12/12/2006 - 22:00

Getting the best out of local government

12/12/2006 - 22:00


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Local government is one of those subjects that tends to agitate business.

Local government is one of those subjects that tends to agitate business.

At the small business end, councils generally represent petty rules; at the higher end, they can stop a major development.

At either end, most in business would say local government simply represents another layer of bureaucracy or cost they could well do without.

And that is without mentioning the corruption and incompetence that has been unmasked in so many of them.

Yet, councils would argue that not only do they have their place, many would have us believe they are more important than the state government, being closer to the people they represent.

They say they are there for more than just picking up the rubbish and setting building rules.

Their job is to represent the needs of a defined community, where often the smallest thing can become a major focus – especially when much of their work involves areas that influence the value of homes, the major investment for most of the population.

It is a touchy subject to suggest they are wrong; just as touchy as it is in other company to suggest that they are right.

I tend to believe that we have one layer of government too many, a situation exacerbated by the fact that we have too many councils and shires, which diminishes their individual clout and importance.

Most business people would lean towards abolishing local government until, of course, their northern neighbour started building a high-rise monstrosity or the state planned to build a new highway through their front yard.

It is a fact of life that the one thing to stop a democratically elected government from doing the wrong thing is another democratically elected government.

But that doesn’t make local governments valid or efficient.

The alternative is to get rid of the state.

It’s a thought that’s raised frequently, even if not dwelt upon for long.

Entrenched in the federal system of government, the states have plenty of life in them yet, even if the commonwealth tries to squeeze their relevance out of existence in areas such as health and education.

One way for local government to improve its position is to get bigger.

Pooling the resources of a number of local councils would bring efficiency gains, the opportunity to reduce costs and improve the gene pool of elected members.

Local government is already doing this in core fields such as waste collection, but there has been little movement in the real areas of power where councillors are actually elected.

This is disappointing when a study commissioned by their own peak body found half of Western Australia’s councils and shires are in a financially unsustainable position.

Many of these bodies are as big as sizeable companies in terms of revenue, employment and customers, yet the level of planning and preparation for future events is dismal.

Perhaps that’s not surprising.

Councillors are expected to spend all kinds of unsociable hours solving the often-petty problems of their constituents. It’s part-time and amateur, and often produces results of a similar quality.

But it does have its place.

State governments, past and present, have caused residents concern with their disdain for the planning process or the rights of private property owners.

That level of government needs some balance to keep its flaws in check, and councils can provide that.

But this could be done with a lot fewer mayors and presidents sitting across the table.

Financially sound and robustly governed regions, far larger than most existing councils, would be a sensible start to dealing with the question of just how many layers of government we need, and which ones we wish to hold on to.         


Some credit for a new plan on energy

I Had an interesting discussion with some energy sector executives the other day about carbon credits.

While the subject meandered a bit I noted something I’d never thought of before; the propensity for taxes and charges to be hidden due to the need for easy management.

The discussion circled around the idea of getting business and householders to reduce energy use through incentives.

I wondered aloud why governments couldn’t just issue us all with carbon credits and allow us to trade them to some minimum level if we could manage our power usage better.

I was mostly interested in the barriers to this concept at a regional level, given much of what is holding development in this field is a lack of international agreement.

The energy executives were bemused by the idea of individuals holding such credits. Their assumption was the energy producer – the power station – would be provided the credits while tariffs on users would provide incentives to discourage energy use.

I always worry when a new tax is introduced in a way where the only bit the consumer sees is the rising cost.

All this is a long way off, but it’s worth thinking about.


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