Local Government Amendment (Regional Joint Organisations) Bill 2017
22nd December 2017
Mr GREG PIPER ( Lake Macquarie ) ( 18:49 ): I commence my contribution to debate on the Local Government Amendment (Regional Joint Organisations) Bill 2017 by responding to some comments made by the member for Wyong. He mentioned the growing pains experienced by the Central Coast with which residents are struggling and which predated the amalgamation of local councils. I suggest that at the time the regional joint organisation was formed the amalgamation was problematic because of parochial issues and the politics of the area, but that has largely changed now. I agree that the amalgamation of Central Coast and Hunter councils could be beneficial, and I understand the concerns of the member for Wyong about the intense development around the northern part of Wyong. I am also concerned because the rapid development has a flow-on effect on southern Lake Macquarie. I thank the member for raising that matter.
I state from the outset that notwithstanding amendments that may be brought forward by the Opposition I support this bill. This bill allows for substantial and meaningful change to allow councils to join in ways that maximise their collective resources including expertise. I see this bill in the light of my experience with Hunter Councils, which I suggest has to be the one of the best examples of a joint organisation that could be found and, if not the inspiration for much of this bill, it could well have been. I am told that these councils were part of the modelling because they are a successful example of amalgamation. Local government had, and still does have, many pressures on it. Using the Hunter as an example I note that the ability for member councils to pool their resources to achieve greater economies of scale for the member councils made a lot of sense.
Hunter Councils was large enough and had the requisite expertise to be credible in the market so as to be able to assist other councils and at the same time bring income in to Hunter Councils for its operation and future expansion. Member councils are Lake Macquarie, Cessnock, Maitland, Dungog, Newcastle, Great Lakes, Muswellbrook, Singleton, Upper Hunter, Port Stephens and Gloucester incorporating a population equal to if not greater than the population of Tasmania. The ability of member councils to collaboratively work together has been of enormous benefit to the members and therefore their residents, even if they are not aware of it.
During my time as mayor of Lake Macquarie City Council a decision was taken by the mayors of constituent councils to seek a major restructure and modernisation of regional organisations of councils [ROC]. This required seeking the endorsement of each council to reform the ROC and change from a system with a large number of representatives drawn from constituent councils on a pro-rata basis against the local government area population. This led to the larger councils, notably Lake Macquarie and Newcastle, dominating middle-grouped councils such as Maitland, Cessnock, Singleton and Port Stephens and swamping smaller councils such as Gloucester, Dungog and Upper Hunter. There was no equity in this and it certainly was not a model conducive to the greater goal of wider cooperation in regionally beneficial strategic decision-making.
Some councillors were not happy with the model where the voting members were mayors only and other councillors were excluded from board meetings; however, I think over time the benefit became clear and was a model strongly supported by councillors generally. It should be noted that even before the streamlining of Hunter Councils our local ROC had been very advanced compared to similar organisations. Indeed, some years before the changes to which I referred, the collective councils saw the opportunity to build and operate a modern and competitive records repository. This business unit was a substantial investment but it immediately provided practical benefit to all member councils as well as to other private and government customers.
I do not know what the subscription costs are for councils now but I do know that Hunter Councils moved over time from one that required annual contributions by member councils to support it to one that could pay an annual dividend to ratepayers. Hunter Councils may have started with business units such as the Hunter Records Storage but it went on to manage Screen Hunter, to develop the Local Government Training Institute, to develop a division for regional procurement, to apply expertise collectively in developing a regional environmental strategy and, quite surprisingly to some, to establish a law firm, being Local Government Legal, which operates around the State.
Hunter Councils is a great example of what can be achieved by a well-structured joint regional organisation but there are no doubt many examples where other regional organisations have benefitted from collective resources. Many councils have not been able to find a benefit—and other contributors to this debate have given examples of such councils. Realistically, the bill on its own will achieve nothing if councils either choose not to or for whatever reason are not in a position to join or build a regional joint organisation as allowed for under the bill. I note that the process of establishing a regional joint organisation under this process seems unnecessarily unwieldy and I would suggest that the majority of the intention of this bill can or could be achieved without a legislated prescription. However, there may well be some protections afforded the organisation from provisions including the specific authority provided for the joint organisation to take on certain functions on behalf of councils and to exercise regulatory functions that may be delegated to them.
New section 400Q of part 7, Legal status of joint organisations, subsection (2) states that a joint organisation as so constituted has the legal capacity and powers of an individual, both in and outside the State. I believe that is a clear indication that this provision may give some support to joint organisations. However, I do have concerns with provisions such as those raised by other speakers from the Opposition that new subsection 400X (4) states that the Minister may remove a person from office as a voting representative on the board of a joint organisation at any time without notice and for no stated or any reason. It is extraordinary to include such a provision in a bill that the Government professes to have been designed to bring together people and organisations because it is heavy handed and paternalistic. I believe this provision should be amended, as suggested by the Opposition. While I hope this clause is never considered, is an overreach in regulating councils, or the regional joint organisations, numerous other tools could be used if indeed there is a need to take such drastic action.
Local government is all too often disrespected by State governments of all persuasions, and this was certainly the case during the recent amalgamation process; indeed, strengthening local government by empowering councils including by measures such as this bill would surely have been a better policy than widescale and highly unpopular amalgamations. However, overall I believe the plan for regional cooperation that this bill creates is worthy, and if councils seek to avail themselves of this model they could do no better than to look to the example of Hunter Councils.
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