Australia Democracy, devolution and governance

A Tasmanian blueprint for a collaborative approach to local government reform

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Richard Eccleston is a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Tasmanian Policy Exchange (TPE) at the University of Tasmania. The TPE was commissioned by the FoLGR to conduct background research.

Since the start of 2022, the Tasmanian Government has been undertaking a comprehensive and holistic review of the state’s local government system. Last Friday, the Independent Review Board released its final report, which sets out a long-term blueprint for reforming the structure of the local government system to better meet the future needs of the Tasmanian community.

The review has been a central element of the Tasmanian Government’s post-COVID recovery plan in recognition of the need to build community capability and resilience, and the critical role of councils in this process.

In contrast to most recent local government reviews across Australia, with their emphasis on improving the efficiency of the existing system and structures, the Tasmanian Review had an explicit focus on the future needs of communities, the changing role of councils, and the importance of effective and responsive regional governance in the decades to come. This ‘future focus’ prompted a wide-ranging discussion about the changing and increasingly important role of local government and how it varies between cities and rural communities, but also created challenges given the inevitably short-term and reactive nature of politics.

Few would argue that the Tasmanian local government system is in dire crisis, and those with an interest in preserving the status quo were thus quick to argue that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’! But dig a little deeper and a host of familiar challenges bubble to the surface. Among other things, the Tasmanian local government system is bedevilled by workforce shortages, a struggle to maintain existing infrastructure and assets, and a lack of the resources needed to respond to climate risks and meet growing community needs. Like most of Australia, these challenges are especially acute for many small regional and remote councils.

Importantly, the aims of the review also had a broad public mandate; most Tasmanians believe that the current system is no longer fit for purpose, and 57% of people surveyed by the Review agreed that Tasmania has too many councils. Communities also recognise that councils and the local knowledge and insights they provide should play a larger and more important role, working with other organisations and tiers of government to design and deliver programs that meet the distinctive needs of Tasmanian communities.

Given these findings, the Review Board came to three conclusions regarding the future of local government in Tasmania:

  1. The status quo is neither optimal nor sustainable.
  2. Structural reform of councils and/or models of infrastructure and service provision will be required.
  3. Structural reform to the extent and scale required is unlikely to occur on a purely voluntary basis.

The Realpolitik of reform

As the review process entered its second year, and moved from broad-based research and engagement to outlining specific reform priorities (including options for structural reform and amalgamation), familiar politics kicked in. In July 2023, the Tasmanian Local Government Minister responded by ruling out forced amalgamations, effectively leaving the Review Board with a choice – focus exclusively on specific, widely accepted reforms (of which there are 37 in the Final Report) or continue to develop both specific and more ambitious structural reform options.

In its Final Report, the Review Board remained true to its Terms of Reference by preparing a detailed blueprint for the reform of the local government system to meet the needs of the Tasmanian community over the next 20 or 30 years. Given the need for fundamental reform, the Review detailed a proposed structure for local government in Tasmania designed to deliver more capable councils that will better represent and serve Tasmanian communities in the decades ahead. Specifically, the blueprint sets out a multi-year process for consolidating the state’s 29 existing councils into 15 larger entities designed to reflect current communities of interest and likely future patterns of settlement and development. In contrast to previous reviews, and reflecting both community feedback and the distinctive needs of rural communities, the proposed model largely avoids merging rural councils with metro neighbours to achieve scale. Instead, the nine or so remaining rural councils with a population of 10,000 or less will rely on partnerships and mandatory shared services to build capability and ensure future sustainability.

Sceptics will, of course, argue that there are precious few examples of voluntary council amalgamation in Australia and that the Future of Local Government Review Report is doomed to gather dust in the proverbial bottom drawer.

I take a different, more optimistic view. The need for a more cooperative and collaborative relationship between state and local government is clear. It is also self-evident that a more effective approach to regional governance, in which different levels of government work together to meet community needs, can’t simply be imposed on councils and communities from above. In this sense, ruling out forced amalgamations should be seen as an important step toward ongoing and genuine negotiation about the future structure of Tasmania’s system of local government.

Clearly, success will require some incentives to support voluntary amalgamations and structural reforms, initially starting with the five groups of existing councils who are actively considering some form of merger or boundary change. If these initial amalgamation discussions are successful and deliver better outcomes for communities, then others should follow suit. The Review’s preferred 15-council structure isn’t an immediate objective but as a preferred endpoint in what will likely be a decade-long deliberative process.

We live in times of significant change and profound challenges, and the politics of reform are more difficult than ever. Given this, establishing a more collaborative and incremental process for future-proofing local government may offer the best prospect of delivering a system that can meet the future needs of the Tasmanian community.

The Final Report of Tasmania’s Future of Local Government Review is available here. The Tasmanian Government is seeking feedback on the Final Report until February 29th.

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