By Ian Jamieson
Tasmania's minority Liberal government is continuing to receive stunning blows as a result of its attempt to "reform" local government in Tasmania. In a series of Australian Electoral Commission-run polls organised by seven councils, up to 90% of voters have rejected recommendations by the Local Government Board (LGB) to amalgamate a range of local governments.
Opinion polls in Hobart have also indicated 60% opposition to the amalgamation of Hobart's three city councils.
Local government reform, amounting to the forced amalgamation of the state's 29 councils in to no more than 15, has been a major plank of the Liberal's policy of opening Tasmania to further business development. While some councils favour amalgamation, a majority have strenuously opposed it. Demonstrations in rural areas such as Circular Head in the state's north-west and the West Coast have brought hundreds into conflict with Premier Tony Rundle. Legal action and a combined anti-amalgamation rally in Hobart have also been threatened.
In the face of massive opposition, the local government minister, Denise Swan, has backed off to a degree on the government's timetable. However, it seems unlikely the LGB will radically alter its findings that there should be only 10 local councils, including the two councils of King and Flinders Islands. To do so would compromise its integrity and make a farce of its alleged independent review board.
Community opposition stems from a range of issues. With the failure of Tasmania's upper house to reduce the number of state politicians, Rundle's reform agenda has become unstuck and many now query his attack on local councils.
Scepticism is rife about claims that Kennett's Victoria has provided a good example in local government reform. Apart from dictatorial and undemocratic sackings of councils there, it is now widely accepted that the economic costs have been enormous and will continue to be so for the ratepayers.
The LGB's recommendations take no account of the human and social costs to communities, urban or rural. The primary concern of the LGB, and the government, has been alleged cost savings. Even then, the economic models drawn up by the state treasury have given scant attention to economic data presented by local councils.
The LGB has even ignored its own brief in using water catchment areas as natural boundaries for determining council areas. It also appears to have breached the Local Government Act in acting against the best interests of ratepayers in the delivery of services.
The board is well aware that more 400 jobs would have to be shed, along with a range of services to rural and isolated areas, if the amalgamations go ahead.
Perhaps the biggest factor in the opposition to forced amalgamation, however, is the loss of community identity that would result.
The Rundle government's intent is fairly transparent. It wants to shave its share of the millions in grants currently paid to councils and create larger economic centres to attract investment from big business. This would obviously be to the detriment of small business, which relies heavily on local government.
This aim dovetails with forcing local councils to accept the findings of the Hilmer report, where competitive tendering, business units and contracting out service provision have become commonplace.
That Rundle has proceeded so far down the path in the face of revolts in his own party is due to the Tasmanian Greens' failure to strongly oppose the plan.
Despite lame calls to heed the elector polls, the Greens have yet to show any resolution in backing calls for the process to be scrapped or any interest in helping communities fight for the retention of their councils. Interestingly, the ALP has vocally supported community protests, vowing to support moves to prevent the forcible amalgamation of councils in parliament.
The LGB, having recently been instructed by the local government minister to hear "new evidence" on its prior recommendations, will present its new findings later this month.