Big town hall meeting discusses new bill to help councils demerge

November 3, 2023
The Residents for Deamalgamation meeting at Leichhardt Town Hall. Photo: Peter Boyle

Changes to the New South Wales Local Government Act to respect residents’ views on council demergers were discussed at a public meeting in Leichhardt Town Hall on October 31.

Organised by Residents for Deamalgamation, about 100 people from the former Ashfield, Marrickville and Leichhardt councils heard how the minister can currently veto residents’ wishes and even the NSW Boundaries Commission’s recommendations to demerge.

Greens MLC Dr Amanda Cohan is preparing to move amendments which, if passed, would put meat on the bones of the policy NSW Labor took to the election.

Cohn said there is support from cross bench MPs for a plebiscite where 10% of residents in the former council area petition the government by next March. This would trigger the NSW Electoral Commission to hold deamalgamation plebiscites, using “for” and “against” cases prepared by the Office of Local Government (OLG).

Elected councillors would remain in place until new elections are held and, if the plebiscite is successful, an independent transition manager would be appointed to ensure a smooth process.

The amendments also ensure the Minister accepts the result of earlier polls, or recommendations made NSW Boundaries Commission, such as in the Inner West in 2021 where 62.5% voted to demerge.

Demerge NSW Alliance (DNA) is seeking support from all parties and independents to restore the democratic right for the community to have a say.

DNA designed the amendments to match the policy NSW Labor took to this year’s election. Spokesperson Brian Halstead said it an opportunity for Labor to carry out its election promise.

Halstead told the meeting that communities right across NSW are still fighting to put the local back into councils.

“You are not alone in the strong desire to get proper representation and community input and control into where money is spent and how much.

“Communities in Bombala, Snowy Valleys, Cootamundra-Gundagai, Guyra, Central Coast, Pittwater, Canterbury Bankstown, Hilltops are all striving to get their council back. We will not give up.”

Halstead showed documents signed by Peter Primrose MLC, architect of Labor’s policy, and former shadow minister Greg Warren, promising such action.

He said it was outrageous that Minister Ron Hoenig has now told Cootamundra Gundagai residents that “he cannot implement the decision of the previous government that approved deamalgamation”.

Hoenig is “making the community go through a third Boundaries Commission inquiry with no certainty that he would approve the result”.

“We expect the Labor party to respect its own policies,” Halstead said.

A one-off deamalgamation cost should be covered by the government, Halstead said, adding from his study of successful Queensland deamalgamations, the cost of demerging smaller councils would be around $5 million.

Based on Queensland’s costs of shared systems, transition management, assets and software, Halstead estimated the cost for larger councils to demerge could be between $9–11 million.

“Don’t forget that the Coalition handed out grants of between $10-$15 million for the forced amalgamations”, Halstead said.

The Inner West and Canterbury Bankstown deamalgamation business cases relied on a “flawed methodology”, which included recreating independent systems and organisations that existed 8 years ago. “The total cost figures should not be considered, as it is too high risk to implement and very disruptive to employees.”

Halstead said a better approach would start from the amalgamated organisation of today and keep the same policies and procedures and systems for several years to reduce risk.

“Just as companies share systems from a central area, shared services could be run by one council and delivered to the others,” he said.

This would mean that “staff would stay doing the same job with less disruption, risk and loss of expertise”. These “one-off establishment costs” are the only ones the government has to commit to pay.

Inner West Independent councillor John Stamolis, Kobi Shetty, Balmain MP and Greens councillor, David Reynolds from Canterbury-Bankstown Residents for Deamalgamation and Barbara Coorey, Independent councillor at Canterbury-Bankstown Council also addressed the meeting.

[Pip Hinman is an activist with Residents for Deamalgamation. Stay in touch here.]

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