Last week’s Herald front page has been effective in stimulating community debate on Local Government (LG) reform, especially on the topic of amalgamations.
Since my election to Fremantle Council in 2005 the period has been defined by debate on LG reform. Eight years and three LG Ministers later my abject frustration is that the future is still not clear. This lack of clarity has become a Sword of Damocles, which has distracted LG from its core role of providing services for the community. New Zealand’s former LG minister Rodney Hide was the keynote speaker at a recent Committee for Perth Lunch, and whilst I am no fan of his benevolent dictator tactics, he did make one valuable point. That point is that any amalgamations should have clear objectives and be done in a short timeframe, the Western Australian experience falls down on both these aspects.
What is not always appreciated is the vast difference between reform and amalgamations. The Robson Report suggested 25 reform items, most of which are supported by Fremantle Council and WALGA. A couple were challenged by WALGA and the State Government have withdrawn those recommendations. Even on the reduction of the number of LG there is a lot of common ground, however simple amalgamations will not provide a good outcome. True reform would grasp the once in 50 year opportunity and redraw the metropolitan LG boundaries, based on Directions 2031 strategic centres and communities of interest. Fremantle Council engaged in the reform process in the hope there was a commitment for achieving the best outcome. As such Council considered Fremantle’s place as a strategic regional centre and which suburbs consider Fremantle as their commercial centre. While communities of interest will always rely on generalisation we felt we had achieved a good outcome using Stock Road as an eastern boundary. This would bring Hamilton Hill, Palmyra and East Fremantle into the new broader Fremantle. It also included significant infrastructure such as keeping Fremantle Ports in one jurisdiction and returning the old South Fremantle power station back into Fremantle. It looks increasingly more likely that the State Government will embrace the Robson Report recommendations, with Council borders based on bureaucratic simplicity rather than wisdom. If this occurs a great opportunity will be lost, along with the support of East Fremantle, Melville and Fremantle councils. Side-lining those charged with implementing any reforms seems ill-considered, arrogant and doomed to failure.
The group of Councils known as G20 put up a plan for an outcome with 16 or 17 councils that made a lot of sense and stood to enjoy the support of most of the councils and councillors in the metropolitan area. The only dissenters were those intrinsically opposed to amalgamations per se, and while they have every right to hold that position, Fremantle chose to become part of the solution.
Local Government Minister Tony Simpson says he is seeking the views of State Politicians before presenting a report to Government. I urge the MLA for Fremantle, Simone McGurk to support the position of Fremantle Council and our neighbours in any talks with the Minister in the hope that common sense will prevail.