The birth of the Surf Coast Shire
Local government is regarded as the level of government closest to the people. The ‘grass roots’ nature of local government enables elected councillors and their officers to respond fairly quickly to current issues and concerns within the limits imposed by budgets, revenue and strategic plans. In Victoria, a program of local government reform in the 1990s reduced the number of municipalities from 210 to 79, mainly to ensure that Councils had the economic strength to serve their communities.
Surf Coast Shire came into being though an Order-in-Council on 9 March 1994, amalgamating most of Winchelsea and Barrabool Councils along with parts of the recently formed City of Greater Geelong. The first year of governance was in the hands of a local government commissioner and the Shire returned to a democratically elected Council on 25 March 1995.
The first local authorities in the colony of New South Wales were the Roads Boards whose role often expanded into local matters beyond roads management. In 1842, the New South Wales Constitution Act attempted to divide the colony into districts, but this was not very successful, possibly because it had not been initiated by the community. Soon afterwards, the ‘movers and shakers’ in Geelong achieved incorporation of the town and in 1849 Geelong became the third municipality in the colony of New South Wales – obviously Sydney and Melbourne were the other two. It should be noted that this was prior to 1851 when Victoria separated from New South Wales. Between 1855 and 1860, thirty-five municipalities were incorporated in Victoria, and by the time that local government reform was activated in 1992, there were 210 local government authorities, variously called cities, towns. boroughs and shires, led by Mayors or Shire Presidents.
By the 1980s many of the smaller municipalities had become financially unviable, some experiencing negative growth over a number of years. In some country towns people had moved to larger areas for employment, and it was difficult to run any form of local government without a strong dependency on Victorian Grants Commission money. Despite compulsory voting, voter turnout at elections was around 60% of those eligible to vote, and only about 50% of seats were contested – in some municipalities, the group of people who sat as Councillors had their own little fiefdoms that few people were willing to interrupt.
1980s and 1990s Reform
During the 1980s under the Labor government there was a strong push to look at amalgamating Councils and there were a number of studies undertaken during this time. Stuart Morris (now a QC and a former head of VCAT) was charged with the job of moving around Victoria discussing ways that Councils might merge, offering scenarios which certainly annoyed many people, especially Councillors who felt that their own area was going to be a taken over. In Geelong there was a serious study chaired by Patricia Heath, to investigate possible combinations of Councils. The Heath Report gave impetus for the government of the day to reduce the number of Councils in Victoria. However this was briefly stalled when Joan Kirner’s Labor government lost the election in November 1992.
The new Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett announced a strong reform agenda, especially in the local government area, appointing National Upper House member Hon. Roger Hallam as Minister for Local Government, charged with the job of getting on with amalgamating Councils.
An early part of local government reform was the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering. The purpose of this requirement was to a make Councils become more financially accountable for projects by competing with private enterprise, meaning that Council staff had to become much more oriented to a commercial way of doing things.
Another initiative was the formation of the Local Government Board which was charged with the responsibility to investigate current municipalities and recommend sensible amalgamations. The Board was chaired by former mayor of Prahran, Leonie Burke. Leonie and some other members of the board went on to become members of parliament, and they were well versed in Kennett reforms. By 1995, the 210 municipalities had been replaced by 77 new Councils and one surviving Council (Queenscliffe). At the same time 1600 elected Councillors were replaced over the transition period by about 200 commissioners.
Greater Geelong City Council
The first amalgamation was not driven by the Local Government Board. The Greater Geelong City Council basically emerged from the Heath Report which was developed further in a report in March 1993 from the Audit Review of Municipal Structure in the Geelong Region. The new City was created by an Act of Parliament and came into being in May 1993. The Greater Geelong City Council amalgamated Geelong, South Barwon, Bellarine, Corio, Newtown, Geelong West and the Torquay part of Barrabool. Interestingly, Queenscliffe managed to escape the amalgamation despite the recommendation of the audit review.
The map shows the area covered by Greater Geelong. All of Torquay became part of the City instead of the previous arrangement where the area west of the highway belonged to Barrabool, and the eastern side to South Barwon.
Four commissioners were appointed to replace 78 councillors, and they became the Council for the new municipality. Bill Dix, former chairman of Qantas and Ford, was appointed Chief Commissioner, supported by former Labor leader and Minister Frank Wilkes, former Liberal Minister Glyn Jenkins, and former Mayor of Warrnmabool, Toni McCormack. The six CEOs of the previous Councils were allocated portfolios, but nobody was appointed to the position of CEO for the new Council, and Commissioner Dix assumed that role for the initial period. Following an intensive selection process, Commissioner Dix appointed David Niven as the first Chief Executive of the Greater Geelong City Council.
At the same time, the Geelong Regional Commission was disbanded with the assets transferring to the City. Peter Johnstone was appointed to wind down the organisation.
Surf Coast Shire
The people of Torquay were concerned that their interests would be diminished as part of the larger Greater Geelong structure, and they agitated for their own municipality. The Local Government Board’s first task was to look at this request and determine the financial viability of a Council that would include the Torquay section of the new City of Greater Geelong, along with the rest of Barrabool and Winchelsea Shires.
On 9 March 1994, Minister Roger Hallam called a meeting in the Winchelsea Shire Offices to announce the adoption of the Surf Coast Shire. The original Order, made on 25 February 1994, constituted the Council as Barrabool and Winchelsea Shire Council, but when the order was published in a special Government Gazette on 9 March, there was also an amending order changing the name to Surf Coast Shire Council. The order appointed one commissioner, Toni McCormack who moved across from the Geelong amalgamation team, and an interim Chief Executive Officer, Dr David Roach who had been the Director of Warrnambool Institute of Advance Education (now part of Deakin University). The initial administration centre was to be located at Winchelsea. The Commissioner became ‘the Council’, and all Council meetings, followed by a community forum, took place at Winchelsea for the duration of the Commissioner’s term. The Winchelsea location proved to be inefficient for day-to-day administration, so the former Barrabool building at Torquay became the new administrative centre in late June, with smaller customer service centres retained at Winchelsea and Lorne.
The order also prescribed that the first general election of Councillors would take place on 25 March 1995. This meant the Commissioner and staff had just 12 months to amalgamate two and a half Councils with very different accounting systems and planning rules and distinctive geographical areas embracing quite different coastal and rural profiles.
As soon as the shire was established, former CEOs, Merv Hair (Barrabool) and Michael Courtney (Winchelsea) along with Shire Engineers Don Welsh (Barrabool) and John Wilkin (Winchelsea) were allocated portfolios and asked to integrate staff from both former Councils into new teams.
In preparation for the announcement of the new Shire, Barton Advertising was engaged to prepare logo options for stationery and signage. The logo that was chosen involved a mix of colour and type font, the idea being to suggest both the hinterland and the coast. The background colour of green-blue colour was said to represent the water around Lorne.
The Commissioner appointed the two former shire presidents, Lindy Crossland (Winchelsea) and Max Anderson (Barrabool) as a Transition Advisory Committee. This ensured that there was local knowledge readily available, and provided a strong support team at public meetings and special events. Max and Lindy gave generously of their time, and willingly represented the Commissioner on many occasions. Other Councillors were approached and invited to join new committees or remain as the representative on outside bodies such as the Geelong Regional Library, water authorities, recreation reserves and foreshore committees.
A major task was to work with the internal staff to manage the consolidation of finances, planning and local laws. The interim CEO, along with the senior officers, took responsibility for this work, giving the Commissioner time to communicate more widely with community groups and individuals.
Consolidation and Planning
Minister Hallam had given a direction that there should be a 20% reduction in rates, or equivalent increase in benefits, across the new Shire He also required a business plan that would show savings of at least $2 million. The Local Government Board report had included some financial modelling, but did not include staffing overhead costs nor the capital costs of asset transfers.
The Commissioner and interim CEO commenced the preparation of a corporate plan and an accompanying business plan for the shire, showing savings projections over three years. This was achieved with input from an outside consultant who was also able to advise the Commissioner on the developing organisational climate in preparation for setting up the new organisational structure.
A primary responsibility for the Commissioner was to appoint a permanent CEO. It was decided to approach the MAV and the professional associations for advice on the appointment process, and this resulted in the inclusion of two officers from other Councils on the interview panel. In late July, Peter Anderson, formerly CEO of Kilmore Council, commenced Chief Executive duties on a five-year contract, taking up the duties begun by David Roach whose interim appointment was then terminated.
In addition to continuing work on the business plan and organisational structure for the Shire, the new CEO negotiated with the City of Greater Geelong to purchase Surf World Plaza in Torquay. This facility had been the property of the Geelong Regional Commission, then transferred to the City of Greater Geelong and, in turn, had to be purchased by Surf Coast Shire. More money had to be borrowed to do this, and the business plan needed to include the challenge of generating sufficient rental income from shops in the complex to pay the cost of the loan.
While the CEO worked on the financial development of the Shire, the Commissioner worked with the community to establish a ‘total shire’ approach to key elements of the corporate plan. A program of public meetings and discussion groups resulted in the formation of working groups and committees with shire-wide representation. The Surf Coast Tourism Board was set up, and there were task groups for Recreation, Arts and Culture, Environment and Sustainability, Economic Development, and Rural Issues. In turn this led to the appointment of officers to service these areas. The development of a Conservation Strategy was well received by the community, and a draft Tourism Strategy aimed to involve businesses throughout the municipality. The views of young people were also sought, and the previous Barrabool Youth Forum was expanded to cover the whole shire.
An important initiative was the establishment of a Planning Committee. Given that the Commissioner in her role as ‘the Council’ was responsible for more complex planning decisions, an advisory committee was essential. In the first instance, this committee comprised the CEO and senior officers, but later it was decided to draw upon expertise from the wider SurfCoast community. Expressions of interest were invited, and a Planning Committee duly formed. This concept proved to be so successful that it was continued by subsequent Councils for a number of years, and became an award-winning initiative.
Another valuable exercise was a program of visits to the five community houses located within the Shire. These meetings helped the Commissioner to understand a range of local issues, and gave personnel at each community house an opportunity to discuss operational matters. The meeting in Torquay identified structural problems with the existing building, and it was subsequently decided to bid at auction for the former Barwon Water premises in Price Street where the House still operates today.
Before the Local Government Board settled on proposed boundaries for neighbouring amalgamations, the Minister asked whether it made sense to extend the shire to Apollo Bay. A consultant report indicated that this expansion would not provide a net advantage to the existing Shire, so the opportunity to expand westward was not taken up, in part because coastal management would have continued as a separate entity. At that time coastal management was the responsibility of a number of foreshore committees which have subsequently combined into a larger Great Ocean Road Coast Committee, still separate from local government, and answerable to the Minister responsible for the Environment. In Geelong, however, the foreshore around Corio Bay was included in the Greater Geelong boundaries, and the commissioners had been able to consolidate the tasks previously undertaken by various committees and authorities with the result being the wonderful waterfront that we now have in Geelong. Prior to amalgamation, the Lorne foreshore plan had been commissioned, and the Shire became involved in community consultation relating to the proposals, but had no final decision-making powers for the development. A Coastal Management group was set up to provide input into the corporate plan, looking at Council’s role in coastal management including matters such as weed eradication, reserves and future strategies.
Changes to the Organisation
As the year progressed, staff were required to address the government directive to embrace compulsory competitive tendering for many services that had been traditionally supplied by local government. This particularly affected the technical staff in the first instance, and officers were invited to look at new approaches to service delivery. One outcome was that the staff responsible for technical design work decided to leave the Council and set up their own business to bid for Council projects. Other initiatives saw the development of business units within the Council, and a few years later, Surf Link was developed as a stand-alone Council enterprise responsible for a range of Council services.
Following consultation with staff, a new organisation structure plan was adopted in September 1994. The plan was designed to develop a team-based approach to service delivery and policy development so that Council could periodically compare service delivery standards and costs with the option of external contracting. The key areas were designated as Corporate and Community Services, Technical Services, Enterprise, and Governance. Michael Courtney and John Wilkin took up management positions in the new structure. After 27 years with Barrabool Shire, Mervyn Hair decided to leave the Shire in October, and set up a private consultancy. Merv cited his career highpoint as ‘creation of Surf Coast Shire after 15 years of submissions to at least seven inquiries’. Meanwhile Don Welsh took up an appointment as interim CEO of the newly-formed Colac Otway Shire and later went on to become CEO of Cardinia Shire.
Returning to democracy
Another major task for the Commissioner was to get the Council ready to hand back to elected councillors. This involved broad community consultation to decide upon the number of councillors and the boundaries for electoral wards that took account of the uneven population distribution across townships and larger rural areas. The final ward structure with nine councillor positions was approved by Governor in Council on 6 December 1994, The wards comprised three single councillor wards – Lorne, Winchelsea and Moriac, and two 3-councillor wards – Anglesea and Torquay.
New legislation provided that the State Electoral Commission would conduct future municipal elections, and an electoral office was located in the newly purchased Price Street premises, separate from general Council activity.
The Shire worked with the City of Greater Geelong to devise Council information sessions and a series of workshops to prepare prospective candidates.
The election took place on 25 March 1995 with the following result:
Anglesea: Julie Hansen, Brian Butterworth, Mick Archer
Lorne: Henry Love
Moriac: Brian Tanner
Torquay: Noel Bates, Keith Grossman, Carol McCallum
Winchelsea: Lindsay Schroeder
And so the Shire was born! The Commissioner delivered a report ‘ Surf Coast Shire – An Overview of the First Year’ to the new councillors, urging them to continue to engage the community in defining the Surf Coast Shire identity.
As the vanguard for local government reform in the 1990s, Surf Coast Shire was watched by the rest of Victoria, and during 1994 and 1995 the Commissioner was invited to address many Councils and other forums to explain the challenges of amalgamation.
Unfortunately the early success of the Council was overshadowed by a difficult period between 1998 and 2001 when the financial position had deteriorated and a range of other matters restricted good Council practice. A Commission of Inquiry in 2003 made the point that ‘this was not the case since the inception of the Council in 1994, but emerged particularly during the period of the elected Council between March 1998 and March 2001.’ Fortunately, the Shire has returned to a position of strength and has resumed its position as a successful local government entity within a sound economic framework.
It is now up to others to recount the continuing story of Surf Coast Shire.
‘Appointment of Commissioners’, Victorian Government Gazette, 18 May 1993
‘Order Constituting Barrabool and Winchelsea Shire Council’, Victorian Government Gazette, 9 March 1994
Toni McCormack, Surf Coast Shire – An Overview of the First Year, 27 March 1995 (personal copy)
Peter Mansfield, In Perfectly Safe Hands, an overview of local government in Geelong and District since 1836, Geelong Historical Society, 2010.
Terry Maher, Commission of Inquiry into the Surf Coast Shire Council, Victorian Government Printer, 2003.
Ministerial Correspondence and Reports, 1994-1995, privately held by Toni McCormack, Torquay Victoria.
Pipeline, Surf Coast Shire staff newsletter – various editions 1994-1995.
‘Reform: we lead the way’, Surf Coast News, Surf Coast Shire Community newsletter, July 1994.
‘Surf Coast Celebrates Its First 10 Years’, Surf Coast Times, 8 March 2004.