Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Amalgamation: Good or bad for Freo?

A little like my expanding girth (suffice to say the word diet has been mentioned by my wife) amalgamating local governments has been in the news lately and the consensus seems to be that bigger isn't better. So what does it mean for Freo?

Does the Supermarket v. Boutique analogy hold true?

An analogy that I've frequently heard bandied around is that we currently enjoy a smaller 'boutique' style local government, and that amalgamation will create a 'supersized' Coles/Woolworths type authority.

But does this comparison hold true under scrutiny?

Obviously, this analogy is heavily loaded in favour of the current smaller style. Who's going to come out in favour of a soulless supermarket conglomerate over mum-and-dad type small businesses?

By using the term 'boutique', proponents of this analogy are implying a raft of attributes to smaller local government authorities. Personal, attentive service with locals in mind. Higher quality, albeit with higher prices. Customers will be treated as more than a number. A boutique local government will have local knowledge and the decisions it makes will be based on local needs.

Likewise, the term supermarket also comes loaded with meaning. Soulless. Uncaring of local needs and with no investment in the local area. Cheaper, yes, but only because their buying power can crush smaller competitors. Careless about quality. Customers, employees, suppliers - they're only valued so far as they serve the supermarket's relentless drive for more market share and more profits.

The thing is that I currently live in a so-called boutique local government and I can't honestly say that the current City of Fremantle local government possesses any of those superior 'boutique' qualities. Does it demonstrate that it really cares about the local area? Does it value its community? Does it provide high quality products and services?

The answer to all of these questions is a no.

In fact, it feels very much like the incumbent City of Fremantle local authority currently has much more in common with a supermarket than a boutique, except for its size. When people say that a Coles/Woolworths type local authority would be bad, I'm thinking that they mean that they'd get a local authority that was soulless, that was generally apathetic to its ratepayers, that has little genuine love for the area or the community. Isn't that what we're getting now?

The dustbowl

The Town Hall not looking the best

Freo Festival of Litter

All of this got me thinking about what's bad about shopping in Coles in Fremantle. What's bad is when you go shopping for bread at two in the afternoon and find that, yet again, your favourite rustic baguettes have sold out. You mention something to the seventeen year old employee passing by. The response is a sulky look that says, as clearly as if it was enunciated, "Thanks for telling me something I didn't know, grandpa. Besides we're doing you a favour - you could do without having a couple of baguettes."

My point is that if we currently have a boutique local government authority now, with boutique sized prices, what am I getting for my extra money? The City of Fremantle isn't going the extra mile. They're not making better decisions for the community. Look at the Bathers Beach black asphalt landing strip and dustbowl, the crumbling Town Hall, the ten day turnaround on queries.

I think that it has become fashionable to use the Coles/Woolworths analogy without any real scrutiny as to what it actually means and whether or not it applies to Freo's situation. Try as I might, I'm just not buying this analogy. I can't help but feel that what we're getting is a Coles/Woolworths type local government at boutique prices...the worst of both worlds.

Will ratepayers get better value for money?

The economic argument against small local government is that the smaller bureaucracies may be quite top heavy, in that there are lots of chiefs and not as many Indians. For me this isn't value for money, nor does it guarantee higher quality. The chiefs, by virtue of a lack of Indians can find themselves dealing in micro level activities that are not justified according to their pay scale. Meanwhile, the Indians can come and go because of a lack of opportunity, whilst chiefs tend to hang around too long. Staff turnover, especially when it is likely to be an Indian, does not provide any kind of value for ratepayers. Plus, the energy and innovativeness of the organisation stagnates.

All the while, local governments are being asked to undertake more and more complicated projects. Unfortunately, as a result local governments will outsource all or part of a particular project to consultants, because they don't have the staff numbers, nor the expertise, to implement them. This just exacerbates the lack of opportunities for staff and for small local governments this vicious cycle is exacerbated.

Relying on consultants isn't great value for money either. These days consultants don't come cheap. And what is disappointing is that after we've paid for their next holiday, these consultants leave with the body of knowledge related to implement that project. It is particularly galling to think that enthusiastic staff within the smaller local authority could be missing out on golden opportunties to test themselves on interesting projects. This brings us back to the vicious cycle again.

In one sense an argument for a significantly larger local government for Freo is that the new bureaucracy will be more likely to carry out significant infrastructure projects. Light rail in Freo may become more of a distinct possibility, which isn't the case at the moment.

For me, whether or not ratepayers will get value for money does not necessarily come down to the size of the bureaucracy but the quality of the staff. A bureaucracy where there are more Indians than chiefs, and where they can test themselves means a better, more effective local government.

Will we lose the sense of community that smaller local governments are credited with bringing?

I used to be a subscriber to the argument that smaller local governments have a competitive advantage when it comes to creating a greater sense of community than their larger compatriots. Then I travelled to Paris.

Inner Paris is made up of twenty arrondissements with about two million people. A single local government administration manages all those neighbourhoods. One of the many lessons that I learnt from walking through many of these arrondissements was that each neighbourhood had managed to retain its own uniqueness and community.

It made me realise that a sense of community is rarely reliant on an organisation for its existence. Instead, the feeling of community in a place is created by the people who live there.

I'm far from convinced that smaller local governments have an exclusive mortgage on creating a sense of community. I've never been to Brisbane (which only has one local government authority), but I wonder if there is a sense of community missing in that city? I doubt it.

I'm thinking that the whole building-a-sense-of-community thing has less to do with the size of our local bureaucracies and more to do with people. Sure local authorities can play a role but Freo has an awesome community almost in spite of the local authority.

What does all of this mean for amalgamation and Freo?

Firstly, to argue that a new larger bureaucracy representing Freo will be robbed of its superior 'boutique' qualities is flawed, given our current local governent's performance.

Secondly, to suggest that Freo's already awesomely kick ass sense of community will disappear in a blink of an eye if our boundaries expand seems to me to patronise all those people and community groups helping to create that sense of community.

Lastly, unlike my own expanding girth, I tend to feel that a larger City of Greater Fremantle presents more benefits than costs over the long term.


  1. Many good points here yet again, Michael!

    Amalgamations does not need to be huge. Freo and East Freo together, plus a bit down South to just past the old South Freo power station would do.

    Give more power to precincts, have more and smaller BID groups, who look after parts of the city and the community.

    The City of Fremantle spends a lot of money on consultants. Does that mean they employ incompetent staff? I don't think that is the case.

    Consultants are seen as giving more credibility to projects, especially when we fly them in from the Eastern States. I have listened to one of them three times now about economy and retail and was thinking if he got his knowledge from Google, because he told us nothing new.

    Boutique does not mean better service or better quality and supermarket does not stand fro crap. As always in life amalgamations need to be about finding the right balance and what is best for the community.

    Roel Loopers

  2. Excellent blog Michael and 100% agree