Local Government Amendment Bill 2019
18th June 2019
Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (15:35): Ispeak in favour of the Local Government Amendment Bill 2019. I recognise the Minister for Local Government, who is in the Chamber, and congratulate her on the delivery of the bill and on her appointment as a Minister in the Berejiklian-Barilaro Government. It is another great honourfor her in her career in this House. I have a little bit of experience with council—21 years on Lake Macquarie City Council and eight years and five months as the popularly elected mayor, not that I am counting. It has been a large council area for many years. I think it hit its straps in the 1960s and had rapid growth. I acknowledge the presence in the Chamber of the member for Charlestown, who followed me as Mayor of Lake Macquarie City. At the time I think it was the eighth largest council in Australia, so it was not an insignificant player in local government.
Ms Jodie Harrison: Fifth in the State.
Mr GREG PIPER: The member for Charlestown reminds me it is fifth in the State. It is a very large council. I note the contributions of members from both sides of the House who have talked about respect for local government. I have to say that overall that has not been my experience in this House. Since 2007 when I came to this place I have found that local government has been the whipping horse and an easy target for members who have a grievance against their local council, which is something that I have tried to avoid. I understand that local government is not an easy space to be in and it has a lot of constraints, some of which are financial and others political, but it is not always helpful for a local member to put the boot in to a council. I have experienced that under a Labor government and somewhat under the Coalition—but I have to say it probably happened more under Labor, from my recollection. I do not think anyone should get too high and mighty about their regard for local government. I acknowledge that the people who have made contributions to this debate generally come from a local government background and have a much greater understanding and respect for it.
I believe this bill is very supportable. I thank the Minister for her briefing to the crossbench. I will make particular note of the major components of the bill. The first is the increase in the threshold for councils needing to put out tenders for the acquisition of goods or services from $150,000 to $250,000. In this day and age there are not too many things a reasonably sized council does for less than $150,000. It would certainly not be uncommon for them to want to let a tender or take a contract in that order, so this is a very sensible change in the threshold. I am sure the member for Charlestown referenced that we have spoken to Lake Macquarie City Council and it broadly supports the measure. It said it will deliver savings in time and cost as well as provide other indirect benefits, such as reductions in red tape and regulatory burdens.
Second, the bill will ease burdens associated with recently merged councils. I congratulate Lake Macquarie City Council on doing a great jobdemonstrating why it was not appropriate for it to amalgamate with Newcastle City Council even though it was under a lot of pressure. It is excellent that it has not been burdened with the problems that other amalgamated councils are facing. This bill will be of assistance to councils that have problems with harmonising rates between them. Not all councils have the same problem. Local government areas are of varied size, population and geographic area. The different areas can be predominantly rural industry, be highly industrialised or have strong commercial centres that affect the wealth of the council. Every council is different and the Minister for Local Government and the Government in this instance have recognised that. I note that President of Local Government NSW Linda Scott is in support of extending the time to harmonise for those councils.
Schedule 1  to the bill has extended the deadline for councils which were considering outsourcing the administration of next year's local government elections. Specifically, the deadline has been extended from March to October this year. Lake Macquarie City Council has deferred making a decision on whether it will outsource the running of the election while it awaits the determination of the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal on its review of election running costs. I put on record that when the changes to allow councils to go outside the NSW Electoral Commission were made I was the mayor and I supported council taking up that option, as did the Local Government Association at the time. It believed it was a very valid option. I am not saying it is necessarily the best thing that councils are able to depart from the Electoral Commission. [Extension of time]
I supported the option because there was a significant increase in the costs that were being apportioned to local government for the running of local government elections. The commissioner did not deign to provide information about the supporting argument for such a significant increase, which I thought was an outrageous impost on local government at the time. While I would have preferred the election to be run through our State body, the NSW Electoral Commission, I did not believe we should just accede to the outrageous increase. The only other option was to go it external. While it did work, I do not think it worked as well as it would have if we had been with the NSW Electoral Commission, but the point was made.
I believe it is good to give councils the opportunity to make that decision but they should be better informed about it. I also support schedule 1  to 1  to the bill, which will allow a council to delegate some regulatory functions to another council in a controlled manner. Lake Macquarie City Council is very supportive of the change, saying it will create new opportunities to find efficiencies in the delivery of regulatory functions between it and other local councils, as well as the Hunter Joint Organisation of Councils.
Once again I say that the Hunter Joint Organisation of Councils is one of the most wonderful exemplars of a regional organisation of councils and it has been so for many years. It set the standard and was one of the models looked at during the amalgamation of councils. It has been doing a magnificent job in that space for a long time. I support the bill. Overall it will reduce some unnecessary red tape, save councils some time and money, provide a framework for better decision-making and improve regulatory framework without sacrificing the proper scrutiny of council functions or expenditure.
I wish such an approach had come much earlier—when we were talking about amalgamations and the need to address some of those issues—and not from the current Minister. In 2011 the then Minister for Local Government, Don Page, brought about a forum in Dubbo called Destination 2036. Did any members here attend Destination 2036? I did. As a member of Parliament and mayor of a significant council, I contributed to it. We had quite a bit to say about the opportunities to reform local government to address many issues that the member for Blacktown raised about cost-shifting, the burden on councils and the strain local government was under. We talked about Hunter councils as a model to get some of those sharing opportunities between councils. I am not talking about the library bill. Remember the library bill to allow libraries share some resources? Sixty?three speakers contributed to the second reading debate on that bill—there's a story of efficiency of the Legislative Assembly! Regardless of how inefficient local government is, that saga set the bar for inefficiency.
Held in 2011, Destination 2036 had a 25-year view. I believe the vast majority of members there went away feeling quite good, that perhaps there were opportunities to do things in a better way. But unfortunately the outcome was a raft of amalgamations that occurred without proper consultation and without support of local government. I heard the current Minister talk about going out and meeting people in local government and building bridges. There is a need to build bridges in local government. I believe the Minister is approaching the task in the proper manner. I wish the Minister the best in building a constructive and respectful relationship between the State Government and local government—perhaps this bill is the first step. I congratulate the Government and the Minister.
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