Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE ( 19:55 ): On behalf of The Greens, I indicate our strong opposition to the Local Government Amendment (Rates—Merged Council Areas) Bill 2017, which I think is effectively—if anyone can understand the drafting of the bill—the Government’s plan to apply rate pegging, as determined by the Minister for Local Government, to all the councils it has forcibly merged in New South Wales. The Greens have a clear policy position of opposing rate pegging. We believe local government and local councils can best decide the appropriate rates in their community. The democratically elected local councillors are responsible to their local community, and if they believe they need additional rates to deal with key infrastructure, key social services, or to ensure they have adequate resources to do appropriate strategic planning, then they should decide those rates, not some arrogant State Government or half-informed Minister who is issuing directions from Macquarie Street.
We believe fundamentally in local government and in empowering local government, which means giving local government financial control of its affairs. This Government, like the Labor Opposition, devalues local government by refusing to allow it to have the capacity to set its own rates. It continues to dictate to local government in New South Wales, which is a path that will ensure the financial unsustainability of the local government sector in the long term. If it does what the Government says, the bill is not only offensive in principle but also one of the most appallingly drafted pieces of legislation to find its way into this Chamber. The first paragraph of the delightfully named new section 218CB, states:
that is the Minister for Local Government—
may make a determination for the purpose of requiring a new council, in levying rates for land, to maintain the rate path last applied for the land by the relevant former council.
What is a rate path? It is not in the definition provisions of the Local Government Act. There is no reference to a rate path in any part of the Local Government Act. The Government has made it up. What is a rate path? It is whatever the Minister thinks after having a solid meal.
The Hon. Robert Bo rsak: Is it like a footpath?
Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: Maybe it is a footpath. Maybe it is a gravel path. Maybe it is a path with rates on it—I do not know. A “rate path” is a nonsense term that has been whacked into this bill and that means whatever the local government Minister thinks it might mean. Maybe residents, substantial industrial landowners, or commercial landowners will challenge this nonsense drafting from the Government when they are given a new rating.
This Government has a history of stuffing up the drafting and legal measures applying to local government amalgamations. It is interesting to work out where in Government the decisions are being made and who is driving the local government forced amalgamation agenda. And it is interesting to note that while we are having this debate in the Legislative Council, the effective Minister for Local Government is here. The former deputy from the Office of Local Government, Steve Orr, is sitting in the President’s gallery. He has been moved into the Department of Premier and Cabinet. He has basically been given complete power over the amalgamation process. He has been taken out of the Office of Local Government, disempowering—
The Hon. Rick Colless: Point of order: It is all very well to take issue with other members of Parliament in this Chamber but members of staff sitting in the gallery should be left out of the argument altogether.
The DEPU TY PRESIDENT ( The Hon. Trevor Khan ): I make the observation—I am not being critical of the Hon. Ric Colless—that it is not a point of order. The convention that has generally been observed by both the Opposition and the Government is that one does not name and shame public servants. I invite the honourable member to consider that convention before he goes any further.
Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: The truth of the matter is that the Minister for Local Government, who is not in this Chamber, has not been making the decisions—nor did the former Minister. All of the power and all of the decision-making on the amalgamations has moved to the Department of Premier and Cabinet. Some key bureaucrats in the Department of Premier and Cabinet are making all the decisions. The Department of Premier and Cabinet is operating separately from the Office of Local Government, which is ticking away in Nowra and has no idea of the agenda that is being set by the Department of Premier and Cabinet. This situation has led to the complete mess-up of the Government’s amalgamation agenda, where the bureaucrats and the officials who know the way local government works—they are partly located in the Office of Local Government but are more often located around councils in New South Wales—have been completely sidelined from the decision-making.
A handful of high-powered bureaucrats inside the Department of Premier and Cabinet have been making mistake after mistake because they are part of a government bureaucracy that does not know anything about local government. It is a fundamental flaw in the decision-making of this Government to sideline the Office of Local Government and have a small team, which does not have the necessary expertise, drive this kind of nonsense. That is why they have produced a nonsense bill like this Local Government Amendment (Rates—Merged Council Arrears) Bill, which has no meaning and which is open to interpretation. If it is ever challenged in any court it is likely to mystify the court and then lead to more legal uncertainty in New South Wales. What an unholy mess this Government is making of local government. The so-called reform agenda, under which the Government is smashing through forced amalgamations, is a deep embarrassment to them.
What is the proposal? The bill does not indicate what it is. The bill just says that the Minister may make some determination about some undefined thing called the rate path, whatever that is. If members read the second reading speech they will discover that the Government’s intention seems to be that any increases in rates that were likely to apply to properties under previous councils will continue under the merged councils. That seems to be roughly what the Government wants. So if a resident’s rates were going to go up by 3 per cent or 4 per cent per annum, or whatever the Minister determined, then they are going to continue to go up by that rate. Three years after the determination is made all bets are off, and some properties will have massive rate increases.
Pretty much every amalgamated council which has been beggared by this rate cap will go straight to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal [IPART] and demand a substantial rate increase. The Government is introducing this bill because it does not want to be embarrassed about the rate increases that are essential to make an amalgamated council work. So the Government is trying to put off the rate increases until after the next State election. But people are not mugs, as we have seen in a previous by-election and as we will see in the upcoming by-election in the North Shore electorate. People are not mugs, and they know a rotten government doing a rotten job when they see it. What do we know about the likely impact on rates of amalgamating councils?
Every legitimate study that has been done by academics and economists who have looked at this has concluded that the almost inevitable outcome of an amalgamation is a substantial rate increase. This is the case because, with the merging of three councils that have different service levels—for example different levels with respect to waste, maintaining footpaths, mowing verges, running swimming pools or delivering particular social services—it is political suicide for the merged council to reduce the service level in any part of the council area. So if one bunch of residents is used to getting recycling picked up every week the council cannot impose a lower standard and pick it up every second week. If the council did that all hell would break loose among local residents.
So the highest standard that applies in any one part of the amalgamated area ends up having to be applied across the whole of the council area. It might be something that one group of residents were not willing to pay for and which the local council had not prioritised, but because the council cannot take that higher standard away from one of the merged areas it ends up having to be applied across the board. That is very expensive. I have been looking at some of the recent decisions by councils. I am told that 30,000 new bins have been rolled out just recently by the Inner West Council. There have been proposals to increase the level of service in council after council in areas where the local residents do not necessarily value that increased service. Because the council cannot remove it from one part of the council area it has to be applied across the board. So rather than saving money, amalgamations almost certainly cause a very substantial financial drain and lead to a very real requirement to increase the level of rates just to stand still and not fall behind.
What has this Government done? This Government has forced the amalgamations—basically, unlawfully, as we are now finding from the Court of Appeal—and, having forced the amalgamations, creating an expectation of increased services, the Government is rate-capping the councils and telling them that they cannot increase rates. This is not a great way to provide financial sustainability in local government; it is a certain path to putting merged councils on an unsustainable financial footing. That means that residents will get a very unpleasant surprise in three years time, when this so-called rate freeze—it is not really a rate freeze—is lifted. Not only will rates change within councils, with some people finding their rates going up substantially as a result of differences in land values, but all residents in every merged council will get very unpleasant surprises when this rate freeze is lifted. Meanwhile, the Government is beggaring the councils.
The Greens do not support this attack on local democracy. We do no support blanket rate capping like this. The Government’s main concern is that council rates in areas that have been forcibly amalgamated will inevitably go up—and they will. Rates will go up substantially. The Government’s answer to this is, “Please, do not raise rates until the next State election.” It is as if they are begging. They have come with a begging bowl to the Legislative Council saying, “Please, can you put it off until the next election?” I find it deeply frustrating that the Labor Opposition, despite the crocodile tears we heard from Peter Primrose, will vote for this rubbish. The Opposition agrees with any rational person who looks at this bill and says that the drafting is rotten. The Opposition acknowledges that this is a political job by the Government to try to save its skin and get a few years of relief before the rates lift, but Labor is going to vote for this rubbish. If Labor members want to stand by their words they should vote this bill down, because this is a political hatchet job, and a poorly drafted one at that. The Opposition should join with the Greens and vote the bill down.
Who are the people who will be most affected by this? They are those long-suffering residents in councils that are being forcibly merged by this Government in gross disrespect of their local rights and local democracy. They are residents from across the State who have been so grossly offended by this Government’s forced amalgamation agenda that they are just waiting to clobber the National Party and the Liberal Party next time they get a chance to vote for them. We will get a sense of where this bill will apply across New South Wales, because it applies to all those councils that have been blown up by the Government. It applies to Canterbury City Council, Gosford City Council, and Gundagai Shire Council. And if there is anyone from the National Party who thinks they can walk happily and safely down the main street of Gundagai shire after having destroyed their council, I do not think they have been there of late.
It applies to Holroyd City Council—a great council with a wonderful history which was just destroyed at the stroke of a pen by this Government. It applies to Guyra Shire Council and of course Ashfield and Leichardt and Marrickville councils—councils with a great democratic tradition of standing by their local residents. It applies to Murrumbidgee Shire Council. It applies to Manly and Pittwater and Warringah Shire councils. It applies to the only recently merged Palerang Council. They have just digested a previous merger and now they will be merged again in an effort to give some money to Queanbeyan. This bill applies to the long‑suffering residents of Tumbarumba Shire Council, which is probably the single best-run council in New South Wales when it comes to finances. Even the Government’s hand-picked delegate said, “Do not merge them. Leave them alone because they are doing a bloody good job.” Apart from the City of Sydney, which has an unusually beneficial rates base, Tumbarumba was the second most financially sustainable council in New South Wales.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: Wash your mouth out—disgraceful.
Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: I note the interjection from the Hon. Duncan Gay describing it as disgraceful. Tumbarumba Shire Council was a fabulous council until, contrary to the recommendation of its own delegate, his Government sacked them and destroyed the council. And it also applies to Gloucester Shire Council—a plucky council and a great bunch of residents who were standing up to coal and, for that, were sacked by this Government. Those residents have suffered enough, we say. Do not put another rate freeze on top of the destruction of their local democracy.
And of course there are all those councils that this Government wants to apply this bill to: all those councils it is still trying to merge. There is City of Canada Bay Council and Ku-ring-gai Council—and good on Ku-ring-gai for standing up to the arrogance of this Government and having their win in the Court of Appeal. Good on Ku-ring-gai and their local residents for standing up to the arrogant attack on their local council by this Government. The Government wants it to apply to Hunters Hill, Mosman, North Sydney, Willoughby, Randwick, Woollahra and Waverley councils. There is no part of local government in New South Wales that this Coalition Government does not want to despoil and destroy.
So do we support this bill? Well, I could probably summarise it by saying no, we do not. It is poorly drafted and politically poorly and malignly focused. It is this Government’s attempt to put off the rates pain that it knows is coming from its ill-conceived forced amalgamation agenda. It is ugly politics. The people who will end up paying most are those long-suffering residents who have already lost their local democracy. We say to the members of this House from the Australian Labor Party [ALP]: Stand by your words and vote against this bill. We call upon those crossbenchers who have constantly stood up for local government to do it now, because local government needs a no vote on this bill to have financial sustainability. We call on those members in the Coalition who realise the damage they are causing themselves and their local communities to also stand up and vote against this bill.