27/11/2015 - 05:56

Tensions remain over council change

27/11/2015 - 05:56

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The premier may be lining up for a second dig at local government reform.

REPORTING ERROR: Lisa Scaffidi was criticised for her failure to register overseas trips paid for by business. Photo: Attila Csaszar

The premier may be lining up for a second dig at local government reform.

Colin Barnett rarely wastes an opportunity to express misgivings about some aspect of the operations of local government. It is apparent he is not a fan.

But his efforts to achieve change and, in his view, lift its standing have been hamstrung, mainly due to the lack of support from his alliance partners – Nationals WA.

The premier invested much political capital into his long-running (but unsuccessful) campaign to halve the number of metropolitan councils on the basis that rationalisation would help cut costs without reducing efficiency and service to ratepayers.

If you think there is wasteful duplication and overlap in the operations of the Commonwealth and state governments in high-cost areas such as health and education, what about having more than 30 councils – each with its own bureaucracy – providing the same services across the metropolitan area?

But the Nationals withheld their support for change, mainly fearing that the premier might then turn his sights on country shires (many of which could do with some rationalisation). And Labor was happy to sit on the fence.

In recent weeks, Mr Barnett has criticised what he believes to be excess on the local government front. But he has gone further, flagging that increased accountability might be around the corner.

In fact the first response has just emerged. It follows the failure of Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi and her former deputy, Rob Butler, to detail free overseas travel provided to them by the private sector.

The government has embraced the Labor suggestion that councillors declare all gifts on an online register within 10 days, to avoid any more ‘camouflaging’ of overseas trips.

The price paid by Labor for its win on the gifts register was, importantly for the government, opposition support for new boundaries for the City of Perth, which the Nationals declined to back.

“I think people want their local governments to provide local services,” Mr Barnett told parliament.

“They do not want them to get involved in wider public campaigns or travel the world or whatever they do. Ratepayers are thoroughly sick of that.”

Mr Barnett also believes the latest rate increases by many councils are excessive.

“I think people in Western Australia, particularly in metropolitan areas, are paying more in rates than they should be for the services they are receiving,” he said.

“I think there is a serious lack of accountability. Local government just tend to increase their rates. They face no scrutiny.”

And when it surfaced that the City of Stirling Mayor Giovanni Italiano and his CEO, Stuart Jardine were now driving Mercedes Benz sedans bought by the council for the discounted price of $65,000 each, the premier saw red.

“I don’t know the details of the vehicles that they’re using, but the prime minister of Australia doesn’t drive around in a Mercedes,” he told ABC News.

“That is not appropriate at a local government level, state or federal level.”

Imagine the outcry if Mr Barnett, or opposition leader Mark McGowan for that matter, followed the Stirling example. In fact it simply illustrates the premier’s point about the third tier of government’s lack of accountability.

But are the premier’s words just empty rhetoric? Local Government Minister Tony Simpson has flagged a bigger role for the auditor general over local government rates. Some cabinet ministers even want a parliamentary committee to act as a watchdog over the councils.

Mr Barnett’s political skills didn’t achieve his earlier desired reforms. But the parliamentary oversight might just deliver the increased checks and balances he so obviously desires.

Regional casinos

GROWING interest in the establishment of Western Australia’s first regional casino from centres such as Kalgoorlie, Karratha and Broome has prompted Racing and Gaming Minister Colin Holt to make a fact-finding visit to the Lasseters Casino in Alice Springs.

Mr Holt told Political Perspective that up to $40 million had been spent upgrading the Alice Springs casino, hotel and convention complex, which he said was heavily underwritten by the Northern Territory government. It operates more than 300 electronic gaming machines.

“Lasseters would be in a similar context to one in regional WA, given the size of Alice Springs compared with our regional centres, and also give an idea how a casino here in an isolated area would operate,” Mr Holt said.

“There are underlying economic benefits in terms of jobs, hotel rooms and conventions. But there are potential social risks as well.”

He said a local applicant would need to demonstrate the benefits of a regional casino and address the social challenges. In the meantime WA would continue as a one-casino state.

The Crown casino on the Burswood Peninsula, now part of James Packer’s empire, has enjoyed a statewide monopoly since it opened in 1985. Once a rubbish tip, the site was selected by businessman Dallas Dempster, who was a partner in the initial licence-winning bid. Crown Perth now claims to be WA’s biggest single-site employer, with a 5,800-strong work force.

 

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