On 17 and 18 August 2011 over 350 representatives from every Council across the State descended on Dubbo for the Destination 2036 Workshop. Thus began the process of creating a stronger and more viable local government sector. After 1,120 days of consultation; review; discussion; review; submissions and some more review, this week finally saw the long-awaited announcement of the ‘Fit for the Future’ reform package from the State Government.

It is called a $1 billion reform package and, as is often the case in a major reform such as this, the first announcements are made up of sweeping statements that sound fantastic but the detail will reveal the real outcomes for the 152 Councils across NSW. For example, and I quote from the Fit for the Future website, “Reductions in red tape and duplication will save Councils up to $100 million.” Sounds great! I will be interested to see exactly how those savings will be created and delivered to the bottom lines of Councils across the State.

The report goes on to mention such items as regulatory review where “An independent review of the regulatory burden on NSW councils to identify opportunities to improve outcomes and avoid duplication” will occur and the reform will “clarify roles for Mayors, Councillors and General Managers and provide guidance to help Council leaders work more effectively together.” There are many such examples of impressive sounding statements but, as yet, I am unsure how each individual Council will fully benefit from the reforms.

Often in a situation such as this, a government body misses the opportunity to make sweeping standardised reforms for fear of disappointing some organisations involved in the reform process. The area of the election of Mayors is one that stands out for me as an obvious example. At the 2016 local government elections, 30 Council areas will elect their Mayor directly in addition to their Councillors while 122 will elect just the Councillors and the Councillors will elect their Mayor. At the 2008 election there were 31 directly elected Mayors and in 2012 this dropped back to 26. While the directly elected Mayors are elected for a four year term, the Mayors elected by Councillors are elected for a one year term. The reform has taken a half-way approach to the feedback on Mayors. Instead of standardising on one format, it has recommended that Councils with directly elected Mayors remain that way and Councillor elected Mayors have their term extended from one year to two years. This to me seems like an example of having an each-way bet. This is just one area where firm leadership could have been shown by the State Government. There are arguments in both directions for a directly elected Mayor versus a Councillor elected Mayor.

A directly elected Mayor gives the people the power in a democratic society; delivers predictability in leadership and removes any potential for ‘horse-trading’ each year leading up to an election. On the downside a Council could end up with a powerless leader as there would be no accountability to the Councillors and Council resolutions always take precedence over a decision made by the Mayor. Directly elected Mayors, particularly in the Sydney Councils, often involve political parties with massive election campaigns. A case in point is the $88,539.07 that the Liberal Mayor of Liverpool, Ned Mannoun, spent on his 2012 election campaign. This type of money would rule many people out of the democratic process. I actually prefer the Councillor elected model – which is effectively the same as the State and Federal Government processes. We didn’t vote for Mike Baird as our Premier – but we entrust the current ruling Government to elect the best of their group to lead the State. Councils are the same – the system that 122 Councils have in place where a Mayor is accountable on an annual basis to the ruling body of Council ensures that there is an accountable performance review on an ongoing basis and it ensures that the Mayor of each Council makes it a high priority to maintain a healthy working relationship with all Councillors. Presumably if the Mayor is performing he will be given the reins again but if the performance is below standard, a better alternative will be found.

There are many more arguments in both directions so the State Government could have been justified in taking a standardised approach and making the system the same across the State. If not the same across the State, then possibly standardising the system for Sydney Councils and non-Sydney Councils. When you examine the current election of Mayors between the two groups, there are glaring statistical differences. There are 38 Councils in the Sydney area of which 13 Mayors are directly elected – or 34.2 per cent. The majority of these Mayors stood on a political ticket with only 3 independents. In the remaining 114 non-Sydney Councils, 17 Mayors are directly elected which represents only 14.9 per cent. Of these, only 2 Mayors stood on party lines. When you further examine the number of politically aligned Councillors in Sydney Councils compared to non-Sydney Councils (take the simple examples of Liverpool where all 11 elected Councillors stood on party tickets and Burwood where all 7 elected Councillors stood on party tickets compared to Dubbo where no candidates were backed by a political party) then it seems obvious that the disconnect between Council and community in Sydney areas may mean some more dramatic changes in the Sydney range of Councils.

The announcements this week by the Minister for Local Government are only the beginning but at least we have started on the journey. Tell me the number one aspect of local government that needs to change across NSW at mayor@dubbo.nsw.gov.au

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