Australian Councils deserve more help from the Federal Government

I’m down in Canberra at the 27th National General Assembly of Local Government, and it’s been a valuable experience.

My head is swimming with statistics – the presentations have been excellent, covering the effects of COVID (both economic and health), initiatives to make communities more resilient, new technologies that aid in planning, communication and environmental protection. Enough for several other posts, but here are some headlines:

In 1996, Financial Assistance Grants – the main way the Federal Government assisted Councils, was 1% of Federal taxation revenue. Now, it has declined to only 0.55%, half of what it used to be. Despite the annual feeding-the-chickens announcements we’re used to (like the very welcome boost to the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure program), support from the Federal government to Local governments has declined in real terms for decades.

Councils, through levying rates and charges, take in just 3.2% of ALL tax in Australia. Yet we’re responsible for 32% of all public infrastructure, including 75% of roads.

COAG – the Council of Australian Governments, was founded in 1992 and was traditionally the table where all the tiers of government sat down. When that was replaced by the ‘National Cabinet’ last year, Local Governments were no longer at the table, and right at the time when our voice needed to be heard the most as COVID hit.

That’s why I’m here. To learn, listen, and advocate for a better deal.

Saving Council money by trimming Councillor perks

At last night’s meeting of Hawkesbury Council I presented a Notice of Motion to review our ‘Provision of Facilities to Councillors’ policy. The text of my motion is at this link.

When I was elected to Council in September 2016, I was surprised to be given a Windows laptop, a new iPhone with a SIM card, a printer, and a wireless modem & router to facilitate Internet access at home.

I didn’t need or want most of these resources. I handed the laptop and iPhone back, and have never used the wireless modem router. Some of my fellow Councillors did the same. Representing the community is a privilege, and I was happy generally to use my own resources for Council business.

Frankly, the current policy is both wasteful and outdated. It refers to installing extra landlines and fax machines in Councillor’s houses. It refers to arrangements for receiving a tape (an actual tape!) of Councillor meetings, even though we’ve been podcasting meetings for years.

I felt that the least we should do is update this policy so that the new Council elected in a few months are asked first what resources they may need – hopefully in the expectation that this will save ratepayers some money.

The motion was passed unanimously, which was very pleasing.

A new policy will be drafted and placed on exhibition for adoption before the elections in September.

Proposed McGraths Hill motel development knockback prompts litigation

Those driving down Windsor Road from Windsor will be familiar with the former but beloved Millers Nursery (a.k.a Windsor Garden Centre) on the left hand side on the corner of McGrath Road at McGraths Hill.

Opened by Ross and Lynette Miller in 1969, and carried on by daughter Bec it was a stalwart local business for 47 years. I remember it as a cosy and personal ramble – a place with nooks, and curios, and proper service. Not at all like the bland ‘big box’ nurseries that prevail now. Ross was active in Windsor Rotary for many years. Sadly, the business closed and the property sold in July 2016. The site has lain empty and sad ever since.

I mention this today because the fate of this site reveals in microcosm two things: The first is how Hawkesbury Council still has a long way to go to be a responsive, efficient public body that meets deadlines and applies our planning codes consistently. The second is how planning laws imposed by the State Government have disconnected the community from knowing much about, or having much say in Development Applications.

In 2017, the NSW Government instituted Planning Panels to determine DA’s, removing the decision-making powers of elected Councils across Sydney. Planning Panels consist of unelected appointees who may have subject expertise in planning, but who are not democratically accountable to you, the citizen and voter. I and many other Councillors, including some Liberals were opposed to Planning Panels, and I’ve spoken at length about them before, including with 2GB’s Ray Hadley.

A series of DA’s have been lodged for the old nursery site to become a motel development. A pre-lodgement meeting held with Council in February 2018 indicated a desire to build a $10.8 Million, 130 bedroom motel.

DA0235/18 was lodged in May 2018 proposing a 94 room motel.

A decision on this proposal now sat with the Sydney West Planning Panel, with Hawkesbury Council staff writing a report with a recommendation for or against.

Council’s report to the Planning Panel did not arrive until September 2019, over a year later. This kind of delay is itself an issue for me. Such determinations should not take so long. In October 2019 that application was knocked back, for a variety of reasons including the ability of the McGraths Hill sewerage treatment plant to cope with the load the development would place on it.

The applicants then came back with a new proposal for an 80 room motel under DA #0130/20, lodged on 13th May 2020.

I suspect not many people, even residents of McGraths Hill, knew much about any of these proposals.

76 days later, on 28/7/2020 the applicant made an application to the Land and Environment Court (case #2020/00226591) to litigate the DA on the basis of an assumed “deemed refusal”, which means that the DA was not finalised or determined either way within the prescribed assessment period (which can be either 40 or 60 days).

Recently, on 31/5/2021 the application was withdrawn and a request for a refund of DA fees made, but only because this litigation was, and remains pending. A hearing may not occur until September.

In their letter withdrawing the DA, the applicants offered this stinging commentary to Council:

“It is with disappointment that we note that a lack of transparency from Council in relation to Council’s sewerage capacity issues and a lack of response from Council officers (who are too busy) in relation to the proposed on-site waste water system – which have prevented us assisting to achieve a satisfactory resolution of this development proposal.”

I offer no commentary on the merits of the proposal, except to note that all applicants to Council are entitled to prompt and professional service within “best practice” assessment timeframes. If they didn’t get it, I’d want to know why.

But my broader point is that, when decisions that shape the character of our neighbourhoods are taken away entirely from your elected Councillors and given to planning panels, the community ends up poorly informed (did you know about this?), and decisions are taken that you can’t require anyone to be accountable for, and that’s not good enough.

The NSW Productivity Commission White Paper and Local Government

The recently released NSW Productivity Commission report released by the NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet

Being a good local government representative means understanding the landscape that Councils inhabit, and the way we interact with other tiers of government. So, it’s well to pay attention when the State Government announces potential shifts in policy.

Constitutionally, Local Government does not exist. This is despite a decades long campaign, which I support, for constitutional recognition. There was a failed referendum in 1988. More recently, the Labor federal government promised another in 2013, which I believe would have passed with bipartisan support, only for them to welch at the last minute.

I’ve always believed in the principle of subsidiarity, which suggests that decisions in government should be taken by the level that is closest to the people affected. In my opinion devolution, rather than the endless accumulation of power to higher or more centralised authorities, is not only more efficient, more democratic, but also more consonant with classical Conservative principles of government.

However, any administrative or regulatory function held by government has to be paid for. Unfortunately, ‘cost shifting’ has moved the responsibility for a huge amount of regulation, infrastructure, planning and service delivery – previously provided by other tiers of government, on to local Councils like ours, and thus to our ratepayers, without the ability to pay for it. A 2018 LGNSW report concluded this cost NSW Councils (and again, ratepayers) over $6.2 Billion of extra costs between 2006 and 2018. Hawkesbury Council estimated the cost to us was $6.9 Million in one year alone.

So against this backdrop, I was interested when this morning NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet launched the NSW Productivity Commission’s ‘White Paper’ into rebooting the economy. I tuned in for the Treasurer’s speech. The report makes for interesting reading, and I’ll pick just a couple with relevance to Councils like ours.

One graph in it shows how the ‘rate peg’ has suppressed local government income since it was introduced in 1993.

This presents a mixed picture. In my time on Hawkesbury Council, I have been strong on ensuring Council lives within its means. I opposed the rate rises the dominant ruling block imposed on the community, as well as the changes to the rating formula that concentrated the rating burden unfairly on particular ratepayers.

But it also shows that this government policy has deprived Councils across the state of the ability to grow their revenue to pay for cost-shifted responsibilities in anything like the way Councils have in other states, to keep pace with inflation, population growth, or rising regulatory or infrastructure costs. The White Paper suggests that the rate peg should be abolished, or at least varied to allow Councils to better account for population growth.

The recommendation from the Productivity Commission’s White Paper

No one wants Councils to overcharge their ratepayers. Equally, most people agree the State government cost shifting to Councils without providing the revenue to pay for it is unfair. Any policies flowing from the White Paper will need to ensure that abolition of the rate cap doesn’t act as a green light for Councils to just jack up their rates. I think most people in the Hawkesbury don’t think Council is doing the best with what they are already collecting.

The white paper also suggests that Councils should to abide by principles of ‘competitive neutrality’, when it engages in commercial conduct that may disadvantage other local businesses that operate in the same domain. The example it cites is Councils that run Child Care centres. As it happens, there are nine different child care centres operating in Council owned properties around the Hawkesbury, who enjoy a substantial subsidy. This report presented to Council in October 2018 says it best:

The white paper makes this recommendation on p169:

My own view is that the various childcare centres around the district are worth supporting, and the ‘subsidy’ of facilities run from Council properties (effectively, an opportunity cost to Council in terms of foregone revenue) provides a direct and valued support to the community. I believe Council addressed the issue of centres taking an unfair advantage over their fully commercial competitors when it inked an agreement to ask those providers to contribute to a multi-year ‘building renewal fund’ to acknowledge the benefit they received from operating from Council properties, amounting to $1.5M over the life of the agreement.

I am glad that the NSW Government has been so effective in supporting our State economy during the worst economic dislocation for generations. This White Paper is not a policy manifesto, nor is it legislation. It’s the start of a conversation, and a very timely one about how to continue economic reform and streamline co-operation between local government and the State.

Oakville Oval needs an upgrade

Oakville Oval is one of 23 different playing fields, and one of the 215 parks and reserves around the Hawkesbury.

I’ve been a user of the oval all my life. I remember attending Oakville Public School sports carnivals there as a boy, kicking about kerosene-soaked fireballs when I was in Oakville Scouts (probably an OH&S nightmare now), and now witness my nephews play there as a soccer uncle.

Given the amount of use by the community, I feel Oakville Oval is looking a little tired and needs some care and investment.

Upkeep and development of our sporting fields is managed by the Hawkesbury Sports Council, who maintain two and five year plans for all local Ovals. In preparing those plans the Sports Council seeks submissions from sporting clubs and users of specific ovals. I was surprised to learn that, at the time the last plan was drawn up, no responses were received from the clubs that use Oakville Oval. I strongly encourage them to make a submission for the next round that will be called for the 2021/2022 financial year, and will be reaching out directly to make that appeal.

Council is aware of the increased use of the oval particularly during winter sports and the increases in parking and traffic. We’ve all seen the cars spilling on to the road, and the ‘car park’ is really just an abandoned gravel depot that turns to mud in poor weather.

The Sports Council advise that other suitable ovals in the area are used in conjunction with Oakville Oval wherever possible to spread the sporting community’s needs across the city.

Shipping containers used as storage at Oakville Oval

I’ve always thought that using shipping containers to store equipment like rollers, goal posts and nets is ugly and less optimal than lock-up colourbond sheds on slabs with roller doors. However, I am informed shipping containers are considered a better alternative due to their sturdiness and they deter vandalism due to their locks and wall thickness. If you have a different view, please let me know.

Currently there is one shelter area at the Oval and some seating available around the canteen building. Due to the high level of use for various sports there isn’t much room to install further shade areas without impacting on the current uses. There is also damage from the shade trees occurring to the on-field area in front of the containers as this area gets no sun. I am told that planting of additional trees might only compound this problem.

Hawkesbury Sports Council have planned to upgrade the irrigation system this year due to the field having to be returfed each year due to increasing use by the soccer club. Following the recent floods and damage to other grounds, the Sports Council has voted to place on hold all capital works until such time as the financial effects of the flood is clearer.

The Sports Council assigns its works program across all sports grounds and prioritises these as required. Where grant or other funding opportunities become available Council and the Sports Council will seek funding for upgrades, including the car park area. In addition, Council is currently planning for the development of Fernadell Park in Pitt Town. This development is subject to funding however, once developed, it will provide additional fields that can be used by the local sporting clubs and reduce demand on Oakville Oval.

Council will ultimately prepare a full masterplan for this and other reserves. I will be continuing to call for a long term plan, and sustained funding for improvements, on behalf of the residents and users who gain enjoyment and use of Oakville Oval.

Canteen and amenities at Oakville Oval

The Hawkesbury Floods, March 2021

Some times it must feel like our community can’t cop a trick. Devastating fires, pandemic and two floods, all within a 16 month period.

Yet again, out of the distress and destruction of property has arisen the real spirit of our local community, which has rallied magnificently. The response of our SES, Police and RFS have been truly heroic, and they deserve our respect, as do those who just help because it’s the right thing to do. Neighbours help neighbours. It’s the Hawkesbury way.

I tried to document the effects of and responses to flooding by visiting as many places and people as I could. These videos have apparently reached over 111,000 people on social media.

Since the waters have receded, I’ve been honoured to be present variously at the visits of the Governor General David Hurley, The Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Deputy Premier John Barilaro and Minister for Roads Andrew Constance.

It has also brought the need to raise Warragamba Dam back into focus.

The plan to raise the dam is about the safety of the community – the 134,000 people who live and trade on the Hawkesbury-Nepean floodplain. It isn’t about development, or Sydney’s drinking water supply. Nor should the debate be unduly focused on the temporary inundation of uninhabited bushland around lake Burragorang, for a week or two, once or twice a century.

The Resilient Valley, Resilient Community flood risk study released in 2017 explains 75% of our flood risk comes from the Warragamba catchment. It also points out that raising the dam would reduce the severity or frequency of bad floods by the same proportion – 75%.

Floods have already been averted or reduced by Warragamba, under certain circumstances. Severe rain events that began at the time of the early 1990s flood, when the dam was depleted to about 46% capacity, lowered the subsequent level of waters of on the floodplain by over three meters. This is the kind of ‘accidental’ mitigation that needs to be built into the dam permanently.

It really disappoints me that some of the commentary from people opposed to the project is so dishonest. This recent article in the Blue Mountains Gazette, and the comments of ex-Minister Bob Debus should anger everyone at risk of flooding, especially because he, like other opponents of the dam raising are usually high and dry and out of harms way. Our community in the Hawkesbury bears the brunt of this risk. I’ve pointed this out on many occasions.

Over the last fortnight I have stood with many people who have lost their homes and possessions because of Mr Debus’ inaction in the 1990s, when there was a plan to raise the dam by 23m. The Labor government’s decision not to treat this as a bipartisan issue and scotch those plans, which were shovel ready when Bob Carr was elected in 1995, is partly responsible for the damage this flood has caused.

The Canberra Times, 15-9-1995 announcing the Labor government abandoning plans to raise the dam.

Mr Debus says raising the dam won’t prevent all floods. But wearing a seatbelt won’t prevent all car accident fatalities. Backburning won’t save every house in a bushfire. But only an idiot would argue against doing what we can.

Imagine if the present floods had been 3 meters lower as a result of being able to hold back 1000 gigalitres of that water for long enough to allow them to drain away.

When Mr Debus only notes the quarter of floods that result from rain in other tributaries, he’s misleading you. And he’s wrong to state that permanently lowering the dam levels by 10m is the same as raising them by 10m, because of the tapered shape of the dam. The bottom 2cm of a wine glass holds much less than the top 2cm.

And pre-emptively reducing water levels in the dam, which every armchair expert has advocated over the last fortnight would (literally) be a drop in the ocean.

The topical unit is the ‘SydHarb’ – A Sydney Harbour’s worth of water, or about 500 gigalitres. Warragamba can hold 4 Sydharbs, and the dam raising project will add another 2. I was talking about this a decade ago. Lowering the dam to levels that would imperil Sydney’s drinking water supply to create a buffer would have taken weeks, and would account for maybe 0.2-0.5 Sydharbs.

In comparison, the inflow of water resulted in a Sydharb *per day* topping the dam for 2-3 days. If we could have absorbed two days of that inflow and let it out over a week or fortnight, many of the grieving people who have lost their homes, goods or livelihoods would have been spared.

Lastly, Bob raises the debunked-a-thousand-times canard of development on the floodplain. The 1:100 flood height buildong controls will not change. Not a single square meter of land which is presently sterilised by these controls would be opened up for building in the event of raising Warragamba. And the only time any flood has exceeded the 1:100 level in the last 222 years was in 1867, showing this is a reasonable safety measure. The sad fact is that the 5,500 houses built below the 1:100 level were built before those flood height controls were implemented.

Damn you, Bob Debus, for your reckless conduct as a Minister – when you actually had a chance to do something about this, you sat on your hands.

I spoke to the media on several occasions to represent our at-risk community

Print stories: Central News (18-11-2020), ABC (27-3-2021), AAP (23-3-2021), and TV as below:

It concerns me that in each of these cases, the voice of the community at most risk is not emphasised in balancing the costs and benefits of flood mitigation.

An excellent book I have at home on the history of the construction of Warragamba Dam in the 1950s is subtitled “Thank God there were no greenies.” I worry that an inability to soberly judge the necessity of flood mitigation will eventually cost lives, when a flood bigger than this one finally comes.

Nature has given us a warning. Are we wise enough to heed it?

Is your energy retailer denying you a smart meter?

In October 2014, the then NSW Minister for Energy Anthony Roberts announced a rollout of Smart Meters for all NSW homes and businesses. He said:


“The market-led rollout of smart meters is the NSW Government’s next step in putting the power firmly into the hands of electricity customers.”

The 2014 announcement.

Seven years on, this market-based approach has resulted some of our larger electricity retailers dropping the ball badly. I’m singling out Origin Energy, who have annual revenues of $15 billion and over 4 million customers.

This is embarassing. In Victoria, they completed their rollout of Smart Meters by 2004.

Overseas, the UK is well along in a rollout of 3 million smart meters. The EU’s goal is to provide smart meters to 80 per cent of consumers. France has committed to install 35 million meters as part of a $A19.7 billion spend, and the the Chinese government are deploying up to 380 million of them.

This isn’t good enough. With a Smart Meter, you can monitor your energy consumption using a smart phone app on a much more granular level.

I badgered Origin to give me the Smart Meter the scheme promised 7 years ago, and they grudgingly did so as a one off.

The precedent neatly set, watch this video to see how you can demand the same. Yes, they probably will be annoyed, but it’s time they did the right thing.

A big win for Oakville residents

After nearly five years of banging on about the shocking state of our local roads, I was very pleased at Councils meeting of 30/3 to be able to negotiate additional funding to FINALLY SEAL Old Stock Route Road and Brennans Dam Road at Vineyard.

Most of this is new money, and was absolutely not on the table before.

Some additional commentary:

• Unfortunately this does not yet seal the Commercial Road approach.

• The culvert will have some drainage and scour works done, but will remain a single-lane crossing for now.

• I couldn’t get the whole package of works through tonight, both because of our inability to complete the whole project within the deadline of the Commonwealth grant (31 Dec 2021), but also because I could not get more than this through the Chamber (for now).

• Further stages to fix Commercial + widen the culvert have been costed (~$450K) and I pledge to return to these ASAP.

• Yes, this road floods. Regularly. However, when natural disasters strike we get 100% coverage from the State Government to restore these roads but only on the basis of a ‘no betterment clause’, meaning we can’t use disaster relief funds to improve a road beyond it’s previous state. If however we improve it now, future damage will be covered to this new better standard. Some of the drainage works will help prevent road erosion against future flooding.

THANK YOU to my Hawkesbury Liberal Team Council colleagues and other Councillors who voted for this, especially those who reversed their previous opposition. Not everyone did…

Sending a strong message about inappropriate development at Kurrajong and Kurmond

At Council’s meeting this week, I supported a motion to end the ‘Kurrajong-Kurmond investigation area’ process.

I believe the proposed rezoning and adoption of the ‘Structure Plan’ would have encouraged the lodgement of further subdivision proposals. I felt it would have sent a message to landowners or developers that we were encouraging subdivision west of the river.

The motion Council passed abandons either rezoning or the Structure Plan, adding that Council ‘Not encourage the lodgement of additional individual Planning Proposals within the Kurmond- Kurrajong Investigation Area for rural residential development.’

The motion ensures already-lodged planning proposals will be granted due-process, and continue to be assessed against relevant criteria.

A 2017 survey of Kurrajong and Kurmond residents showed that only 32% of residents supported developing the whole investigation area.

Although it is true that anyone can submit an unsolicited proposal at any time to subdivide their property, they will still be assessed against increasingly strict criteria of both our LEP and the Greater Sydney Commission’s residential strategy.

Two Councillors recused themselves because they or their families, live or own property in the subject area, including Liberal Sarah Richards.

Extraordinarily, the Greens and Independent Councillors voted not only to adopt the structure plan, but to have Council prepare a planning proposal to rezone the land identified in the plan.

We encourage those with an interest in the debate to listen to the Council webcast.

Facebook and the survival of rational democracy

So after two days of Facebook gaol, my Councillor Facebook page, the Hawkesbury Liberal Team page, and the Hawkesbury District Independent Magazine page are back up, after Facebook purged thousands of Australian pages including charities, public health sites and not-for-profit groups.

However, at time of writing, the worthy Hawkesbury Post, The Hawkesbury Gazette, and the Hawkesbury Visitor Information Centre, which is a Council page, were still off-line.

What utter stupidity. Facebook can’t even be consistent about what constitutes ‘news’. Business students will one day write essays about how a $745B multinational trashed their branding in a stroke by citing this episode. It was a stunningly dumb move.

Here’s what it boils down to. Many people choose to view their news through Facebook – for some it’s the main way they keep informed. Spain and Germany enacted similar copyright reforms in 2014 – seeking to charge aggregators for the value news sites conferred them.

In that case it was Google who removed news from their site. Immediately, there was an overall 20% reduction in news consumption. People were less informed – a poor outcome.

Now, ask yourself: With social platforms only making belated and cosmetic efforts to remove inflammatory and misleading content, if there’s suddenly no professional journalism or fact checking in people’s feeds, then what’s left?

That’s right. Facebook becomes even more of a sewer. Less fact, and more garbage.

I’m not convinced that the Federal Government’s proposed Media Bargaining Code is the right solution, but I am convinced that they have picked the right fight.

We have to recognise that in our system of open democracy, the role of a free and viable Press serves a critical role to hold the powerful to account. The fourth estate provides a shared sense-making dialogue to society that helps us parse truth from flim-flam, scare-mongering and misinformation.

The eyes of the world are on us to hold our nerve – not unlike Australia pioneering plain packaging for cigarettes against a barrage of spurious lawsuits from the tobacco industry. We won that fight, and other countries followed our lead.

I’ve provided further remarks to the Hawkesbury Post. The link is here. And if you feel strongly about supporting smaller news media outlets, who seem to be locked out of the benefits of the Federal scheme, then make a donation to one here.