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Local Government – Local Government Reforms

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 7 June 2023

Tags: Local Government, State Budget

Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, the local government reforms process is hanging heavy over many local councils and communities. There are so many issues involved in this and community representation and the local workforce are two extremely important ones that I am hearing from regularly. I know you can't talk about the model that will be proposed, but in the interim the Australian Services Union has been raising many valid concerns about the workforce in Tasmania and the possible implications of the workforce with the potential for centralisation of services and the removal therefore of people and jobs in regional areas. It's not just the jobs.

The jobs of course represent peoples' lives and community and the large number of staff that many regional councils have are critical to regional communities and there are so many impacts on them. They recommended that the Government develop a statewide workforce plan for local government that was informed by council-level plans and sector stakeholders. In your conversations, where is that recommendation up to? It's a longstanding need that has been overlooked by not just the state Government but LGAT and there are two parties there. Can you please talk about the priority of that in the reform process?

Mr STREET - The first thing to do is to acknowledge that there are skills shortages in the local government sector. One of the comments that has been made to me at various councils and that I have then relayed to other councils who have not raised it is that inevitably, if you find one council celebrating the fact that they've just hired a new senior planner, you can guarantee that a neighbouring council or a council somewhere else is lamenting the loss of a senior planner, so we need to talk about skilling up and increasing the workforce within the local government sector. I have met with the ASU on a couple of occasions. Just to your point around the uncertainty that exists in the local government sector at the minute, that is unfortunate and it's something that I've acknowledged with the ASU and with individual councils when I have met with them and they've raised it.

There is a tightrope to be walked in this reform process in terms of being as open and transparent and as collegial as possible in terms of getting feedback from the sector and the uncertainty that causes, because the only other alternative to reduce that uncertainty is to do this by stealth. That was done in Victoria and I've had numerous people contact me from Victoria -

Dr WOODRUFF - Under Jeff Kennett?

Mr STREET - Yes, who pointed out -

Dr WOODRUFF - It was the night of the long knives.

Mr STREET - Exactly - the issues that came from doing this by stealth. So I acknowledge that there is uncertainty but that unfortunately that is a result of being as collaborative as we possibly can in terms of being open and asking for the sector's feedback as well. We understand that we're trying to walk a tightrope. We don't want an uncertain sector but the board has also been clear in the reports that they've sent to me so far that reform is needed, so I think that it's appropriate that we go down this path but we're going to have to make some decisions and communicate them well to the sector.

In terms of the workforce development, I'm more than happy to hand to Matt.

Mr HEALEY - There are many things that the board agrees with the Victorian-Tasmanian branch of the ASU and that is about the importance of communities and local voice and local jobs. In fact out of the five key principles that the board has set in designing its final reforms, the first three are that it is resolutely focused on future community needs and not just tied to councils existing structures and current priorities, that it retains jobs and service presence locally and that it preserves and enhances local voice.

In the December report that the board released the opening remark was that the prosperity of this state relies on the prosperity of its small communities, and that's very much a principle the board is taking into this review. As the minister said, what we can't assume is that current structures are delivering the best outcomes for those communities and that's what the board is trying to work its way through now.

Mr STREET - But like you said, it's not just the fact that these jobs exist in regional communities, the people who've got those jobs have families and support structures around them as well that make these communities viable going forward, which is why the board of review are so focused on that because it's the key theme that has come from all 29 councils when I've met with them.

Dr WOODRUFF - Some of them are the major employers in those seats.

Mr STREET - Exactly right. Break O'Day Council mayor Mick Tucker made the point that the major employer in St Helens is the local government sector.

Dr WOODRUFF - I think there would be widespread agreement that we need to have additional training for skills and particularly for skills across local government statewide.

One approach to manage that is to centralise all the people with the skills and farm out online or on the phone or do it all centrally. Another model is to keep a substantial amount of the workforce and to import the skills and upskill.

I've seen big changes. For example, it sounds small but it's big in the quality of the road network upgrades in the Huon Valley. A person has come in with a great level of skill, we are so lucky, and we've seen a dramatic difference. It's the same workforce. You don't need to get rid of those jobs and move it into a central area, you just need a person with the skills to be able to train people. Is that -

Mr STREET - I don't want to pre-empt the final outcome the board proposes for reform at the end of October. Like Matt said, you can take it from the five priority principles that the board has for reform, that centralising services isn't going to be the way forward. In Tasmania, with a decentralised population, we know how important the employment the local government sector provides in these regional communities is. It's not just employment, it's the services that those people provide at the local level, in face-to-face service delivery that's important to people, and maintaining that local voice.

Dr WOODRUFF - The quality of our lives.

Mr STREET - Exactly. I don't want to abolish local government. I don't want a single council for Tasmania. That's not where we want to take it. The board has been clear that that's not where its looking either.

Ms DOW - You changed your position along the way.

CHAIR - Order.

Dr WOODRUFF - It's in relation to communities and climate change. I heard a very senior member of the Bureau of Meteorology asked on radio last year what his view was of the safest place in the world under the increasingly dangerous climate change events that we're having. His answer was not a place but the one that has the strongest communities.

It really resonates for us in Tasmania. We have the potential to have the best responses that we can possibly have by strengthening our communities. Strong communities are more resilient communities. Has the committee been specifically looking at the impacts of climate change, in terms of the consideration of the models that they're pursuing? Please make sure strengthening communities is top of their list. Not retain them, make them stronger.

Mr STREET - Strengthening communities is a job for all three levels of government and for everybody. Regarding the board of reviews' work, I’m happy to hand over to Matt. As well as being the director of Local Government he is a member of the review board and he can talk about what work has been done in that area.

Mr HEALEY - The strength of local communities is entirely the focus of the board, which is why in this final phase rather than looking at the economics of councils, rather than looking at the data, we've created nine community catchments and asked the question, how do we deliver the best outcomes for communities within each of these nine areas? Councils are now coming back to the board, not to say what's in their interest but to say what's in the interests of the communities that they serve. The complex challenges, such as climate change, are front of mind in the board's concerns about the capabilities of local government to face these challenges. That is the balance that needs to be found to ensure local government is capable of tackling these serious issues but also that the capability doesn't come at the expense of the strength of local communities.

In one of the papers that has just been released to support the community catchment discussion, there is a range of opportunities for councils to partner with the state to support strengthening local communities. That includes, for example, can we use technology better to ensure that jobs do stay within local communities? Can we, for example, make sure that local community hubs have access to the data that they need to participate more fully in regional decision making and representation and the like?

One thing the board disagrees with the Victorian Tasmanian branch of the ASU on is the term 'centralisation'. The board has never used it. The board is not talking about centralisation of services. They're talking about the opposite. How do we support local communities to be better engaged in decision making? To have better voices and to have a stronger involvement in the jobs and services that they need for their community. You can have both.


Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, in relation to the local government reform, one of the issues that's been raised with me is one of the difficulties of using the energy and skills in the community to enhance the work and to increase the funding that's available through councils to do, for example, work on local halls or to fix up local areas or to create community gardens and lots of things. People want to help and do stuff. One of the impediments is work health and safety and insurance, so I wonder if the board is actively considering a statewide approach to liability and risk - a framework to enable rather than to push the community away?

Mr STREET - It's a good question, Dr Woodruff, and I'll let Mat answer that as a member of the Review Board.

Mr HEALEY- Obviously, I can't talk about the board's position in the future because I cannot talk on behalf of the board. I can say that specific issue has not been raised very loudly with the board. I am not aware of that issue being raised in submissions, in the reform process to date. Certainly, the board would welcome those views being expressed in this round. The board is definitely looking at practical ways and practical solutions for strengthening communities and strengthening engagement with the communities.

The increased accountability for contemporary and robust community engagement is one of the issues that the board has placed very firmly on the table in relation to necessary reforms. That could be a good component of practical (indistinct). I cannot talk on behalf of the board but the board would love to hear those views in this round of consultation.

Dr WOODRUFF - Maybe the views could be taken to the board through this process of the committee but I will pass it on to other people who might want to make them in addition. Anyone who has ever been involved in a voluntary capacity in a community organisation would understand that one of the biggest problems to getting out to do anything is people drowning in red tape bureaucracy about getting insurance and so on.

Some councils - I am not sure of all of them - but some of them do step in and take that place for community organisations and do help out. It is something we desperately need to smooth and manage risk but with the least red tape and as much support as possible. One suggestion that has been put in place is a centralised organisation, maybe connected to councils or independent of councils provided by the state, not just to local councils but to all community organisations. That might work.

Mr STREET - As minister for Community Services and Development I interact with Volunteering Tas on a pretty regular basis as a key stakeholder. I understand the issues that you are talking about in getting people to volunteer and making it as easy as possible, acknowledging that there need to be structures in place as well to protect these organisations and individuals that any volunteers might be interacting with. I am more than happy to provide that feedback to the Board of Review as well.

Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you. Another question in a different area, it relates to the burden on council staff to measure their performance, and that is required. We need to make sure there is value for money. Has there been a consideration to an oversight board that gathers data centrally and essentially undertakes audits and considers risks, some sort of ICT platform. Or it could be a state or oversight board that frees up council staff to do data entry but not to do the report writing and the analysis.

Mr STREET - I am keen for an increased level of accountability for local government as a whole, particularly individual councils. However, that means that we need to make sure that any data that we are collecting and comparing across councils is comparing apples with apples. One of the problems that we have at the moment is that when I go to visit a council I am given a pack on the council of population growth, median age and a lot of different aspects. There is no ability to compare councils across municipal boundaries because of the many factors that exist within them.

I also understand what you are saying that we do not want local government having to employ people simply to report on the performance of other people that they work with.

Dr WOODRUFF - Just for the convenience of cross-comparison.

Mr STREET - Exactly right.

Ms BUTLER - Is that not a role for the new state demographer?

Mr HEALEY - Through you, minister. Robust and more meaningful performance reporting and monitoring is one of the key recommendations of the board in the detail. They recognise we need to strengthen reporting but to do it in a more capable and informative way. At the moment, the Office of Local Government collects a lot of data from councils and it is made available on the list but outside of my office, you could count on one hand the number of people who actually use that data because it's not presented in a very meaningful way. The board is very keen to get better outcomes from the investment that is already in place in providing data to the state.

Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you Mr Healey. The words you just used, 'strengthened, capable, informed', could all lead to an outcome where council staff are required to do more reporting. That would be a devastating impost on councils that already don't have the time. They want to be engaging and doing the on-ground stuff in communities, they don't want be doing the reporting for other people to use. They want to provide the information, but not do all of that analysis. That's the distinction.

Mr STREET - One of the issues that's been raised by individual councils and by the board when they've reported back to me and I've met with them, is the operating frameworks that exist across councils. We've got a multitude of different operating systems across 29 councils and whether the state Government would be interested in partnering with LGAT and the councils to end up on one operating framework.

For two reasons, one , you would then have transferability of skills across municipal boundaries, so, if you were moving from one council to another, it would be on the same operating system. They wouldn't need to be retrained, but also, hopefully with advances in technology as well, they could be sharing that data and the Office of Local Government can be pooling that information without requiring more work from councils as well.

Did you say it should be happening now?

Ms DOW - Well you don't need to reform local government for -

Mr STREET - No, you don't but, I've got to say, that it's difficult for me as a member of the state Government to sit there and lecture councils on operating frameworks when, how many different government departments operate on how many different operating frameworks? Again, that's about looking inward as well and the fact that some of the problems we're talking about existing at local government level, already exist at the state government level and lead to silo-ing as well.

Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, I want to ask some questions that the RSPCA have forwarded us in relation to local government. In relation to domestic animals and their impacts on the community and on wildlife, specifically in this instance, cats, what funding has been given to local councils to implement the changes that were made in the Cat Management Act?

Mr STREET - Cat management is done through the Department of Natural Resources and Environent, not through the Office of Local Government, so that's a question for Ms Palmer.

Dr WOODRUFF - Councils in other states are required to prepare a domestic animal management plan every four years, and those plans promote responsible pet ownership, the welfare of dogs, cats and other pets in the community. It protects the community and the environment from nuisance pets, and identifies a method to evaluate whether the animal management services provided are adequate. This is a very controversial area for councils, and most people in the community regularly think the council doesn't do enough, step in enough and it's a hard place, but do you support that and would you see that as an essential part of the review process?

Mr STREET - In terms of the review process, I'll leave that to Matt to answer. As a member of parliament, I get emails from stakeholders on a consistent basis, not just as the Local Government minister but just as a member of parliament asking for intervention in council decisions around domestic animals. Like you said, it's not just controversial but quite confrontational at times as well, so we certainly want the structures and supports in place to minimise that as much as possible. The role of local government in this, I'm not sure whether it's been a specific topic for the board of review, Matt?

Mr HEALEY - Apologies for a similar response, but no, it hasn't been raised with the board to date, but if that's something that people are concerned about, then the board would love to hear those views.

Mr STREET - What you're talking about in terms of other states, is that across every other state, or have you just got individual examples of states?

Dr WOODRUFF - Some other states, I don't have the ones, I could find them out if you want. Thank you, it's not necessarily an indication that it's not an important issue, but more that the enormous other issues that come to people's minds in relation to this review probably overwhelm things like this. It's something that if you would look at it, Minister, the role of the state and local governments in a statewide strategy to manage animals at large and there would be a need to discuss funding for local government to manage that strategy.

Mr STREET - Matt, on behalf of the board is more than happy to reach out to the rest of the board members and potentially reach out to the RSPCA and ask for a submission, if they would like to make one as part of the consultation on the review process at the minute around local government.

Dr WOODRUFF - Thanks, that's great.

I have a question about the reform process; in the Future of Local Government Review Options Paper 6.2, Option 6.2 was about strategic partnerships between different levels of government.

There is a concern I understand that this seems like a manifest good about linking up to look for virtual opportunities for future - planning ahead, the Greens support that, absolutely. The concern is that we don't want it to end up being about pushing the agenda of whichever government is in power. Some of the things such as emerging industries, I think it mentioned hydrogen. That's all fine, as long as it doesn't end up becoming a vehicle for the government of the day to push its priorities and agenda onto local communities who may not want that as part of their future industries strategy.

Mr STREET - Certainly, from my point of view, the benefit of regional partnerships between a specific council and a state government, from situations we have where, for example, I've been and met with the West Coast Council and they have raised a number of issues that go across portfolios, but they are raising them with me as the Local Government minister because I'm there, but they go across a range of issues. They talk about workforce attraction for local government but then they talk about workforce attraction for the Department of Health, for the Department of Education. They talk about the fact that the west coast community has become a drive-in, drive-out community that isn't getting the full benefits of the resources boom on the west coast or the development of wind farms on the west coast.

These are issues that sit across Mr Ellis's or Mr Barnett's portfolios. It is an acknowledgement of the fact that we need to be able to have conversations that break down the silos in state government, in terms of what a specific local government area needs from the state government. It is certainly not, from my way of thinking about pushing out a specific state government's agenda in a municipal area, that is not the intention at all.

Dr WOODRUFF - It sounds like you would agree that the way forward in this space is to enable and improve bottom-up communication from local communities and to couple it to a top-down strategic opportunity. It is really up to communities whether they want to take them up or not.

Mr STREET - Absolutely. Is says in the stage 2 interim report:

The concept of compelling councils and others to work together was viewed as counterintuitive by some, noting that collaboration should be done voluntarily, based on agreed mutual benefit.

I couldn't agree more. In terms of bottom-up feedback, I couldn't agree more. The last thing I want to do as a member of state government or as minister, is go to these communities and tell them what I think they need. I want to make decisions that are based on information from people at the ground level, at the coalface, providing it back to me so that I can make the best informed decisions I can, not me devising strategies or plans in my office in Hobart and then going out to these communities and dictating terms to them.

Dr WOODRUFF - That is great to hear. You are a novelty in your Government and we do need to plan for all sorts of local government ministers.

Mr STREET - I made the comment last week, Dr Woodruff, that the only time I seem to get any compliments is when you're looking to denigrate another member of my Government, which I'm particularly uncomfortable about.

Dr WOODRUFF - For the record, I made those generous comments about your comments in TasCOSS without mentioning any other member of your Government. Check the Hansard.

Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you. Minister, one of the things that differentiates local governments around the state is what they choose to fund with their ratepayers' money. That depends on historical differences but also genuine need that differs across communities. Local government does, around a number of areas, step in and fill the gap where services don't exist. Speaking for the Huon Valley, which is a council close to my heart, I know that council does support a number of health services and child care services. If that was not considered to be the priority of the ratepayers at a larger council in an amalgamation, there would be a devasting loss of services to the community. Can you please talk about your expectations that you've given to the local government reform process, with respect to retaining essential services that are provided by councils across regions.

Mr STREET - As a member of the local government Board of Review, Mr Healey can talk about that if you like. I can only reiterate what I've been saying all morning, Dr Woodruff, which is that it's not our expectation at the end of this that we will have councils who all perform exactly the same services across the state. I go back to the five key principles that the Board of Review are considering with its final reform package, which includes retaining jobs and service presence locally; preserving and enhancing local voice; being resolutely focussed on community needs and not just tied to councils existing structures and current priorities. We want councils to be delivering the services that the community needs.

As I said, once we've got the basis for municipalities to be sustainable going forward in place, I want democratically elected councils making decisions on what service provision the local community wants and needs going forward as well. That includes what you're talking about in the Huon Valley. Kingborough Council runs a fantastic volunteering program; I don't know many other council run across the state, but its success has meant that it's become a priority for Kingborough Council. That means it's become a priority for Kingborough residents as well, whereas it might not be for residents in another community where the program has never existed. There's no intent with our directions for Local Government Board to change that going forward.

Dr WOODRUFF - Okay. Thank you. Expectations and intentions don’t feel clear enough for me, I suppose that language would make people who are working in, or relying on, those services, nervous. The word 'need' - local 'needs' is also highly contingent on an understanding of the historical and current wishes of a community. There's a lot of stuff that local councils fund that their communities want them to fund that you couldn't put on a need list. What is a need? What is a need to one community is very different to another community and having a heated pool is not a need for some but it's definitely a great desire; and for others it's a need. I just caution the centralising of - or normalising or anything like that of those sorts of standards.

Mr STREET - The reason I'm trying to be open in the language that I use isn't to be deceptive, Dr Woodruff, it's because I’m trying to respect the process and the fact that the final report will come to me on 31 October. We've set up the framework for the board to do its work but we don’t want to be dictating terms to the board about what they come back with in terms of a reform package. The councils that need to deliver these services are often those that have the greatest challenges with capability, and so we understand that as well.

That is why we want to make sure these councils have a sustainable footing going forward, in terms of being able to deliver the services that their communities ask of them. It is also why, when we talk about preserving and enhancing local voice, local government is so important because they have to be receptive to the people that they serve in terms of what they expect from the council. Take it from somebody who was on a council for four-and-a-half years, that when you decide or you end up with papers in front of you advocating for a decision in service delivery to be made - you hear from the local community. It is the job of local councils to take those views to the table when they are discussed.

Dr WOODRUFF - If you are presented with the review and, for example, it did have a recommendation that local community services should be standardised, is it your intention to look at that review and to make any changes if you think they are required?

Mr STREET - My intention is to receive that report and consider it in its entirety. The five principles that the board has been given for its final reform package will be the five principles that I take into account in terms of anything that we take forward.

Dr WOODRUFF - Are you receiving the report on 31 October or is that when it is going to be handed to parliament.

Mr STREET - I believe that I will receive the report as minister on 31 October and the process was for the second report as well. I will take the time to consider that, to potentially take it Cabinet as well because of the significance of the decisions that will be in there, and then we will communicate those decisions to the public.