By VINNIE RODI
WENTWORTH Shire Councillor Don McKinnon, PICTURED, fears plans for Local Government reform in Far West NSW could spell the end of local councils “as we know it.”
He described the recently released ‘Improving outcomes for the people of Far Western NSW’ consultation paper, which has proposed the establishment of a regional statutory body for the Far West, as vague and even misleading.
Cr McKinnon believes the consultation paper, and background paper also released this week, did not clearly indicate if Local Government would be maintained under the regional statutory body model.
He also questioned whether councils would play a significant role in the future, and who would decide what Local Government’s role would be.
“I would say the document is very vague in what it wants to achieve, and is almost calling for councils to lose their power structure through this proposal,” Cr McKinnon said.
The proposed regional statutory body for the Far West – which covers eight Local Government areas including Wentworth Shire Council, Balranald, Bourke, Brewarrina, Broken Hill, Central Darling, Cobar and Walgett – is expected to allow Far West councils to remain operational to deal with local issues, while the regional body would be responsible for regional issues.
It is believed the body will create “clear roles, functions and accountabilities focussed on achieving better outcomes for Far West communities,” and improve Far West councils’ ability to apply for grants, raise revenue and expend funds and improve engagement with the State and Commonwealth Governments.
Membership for the regional body will be made up of a mix of elected representatives, statutory appointments, and associate members, with each council to be represented by its Mayor or a nominated delegate.
“This regional approach only maintains a role for Local Government, but is not a Local Government entity in the same way as the joint organisations proposed for the balance of the State,” Cr McKinnon said.
“It is my fear that this effectively means a dumbing down of the Local Government role.
“Composition of this body will be important in terms of how much influence local democratic representation will have over the State agencies. A strong local democratic representation to underpin a new body should be a strong principle to adhere to.
“The alternative is for decision-making to occur by appointed persons without the need to succeed at an election.
“People need to also take care when the issue of service delivery is referred to in this paper, as it’s unclear whether it means Local Government service delivery or service delivery by the three levels of government.
“I believe the paper references service delivery by the three levels of government rather than Local Government alone, and this can be confusing to the reader, and also unwittingly misleading at times.”
The consultation paper was prepared in response to key recommendations made by the NSW Government’s Independent Local Government Review Panel (ILGRP), centred on establishing a new regional governance approach, while changing how services are delivered.
The NSW Government then created the Far West Initiative, which aimed to bring councils, non-government organisations and key NSW and Australian Government agencies together.
The Far West Initiative Advisory Committee was established in August 2015 with representatives from each Far West council, including Wentworth Shire, the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly, non-government service providers and the NSW and Commonwealth governments, and is chaired by former Member for Murray-Darling, John Williams.
Wentworth Shire Council was represented by Cr McKinnon, who Council had previously nominated to act on their behalf, and general manager, Peter Kozlowski, who attended as an observer.
The Advisory Committee discussed five options for reform, including increased networking and sharing of functions, expanding the unincorporated areas of the Far West, council mergers, regional governance and the preferred regional statutory body.
Cr McKinnon has also questioned funding for the new regional statutory body, saying no clear outline had been set for where funding will come from.
“The question needs to be asked will you the resident understand the implications of a governance change without an understanding of possible changes in the funding model?” he said.
“Will the new body decide on funding or will the State make the decisions?
“There is a strong chance that funding could come from Far West Council’s FAG (Financial Assistance Grant) grants, or it could even come out of our rates.”
The consultation paper also states that reviews of service delivery over the past decade had shown government investment in new services and service types in the Far West, without significant change to governance arrangements, was unlikely to deliver improved outcomes for councils or communities.
“Who has conducted these reviews and where is the documentation?” Cr McKinnon said.
“There is no indication whether these reviews mainly refer to State and Federal delivery of services or something else.
“Any change to service delivery should be transparent, and clearly beneficial to residents.”
NSW Minister for Local Government, Paul Toole, believes the model will provide “an important step” towards working out how State and Commonwealth Governments deliver services in the Far West.
Following the release of the paper, communities and councils, State agencies, non-government organisations and other key stakeholders across the Far West are being invited to provide their feedback either online, or by attending community consultation sessions planned for the coming weeks.
“This feedback will play a vital role in determining the future governance of the Far West and shaping the next steps in developing the Far West Initiative,” Mr Toole said.
Cr McKinnon said it was vital that Wentworth Shire ratepayers read the document, and attend any public consultation meetings held on the issue.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is for the residents of Wentworth Shire Council to read these documents, and attend these consultation meetings when they happen – which could be as early as next week,” he said.
“If you can’t attend a consultation session, make a written submission.”
More information on the consultation and background paper, or to make a submission, is available online at www.fitforthefuture.nsw.gov.au/far-west-initiative, or by visiting Wentworth Shire Council’s website; www.wentworth.nsw.gov.au.
Submissions close on October 14.