11/03/2015 - 14:57

Major reform needs public support

11/03/2015 - 14:57

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Neither the premier nor his minister ever provided evidence to support their council amalgamation plan.

Major reform needs public support
ON HOLD: The issue of where Crown fits in the council landscape may be revisited.

Neither the premier nor his minister ever provided evidence to support their council amalgamation plan.

It is becoming increasingly evident neither Western Australia’s Liberal Party nor its bewildered parliamentary wing knows whether they’re Arthur of Martha on local governance.

I recall one of the Liberals’ early moves when in power in the 1990s was the revamping of the then gigantic Perth City Council.

Although I no longer recall its precise boundaries, they certainly extended from Victoria Park across to City Beach.

I remember visiting a friend on the Saturday of a local government election and seeing PCC ratepayers queuing at a booth in a primary school just south of Walcott Street, Mt Lawley.

PCC was that big.

Thankfully, one of the Richard Court era’s three major achievements was the downsizing of this cumbersome giant by creating today’s cities of Perth and Vincent, and towns of Victoria Park and Cambridge.

As an aside, Mr Court’s two other farsighted initiatives were the go-ahead for a second Narrows Bridge (alongside the one built in the 1950s) and the Northbridge Tunnel.

In light of such foresight it’s puzzling, to say the least, why his then deputy, Mr Barnett (now playing the role of Martha), has so determinedly sought to expand the City of Perth by annexing the big rate-paying segments of Victoria Park and Nedlands, parts of Subiaco, plus all of Vincent.

It seems a clear case of cherry picking, snatching segments of adjacent councils that reap sizeable rate cheques but require relatively small ratepayer outlays.

Last year, Mr Barnett signalled he wanted the City of Perth to annex the Town of Victoria Park’s Burswood Crown Casino precinct.

I don’t know Crown’s annual rating by Victoria Park but it’s said to be around $2 million, which Mr Barnett wanted to go into the City of Perth’s coffers.

Not even the fact geographical separation offered by the Swan River was enough to deter the premier from his amalgamation plan.

He eventually backed off, however, on this land grab because so many Victoria Park ratepayers and others vehemently objected.

But that may not be the end of the matter, as Mr Barnett has qualified this pull back by saying the Casino question would be reviewed in 2020.

Victoria Park thus only has a five-year reprieve.

He also wanted to enlarge the City of Perth by swallowing the City of Vincent.

But, as with Burswood Casino, the premier backed off due to overwhelming opposition from ratepayers.

Still on his hit list, however, are: all of Kings Park, now administered by an independent board; the QEII medical precinct within Nedlands and Subiaco councils; and all of The University of Western Australia.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood Private Hospital, within QEII’s medical precinct, is Nedlands Council’s single largest ratepayer.

So why has Mr Barnett changed the Liberals’ position on council sizes?

Clearly he’s one of those people who contend that big entities are better and more efficient than smaller ones.

I, and many others, would be disappointed if that were the case, because the thinking that bigger is invariably better, simply because it’s bigger, is an unsubstantiated ideological obsession that’s unsupported by facts.

Local Government Minister Tony Simpson claimed throughout 2014 that ratepayers would reap benefits if Perth’s 30 metropolitan councils were squeezed into 16 jumbo entities.

But neither he nor Mr Barnett ever provided evidence backing that claim.

I’ve tested their ‘cult of bigness’ by contacting a local government watchdog, who has drawn-up a metropolitan Perth’s rating table showing that bigger isn’t better.

“Most people have just been quoting rates, but there’s also rubbish charges, a fixed annual amount that differs between councils,” the watchdog said.

“Small Vincent doesn’t have a rubbish charge – it’s included in the property rate.

“When you take account of both, there’s a clear pattern of larger councils imposing higher charges on property owners – except Stirling, which strangely Mr Barnett proposed to reduce in size.

“So the only council that appears to show substantial economies of scale was to be made smaller.

“It’s also clear that if you took Stirling out of the analysis, the rate of increase of charges with size would be even greater.

“The highest-charging councils – Serpentine-Jarrahdale, Armadale, Mundaring, Kwinana, Swan and Wanneroo – are all outer-suburban so are still developing.

“But this doesn’t appear to affect the conclusion as they cover the full range of sizes.

“Incidentally, City of Perth is very low because it subsidises residential property rates to encourage residential development within the city.”

Mr Barnett should cease embracing the cult of bigness and instead set about objectively examining all the evidence before launching his clearly unpopular, pre-emptive campaigns.


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