A motion to ask the NSW Electoral Commission (NSW EC) to organise a non-binding poll at the September 4 local government elections was passed on May 24 by Sydney’s Inner West Council.
But shortly afterwards, three Labor councillors tabled a rescission motion, which the Greens then pushed to debate quickly given the short time frame before the election.
The Labor councillors argued that council should wait for a cost-benefit analysis in August before deciding whether to give the community a say. This would have made it impossible for the NSW EC to organise a poll to run concurrently with the September 4 local government elections.
Labor’s rescission motion was defeated 10 to 5 at an extraordinary meeting on June 8 because only their councilors supported it.
Greens councillor Rochelle Porteous told Green Left: “I think residents and local businesses have a pretty good idea how this amalgamated council is performing. We are all experiencing it first-hand.
“You don’t need a consultant to tell you how local services are performing, how responsive your council is and what access you are getting to your local council and your councillors,” Porteous added.
Porteous was referring to part of the May 24 motion – the only part adopted unanimously – that decided to ask an independent consultant to deliver a cost benefit analysis on a demerger to council in August.
Greens councillor Colin Hesse told Green Left: “Labor simply don’t understand the basic principle of citizens having a say in how they’re governed, and their claim for a cost/benefit analysis of the amalgamation fails to appreciate that government is more than simply dollars and cents, but that it must be about the creation of a good society.”
Porteous believes that Labor, together with the Liberals, have “overseen the systematic dismantling of democratic council structures” in the Inner West. “We lost the right for councillors and the community to have their say on planning decisions; we lost precinct committees and community committees — then we lost our council and were forcibly amalgamated under an administrator.
“Does the amalgamation impact on people's lives? You bet it does.”
Independent councillor John Stamolis told the meeting that demerging the council remains a key issue.
“Obviously, the merger isn’t working. Budget deficits are chronic, service standards have fallen, complaints are at record highs and your representation has fallen.”
In other merged councils, Stamolis said, rates had risen dramatically. “Canterbury-Bankstown Council has just increased its rates by an historic 36%, Georges River Council by 33% and Central Coast increased rates by 15% and is under administration!
“If these mergers are going well, how can these increases be justified? If Inner West Council was to introduce a rates increase of even 15%, this would cost our community $20 million a year indefinitely.”
In moving the rescission motion, Labor councillor Anna York argued that the poll idea was “mad”, had been “sprung” on councillors and was a “stunt”. She argued that a poll on de-amalgamation would lead to “unrealistic” expectations of what could be delivered because the Liberal state government had already said it would oppose any council trying to de-amalgamate.
Labor councillor Lucille McKenna, OAM, admitted in discussion that many are unhappy with the forced amalgamations but that it is impossible to “unscramble the egg”. The poll would only lead to “disruption and chaos”, she said, and “nothing positive” could come from a poll.
Socialist Alliance member James Wyner spoke as a local resident against the rescission motion at the meeting. He characterised the forced amalgamation of councils as “one of the most undemocratic and un-popular acts”.
“Since the forced amalgamation, we have seen the council become a mere conduit for the state government — helping it facilitate the massive over-development that is occurring in our communities.
“In the face of the power and corruption of the state government, the Inner West Council folds like a cheap suit every time.
“It's an unresponsive behemoth that has proven to be a total failure when it comes to advocating for residents and local businesses.
“A poll on the matter of amalgamation would at least be a small step toward wresting back some democratic control over our lives.”
Referring to the “cost benefit analysis”, Wyner said: “If the Labor councillors want to get their jollies drooling over a spreadsheet, they should do it after the poll. They may not even need to do it at all depending on the result.”
“I remember as a younger person attending Leichhardt Council meetings during the Open Council era of the 1990s and I recall, vividly, how richly democratic that era was in comparison to where we are today,” he said.
“It seems that this motion to rescind is taking us even further from that democratic high-water mark. It shows how wedded to the state government’s neoliberal agenda the Labor Party really is: the first sign of participatory democracy and Labor runs and hides behind a cost benefit analysis.”
Markela Panegyres, who is running second on the Socialist Alliance ticket in Damun ward, told the meeting that the benefits of de-amalgamation could lead to “more grassroots involvement in council and more responsive councillors”.
Residents are also thinking about the logistics of de-amalgamation, Panegyres said. “It would be easy to share public assets such as pools and libraries between de-amalgamated councils. Smaller councils will also provide better services.”
She made it clear that the push for a poll on de-amalgamation was not an attack on council workers “who were put under undue stress by forced amalgamation. We should support council staff, and acknowledge their frontline role in driving forward new processes.” She said “change fatigue” staff face is “the product of the forced merger and the increased privatisation of services that accompanied it”.
Inner West residents will now have two months to discuss how best to make local government work for them and work out how they will vote on September 4.
While the poll is not binding, a popular vote for de-amalgamation would put significant pressure on the NSW government.
From conversations at street stalls, people cannot wait to have their say. They have ideas for how to tackle the problems too. They are keen to get into how local government can work better, including councillors taking back local planning and development input to keeping the shared public services.
[Pip Hinman is standing in Damun (Stanmore) ward for the Socialist Alliance at the September 24 local council elections. You can write to the mininster here. Get in touch if you would like to help the People before Profit campaign. A residents' meeting will discuss the case for de-amalgamation on July 14 in Newtown.]