The NSW Gladys Berejiklian government’s forced council amalgamation policy is in crisis, after the NSW Court of Appeal on March 27 blocked the merger of Ku-ring-gai and Hornsby Councils.
The court accepted Ku-ring-gai Council’s appeal against the merger, in part because the state government kept the KPMG consultants’ report on the amalgamations secret from the public and from the delegate appointed to investigate the merger.
The court ruled that the council had been denied procedural fairness and awarded full legal costs against the government. The decision was welcomed by all six Sydney councils that are still challenging their compulsory amalgamation in the courts.
NSW Greens local government spokesperson David Shoebridge said the appeals court had “said the obvious, that it is blatantly unfair to forcibly amalgamate a local council on the basis of a secret report. This decision doesn't just affect Ku-ring-gai Council; it could dismantle every single outstanding amalgamation proposal.”
The Save Our Councils Coalition (SOCC), which has led the community campaign against the government’s forced mergers policy, praised the “brilliant Ku-ring-gai result” and said: “Our objectives remain the same: to ensure our local councils stay local; to call on the NSW state government to keep to its [original] promise of ‘No forced council amalgamations’ — yes, so much for promises; to ensure where a merger is proposed that the process lets local communities decide with a valid plebiscite of all electors; and, to fight to keep our councils local in any process undertaken by the NSW state government.”
SOCC added that in the three byelections to be held on April 8 in Gosford, Manly and North Shore: “Our platform in this campaign is to put the Libs last.”
A staunch anti-council merger campaigner Carolyn Corrigan, is taking on the Liberals in the North Shore byelection, in an attempt to repeat the shock result at last November's Orange byelection when the National Party lost a previously safe seat.
The North Shore electorate in Liberal Party heartland has a history of returning independents, with Ted Mack and then Robyn Read holding the seat during the 1980s.
Corrigan, a Mosman councillor and immediate past president of SOCC, is standing as an independent in former health minister Jillian Skinner’s seat, following her resignation last month.
She works as a specialist nurse at St Vincents Hospital. She previously campaigned successfully against a private nursing home being built on Middle Head parklands, and said public transport and overcrowding in state schools in the area would form part of her policy.
The NSW Greens are running Justin Alick, an overseas aid project manager and post-graduate student who ran for the Greens in Bennelong in the last federal election. His platform features opposition to forced council mergers: “Grassroots democracy is so important. The Liberal government is not interested in people having a voice,” Alick said.
Alick said the state government is pursuing its council amalgamation policy “to facilitate its over-development agenda. The people of North Shore are angry and this is a critical opportunity for them to have a voice by voting 1 Greens in the coming byelection.”
Corrigan has begun an intensive campaign to topple the Liberals and says the reactions she has been getting on the campaign trail have convinced her that her mission is possible.
“I couldn’t tell you the number of people who say: ‘I’ve voted Liberal all my life. I’m not voting Liberal this time’,” Corrigan said. “There’s a palpable anger in this community because they feel they have been taken for granted. They [the government] should be scared.”
The North Shore byelection will effectively be in large part a referendum on council mergers, as the Liberal candidate is Felicity Wilson, who was one of the chief cheerleaders for the forced amalgamations as an executive of the Property Council of Australia.
The PCA argued strongly for council mergers in a submission to the state government last year.
Both Alick and Corrigan have noted opposition to the government's planned privatisation of the state Land Titles Office as issues in the election.
Council mergers are a hot topic in the North Shore region, with both Mosman Council and North Sydney Council continuing their legal challenges against the proposed forced amalgamation with Willoughby.
“Save Our Councils Coalition was formed two years ago in opposition to the state government’s forced mergers of local councils. We believe in local democracy,” Corrigan told a SOCC rally on February 5.
“Forced council amalgamations are a stitch-up. Big business and big developers are behind it. We want the stitch-up to be ripped up.”