Local Government Amendment (Rates—Merged Council Areas) Bill 2017

29th March 2017

Mr GREG PIPER ( Lake Macquarie ) ( 17:55 :29 ): I contribute to debate on the Local Government Amendment (Rates—Merged Council Areas) Bill 2017. I have been encouraged to get on and get off quickly. I acknowledge the Minister for Local Government, who has come to the Chamber to listen to my contribution. While I could sum this up fairly quickly by drawing the attention of members to the contribution of the member for Heffron, which was one of the most erudite speeches of the day, I also have a number of things to say. The member for Heffron made a number of points with which I fully agree, but this is not a matter of blame being applied to one side or the other. I certainly have issues with the amalgamation process and I have heard many people speak in this debate. I think a lot of what has been said is outside the scope of this bill, the terms of which are relatively narrow. Members seem to want to revisit all the issues that the new Minister is having to deal with. This bill deals only with fulfilling a promise made as part of the process, which I think was a poor promise made in 2015 not to freeze rates but to ensure that ratepayers would pay no more than they would if their councils had not been amalgamated. Those council areas would have had incremental increases in rates over this period anyway.

If we have areas where different rating bases or average rates are being applied it begs the question: Why are we keeping those rates relatively fixed? The Government has given examples of some fairly significant variations, including the $382 differential between Botany and Rockdale and the $488 per year difference between Deniliquin and Conargo shire councils out west. Surely the intention is that the quality of services being provided is increasing. Who is picking up the cost of that? Ratepayers who would pay more if this amendment were not enacted would see it on their rate notice and be very angry. We understand the politics of it and the optics around it. On the other hand, looking objectively at initial equity, it is clear that someone else must be paying more. That means that those people who are paying more are cross-subsidising those who are paying less. They are paying more for a four-year period but it is hoped they are receiving the same provision of services.

I understand what the Government is doing, but I think it is a fairly crude way to try to address the concerns that might arise. Historically, governments meddle in local government way too much. I have heard members refer to rate capping—The Greens said they are opposed to rate capping and members of the Labor Opposition spoke about rate caps. The reality is, of course, that rate capping was introduced by Labor under Neville Wran's policy some time ago, and many councils were caught by that rate cap. I will name one that I know a bit about—Lake Macquarie Council, on which I served for 21 years and was mayor for 8½ years.

Mr Adam Marshall: A good mayor.

Mr GREG PIPER: I was a good mayor. I thank the member for Northern Tablelands for pointing that out to the House. He is a good Minister. Lake Macquarie Council was a very different council when rate capping was introduced in the late 1970s, yet its neighbours pulled away from it because they had a higher rate base at the time and they also had much more commercial and industrial land. As things changed, while all councils' rates went up, the income for a neighbouring council—for example, Newcastle—went up hugely disproportionately. Yet there was never any attempt when rate capping was brought in to try to harmonise the relative income of the councils. That led to huge inequities and it also led to many of the problems not only in Lake Macquarie but also in other councils that struggled over the years to keep up with their demands, leading to a summit held under former Minister Don Page in Dubbo, which I attended, to try to address many of these issues. Even though I was very much involved—I think I was as central as anybody to the discussions there—we came away hoping that serious consideration would be given to changing the structure of local government. Yet we were told it was all about amalgamations, which I do not believe it was.

This is a narrow bill and it is about fulfilling a promise that the Government had made. I respect that and therefore I will not oppose it, but I want it on record that I oppose the underlying principle. I believe the Government should have explored ways to make more equitable the way it was handed down to ratepayers on both sides of the equation. My real desire is that in future, once we have got all this settled, we get out of the way of local government and let it get on and do what it has been charged to do.

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