Labor tries to block Inner West Council’s de-amalgamation referendum

A community gathering was organised outside the Inner West council meeting on May 24. Photo: Peter Boyle

In a major victory for democracy, the Inner West Council (IWC) decided on May 24 to conduct a referendum of residents on de-amalgamation at the next local government election.

Five Greens and three independent councillors supported the motion to allow the community to have a direct say in the forced amalgamation of three inner west councils in 2016. Five Labor and two Liberal councillors voted against.

But on May 26, councillors were notified by the council’s general manager that three Labor councilors who are not standing for reelection — Anna York, Lucille McKenna and Sam Iskandar — had tabled a rescission motion.

This is unlikely to pass but could cause enough delay to make it hard to get the poll on the September 4 ballot.

The Local Government Act allows councils to undertake polls on specific questions, including at election time, and new amendments set out a process for de-amalgamation. A majority of residents voting to de-amalgamate would not be an automatic trigger but it would add to the pressure on the NSW government which forced the mergers to take place despite widespread opposition.

Colin Hesse, Greens councilor for Marrickville, told Green Left he was pleased the motion got up, saying the forced amalgamations of Marrickville, Ashfield and Leichhardt Councils by the NSW government was “undemocratic”.

“The continued refusal by the Labor councillors to support a referendum of residents on the amalgamation demonstrates just how distanced from the community the Labor machine is,” he said.

“The NSW government’s independent review of local government in 2014 argued that councillors in smaller local government areas were too close to their communities. The clear inferences are that councillors listened to community members too closely, and were less likely to support over-development.”

From prior experience on Marrickville Council, Hesse said the IWC is “more removed” from the community. “I do not believe this has made for better planning decisions or allocation of limited Council resources.” As the NSW government assumes more planning powers and makes direct appointments to planning panels, the role played by local government in this process has gone into crisis, Hesse said. “Bigger local government effectively dilutes the community voice, and that can only suit the already powerful.”

The substantive motion for a poll was put by independent councillors Victor Macri and John Stamolis, and amended by the Greens in discussion. Labor tried its best to filibuster, but did not succeed.

The motion instructed the NSW Electoral Commission to: “Take a poll of electors on the question of whether the Inner West local government area should be de-amalgamated, so as to restore the former local government areas of Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville with respective boundaries as they were immediately prior to 12 May 2016 (being the date of creation of the present Inner West local government area)” at the September 4 poll.

It also called on council to “examine the cost of such a referendum as part of its quarterly budget review”, and to seek to “force the NSW government to pay 100% of costs of de-amalgamation of local government areas that were forced to amalgamate where a referendum of residents has chosen to reverse the forced amalgamation”.

The public gallery was packed for the debate. Seven residents spoke, all but one in favor of a poll on de-amalgamation.

[Pip Hinman is running for the in the Inner West Council. She is campaigning for de-amalgamation and spoke to the successful motion on May 24.]