The New South Wales Coalition government’s forced amalgamation of councils looks set to become an election issue, speakers said at a Keep Councils Local rally on August 9.
Organised by the Demerge NSW Alliance (DNA) and Residents for Deamalgamation (RFD), the rally drew people from as far as Guyra in the Northern Tablelands to Bombala in the state’s south east.
A contingent from Gundagai-Cootamundra was also there to demand local government minister Wendy Tuckerman agree to the NSW Boundaries Commission’s recommendation to allow it to demerge.
Shadow local government minister Greg Warren told the rally Labor’s position was to allow communities to decide whether they wanted to stay amalgamated or deamalgamate.
“A Labor government will not forcibly merge or forcibly demerge any council in NSW,” he said. “We will allow referendums so that communities can have their say. If those communities have their say through referendum to demerge or merge, so be it.”
Former Gundagai Mayor Gordon Lindley told rally: “I’m saying to this government, for god’s sake get off your bums and do something. You’ve made a mess of it. Admit you made a mess of it. And let us get back to where we were.”
Pip Hinman from RFD said that democracy was critical to making local government work well. She said that the former Leichhardt Council had experimented with direct democracy. Forced amalgamations have killed off resident participation in council and imposed a “managerialism that is not only alienating, it does not work”.
Greens Inner West councillor Kobi Shetty, standing in for MP Jamie Parker, said that councils that fought the merger in 2016 managed to win, but that “we were let down by Labor mayors in the Inner West who did not do enough to stop it.
“We are again being let down by a Labor majority who thinks they know better than the people they represent.”
Rob Lenehan from Save and Grow Guyra said the government must “fix the funding first”.
“Funding cuts started 15–20 years ago, when federal governments withdrew funding for roads and for local government. It’s obvious that this state is trying to squeeze local government out of existence.”
Greens Inner West councillor Liz Atkins called on NSW Labor to do “more than listen to our voices” when in government.
She explained that 63% of residents voted to demerge after an extended experience of a merged council, but the Inner West Council’s preparation of a business case to demerge has largely excluded the community. Greens and independent councillors were trying to “slow the process down to get it right”.
Independent Canterbury-Bankstown councillor Barbara Coorey said the council merger fiasco should be subject to an upper house inquiry or a royal commission.
Robert Borsak lent his support to the demerger movement from the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers.
Independent MP for Wagga Joe McGirr told the rally that the council mergers took away democracy by “shrinking local participation”.
“In my region, the merged councils are raising their rates; they’re struggling and the councils that did not merge are fine.”
Sue Young, a former Pittwater councillor and a community activist in Protect Pittwater, said: “We have had enough of being ignored.” She said the referendum result should be binding on the state government.
Rob Blencowe from Save Tumbarumba Shire said the government has a “last ditch chance [to get some] credibility. They can finally follow the recommendations of the Boundary Commission or they go”.
Former Hilltops mayor Brian Ingram explained that he had supported the Baird government’s plans for the bigger councils because it had promised “benefits that would be achieved by merging”.
Instead, we’ve seen the complete opposite, he said. “Our finances are shot to pieces. Our staff morale is shot to pieces. Our community is resentful.”
Karl Saleh, a Labor Canterbury-Bankstown councillor, said forced amalgamations were “against democracy” and called on the “Liberal government and the Labor future government to support this cause”.
DNA organiser Grantley Ingram said that Bombala Council once had $10 million cash in the bank, no debt and “a community that knew where they belonged”. Now the Snowy Monaro Council wants to introduce a rate rise of more than 105%.
“We simply cannot afford to pay that,” Ingram said.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he added, pointing to the 63% vote to demerge the Inner West Council, the Canterbury-Bankstown Council's decision to prepare a business case to demerge and the recent NSW Boundaries Commission recommendation that Cootamundra-Gundagai demerge.
“I say this to those in the house behind us: do not think this will go away. Do not take your local communities for granted. We will fight this [up to] the March state election: don’t worry about that. Ignore us at your peril.”