The first issue is the rough size of municipalities. Sydney now has a weird patchwork of municipalities in terms of population. A number, such as the City of Sydney, Concord and Hunters Hill, have tiny resident voting populations, around 10,000 people, while other municipalities such as Fairfield, Holroyd, Liverpool and the Sutherland Shire have between 100,000 and 200,000 voters, with, however, roughly the same number of aldermen as the municipalities with 10,000.
This has come about because municipal reorganisation has not kept pace with the growth of the population of the city region, and has been overly influenced by episodic interventions by state governments for short-term political advantage, the worst example of which is the periodic redrawing of the boundaries of the City of Sydney on a completely ad hoc basis to keep one or another political party in or out of power.
The present City of Sydney, South Sydney and Botany, plus part of Leichhardt, Marrickville and Woolahra municipalities, should be amalgamated to produce a major City of Sydney, which would administer the CBD, inner-city residential areas, the South Sydney industrial area, Mascot Airport and the port of Botany Bay, as well as Centennial Park and the new film complex around the former showgrounds.
It would have a population of about 200,000 with five wards, each represented by four councillors elected under proportional representation.
The area I've outlined has natural geographic boundaries for the central core of the region.
The rest of the Sydney Basin should be reorganised in municipalities with between 80,000 and 120,000 people, which is the population figure considered by most urban economists to allow for sufficient economies of scale to make local government reasonably economic.
The commissioners undertaking the redistribution of municipal boundaries should attempt to design municipal areas that have unifying geographical and regional features. This major reorganisation obviously involves the merger of smaller councils and the division of the overgrown larger councils on the rural/urban fringe.
Councils of 100,000 population should generally be divided into four wards of four. The ward principle is worth preserving in local government because it gives people in smaller areas a reasonable chance of knowing who their representatives are and exerting pressure on them, because in the sphere of local government the lives of local people are affected very directly by decisions made by their representatives.
Wards of four with PR is a pretty important principle because it ensures that significant groups in any area get representation, as the quota is only 20 per cent. In practice, it will usually mean that Labor and Liberal get major representation, but that as well you get significant representation from environmentally minded independents, Democrats, Greens or others, whose presence can keep the major groups honest, so to speak.
In local government, a certain tension between Labor, Liberal and environmentally minded independents, is a very healthy thing and leads to proper scrutiny of measures affecting people's day-to-day lives. The broad principle of wards of four with proportional representation would enshrine a basically democratic environment at the core of local government, and this would be very healthy.
Reorganisations of local government in the other major state capitals should take place on similar broad principles to the ones I have outlined for the Sydney region, but would obviously be significantly different because of the special features prevailing in each city.
Local government in provincial cities and the country
Obviously local government reorganisation presents different problems outside the major capitals. Some things are common. The PR principle, with wards, and essentially wards of four, applies everywhere.
Some major provincial cities such as the Illawarra would be more appropriately one large city government, with maybe even five or six wards because of the larger population.
In general, in more thinly populated country areas, amalgamation of town councils and shires is a desirable reform, but even with such amalgamations in some areas the population for a viable regional municipal area still has to be far fewer than the population for a viable area in the major cities, and these things have to be worked out very concretely, with the full participation of the electorate. Nevertheless, the desirable principle is viable areas economically for the better provision of services, combined with wards and PR to ensure democratic representation.
The reorganisation of local government to more effectively represent the interests of people on their own home ground should be commenced and completed in a sensible time frame, but because it's so important to peoples lives it should be done carefully, with full public consultation so proper public discussion of alternatives can take place.
I am advancing my set of proposals here as an initial contribution to the necessary discussion, based on a long study of the history of municipal affairs in Australia, and some participation in them at rank and file level.