Think-tanks declare Fit for the Future local council amalgamations “unacceptable”

Guyra residents protesting against the merger. Photo: Rachel Baxter
Guyra residents protesting against the merger. Photo: Rachel Baxter

Last month, two think-tanks – the “free-market” Institute of Public Affairs, and the “progressive” Per Capita Australia – identified NSW local council amalgamations as one of the worst of the 20 policies they investigated in the country.

Their Evidence Based Policy Research Project deemed the process “Unacceptable”, with an average score of only 2.5 out of 10.

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The Liberal-National Coalition merged Guyra with Armidale Dumaresq Council in 2016, as part of their “Fit for the Future” scheme.

Local government reform, the NSW Office of Local Government website stated, would “create new, stronger councils, improve council performance, and strengthen the system of local government.

“The reforms will deliver substantial savings and benefits for local communities in NSW.”

After several councils took legal action, the government only went ahead with 19 of the planned 35 mergers, before abandoning the scheme in July 2017.

The think-tanks’ report found that the NSW government did not make a public interest argument for the policy, or consider alternative approaches or implementation choices, but proceeded by making amalgamations mandatory.

They also stated that the policy rollout failed to meet proper administrative processes, and that government did not develop legislation, instead undertaking mergers by proclamation.

Government did not adequately consult stakeholders, the report also found; in fact, local councils were not even privy to the costings. Nor could they find any evidence of a cost-benefit analysis.

The Evidence Based Policy Research Project tested whether a meaningful, widely-accepted standard for evidence-based policy making could be achieved by asking the two think-tanks, one Right and one Left-wing, to test 20 major policies and see if they could find common ground.

“How not to tackle hard policy”

Last year, solicitor, government policy officer, and UNSW Law PhD candidate Lynsey Blayden called the council amalgamations “a study in how not to tackle hard policy” on the Aus Pub Law blog.

The government, Ms Blayden argued, apparently ignored recommendations and submissions from an independent local government review panel of experts in 2012/13; an inquiry by the Legislative Council Committee in 2015, which called the process “unfair and misleading”; and a review by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal, also in 2015.

The government, Ms Blayden said, “seemingly rel[ied] instead upon a report from consultancy firm KPMG, commissioned by the government, regarding potential savings to be made from amalgamating councils. This report was not made public in its entirety, meaning that the rationale for decisions regarding particular councils seemed opaque to many affected by them.”

The KPMG report claimed to save ratepayers $2 billion – but these calculations contained several errors, prompting a public backlash, the think-tanks’ report also noted.

Save and Grow Guyra (formerly known as Guyra Anti Council Amalgamation – ANTY) will hold a demalgamation meeting at the Bowling Club this Thursday, at 7pm