The hidden cost of council amalgamation: a diversity perspective

Photo of corflutes for candidates in the Inner West Council elections in December 2021.
Photo: Bernadette Smith

At an Inner West council forum on November 14, several candidates expressed concerns regarding the impacts of amalgamation.

They ranged from the observation that private contractors were leaving the grass to grow “waist high” on nature strips to the more disturbing fact that workforce wages and conditions at outsourced council facilities had deteriorated.

Since the forced merger of Ashfield, Leichardt and Marrickville Councils in 2016, there have been anecdotal reports of overcrowding, understaffing and reduced services at council-owned pools and recreation facilities.

During the forum at Gumbramorra Hall at Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville, hosted by the City Hub, candidates were asked whether they supported outsourcing of council services and facilities management.

The Labor team said they no longer supported outsourcing because previous council outsourcing had led to lower wages and declining conditions.

Socialist Alliance said community assets should not be handed over to the for-profit sector — a form of privatisation by stealth.

The Independent team said that ratepayers should be aware that anything asked for needed to be paid for. That left me a nagging worry that, for them, outsourcing remained on the table to balance budgets.

The Independent team said they supported diversity. But during the last council term, there was little concern for people living with disabilities in public spaces.

One of the Independents team later told me that I had nothing to worry about with outsourcing recreational facilities as there would be strict contractual regulation of contractors to protect clients from overcrowding and unsafe practices and that council staff would ensure that guidelines were adhered to.

But overseeing private contractors should not be a concern for council staff: the level of supervision required to ensure regulatory compliance and safe access for the disabled, for example, could create an unrealistic workload.

The main body governing public safety at privately-managed council facilities is regulated under the umbrella of Occupational Health and Safety, which mainly targets workers’ conditions.

Workplace NSW, that mandates the responsibilities of private companies managing council pools and facilities across the state, or a , specifies that health and safety consultation can only be done with worker representatives.

It is unclear whether there are any other regulatory frameworks or independent safeguards to protect the welfare of people using the public-private facilities.

Without sufficient regulations, independent oversight or practical compliance measures to protect people’s rights and safety, some people — especially the elderly and disabled — are in danger of being injured or forced out of overcrowded, outsourced council-owned facilities.

We may never know how many people have been injured from unsafe conditions at privately-operated council facilities because there is usually a confidentiality clause that corporations force the injured to sign before they can receive compensation to help defray their resulting medical costs.

The inadequate provision of services arising from privatisation can also create unresolved discrimination issues, particularly for people living with disabilities.

Seeking redress for discrimination is difficult as victims are forced to fund their own court case to obtain justice. The evidence suggests that discrimination cases involving disability are the least likely to succeed.

This is unsurprising given that the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) is perhaps the weakest of Australia’s anti-discrimination laws. Unlike other anti-discrimination legislation, the DDA has a clause for “unjustifiable hardship,” which means discrimination is permissible if corporations providing a public service can argue that case.

In addition, when council facilities are contracted out to be managed by private companies, the jurisdiction regarding protection of peoples’ rights becomes confusing as no regulatory body will take responsibility for compliance of mixed public-private facilities.

Studies show that measures introduced to accommodate the needs of disabled people in public facilities often have flow-on benefits for able-bodied customers. This is known as the “curb cut effect”.

When curb cuts are installed to allow wheelchair users and those using mobility aids to access the pavement, for example, it also benefits kids riding bikes, parents with prams, people wheeling luggage or shopping trolleys and many others.

When spaces are created to be accessible to as many people as possible it benefits everyone, not just disabled people. Yet council budgets are being balanced in ways that can hurt people if corners are cut on safety and understaffing through the outsourcing of public facilities.

One must also ask whether the core purpose of a municipal council is to provide adequate services for the community, such as maintaining and improving recreational assets within budget or to outsource the management of public facilities for profit.

The Local Government Association of South Australia in its states that: “External management is best suited to situations where council wishes to minimise the cost of operating the recreational facility” and that “in-house management is not best suited to situations where the core purpose of a recreational facility is to provide a commercial return on investment”.

This begs the question: if public recreation facilities are to be used as a profit stream for council why hand it over to private corporations thus denying the very reason for following this course?

Many Inner West Council staff changes under the forced council amalgamation policy and party-political appointed council administrators have led to questionable decision-making that has seemingly bypassed normal council processes of councillor and citizen scrutiny.

As community assets become increasingly monetised for private profit, the management agreements in place between councils and private companies are often cloaked in secrecy protected by commercial-in-confidence provisions.

The problem of poor and confusing government regulation of newly- privatised public facilities is becoming more critical as time goes by: they undermine a society that includes people with disabilities.

This pervasive spread of privatisation and the harmful corporate ethos brought on by the forced council amalgamation must be stopped if we are going to ensure true diversity.

[Bernadette Smith is a disability advocate.]