Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Much to do about nothing: A survey about amalgamation

Firstly, a little bit of fun because I couldn't help it and I begged and begged my wife to let me. (I hope Freo Doctor Blog readers know that as a result of my begging I've been forced to begin an exercise program that involves me jogging down to South Beach with my wife cycling by my side. The sacrifices I go through. She said she'd dangle a piece of prosciutto in front of me, so it's not all bad though.)

So how did Fremantle Council end up deciding to survey us all about amalgamation recently?

a) Back in mid-November, Councillor Wilson anticipated that I would suffer a debilitating bout of cruiselag after returning to Freo at the end of my cruise. He thought that he'd do his bit and provide this mild mannered blogger with something to get scribbling about. (There's a seriously awesome power salute coming your way, Councillor Wilson.)

b) In November, and after watching Field of Dreams, Councillor Wilson went to bed and had a strange dream - the Premier beckoning him with calls of "survey them, survey them, I'm really interested to see what they think about amalgamation; there's a state election coming up and if I win I'll claim a mandate, plus it's not Council's decision to make, but what the hey, go ahead and survey them anyway. I could do with a laugh." Councillor Wilson immediately woke up and dotted down the wording for the resolution, ignoring a lingering question as to why he'd been dreaming about Colin Barnett.

c) Councillor Wilson read my awesome blog post about amalgamation earlier this year (click here) and secretly resolved then and there that come December he'd do his darndest to provide a stellar example of why amalgamation really should go ahead. (Sorry, Councillor Wilson, but the City's continued inaction on the Bathers Beach dustbowl, following complaints from local businesses and residents, beats you to the punch.)

d) Thwaites and Wilberforce are back?


Now for the serious stuff:

The sense of community argument

The misconception: Without smaller local governments people's sense of community will wither and die.

The reality: It won't. A sense of community relies on the people, not a bureaucratic organisation. 

I used to passionately believe in retaining the small sizes of our local government areas in Perth. I suppose I had fallen for the whole 'small is better' argument. I also bought too much into the notion that a bureaucratic organisation, such as a local government authority, can play in creating and fostering community. Then we moved to Fremantle, where smaller is definitely not better and the people create the community.

If Perth, like Brisbane, was made up of only one local government, would Fremantle's history disappear? No. Would Freoites no longer get that awesome feeling of coming home when the port's cranes become visible? Nope. Would all of Freo's many and varied community groups stop meeting and gathering? Can't see it happening. Is there no sense of community in Brisbane? I wouldn't bet on it. So what makes local government around Perth, and in particular Fremantle, so much better than their counterparts in Brisbane, or Paris, or New York?

The Hulbert Street Sustainability Fiesta has emerged as a classic example of Freo's awesome sense of community in recent years. It is successfully run and managed. It continues to grow. Was it the brainchild of a bureaucrat or a resident? A resident. Has it been run by a bureaucracy or by locals? Locals of course.

Nope, smallish local governments don't have a mortgage over community building.

The smaller is better argument

The misconception: Smaller local governments are best positioned to deliver on people's more demanding expectations.

The truth: Show me the money! It is simply not going to happen with under resourced and top heavy small local governments.

Historically speaking local governments have specialised in operations. 'Rates, roads and rubbish' is the old catch cry that some people use to describe the traditional function of a local government. It served small local governments really well for a really long time.

Things have changed though. Expectations have shifted, quickly and dramatically. In 2012, local government is way more than just the three R's and I'm not entirely convinced that smaller local govies can meet expectations.

Take bike infrastructure: Granted the City has made a significant investment in cycling infrastructure over the past couple of years, but it's a drop in the ocean. People's expectations about living in a bike-friendly city are exponentially increasing. I read of well funded and resourced cities in the United States and Europe who have delivered oodles and oodles of bike lanes over the past four years.

And that gets me onto public transport investment: Imagine you're the Premier in 2013 and you've decided to invest in a massive public transport programme for Perth. Now put your hand up if you want to deal with thirty two - that's right, thirty two - local government authorities complete with all those hundreds of Councillors? Not me.
Nope, I'm not buying this argument either. Me, I want to live in a city where my local government is well funded and resourced. It isn't top heavy. It has the capacity to carry out its operational aspects (the three R's), implement its own projects without relying on consultants, and deliver quality infrastructure.


Without smaller local governments people's sense of community will not wither and die. A sense of community relies on the people, not a bureaucratic organisation. People's expectations of their local government authority are changing. These expectations will only become more difficult to satisfy if local authorities are under resourced and top heavy.


  1. Hi Michael, you've got me thinking and I agree.

    Peppermint Grove council for example is so small that they simply do not have employees in 'all disciplines' - like economic development (I think).

    This means that Peppermint Grove might not be providing even BASIC support/services in some areas (contary to providing 'superior, localised' services).


  2. Hi Swanny, another good point you raise.

    Smaller local governments are not always better, neither is bigger. I believe it lies in organisation, resourcing, being given a degree of autonomy from state of federal governments and basing your council around historical centres.

    There is a lot of repetition in WA and within Metro Perth, with the work the state and local councils do. The work is not organised so well nor streamlined. Local Council's in Perth Metro and WA are not given enough autonomy in some areas from the State and looked down upon. From my experience in State Government, it felt like there was an extra layer sitting over the 32 Perth Metro Councils, and that did not always be beneficial.

    I believe bigger LGA's would work if they focused around historical city centres like Freo, Perth, Melville, Midland etc.. with greater autonomy from the State, to develop schemes and plans. Sure you need regional plans, but local councils have expertise and can carry that out. Some of the smaller ones could stay.

    I use Vancouver, B.C, Canada as an example. It is large City Government (roughly comparable to the size or Perth, Vincent, Sth Perth, Cambridge, Subiaco, Vic Park LGA's combined). Historically it has been the capital of the province of B.C (British Columbia), it has it's own act of Provincial parliament for funding and for autonomous decision making (although rare was granted due to the fact it is the capital city).

    The City feels like a City, it has many great government and public organisations like Chambers of Commerce and neighbourhood improvement groups and they all work. The Mayor is more like a premier than a Mayor, and neighbourhoods get to shape their own destiny also, local flavour is still retained whilst the City works on big ticket items like being the greenest city in the world by 2020.

    Maybe some of the Western Suburbs could be amalgamated into Freo along with East Freo? For mine Freo should be a City on it's right and not just a vibrant neighbourhood of Metro Perth.

    The Vancouver Mover