Labor must act on council demerger promises

July 7, 2023
Demerge NSW Alliance visiting the NSW Greens to seek support for changes to the Local Government Act. Amanda Cohn MLC is third from left. Photo: supplied

The Demerge NSW Alliance (DNA) is asking the Labor government to amend the Local Government Act to better reflect communities’ wishes on demerging the forced council amalgamations of 2016.

Why is changing the Act important?

DNA recognises that there is a need to put “local” back into councils. Communities want to restore sense of community, representation by people who know area, control over environmental plans, control over services and costs and to bring back local democracy.

So, DNA wishes to give communities a say on whether they wish to deamalgamate from the large councils created in 2016 by the former government's undemocratic forced amalgamation.

DNA is seeking to change the Act to ensure that the NSW Electoral Commission can run a plebiscite if 10% of the electors in the former council area petition the minister to do so.

The clauses require that the community be consulted on the preparation of a “for” and an “against” case, that is, that this is not left to consultants or the Office of Local Government, and that the result is binding on the minister.

At the moment, the minister can ignore the community’s request, and even ignore the NSW Boundaries Commission.

We are also seeking to ensure that councillors are left in charge until the next election, and that they help plan the transition. In other words, we are not seeking to put an administrator in place.

We also want a clause that prohibits the sale of council assets and the making of new environmental and planning regulations by administrators or the old council.

The Act was amended in 2021 to state that the government would pay the demerger costs of forcible amalgamated council which wish to demerge.

We understand that to mean the one-off cost of deamalgamation. The former Coalition government gave grants of $10 million and $15 million to councils that were forcibly merged, and we believe that reasonable standardised costs should be offered in this one-off demerger cost.

Giving communities a democratic say by plebiscite is in line with the policy NSW Labor took to the March election. It was a Labor amendment to the Act in 2021 that committed the government to pay for the cost of any demerger. DNA wishes to work with the government to get this done.

How have the cross bench MPs reacted to DNA's amendment requests?

DNA had consulted nine cross bench MPs and has received support for these types of amendments from them all.

Dr Joe McGirr, Independent MP for Wagga Wagga, has made a statement in parliament in support of the deamalgamation of Cootamundra-Gundagai (which has been given the go-ahead by the NSW Boundaries Commission) and the Snowy Valleys Council.

Why is the timing of the proposed changes to the Act important?

This amalgamation issue has been festering for 10 years and it needs to be resolved by the time of the next local government elections in September 2024. We are pushing for amendments to the Act in August to enable a petition to Minister and plebiscite early next year.

The NSW Electoral Commission supervised the Inner West Council’s (IWC) 2021 poll on whether or not to demerge. It returned a resounding “Yes”. The NSW Boundaries Commission is now looking over an IWC business case which was only supported by Labor councillors who didn’t want council to demerge. The councillors who support residents having a say voted against sending this business case to the government because they said it read more like a case to stay merged.

What do you think should happen now?

The government has referred the IWC business case to the NSW Boundaries Commission for review, as required under the Act.

But the documents the IWC submitted to the Coalition government at the end of last year used a flawed and risky methodology: it tried to recreate the three former councils [Leichhardt, Marrickville and Ashfield] of 2014-15. It did not build its case on present council operations, including that the three councils could share systems (where useful and as so many councils do).

In my view, the minister is very unlikely to approve deamalgamation based on the papers that were submitted.

I also note that, despite the Green and Independent councillors’ attempts, the IWC has not voted to support deamalgamation. Nor has it said it supports deamalgamation in the documents it has submitted. It simply sent 900 pages to the Minister and said “you decide”.

The Labor Councillors in the IWC do not seem to be supporting the 62.5% of electors who voted “Yes” to demerge.

Can you describe the campaign by local residents in the former council of Pittwater? 

The residents of Pittwater feel they have lost control over their environment, planning, services, costs and a sense of community since they were absorbed into the massive Northern Beaches Council. Thus, they are petitioning to deamalgamate and return to the old council. This petition could be used to obtain a binding plebiscite under DNA’s suggested changes to the Act or seek to split under current Act.

Pittwater residents are asking Labor to follow up commitments made at the last election and give communities a say in a plebiscite.

Finally, residents of the Central Coast whose council has been undemocratically discontinued and an administrator installed have been asking for elections. What should happen?

The inquiry into the performance of the Central Coast Council recommended elections be held last September. But this has not happened. Meanwhile, the administrator is selling community assets and cutting services.

The government must follow this recommendation and call an election. Under DNA’s suggested changes to the Act, the minister could give people a democratic say by having a deamalgamation plebiscite have a two-year term for the first council, followed by a three year term for next council if deamalgamation is voted up.

Any other comments you would like to make?

For the last 10 years, NSW Labor has spoken out against undemocratic forced amalgamation and said it supports giving people a democratic say in a plebiscite to deamalgamate. We supported it at the election. Now Labor is in power and it is time to support communities and implement its policy.

[Brian Halstead and Pip Hinman are active in Demerge NSW Alliance.]

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