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Council Amalgamations

27 September 2022

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: I rise to speak on behalf of the Greens on the Plebiscite (South East Council Amalgamation) Bill 2022. I want to put on the public record on behalf of the Greens our concerns with respect to amalgamations. Council amalgamations do not have a good track record, and we have seen in other jurisdictions that forced amalgamations can, indeed, deliver very negative outcomes for the community.

This plebiscite does give residents of the District Council of Grant and the City of Mount Gambier some level of a say in their future direction but we do worry that there are no appropriate safeguards in place to ensure that the views of the community are heard and respected. Over the last 30 years we have seen forced amalgamations in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. In both of these places, merger plans have led to service cuts and reduced community representation.

In 2007, Queensland saw widespread protest, following the announcement of forced council amalgamations. Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council has recently announced their decision to de-merge due to five years of financial and staffing issues. For regional areas, mergers are particularly challenging, as big, amalgamated councils can struggle to represent wider geographical areas with diverse interests.

There is also a concern about the potential for job cuts in the local government sector, particularly during this period of economic uncertainty, and I would love to know the views of the key unions that represent council workers in these jurisdictions on these council merger plans. We are pleased that this bill does not force amalgamation on residents, but does ask a clear question: 'Do you support the examination of an amalgamation of the District Council of Grant and the City of Mount Gambier to form a single council?' Consultation is integral in any democracy.

Our concern, however, is that should local residents indicate their interest in exploring an amalgamation, there is not any appropriate safeguard in place to ensure that the views of the more populous area are not dominating the outcome of the poll. There is also no safeguards in terms of what happens next. If the people of Grant and Mount Gambier vote in a plebiscite that they are, indeed, in favour of exploring an amalgamation, it is not clear what the government does next in terms of further community consultation. I will later be moving an amendment to require the government to go back to the people in those council jurisdictions as a precursor for any amalgamation, and I consider that to be a very important safeguard.

My office has received correspondence from constituents in the relevant council areas detailing their concerns. Some are fearful there will be a forced amalgamation by stealth, and some are concerned about whether the residents of Grant will be given equal consideration to their peers in Mount Gambier. Some ratepayers are also concerned about the speed and the lack of information in the lead up to this plebiscite. I would say that the government's timing has been less than optimal. Springing this bill on the parliament a minute to midnight before council elections is not a sensible way to approach a reform such as this.

These concerns should not fall on deaf ears, and if this plebiscite is a precedent for future amalgamation plebiscites, then we should heed the concerns of residents and ratepayers and ensure that all of their voices are heard. We believe that the process that follows this plebiscite must involve further community consultation, and when the Productivity Commission and the boundary commission consider the implications of an amalgamation, we are moving today that there be a secondary plebiscite held in those council areas as a precursor of any amalgamation plan.

I mentioned before some of the concerns arising from amalgamations, and I may put on the public record some of the data coming out of New South Wales. I did mention the Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council amalgamation. Those councils were forced to merge back in 2016 and a de-amalgamation process was announced this year after reports published by the Local Government Boundaries Commission.

The 70-page report described escalating tensions between the two communities following the forced merger of the shires in 2016. The council has been plagued by conflict and financial troubles throughout its short history. Mayor Charlie Sheahan is quoted after the release of the reports saying:

We can do the finances to death, but [we need to] start talking about the social aspect and the impact that's having on the people and that has come through in these submissions. That has played a big part in the decisions [that have been made].

Public submissions were overwhelmingly—overwhelmingly—in favour of demerging the councils. Since those councils have merged there has also been financial and staffing problems, and these were detailed in the LGBC public hearings in July. Over the five years to June 2021, the total spending exceeded the council's original adopted budget by $15.8 million. That is interesting when one considers the case for mergers, particularly in a regional context. We are often told that it is going to result in savings to ratepayers. The evidence in other jurisdictions is that that is not the case.

In 2020, a freeze on merging the two rate systems of the formerly separate councils came to an end, and the councils had until June 2021 to complete the harmonisation process. One pensioner in the local area has said that her rates increased by more than $200 as a result of the council merger. She stated the increase could not be justified because her area did not have the same services as major centres that were also included in the new merged council.

We need to think very carefully about what happens to councils when mergers take place: what happens in terms of rates, what happens in terms of service delivery and what happens in terms of community representation and the community voice. I am sure that these are all issues that the communities of Grant and Mount Gambier will turn their minds to, should this bill pass the parliament. I intend to make some additional comments in relation to my amendments during the next stage of the bill.


The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: I move:

Amendment No 1 [Simms–1]—

Page 2, line 3—Delete 'Plebiscite (South East Council Amalgamation)' and substitute:

South East Council Amalgamation (Plebiscite and Oversight)

I will speak very briefly because I did indicate where we are at in terms of our position in my second reading speech. What this amendment seeks to do is require that a poll be conducted before an amalgamation under the Local Government Act 1999 proceeds.

This would insert a new section that says that the Governor cannot make a proclamation amalgamating the District Council of Grant and the City of Mount Gambier to form a single council unless a poll is held in each of the councils and the Electoral Commissioner certifies to the Governor that a majority of electors voting at the poll in the District Council of Grant support the proposition of the poll and a majority of electors voting at the poll in the City of Mount Gambier support the proposition submitted in the poll. The proposition would be: do you support the amalgamation of the District Council of Grant and the City of Mount Gambier to form a single council?

My rationale in proposing this amendment is that this would provide constituents in the councils of Grant and Mount Gambier with real certainty heading into this plebiscite process. It means that they could participate in the plebiscite asking whether or not the government should investigate a merger, knowing that there is no risk that this could be seen as support for a merger itself, knowing that they are not in a position where they could potentially see a forced amalgamation by stealth. Rather, they would be in a position of knowing that the consultation the government is embarking on is indeed open-ended, knowing that they would then have the right to veto any potential amalgamation proposal. I do think that should be a template adopted when one is talking about amalgamations, to ensure that there is no risk of the needs of smaller councils being subjugated to the larger council bodies.

So, from our perspective in the Greens, this is really important insurance. It is protection for the people of Grant and Mount Gambier. Indeed, if supported, this would be a really important template in terms of dealing with council amalgamations in the future. But I do hope, of course, that the government does not have a council amalgamation agenda in mind because I think it might face a bumpy road in this place.