The body representing NSW councils has refuted the federal government’s claim that the abolition of the carbon tax will lead to savings that will adequately compensate their expected budget shortfalls.
Financial Assistance Grants (FAGs), which contribute significantly to council operating funds, will no longer be indexed to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). They are a target of the Abbott government’s harsh austerity measures.
After Local Government NSW (LGNSW) called for the CPI freeze be reversed, Nationals MP and deputy prime minister Warren Truss issued a press release and instead accused the media of misreporting their widely criticised policies and budget. The electorate was also blamed for its inability to understand the ‘strong action’ that was necessary to restore the budget.
Mr Truss’s media response to LGNSW said, ‘In the near hysteria that has ensued since the federal budget was announced, much has been misunderstood and misreported.’
‘The government is asking all sectors of the economy to contribute to repairing Labor’s debt and deficit disaster, and so it is only reasonable that local government should also make a contribution.’ He also claimed the CPI freeze would ‘be more than offset by the abolition of the carbon tax and the injection of infrastructure investment for local communities.’
But Local Government NSW president, Cr Keith Rhoades AFSM, told The Echo, ‘The freeze on the Federal Financial Assistance Grants will have a long-term impact on councils and communities, and will not be offset completely by the negligible savings made by abolishing the carbon tax or the ‘injection of infrastructure investment’.
‘Financial Assistance Grants are untied, which means councils can assess the individual needs of their community and put that funding into where it’s needed most. That could be infrastructure or services, other than that dictated by the federal government.
Grants stuck at 2013/14 levels
‘While populations continue to grow and the CPI continues to rise, the Federal Financial Assistance Grants will still be stuck at the same level as 2013/14. What’s more, the infrastructure funding Truss speaks about is time limited. Unfortunately, under the decision to freeze the Financial Assistance Grants, which are particularly important to regional and rural councils, [their level] will be permanently lowered.’
The NSW Business Chamber joins the state’s peak body representing local government (LGNSW) in being left in the dark by the NSW Shooters & Fishers Party and the coalition over Sydney’s CBD voting reforms.
The City of Sydney Amendment (Elections) Bill 2014 has been widely criticised for advocating that businesses receive two votes, giving them a greater say in local elections. Typically such a move is considered to be a gerrymander.
‘Giving business a voice’ is the catchphrase, and supporters such as local MP Don Page (Nationals) say that it would remove ‘significant bureaucratic barriers’ and allow businesses to remain enrolled.
The legislation includes provisions for the scheme to be rolled out state-wide, and has the full support of the NSW Business Chamber.
But the Chamber’s policy manager Luke Aitken confirmed with The Echo that the legislation came as a surprise to his organisation. He backed calls by executive director of the Sydney Business Chamber, Patricia Forsythe, saying the government needs to justify the ‘two vote’ proposal.
‘The Local Government Act has always provided a mechanism for non-residents to vote in council elections,’ he said. ‘The principle behind this, however, is one person one vote. If you live in the city of Sydney and also have a business in the city, you can only vote as a resident.
‘If your business is in the city of Sydney and you live in Bondi (ie Waverley LGA), you can vote in the city of Sydney as a non-resident business owner and in Waverley as a resident.’ When asked how such a program would work across regional areas, he said that it’s a ‘little too soon to say exactly how things would roll out across the state, but simplifying the enrolment process for non-residents (who are currently required to re-enrol at each local government election) by implementing a permanent roll (so they enrol once and stay on the roll like other electors) would need to be a feature.’
But the Bill is also mired in politically motivated; ICAC recently heard disgraced Liberal MP Chris Hartcher explain that his former staffer Tim Koelma was preparing ‘a local government strategy in relationship to the City of Sydney.’
Meanwhile, Byron Shire mayor Simon Richardon will seek councillor support at Thursday’s meeting to oppose the bill. He is calling for Council to ‘commit to the basic democratic principle of “one-person one-vote” in local government elections,’ and if supported, he will express Council’s concerns to government heads and parliamentary representatives.
Proposed legislation aimed at ‘giving business a voice in local elections’ by the NSW Shooters and Fishers party and supported by coalition government, has been widely condemned by the entire opposing political spectrum, including the peak body representing NSW councils.
It complements yet another dreadful week for the NSW Liberal-National parties, which have seen more of their MPs resign over ICAC corruption investigations.
While the City of Sydney Amendment (Elections) Bill 2014 applies only to Sydney, critics say there are plans for it to be applied across the state. Similar laws exist in Melbourne, and this proposal would give non-resident owners of rateable land two votes in local government elections.
In introducing the bill to Parliament on Thursday, Shooters and Fishers party MP Robert Borsak thanked broadcaster Alan Jones and the Daily Telegraph for their support.
Meanwhile, local NSW MP Don Page (Nationals) supports the idea – which Local Government NSW (LGNSW) says came without warning – and told The Echo the reforms will fix changes introduced in 1998 that created barriers to prevent non-residential voters from ‘exercising their democratic right’.
‘To be clear, businesses have always had the right to vote,’ he said.
‘Unfortunately, to do so they have to navigate through significant bureaucratic barriers within a three- month period. If they find a way through the red tape, they have to do it all again at the next election because the non-residential roll is deleted. No other Australian city deletes the non-residential roll after each election.’
Mr Page took aim at the lack of engagement on the bill, saying that, ‘Some who claim there was no consultation did not even bother to make a submission. Others that did are simply scaremongering.’
Mr Page also recited some of the Shooters and Fishers’ MP Borsak’s speech in parliament.
‘A person can only be enrolled once, meaning they only get one vote. A person who owns 20 properties in Sydney will only be enrolled once, not 20 times.
‘The reforms address an injustice that prevented those who contribute 78.5 per cent of the City of Sydney’s revenue ($188 million a year) exercising just 2.13 per cent of votes at the last election.’
Voting rights based on wealth: Greens
But such voting rights could mean a return to the ‘nineteenth century voting rights based on wealth’ says NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge.
‘The NSW coalition has consistently shown that they follow the money wherever it takes them and that they believe developers and businesses should control the political process. With this Bill, the coalition is directly handing political control to corporate interests.’
NSW Labor’s Sophie Cotsis said, ‘Given everything that is being revealed at ICAC, it is unthinkable that the Liberals and Nationals are proposing these changes.’
Meanwhile, the peak body representing Local Government NSW (LGNSW), says it is deeply concerned about the lack of transparency and non-existent consultation on the proposed legislation, and the potential for these new voting rules to be rolled-out to all NSW councils.
President of LGNSW, the peak body representing local governments in NSW, Cr Keith Rhoades AFSM, said he is outraged at the NSW Government’s support of this Bill.
‘How can a government justify ramming through changes in Parliament without any consultation whatsoever with the industry set to be significantly impacted?’
SCU law lecturer Aidan Ricketts told The Echo the idea looks ‘terrible, problematic and horrendous.’
The establishment of Crown Lands as a possible public trading enterprise has prompted a corporate law firm to advertise its services to prospective corporations and individuals wanting to maximise ‘the return to the government and the community from the use of Crown land.’
Australian corporate law firm Clayton Utz says on its website that, ‘For the private sector, the reforms have the potential to open up new business and operational opportunities.’
Shift in use
The law firm’s webpage, ‘NSW Crown land – a field of opportunities’, spruiks the recommendations in the state government’s White Pa- per, which is now on public submission.
They say it demonstrates, ‘a shift in the use of Crown land towards private entities.’
‘Tenants under Crown land are currently bound by certain provisions of the Crown Lands Act which make it impracticable to operate standard business and development models.
‘Removing restrictions to enable leases to be granted on terms and conditions more regularly found in commercial leases will provide greater flexibility in the use of Crown land.
‘Roughly 42 per cent of land in NSW is Crown land (not including national parks and state forests), with a total value of over $11 billion.’
The law firm says apart from the public trading enterprise aspect of Crown lands, the new legislation will provide for the pay- ment of market rent as the default position under leases of Crown land (with rebates and waivers applied where appropriate); standardise the way in which Crown land is valued (having regard to the hypothetical value of the land as if it were a freehold parcel); require an entity ad- ministering Crown land to evaluate the expected return to be provided to the government and the community when permitting the use of an asset (and taking into ac- count the opportunity cost of allowing an asset to be used in such a way); and implement stronger compliance and enforcement provisions which will provide penalties for damage and unlawful use of Crown land.
NSW Trade & Investment says on its website that the changes are part of a ‘commitment to cutting red tape and updating legislation to improve outcomes.’
Public submissions in response to the White Paper are open until June 20.
For more information visit http://bit.ly/1ojZhIP.
Botched boat eviction plans by bureaucrat change to year lease for Bruns Buccaneer
The tedious and complicated bureaucracy that nearly sank Brunswick Buccaneer boat hire may soon be over. Well, for a year at least.
The Echo reported earlier this year that the manager of the NSW government-run North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP), Jim Bolger, inexplicably tried to evict the 30-year old business and its operator Ilan Schnitzler a year ago with just four days’ notice.
It came without explanation and Mr Bolger told The Echo at the time, ‘the Trust will not take part in discussing licence or legal issues through the media’.
But in a turnaround, Mr Schnitzler told The Echo that Mr Bolger had a ‘completely changed attitude,’ at their recent meeting, and agreed to allow the boat hire business to continue for a year.
And as the licence makes no guarantees past 12 months, Mr Schnitzler’s solicitor, Claire Lovejoy, told The Echo it was possibly because of the NCHP’s controversial plan of management (POM) for the town- ship, which is yet to be determined.
Interestingly, when on exhibition the POM did not include the Brunswick Buccaneer in the plan or maps and instead promoted a deck- ing area at the site.
As for the way in which Mr Schnitzler had to navigate the bureaucratic smoke and mirrors, be prepared for layers of confusing regulation.
While NSW government departments all appear to share responsibility of issuing permits to access the creek, Mr Schnitzler was advised that NCHP controls the embarkation point at Banner Park. At the high-water mark. Still with us?
Smoke and mirrors
Now that a licence has been signed by NCHP, he has to go back to Crown Lands, NSW Marine Parks and Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) to get the technical tick to legally operate.
‘Previously the departments indicated that permits would be grant- ed after NCHP gave the licence,’ said Ms Lovejoy. ‘Now it appears some of these departments are dragging their heels with emails unanswered for over a month.’
Mr Bolger, who is also NCHP’s media contact, was asked by The Echo for comment on the reversal of his previous eviction intentions but as of deadline there has been no reply.
NCHP controversially took control from Council of public parks and reserves in 2006, and The Echo previously reported that the state government took that revenue away from Council.
Additionally, the community be- came enraged at Mr Bolger’s plans to fence off public lands in the town.
■ Disclosure: Mr Schnitzler’s solicitor is a relative of the reporter
Why should visitors to Brunswick Heads have private access to public lands while the residents are excluded?
It was just one of many unanswered questions that were again brought up on Saturday at the second public information session, held by North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP) manager, Jim Bolger.
Plans by NCHP to develop the town’s three holiday parks and five Crown foreshore reserves are currently on public exhibition.
And at both meetings, residents expressed confusion, anger and exasperation as to why access they had enjoyed over generations should be taken away at NCHP’s discretion.
But it was not only public access and boundary encroachments that were sore points for locals.
Resident Sean O’Meara told The Echo, ‘The town is basically under attack from privatisation,’ referring to the state-run private corporation NCHP.
In backing the claim, elderly long-time Brunswick Heads resident and father of Sean, D’Arcy O’Meara, has told The Echo that local NSW Nationals MP Don Page first brought to his attention ‘this scam’ between the then-NSW Labor government and a ‘network of public servants’.
‘He explained to me the danger of how they would take possession of [the public assets],’ he said, ‘… isolating the community and eventually it would become the property of the state government… so they could sell it or lease it to people such as NCHP and other similar things. Mr Page said, “When we gain power in parliament, we will rectify this; we will dismantle it so it will come back to the local people.”
‘In government they’ve gone to water.’
Mr Page was asked for comment but no reply was received by the time of going to press.
Meanwhile, a closed meeting between Byron Council and NCHP’s Mr Bolger was held on Thursday, presumably to negotiate the long-running public access and boundary issues.
While questions to mayor Simon Richardson remain unanswered, Cr Di Woods told The Echo it was a ‘very intense’ meeting and ‘Council will form a submission for the Crown’s consideration, after it has received legal advice on many aspects in the proposed plans.’
‘My desire is to see an outcome for the community, visitors and the caravan parks, that gives everyone most of what they would like, but importantly, it is Brunswick Heads and its residents that need assurance that the village will not become another Noosa.
‘There are only approximately 1,600 residents, and it would be criminal in my view to destroy their amenity, and to negate the very thing that people come here for and that is the “simple pleasures” on offer for families.
‘I believe that the proposed plans will enable the holiday parks to become more expensive; however, while there’s nothing wrong with commercial interests improving their bottom line.
‘This could exclude those people that this community and business fraternity have worked so hard to attract.’
A short NCHP history
‘Money has never made man happy, nor will it,’ said Benjamin Franklin, ‘there is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more of it one has, the more one wants.’
But money is needed to win elections; it buys you ink on paper and airwaves on radio and TV.
And while incomparable in size and scale to state and federal election budgets, local government candidate donation and expenditure disclosures reveal the same transparency issues: donors can remain anonymous by contributing under $1,000 while fundraising event donations are also anonymous.
As the political donation disclosures are now public, what does it cost to run as a party in a local government election?
As a state-registered political party, The Byron Greens’ disclosure is not recorded alongside other parties. So unless you ask, there’s no way of knowing what was donated or spent. But Byron Greens treasurer Wayne Smith seemed happy enough to tell The Echo that $2,577 was donated to the party by eight local people, all under the $1,000 amount.
‘$2,000 was raised from raffles,’ he said. ‘The Byron Greens members contributed $7,000,’ he added, ‘and the total came to $12,018.10.’
As for expenditures, fundraising cost them $500 and advertising was spread across the two weekly papers. The Echo ads cost them $2,757 while Byron News was just under $600. $900 was spent with Bay FM and signage totalled $559. Other costs included $600 on a Byron Bay pop-up shop as campaign HQ.
The Byron Greens membership is around 100–120, Mr Smith added, and he agreed that there would be more transparency if registered political parties disclosed reports locally rather than sending them to state branch headquarters. Mayor Simon Richardson, along with Crs Duncan Dey and Rose Wanchap, were all elected on the Greens ticket.
Cr Sol Ibrahim
Cr Ibrahim’s Vision In Action team reported no donations of any kind except his own, which totalled $3,867. But the campaign cost $11,797, and like Crs Cameron and Spooner, he managed to secure only himself a seat in Council.
When asked about the donations, Cr Ibrahim said, ‘I received about two dozen donations. All were below the reportable threshold from local residents who were of course not developers, or involved in gaming or liquor, as per AEC rules.
And when asked who were Cr Ibrahim’s main backers, he replied, ‘It is a bit mischievous to imply that I or other councillor had “major backers”. I think it would be quite obvious to anyone who reviewed my votes, and my carefully stated reasons, that I am not beholden to any backers, unlike some of the Greens of course. The Greens received about a third of the votes, and my votes were about equal to Paul and Basil combined. Clearly there are a wide range of legitimate community views in our Shire.’
Newspaper advertising was again the choice of Cr Ibrahim’s communication, with $2,655.26 being spent with the Byron News (APN) and $4,194 with The Echo. Bay FM ads cost him $1,560, Corflute signage was $1,818.30 and website $1,400.
Cr Ibrahim also receives the ‘hippest candidate award’ – he put down DJ expenses of $200. QLD-based public relations company Zakazukha also received $880.
Cr Di Woods
The True Independents, led by Cr Di Woods, raised by far the most capital with 30 individuals donating $19,728 alone (all anonymously as they are under $1,000).
Additionally, a fundraising event added $12,290 to the war chest, making that at least $32,018.
QLD resident Tory Smith also donated $4,000 to the cause. Mrs Woods said of Ms Smith, ‘Tory is a supporter of the True Independents and wished to donate to our cause. A really nice lady.’
As for expenses, $13,866.53 was declared, which covered newspaper advertising and signage while a marketing team was paid $8,195.
APN advertising totalled $5,792.67, while $1,505 was spent with The Echo and a Saturday Star advertisement cost $275. Designer Tony Gooley was paid $3,916 and t-shirts and stickers were produced.
Asked if she would advocate a change in donation disclosure given donations under $1,000 are anonymous, Cr Woods replied, ‘I would always agree with absolute transparency from all candidates including the Greens.’
But when asked if she was prepared to publicly acknowledge her major donors, she declined.
‘We had many donors who had their money returned to them as they were ineligible under the electoral ruling. We also had many other offers which were declined due to ineligibility.
‘We had a consultancy firm working for us who sought donations on our behalf and we maintained absolute scrutiny to ensure we had only legitimate donations that complied with the ruling by the Electoral Funding Authority (EFA).’
Cr Woods brought Crs Chris Cubis and Alan Hunter with her for a seat at Council.
Cr Basil Cameron
Cr Cameron’s Sustainable Futures party had $10,696 in capital to spend, and according to AEC records, it was his own cash. And while it didn’t get his other candidates elected, Cr Cameron’s expenditure showed a healthy advertising spend across all media. As for ink on paper, The Village Journal was paid $340, Bangalow Heartbeat $146.70, Northern Star (APN) $2,454.11 and The Echo $2,167. Bay FM was paid $300, while audio and video production cost $1,212.
Unlike other candidates, he dabbled with TV: Prime7 and NBN were each paid $1,100 for ads.
Cr Paul Spooner
The Community Independents party, headed by Cr Spooner, didn’t spend much comparatively but it was enough for him to be elected.
While his records were unavailable on the Election Funding Authority website, he said the party’s income totalled $4,720.
‘This was raised through a launch event and some small donations,’ said Cr Spooner. ‘This consisted of reportable political donation of $3,010 from Graham Mathews and $1,710 in small donations.
‘Expenses were $4,783.95 and was mainly Echo advertising, printing of pamphlets and signs etc.’
Byron Council among north coast local government areas to be identified
The long-awaited Local Government Review and taskforce report, spearheaded by local government minister and Byron Bay resident Don Page, was released last week.
So how are the state’s 152 local councils doing?
Not great, according to the independent report, with, ‘around a third of all NSW councils being at risk from weak revenues, infrastructure backlogs and declining populations; some are in crisis or very close.’
Third of councils at financial risk
And while Mr Page made an election promise that there will be no ‘forced amalgamations’, the report’s authors say it’s inevitable. ‘Sooner or later, amalgamations will have to be part of the package [to restore financial sustainability]: the number of councils in NSW has halved during the past century and that trend will surely continue.’
The ‘A’ word has always been uncomfortable word for residents and councils.
It’s the main concern for the organisation that represents the state’s 152 councils, Local Government NSW (LGNSW).
Within an hour of the report being released, LGNSW president Cr Keith Rhoades AFSM blasted the short time-frame for councils to provide feedback and said, ‘While the report does not support forcibly amalgamating councils, it does provide a very detailed “merger” blueprint for a future state government without the current “no forced amalgamations” policy.’
The Independent Local Government Review Panel’s report identifies Byron, Richmond Valley, Clarence Valley and Kyogle shire councils as future amalgamation targets, with critics saying a Kyogle merger could happen as early as next year.
Ignorant and happy people
On the bright side, the panel’s findings say, ‘People appear satisfied with the performance of local government – more so than with state and federal governments.’
But ignorance and disengagement in the NSW electorate also reign supreme: ‘The overall level of awareness and understanding about the role and functions of councils is quite low, and there is very limited recognition of mayors and councillors.’
As for cost-shifting from councils to the state, the report came down in favour of the state.
‘Cost-shifting has been overstated relative to other factors, but local government does have legitimate concerns about rating exemptions and concessions, and the way some fees and charges are fixed below cost.
The report concludes that ‘all concerned need to face the reality that there are no “pots of gold” in Canberra or Macquarie Street.’
n See editorial page 10
A NSW shire council roughly the size of Tasmania and with a population of only 2,000 has had its councillors suspended by local government minister and Byron Bay resident Don Page.
Councillors in the Central Darling Shire, located in the state’s far west, were suspended just before Christmas.
It’s the first use of new ‘early intervention’ legislation which was introduced in NSW parliament earlier in 2013.
The suspension only affects elected councillors, not staff, and comes after NSW Treasury claimed the council was in a ‘very weak and deteriorating’ financial position.
Mr Page says he ‘bypassed the option of giving the council an order to improve because of the dire state of the council’s finances.’
But mayor of Central Darling, Ray Longfellow, told The Echo that despite clear and early warnings of financial difficulty to Mr Page’s department, support was not forthcoming.
‘Nothing came out of the meetings we had with the department of local government,’ he said, ‘despite all meetings being instigated by us.
‘Our suggestion was instead of getting in an administrator, we needed advisers. With an administrator, you sit on the outside rather than being involved,’ he said.
But Mr Page told The Echo that the Central Darling councillors told him in June this year, ‘they were budgeting for a surplus of over $1m for 2013/14.’ In September they told me they would break even. In late November they told me they wouldn’t be able to pay their wages prior to Christmas.
‘They had no plan to manage their finances, despite employing very highly paid external consultants, other than for some other tier of government to bail them out.
‘Their bank would not extend further credit so we had no option but to appoint an administrator.’
However, the issue is about state and federal funding, says Mr Longfellow.
‘Over a period of time, the funding by both the federal and state governments have become insufficient. We have a huge network of roads to maintain. The money has being drying up over the last ten years. We can’t increase our rate base; we rely heavily on grant money to operate.’
Mr Page added that Central Darling Shire Council’s case was unique, ‘and the government is not currently considering the use of the temporary suspension powers on any other council at this time’.
According to www.governmentnews.com.au, a number of other local governments are also understood to be ‘skirting close intervention on the ministerial watch list.’
The planning document that defines land usage, developments and zonings has been finalised by Byron Shire Council staff and is on its way to Sydney for state government approval.
It’s called the Local Environment Plan (LEP); councillors voted last Thursday to sign off on the 114-page policy, which is in accordance with state government requirements.
Council’s media spokesperson said it also corresponds with the shire-wide Development Control Plan (DCP), which is still being prepared.
But there are some omissions to the LEP – coastal, E2 and E3 environmental zonings were left out as the state has yet to finalise those parameters.
And it’s a policy that could see some movement in the real estate market: Council staff have included provisions enabling community title (CT) subdivision of approved multiple occupancy developments, which is again subject to state government approval.
Additionally Council will seek a future amendment to the LEP to allow two (detached) houses on rural land. While the minimum lot size is yet to be determined, it will be reported to Council prior to being sent to the NSW department of planning.
Mayor Simon Richardson said at Thursday’s Council meeting that he and general manager Ken Gainger recently met with NSW planning MP Brad Hazzard in Sydney and told him that funding advice for ground truthing, or mapping, had still not been received by Council from the planning department.
‘He was shocked to hear this,’ Cr Richardson said, and he expected Mr Hazzard to reply soon.