this debate and their message must be listened to and respected.

However, the sector is only one stakeholder, and cannot claim to be the only voice of reason. Minister Gutwein’s terms of reference is strong in the use of the word community and he emphasises the words flexibility and innovation, democratic participation, engagement and confidence in the work of local government.

All critical elements that impact on the efficient and effective delivery of local government services. Focusing on improving the process of community participation in decision making is crucial.

In this age of technology and social media, there must be a better way to engage in a constructive, relevant way to receive feedback and comment from the community on items for decision.

The question is how to ensure community input is representative, and not just from a few local voices being a squeaky wheel. The review should determine what decisions we want our elected members to make.

Should a council be the body that makes planning decisions on whether homes, garden sheds or carports should be built, or would this be better placed with a regional body? Would councils be better to focus on strategic land use and future planning of our communities without the distraction of individual planning items?

As part of the review, there’s a great opportunity to develop an act that allows for a broader range of, and some might argue more representative, community members to participate in local government.

Family members who have to look after children and don’t think they will have the time, young people who are trying to start a career and commit to full time work.

These life stages shouldn’t be barriers to being an elected member, and as a community, we have to support a local government framework that encourages participation, not put up barriers.

Back to why the minister’s insistence that amalgamations are off the table is right and why local government must not accept it. Take this example - anyone designing a new home, planning a road, or setting up a new organisation must understand the purpose and function of what it is they are designing.

Once you understand this, the appropriate structure or formation can be designed. If the new structure requires substantial change from what currently exists, then thought on transition arrangements must be considered, costed and carefully explained to the stakeholders.

Designing the structure, before knowing your purpose is the first step towards complexity and failure.

Designing the structure, before knowing your purpose is the first step towards complexity and failure.

Meander Valley mayor Craig Perkins

I know from speaking to many mayors, elected members and general managers around Tasmania that with a clear and understood process, there is a willingness to engage, change and promote a local government sector that is structured to meet the expectations and needs of our communities over the next 20 to 30 years.

The process of the review must have authentic community engagement.  If it takes a little longer to get it right, so be it. How often do we see significant government policy decisions fail, or not be delivered fully because they are rushed, not based on evidence and designed to be implemented within an election cycle.

Now is the time to take the community and local government on this journey, get the right outcome, and we can build a local democracy that is relevant, efficient and representative.

- Meander Valley mayor Craig Perkins