Local government mergers will have to go ahead in the future, probably under a forced amalgamation scenario, despite the State Government’s recent abandonment of mergers across the Western Australian capital, says a Perth-based political scientist.
Murdoch University Senior Political and International Studies Lecturer Ian Cook says opposition by most of Perth’s 30 local councils to the government’s abandoned plan to slash the number of councils to 16 is not sustainable in the long term.
“The people looking for reform of local government are arguing for the most part it is resource based, and it was too small to sustain councils who could provide services and meet the needs of the community,” Dr Cook told InkWire.
“Every government that comes in will see the same problem, and everyone will be seeing a problem and thinking ‘can we do anything about it’?”
Earlier this year after much opposition, mainly from the smaller councils, the government abandoned its mooted amalgamations.
Councils were required to fund the process of preparing for amalgamation, and some councils have sought compensation from the government.
One planned merger under the government’s plans was that of the City of South Perth with the neighbouring Town of Victoria Park to form a City of South Park.
The planned name of the merged city was a source of amusement for Perth people familiar with the outrageous cartoon series of the same name, but many South Perth and Victoria Park councillors failed to see the humour.
South Perth councillor Glenn Cridland said that his city was always opposed to the merger.
“We are a financially sustainable city, and there is nothing to be gained, apart from increases in rates, in amalgamating with Vic Park,” Cr Cridland said.
“The City of South Perth represents its ratepayers and residents, and almost 80 per cent of the people who voted in South Perth rejected the amalgamation.
“South Perth takes note of what the people say, and it’s a very good result for the local residents that the amalgamation won’t go ahead.”
Under the government’s plans, the City of Fremantle would have merged with the Town of East Fremantle and taken on the suburbs of Bicton, Hamilton Hill and Palmyra.
Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt said the amalgamation would have been good for Fremantle.
“We didn’t see [the abandonment of mergers] as a good result,” Dr Pettitt said.
“We were one of the few local governments that actually supported the amalgamation process.
“Fremantle would have gone to a city that is currently about 30,000 people to one that would have been about 65,000 people.
“The benefits would have seen a not only bigger city that’s got more financial capacity to do key projects and better economies to scale, but also it was a community where the local government boundaries would have aligned with what we would say is the community of interest.”
Cr Cridland said the City of South Perth spent close to $1 million on the process.
He suggested the government should help cover some of the costs.
“It’s very hard to force the State Government to do anything, but morally they should compensate the councils,” he said.
“The few banners and the post outs the city did to try and convince people to vote probably cost between 10,000 and 20,000 dollars, so the expenses on that were very small.
“But the City of South Perth has spent around a million dollars on carrying out a whole heap of pre-amalgamation things the State Government made us do.
“They required us to have all of these meetings, start preparing new policies, and preparing to put together new service areas.”
Local Government Minister Tony Simpson told InkWire the State Government would not compensate councils to for the pre-amalgamation costs.
“The government has indicated that it has already provided significant funds to local governments and will not be providing further funding,” Mr Simpson said.
Cr Cridland said although the process was not a complete waste of time, money and resources, the City of South Perth could have used the funding to upgrade facilities in its local area.
“A million dollars is a lot of money,” Cr Cridland said.
“We could have reduced rates.
“We could have done a lot of work on river walls, and we could have done work on sporting ovals or tennis courts …
“… instead we wasted it on amalgamation preparation the State Government told us we had to do.”
Although some councils did support the amalgamation, Dr Cook said the reforms were not a vote winner.
He didn’t think the Barnett Government would try to amalgamate councils again.
Dr Cook said it would require a bold move from a future state government to simply push ahead with the reforms.
“The next government has to keep it on the agenda,” he said.
“[The state government] have made some ground here.
“In the end if a government wants to do it, it is just going to have to impose it.
“In Queensland, it is a pretty classical illustration.
“They went through this maybe 10 years ago and in the end the government just stepped in and said: ‘it’s going to happen, we are just going to do it and you just have to suck it up’.”
Cr Cridland said it would be a long time before the City of South Perth trusted the government again, which made it unlikely the city would support another amalgamation push.
“When you lose that sort of trust, it is hard to get it back,” he said.
Photo of Perth: Sebastian Neuweiler