Local Government the Primary Tier of Government and the role of Local Government Managers

HON ROBIN CHAPPLE (Mining and Pastoral) [5.44 pm]:

I want to speak briefly on the motion moved by Hon Ljiljanna Ravlich, who called on the Minister for Local Government to explain why he has not been able to achieve local government council reform and to provide details of how much has been spent on it to date. I think the minister representing the Minister for Local Government has done a good job in responding to those issues. However, as someone who served on local government for seven years and on the Country Shire Councils Association and the Western Australian Municipal Association—the original Western Australian Local Government Association—I have a bit of a personal interest in this. As a former local government councillor and someone who stands before members today, I consider that local government is actually the primary form of government. It is government by the people, for the people at the very source of where people need input. What this government has done in a number of cases has actually worked against those principles. It is not just this government either. Since 1995 when changes were made to the Local Government Act, we have seen the devolution of power from elected local government members and those powers becoming much more enshrined in local government managers.

I note that the Minister for Child Protection said many local councils now could not even get nominees. People in regional areas say that one reason people do not nominate is that they feel disempowered. Today, local government managers rule the roost in most cases. The point was brought home to me recently that if a council wants to sack a local government manager these days, the council ends up in litigation for years and eventually an out-of-court settlement is reached. However, if the council does not go down that path, it is, in essence, being blackmailed to hand over upwards of $200 000 a year and usually to provide a house and a car to get rid of the local government manager. Local government managers have become the power of local government. Although Port Hedland was the first council in Australia to have a local government manager, we sought special dispensation from Ian Taylor, the then Deputy Premier, to have a local government manager, as opposed to a shire clerk. It was after that happened that the Local Government Act was amended in 1995. There were some inherent problems in having shire clerks, but the process of having local government managers has literally emasculated local government. Whether it is in the south west or the north west, councillors quite often find themselves completely hamstrung by their administration.

A case was brought to my attention a few days ago of a local government that has been trying to deal with an incompetent manager who had been repeatedly sent off to be retrained as a manager of local government. In the end, that could not happen so the council had to negotiate an outcome and that person eventually agreed to leave. In deference to the Clerk of the house, if our Clerk was not doing a proper job, we would come to a conclusion and say, ―Sorry, but goodbye.‖ This is about that role. Local government has lost the power to be an independent voice. If a local government is not operating properly and making good fiscal judgements, that needs to be brought to the attention of the local electors and they must determine to elect councillors and mayors who will do a good job. That is the very same way that we operate in this chamber. If we do not do a good job, at the end of our term we will be gone; it is about doing a good job. The problem is that local governments have a local government manager who, in many cases does not do a good job, and unfortunately the councillors are blamed for that. Part of the restructuring of local government should identify where the fiscal management problems of local governments are coming from rather than blame local government as an entity. If we were to look at restructuring, we should look at some of the fundamentals of management.

Then we come to the whole issue of development assessment panels. If local government is for the people and by the people at the local area to make decisions, to have a development assessment panel that is implemented by the state over and above the interests of local government is completely against the principles of the third most important tier of government. I look forward to the day—I hope it is not too far off, though I have my doubts—when local government will be formally acknowledged in the Constitution as the third tier of government so that local people can be empowered to elect their councillors and manage their systems at a local level. That is the devolution of power that we need, not centralisation and not the overseeing of power by any government, whether it be a former government or this government, and forced amalgamation. As the minister has said, there are many cases of councils that have lost their community and have become smaller as a result of the mining boom, fly in, fly out workers and those sorts of things. In fact, some of the large councils in the Pilbara are already suffering from that. It is important that they have the opportunity to amalgamate. That is the way decisions should be made—by communities at a local government level and not by imposition of any minister, whether it be a Labor minister, a National Party minister or a Liberal Party minister. This is the most important aspect of people’s regional involvement. When we find councils that work, which have taken back control over local government managers, we will find that the community becomes empowered and progressive and it moves forward.

I certainly think that local government should be its own master, it should be its own decision maker and it should not be ruled by any state authority. I look forward to the day when local governments are duly constituted within the Australian Constitution to be the third, if not most important, tier of government in the nation.

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