LOCAL GOVERNMENT IS THE CLOSEST LEVEL OF GOVERNMENT TO THE COMMUNITIES IT REPRESENTS
Today in Parliament, Amanda delivered a powerful speech about how vital and impactful local democracy is.
Local government is the closest level of government to the communities it represents. Far from the oft‑quoted roads, rates and rubbish, councils provide essential local services like libraries, sports facilities and community centres, and make decisions that shape the future of our built and natural environments. Effective local democracy is critical for communities to be empowered to participate in the decisions that impact them. Councils in New South Wales are facing an attack from the Labor State Government on multiple fronts, from a huge increase in the emergency services levy to the shocking recent reports that forcibly amalgamated councils might have to foot the bill for their own demergers. The Minister for Local Government has justified this in part by accusing councillors of poor financial management.
The New South Wales Auditor‑General's recent report showed that 70 per cent of councils received unqualified audit opinions. Forty‑three councils had qualified audit reports, a figure cited by the Minister as a demonstration of the so‑called gravity of the situation that local government has found itself in. This position is arguably unhinged, when the Auditor -General clearly states that those qualified audit opinions were due to not recognising vested rural firefighting equipment under section 119 (2) of the Rural Fires Act 1997. This is only required because the State Government dumps the depreciation of assets that councils neither own nor control onto council accounts to make State Government budgets look better. When the State Government shifts costs onto local councils and rates are pegged, councils are forced to cut essential local services.
Local councillors should not be forced to choose between maintenance of roads and footpaths, local sporting facilities or public libraries. Councillors have reached out to tell me how these decisions are impacting their local communities.
In the words of Tweed Shire Councillor Nola Firth:
Our Council is very careful about budgeting. As a result of the floods and increased costs ... we had already presented to our community why we would need a Special Rate Variation or loss of key services such as Kingscliff Library. And then this was suddenly dropped on us! Even if we have a Special Rate Variation, we will now be looking at losing core services unless the ESL is withdrawn.
The Minister for Local Government has also accused councillors of being "very good at putting their hand out" in the context of accepting a below-inflation 3.5 per cent pay increase. Many New South Wales residents will be surprised to know that the maximum salary for a metropolitan councillor is $43,440, and for a rural councillor it is only $13,030—far less than the median wage. I proudly served my community as Deputy Mayor of Albury from 2016 to 2021, and I took a pay cut to do so. Low and inequitable pay is a deterrent to potential councillors, yet they are the kinds of people we need more of in rooms where decisions are made. If one cannot live on a councillor's allowance, the role only attracts people who are retired or have passive income sources. This limits the diversity we need for councils to be truly representative.
In a detailed submission to the Local Government Remuneration Tribunal, Associate Professor Jakimow of the Australian National University argued that not only does current remuneration for councillors inadequately reflect the hours and complexity of their work, but also low remuneration is a barrier to participation and diversity and places an unacceptable burden on councillors and their families. I do not deny that a local council may make a spending decision that is disagreeable to others. But the integrity of local government depends on councillors being held accountable by the communities that elect them.
In the words of Woollahra Councillor Matthew Robertson:
After fighting for years to save our local democracies in Woollahra and across NSW I am aghast that this Minister appears to be fighting not for us, but against us. The value of local government in serving its communities at the grassroots should never be underestimated. After failing to amalgamate all councils and shires in NSW by force, the Coalition government proceeded with a death by a thousand cuts approach... The Minns government must step up, and that demands a Minister willing to fight for and fund this most important level of government. Our local democracy, and its ability to reflect the values of communities across NSW in local decision making that ultimately shapes our urban, environmental and social character, will otherwise be lost.
The Minister must reconsider his recent decisions to force the increased emergency services levy and costs of de‑amalgamation onto local communities. When local councils foot the bill, it is local communities that pay the price.
See the full transcript in Hansard here.