Balmain candidates quizzed on council demergers

March 15, 2023
Kobi Shetty and Philippa Scott
Greens candidate Kobi Shetty (left) and Labor candidate Philippa Scott (right) speaking at the Balmain candidate forum at Leichhardt Town Hall. Photos: Peter Boyle

At a resident-initiated Balmain candidate forum at Leichhardt Town Hall on March 9, Residents for Deamalgamation (RFD) asked Philippa Scott from Labor and Kobi Shetty from the Greens about their views on demerging the Inner West Council (IWC) and respecting local democracy.

Both candidates for the seat of Balmain are first-time Inner West councillors and Scott is the deputy mayor.

“I am really proud of the way that the IWC has handled what could have been a very disruptive demerger process,” Scott said in response to a question about why the IWC had sent a business case to the local government minister arguing for the IWC to stay merged at the end of last year, despite 62.5% voting to demerge.

To some incredulity, Scott went on to say: “We campaigned on and have acted on respecting the communities’ wishes on the December 2021 poll.”

She added: “What I will not do, and what you cannot expect Labor to do, is to go back and rewrite the business case so as to achieve a particular predetermined outcome.

“Cooking the books on a business case is a hallmark of the Liberal-National government … Rorting business cases, cooking the books and going back to independent reviews so as to achieve a political outcome is something that is an LNP way of acting.

“It is not something you can ever ask or expect from a Labor candidate, MP or government will ever do. But we do need to change this government in NSW to ensure that this kind of rorting stops now.”

Shetty said the Greens support the fact that “62.5% of our community voted to demerge”, adding that Scott might be “missing the point”.

The point is that “commitments from the vast majority of councillors, who are now on this council, that they would honour the wishes of the community and put a strong business case to the minister for local government to demerge our council” have not been met.

Shetty added that the business case, “which involved push polling” to get residents to change their minds about the demerger by scaring them about the “exorbitant costs”, was not good enough.

“It really was an effort to try and weaken the case for a demerger,” she said.

The business case submitted to the minister failed to mention the gains that would flow from any demerger, she said, pointing to local representation, grassroots democracy and “the ability for our local communities to really guide the decisions of the council”.

Shetty added that independent and Greens councillors have been “incredibly frustrated” with the demerger process. “We believe that we should be listening to the residents and following through with their wishes, because that is what we are there to do.”

A question from Demerger NSW Alliance about support to amend the Local Government Act 1993 to hold binding demerger plebiscites in all the forcibly merged councils, where 10% of residents in the former council boundary petitioned the minister to do so, before local government elections in September next year, received an enthusiastic “yes” from Shetty.

“The point here is that we don’t need to do another poll” in the Inner West, Shetty said. “We know what the community wants and we need to respect that and … work towards the demerger that they felt like they were promised when they were given the opportunity to vote at the last local government elections.”

Scott answered that her understanding of the act is that this provision already exists. “Should the communities be so motivated to put forward a petition to do that, I would welcome them to do so just as the people of the Inner West have done.”

In fact, there is no such binding clause. Section 218E allows communities to make a submission to the minister, who then has to refer it to the NSW Boundaries Commission to make a recommendation. But the minister can ignore that or act on it. NSW Demerger Alliance wants parties to commit to changing the law to make it binding, so ministers have to act on residents’ wishes to demerger.

Scott was later challenged by a resident over a Labor flyer that falsely asserted that voting one Greens, and two Labor “risks returning the Liberals to power”.

Meanwhile, Scott has hit the headlines for allegedly trying to buy votes in Balmain.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on March 15 that Scott’s campaign manager Kieren Ash offered Leichhardt Public School Parents and Citizens (P&C) group $20,000 from an internal campaign fund, claiming it was contingent on the party winning the election.

The P&C, which was told the “Labor Community Grants program” was based on the existing government Community Building Partnership Grants scheme, rejected the funding over concerns it lacked an application or vetting process and could be considered pork-barrelling.

[Pip Hinman is an activist with Residents for Deamalgamation and NSW Demerger Alliance.]

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