The Mike Baird government's push for local government to roll over to its forced amalgamation push is looking decidedly shambolic.
The NSW government wants to reduce 43 Sydney councils to 25 and 109 regional councils to 87. It has argued that efficiencies and savings will be made by doing so. But it is facing stiff opposition from progressive and conservative councils alike. Even federal Liberal and National MPs, worried about their seats, have urged Baird to back off.
Woollahra Council in Sydney's eastern suburbs, one of the first to take legal action against the government's plan, will be heard by the Land and Environment Court on April 20. Five more have started legal proceedings and more are considering it after the Boundaries Commission delivers its final report.
Seven Network commercial director and friend of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Bruce McWilliam, told the April 2 Australian that the merger plan would deliver “self-serving bureaucracies” and encourage councils to get involved in “wider social issues”.
Others, however, are concerned that amalgamations will destroy councils' close connections to local communities, which often includes taking up wider social issues. They are also concerned about the significant job cuts and the sell-off of council infrastructure that will flow from any such merger.
Marrickville Greens councillor Sylvie Ellsmore told Green Left Weekly that independent modelling by the Greens showed that a merged Marrickville-Ashfield-Leichhardt council would result in at least 200 jobs being axed.
“The 'savings' being talked up by the Baird government would come from the cuts to front-line services being run by councils,” she said. “There will also be pressure to sell off council buildings and kick out smaller entities. Even now, the government is charging councils for the use of schools for after-school care. There really is no fat left to cut. There will be more cuts to services and council assets will be sold off, as has happened in New Zealand and Victoria.”
The Australian Services Union estimates 11,000 council jobs were cut by the late 1990s in the Victorian amalgamation push under Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett.
Leichhardt Council in inner west Sydney has been one of the most vociferous opponents of the amalgamation plan. Former mayor and Greens councillor Rochelle Porteous told that the Boundaries Commission should immediately make the reports from the government-appointed delegates who presided over public hearings into council amalgamations available to councils.
“Councils need to have the opportunity to respond to the delegates' reports before any recommendations are made to the minister by the Boundaries Commission”, she said.
Besides legal action, Porteous said, “there are strong campaigns developing against sitting Liberal and National federal election MPs by their own party members and numerous community groups across NSW”. She said she expected that this would continue.
Given the amount of contention, it's surprising how little Minister for Local Government Paul Toole has had to say about it. His letter to councillors in early March asking them to send him “an expression of interest” for their “desired roles” in an amalgamated council by April 15 ignited even more fury — especially given that the Boundaries Commission has not reported it findings.
In this letter, he said that “EOIs would be considered and councillors will be notified of the outcome by mid-2016”.
Greens MP David Shoebridge described the letter and the process as “deeply undemocratic”.
“Councillors are elected by their local residents and ratepayers, not handpicked by the government of the day. It is an understatement to say that this government and minister have shown ongoing contempt for the views and opinions of local Councillors.”
Conservatives are concerned the community anger will spill over into the federal election. Liberal MP Peter Hendy, who won by just 1085 votes in Eden-Monaro, the federal bell-weather seat, has urged Baird “in the strongest possible terms” to reconsider. The council is slated to merge with Tumut Shire, an hour's drive from Tumbarumba, over the Snowy Mountain ranges.
Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, who faces the prospect of losing on preferences to independent Tony Windsor in New England wants Toole to cancel the forced merger between Walcha Council and Tamworth Regional Council.
Even Graham Sansom, the architect of the government amalgamation plan, has distanced himself from the government's push, accusing the NSW government and the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Authority of overlooking long-term objectives and going for a “temporary fix”.
Councillors have been advised that Toole will make a decision in June, or early July. “We'll know which of the councils have been abolished after it's been gazetted,” Ellsmore said. “This will give us approximately 24 hours' notice.
“The minister will decide on whether or not to appoint an administrator or some or all of the councillors for any transition, and when the next elections will be. But once the gazettal has happened, the old councils will no longer exist.”
The Greens want the Boundaries Commission to immediately release the 35 reports from the public hearings into the amalgamation. “Secrecy and deceit has been central to the Baird government's forced amalgamation agenda, and it is time that this is put to an end”, Shoebridge said.