Local Government Amendment Bill 2021

23rd March 2021

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (18:45): I am broadly in favour of the Local Government Amendment Bill 2021. However, in some areas I support the Opposition amendments. Like you, Madam Assistant Speaker, and the Minister, I am fortunate enough to have had local government experience. I spent eight years and five months of my 21 years at Lake Macquarie City Council as the mayor. At the time it was the fourth-largest council in New South Wales, so this was a significant role. Based on my experience, I have a good feel for these matters and a lot to offer to the debate on the bill. However, other members have greater experience and I respect their views regarding local government. I single out the member for Heffron in this respect, whom I always like to hear from on such matters.

Councillors have always had different views and councils have had different needs and capacities. Due to variations in population size, land uses, historic starting points for rate income and underlying infrastructure needs have meant that rarely have councils played on an equal playing field. Those differences were always going to present a problem when amalgamating councils. That was certainly the case in 2016 during the latest round of amalgamations. I acknowledge the contribution of the member for Charlestown when he spoke about Lake Macquarie City Council. She served with me when I was the mayor during a very effective period for the council. We made some important changes to the financial system of the council, including a courageous push to increase the rate base.

From 2009 Lake Macquarie City Council engaged closely with IPART on the model it developed to allow for a rolling seven-year increase, which reset the bar for the council. The good financial management of the council continued during the member for Charlestown's time as mayor. I was shocked when the council became a target for amalgamation with Newcastle City Council in 2015-16. It is 40,000 or 50,000 residents larger than its better-known neighbour. The council manages a very significant area around Lake Macquarie and worked hard as environmental stewards for the lake, the hinterland and the bushland of that catchment. However, the process did not consider any of those issues. While Lake Macquarie City Council passed every test that was put to it through the amalgamation process, for some reason at the very end it was claimed nebulously that it did not meet the target for scale and capacity. What a nonsense that was. Regardless of what the council did, the undefinable issue of a lack of scale and capacity was used to argue for amalgamation.

Changes were made and Lake Macquarie City Council was not amalgamated. I acknowledge the Premier at the time, Mike Baird, for that decision, even though he was involved in the original decision to merge the council with Newcastle City Council. I appealed to him and I am pleased that Lake Macquarie City Council was taken out of the amalgamation process. The member for Wyong talked about the amalgamation of Wyong Shire Council and Gosford City Council into Central Coast Council. I do not share some of his views about the responsibilities of the respective councillors, particularly in the last council. If a councillor is appointed to a council, they have a responsibility to carry out their duties. While underlying problems may exist, councillors have a responsibility to understand what is happening in the community. Even though they were given advice, they did not take it seriously and pursue it.

That is not to say that some questionable practices were not occurring at the two councils. The amalgamation was complicated because Wyong Shire Council and Gosford City Council were large councils that shared ownership of the water and sewerage authority. While incompetence was seen at the councils, not all actions could be described as such. This bill seeks to harmonise the rates of merged councils. Opposition amendments Nos 6 and 7 propose that the time allowed for rate harmonisation should be doubled to eight years. I am pleased that the Minister did not suggest eight years because then the Opposition may propose 16 years. Four years for amalgamated councils to harmonise their rates is a reasonable period, so I do not support those amendments. [Extension of time]

However, I do support a number of the other amendments, which I regard as sensible. I particularly support the maintenance of the role of the IPART to determine the special rate levy. The bill does not include a role for the IPART to determine a special rate levy if the levy is for infrastructure jointly funded by another level of the State Government or the Commonwealth Government. I do not see any sinister intent in this regard, but this provision could allow for levies on unpopular projects or require a council to use a levy and effectively cost-shift. On the other hand, it could be a valuable pathway to provide much-needed infrastructure. The IPART should run a tape over proposals because it is an independent body that has expertise with regard to special rate levies.

I note that the bill will give councils the option of paying superannuation to the mayor and councillors. Most fair-minded people would have assumed that this already happens. In fact, I think they think councillors are on big money. This has been an issue regardless of which party has been in government. It has not just been the case during the current Liberal–Nationals Government. A number of previous governments, including those run by Labor, have had to deal with paying superannuation to council workers, so this is a sensible position to take. It is not particularly costly to the community to provide some measure of superannuation. Therefore, I think it is sensible and I acknowledge the Minister for that. However, taking the step under the amendment to mandate it as a requirement takes away any possibility of any political games that might be played within a council or with a tax by people who, for whatever reason, might have some issue with council. I certainly support the amendment in that case. I do not know if it is something that the Minister would argue strongly, but we will see how it goes in the other place.

I also note that the bill mandates the payment of child care expenses for councillors with children. Again this is a long overdue reform and I hope it encourages more women into important civic roles. It is very important. In some ways it is a minor consideration in the scheme of things, but we should do whatever we can to make it easier for women to get into local government and other power-making positions such as State and Federal government. In addition, I am particularly pleased that the bill creates a new rating category for environmental land, which is also supported by Lake Macquarie City Council. It is anticipated that environmental land will attract lower council rates than it currently attracts as farmland or business land. It could apply to land that is protected for its environmental value or constrained by geography or regulation. It is a sensible move that I certainly support. I am also supportive of a move away from the one-size-fits-all rate pegging model that is currently applied to all councils throughout the State.

I am pleased to see this ongoing reform to the local government sphere, even though other people would see it as the State Government interfering in the business of local government once again, with local government saying, "Get out of our way." But all governments do it. When I first came to this place in 2007 a local government bill was one of the first things that I debated and I made that point then. When you are in local government you really wish the State would get out of your way and let you do things, but the reality is that is not what the community wants and local government is a child of the State. We have a role to manage local government in a positive way in partnership with it, and many of these measures are trying to do that. I commend the Minister at the table here tonight. I hope that this is a good step for most councils, and I believe it will be. In the consideration in detail stage there will be some amendments from the Opposition representative for local government, the member for Campbelltown, that I will support.

TEMPORARY SPEAKER (Ms Sonia Hornery): I pay homage to the member for Lake Macquarie. When you were mayor you invited the member for Wallsend all the time. You were very fair and always listened to me and I have not forgotten. People do not forget those things. Thank you.

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