Local ratepayer associations being abandoned in favour of social media groups with ‘far more impact’

Kaj Nieukerke was once a fixture at Esperance Shire meetings.

Notepad in hand, he would scrutinise decisions while demanding answers from shire staff and elected members to his pointed questions.

“There is a lot happening, and I think there are issues that individuals should question,” he said.

“And if there is sufficient discussion, shire and the council should listen.”

But over the past two years, the former president of the Esperance Ratepayers and Electors Association has watched the organisation become a shadow of its former self.

Now, membership has declined to the point where the group is set to fold.

“When I joined there were about a dozen to up to 20 people that came to meetings — and that dwindled over time,” Mr Nieukerke said.

“We were down to about six, seven… so it was really difficult to have meetings.

“And when I stepped down [as president], there was no one willing to step in and take over … so basically we came to a dead-end.”

A long timber jetty stretching into the ocean, with parts that have crumbled into the water.

The Esperance Tanker Jetty’s future was an issue when Kaj Nieukerke joined the local ratepayer association.(ABC Esperance)

But the Esperance organisation is far from alone in its recent struggles.

Indifference among time-poor voters, and the emergence of local social media groups, have led to the demise of numerous ratepayer associations across the state.

Apathy takes hold

The Commerce WA website currently has 17 ratepayer groups listed for “proposed cancellation”.

About half of them are in regional and remote areas, including the Albany Ratepayers and Residents Association.

While its president, Elizabeth Barton, expected the organisation to stay operational for now, she said the past few years had been a struggle.

“We are trying really hard to keep it going, but unless people get behind it and join, there’s nothing we can do,” she said.

Ms Barton said being repeatedly “ignored” by different levels of government had fostered a sense of apathy among members.

“It’s really hard when they keep getting knocked back,” she said.

“Even though submissions and petitions are put in, the government still does what they want to do.”


Western Australian Residents and Ratepayers Association deputy chairman Simon Wheeler.(Supplied: Simon Wheeler)

It is a sentiment echoed by Simon Wheeler, deputy chairman of the Western Australian Residents and Ratepayers Association.

“A lot of people put a lot of time, effort, energy and money into these groups, and often come to the realisation that it’s not actually having any effect and it’s quite rare to be taken seriously by certain local governments,” he said.

Mr Wheeler said informal social media groups — operating as forums for local issues — had started to replace the traditional ratepayer associations, particularly in metropolitan areas.

A person's thumb edges towards a Facebook app icon on a smartphone.

Simon Wheeler says local social media groups, which are often on Facebook, can have more impact.(AP: Jenny Kane)

“Often the social media groups are actually having far more impact than the actual ratepayer associations,” he said.

“I’m aware of social media groups that number in the thousands — and I can’t think of a single ratepayer group that has those sorts of numbers.”

Mr Wheeler said local ratepayer associations needed to “adapt to the digital landscape” to ensure their survival.

A photo of Stirling Ratepayers Association's Facebook page. The page has a picture of trees in a paddock at the top.

Social media is becoming an increasingly popular tool for discussing local government issues.(ABC Esperance: Hayden Smith)

The important ‘watchdog’ role

Veteran WA political commentator Peter Kennedy said “healthy” ratepayer associations played an important role in local government.

“Vigorous ratepayer associations keep local government up to the mark,” he said.

“Where enthusiasm wanes, local government would be delighted that the watchdog, as it were, is taking their eyes off them.”

The former ABC political reporter said ratepayer groups tended to thrive when contentious issues were at play.

“If there’s no particular burning issue, then I guess enthusiasm does start to wane — and that becomes a problem,” he said. 

A man in a blue polo shirt smiling in front of a house with a white picket fence

Political commentator Peter Kennedy says ratepayer groups play an important watchdog role.(ABC News: Grace Burmas)

At last year’s local government elections, in which voting is not compulsory, voter turnout was only 31 per cent. 

Mr Kennedy said it was a shame that people did not take advantage of every opportunity to vote. 

Esperance group ‘a dead duck’

It has been some time since Mr Nieukerke last attended an Esperance Shire meeting.

These days, he is more focused on his new role as president of the local Rotary club.

While the town’s ratepayer group is no longer functional, he hopes it can one day be revived.

“It is an avenue to bring things up and keep a longer focus on the issues,” he said.

“I hope they restart the ratepayers association … but for now, I think it’s a dead duck.”

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