Feature Article - Local government in the 1990s
Contributed by Dr Colin Balmer, Deputy Director, Municipal Association of Tasmania
During the 1990s Tasmanian local government has undergone more change than at any time since its establishment, and this trend appears set to continue until the turn of the century.
Over the past fifty years since World War II there have been several attempts at reforming the system, but these came to little except for the merger of Queenstown and Gormanston to create the Municipality of Lyell, and the absorption of St Leonards and Lilydale into the City of Launceston during the 1980s. The recent reforms have been focused on structural change, legislative change affecting the powers local government councils may exercise, and procedural changes to the manner in which they operate.
In November 1989 the Minister for Local Government announced that he would initiate a reference to the Local Government Advisory Board aimed at reducing the number of councils. Instead of opposing this move, Local Government responded by suggesting that the local government system be ‘modernised’, with a rationalisation of State-local functions and finances, legislative reform, and structural change all considered as an integrated package. This reform package is now partly in place, while reviews to finalise it are underway.
Structural change was completed first, with the Local Government Advisory Board reporting to the Minister for Local Government in September 1992, and the reduction in the number of councils from 46 to 29, that it had recommended, coming into effect in April 1993. These territorial changes affected mainly the smaller councils as most were abolished through mergers with neighbours. Most of the larger cities were left largely unchanged.
An important part of the structural changes has been the decision by most councils to abandon the ward, or electoral district, base for council elections. Only three councils now retain this base, with all others having their councillors elected by the whole municipality.
As part of the modernisation program, a new Local Government Act came into effect from the beginning of 1994. A package of several other Acts, dealing with the land use planning system and environment protection, has been enacted. A new Building Act is expected to be considered by Parliament late in 1995.
The Local Government Act 1993 provides the constitution under which councils operate. It removed the distinctions between Hobart and Launceston (which formerly operated under their own legislation) and all other councils by making all councils subject to the same Act. The Act also provides councils with a ‘general competence power’, enabling them to take whatever measures are needed to give effect to their decisions, rather than being restricted to exercising only those few powers which are actually listed, as was the case with the former Local Government Act.
The Local Government Act, while generally continuing the rating powers of the previous Act, also provides a power to set differential rates. This will increase flexibility and enable councils to apply their revenue raising powers in more sensitive and effective ways than was previously the case. Differential rating has been available in the other States for some time.
Councils are also able to delegate matters to local committees if they wish. This is particularly relevant for councils which are large in area (such as Northern Midlands) or otherwise have distinct local areas (as in the case of Kingborough which now incorporates Bruny Island). Councils may also join with other councils to create joint authorities, when they decide, for example, that they will be able to undertake a particular function more efficiently by operating over a wider area than a single municipal area. The first joint authority has been established by four councils in the north of the State to provide waste disposal services.
The planning and environment legislation consists of several separate Acts. A similar philosophy underlies all these Acts: the desired outcomes are to be achieved by following the procedures which are most appropriate, rather than ones prescribed in legislation.
The State Policies and Projects Act 1993, among other things, provides for the development of State Sustainable Development Policies, which will ultimately provide a set of guidelines for actions by all agencies (public and private) to ensure that developments will be ecologically sustainable in the long term. It also provides for the preparation of a regular environment audit report.
The Land Use Planning and Approvals Act 1993 provides a framework within which councils and marine boards may undertake their planning responsibilities for all municipal areas and coastal waters. It also establishes a Land Use Planning Review Panel to approve planning and development applications.
The Environmental Management and Pollution Control Act 1994 provides for the control of activities that could lead to environmental harm. It classifies functional activities into three categories, with local government being responsible for assessing those falling into Level 1. To assist in this, an assessment manual has been prepared to provide guidelines. Codes of practice have also been developed to provide additional guidance.
The Resource Management and Planning Appeal Tribunal Act 1994 establishes a tribunal to resolve conflicts, preferably by mediation, between parties in relation to planning and environment management matters.
These planning and environmental management Acts are of central importance to local government, which regards control over the development and management of the local area as the core of its functional responsibilities.
One of the more far reaching changes accompanying the establishment of the new local government arrangements was the decision to conduct elections by post. All residents who are listed on the House of Assembly electoral role automatically receive ballot papers (and a reply paid envelope) for the municipal area in which they live. Thus they are enabled to vote in the council elections without going to a polling booth, if they wish.
This system is expected to be extended to include property owners who are resident in another municipal area elsewhere in Tasmania.
All elected members of local government are now elected for four-year terms, with half the members of each council retiring each two years. With one exception (Launceston), the mayors and deputy mayors of the cities are elected at large by the community. Along with Launceston, the principal member of all other units, now termed ‘councils’, rather than ‘municipalities’, is chosen from among councillors at a council meeting.
The principal member is now termed ‘mayor’ for all units except the capital city of Hobart, replacing the term ‘warden’ which had been used for municipality leaders. Hobart’s chief elected member continues to be termed lord mayor.
The Local Government Act allocates to elected councillors the roles of setting policy and determining the directions of the council, and requires the council to appoint a general manager who is charged with providing professional advice on all matters considered by the councillors and with implementing their decisions.
The council is required to develop a strategic plan covering the forthcoming five years, and to consult with the local community both in determining the contents of the plan, and in relation to the annual report outlining the year’s events. Through this means, and others of a similar nature, the Act effectively makes councils responsible to the communities they serve, rather than to the Minister for Local Government and the State Government.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT TODAY
As a consequence of the reforms that have been and are occurring, local government now employs approximately 4,300 people, or 2.2% of the public sector workforce in Tasmania. Its activities contribute 2.7% of the State Gross Product.
Collectively, councils raise a total of $172 million annually from all revenue sources. Of these, the property rate is the most important, with the average revenue raised by councils from this source being approximately $5 million in 1994-95. This amount is a significant increase on the average amount raised prior to the amalgamations that occurred in 1993. This increased financial capacity, coupled as it has been with an equally significant increase in the numbers of professionally qualified personnel, either employed as staff or retained as regular consultants, has been accompanied by a marked increase in the effectiveness and efficiency of service provision.
Of the reforms foreshadowed when the modernisation program commenced in 1990, those that remain incomplete are the rationalisation of the roles, functions and inter-governmental financial relationships of the State and local spheres of government. A review with this rationalisation as its goal is underway, under the chairmanship of Mr Robert Hand. The review committee is expected to complete the first phase of its program early in 1996 with a report containing recommendations relating to a number of infrastructure services and their financial implications.
Tasmanian local government enjoys a positive working partnership with the State Government. This is evidenced by the State’s willingness to enter into three formal protocols with local government, signed in 1992 and 1993, guaranteeing the completion of the modernisation program and the allocation of resources for this purpose.
For its part, local government has welcomed the increased responsibility passed to it by the Local Government Act, and has modified its processes to now operate in a more transparent manner in close consultation with the communities that each council serves. It recognises the developments occurring in the wider society-both within Tasmania and the Commonwealth as a whole-in relation both to effective sustainable environmental management and increased operational efficiency. To these ends it is playing a more positive role in environmental management than formerly and is readying itself for the changes that will accompany the much discussed competition policy agreed to by the Council of Australian Governments.