THE answer, according to the NSW government, is to amalgamate more local councils around the state to create larger, more efficient entities and better economies of scale.
If that’s the answer, then maybe the wrong question has been asked.
Local government has many faults, but it has some tremendous virtues. One of the greatest of these is that it is ‘‘local’’. Councils employ people who live within their local government boundaries. They spend money in their local areas, helping to stimulate local economies and supporting local businesses. They make decisions – as far as they are permitted – about local matters using local knowledge and experience.
Contrast this with state governments. Taking NSW as an example, the state government expends the greater part of its energies and resources looking after the state capital. Portfolio spending – both capital and recurrent – is heavily skewed to the capital.
Why, for instance, does the government spend hundreds of millions of dollars on cultural facilities in the capital, but steadfastly refuse to let any more than a trickle of funds leak into the regions? It is a cause for much frustration that Newcastle – the state’s second city – is left by the state to support its libraries, museums, art galleries and historical sites from council rates.
Too often, when the NSW government takes an interest in the Hunter Region, its decisions can appear ill-informed and unsuited to local circumstances.
No doubt some benefits can be obtained by amalgamating some local government areas.
However, many would argue that much greater benefits would accrue to ratepayers in regional NSW if only the current resourcing inequities could be effectively addressed.
Some day that will probably happen. Non-capital residents of NSW will eventually reach the point where they will refuse to tolerate the unfairness and put their demands for reform with such force that they can no longer be ignored.
Before then, however, the state government will keep pushing for council amalgamations. If the push becomes irresistible, ratepayers must insist that the resulting ‘‘super-councils’’ don’t replicate in smaller scale the negative aspects of centralised state rule.
Already many ratepayers within existing council boundaries – such as Beresfield in Newcastle and some parts of western Lake Macquarie – consider themselves victims of local government bureaucracies that can’t see far beyond the walls of their council chambers.
Any proposals for amalgamating councils in the Hunter must include safeguards to ensure the inevitable centralisation of administration does not exacerbate existing disadvantage, real or perceived, for those who don’t live close to the new centres of power.