Opposition to NSW council merger explodes

Issue 
Peter Boyle addressing the inquiry on February 2. Photo: Pip Hinman

Residents attending a public inquiry on February 2 at Wests Ashfield into the New South Wales government's plan to amalgamate Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville Councils were of one mind: they opposed it.

About 50 people spoke in the afternoon session, and only 5, including Ashfield Liberal councillor Julie Passas and a self-described businessman, supported the plan.

Similar meetings were organised at Sandringham, Bankstown, Manly, North Sydney, Parramatta, Mona Vale, Deniliquin and Shellharbour and more will take place over the next fortnight.

The state government wants to reduce the number of councils across Sydney from 43 to 25 and from 152 to 112 across NSW. This has been a several year-long campaign by the NSW Coalition, which argues that the result would be savings, efficiencies and better services.

But Premier Mike Baird will not let anyone see its $400,000 KPMG-commissioned report which apparently details benefits, including that amalgamations would supposedly bring the state $2 billion in economic benefits.

Given the high level of community engagement and responsive local councils in the inner west, it is not surprising that there is a high level of disagreement with council amalgamations.

At least 135 people had registered to speak in the afternoon and evening inquiries. Clearly the government had not banked on such a reception: it had organised for 7 hours' worth of hearings, which meant that speakers had hardly any time to make their case.

Considering a new council formed from Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville would have 186,000 residents, the public part of this “consultation” was indeed a farce.

Initially, individuals had been given 6 minutes and organisations 12 minutes to speak. On the day speakers were told that they had 3 minutes to make their case. This didn't faze those supporting the amalgamations, but it was very distressing for those arguing against, especially when the government delegate ordered security guards to bureaucratically enforce the time limits.

Some residents said they simply had not been given enough time to consult with their community group to provide an organisational response.

Others said they had not had time to prepare a full submission, but wanted to log their concerns which ranged from opposing likely cuts to staffing and services (swimming pools, libraries, child care centres) and the elimination of “local” from one of the most effective forms of government.

James Carter, representing the United Services Union (local government branch), said the union's 25,000 members opposed the amalgamation plan because they were opposed to job cuts and outsourcing — the likely outcome of any amalgamation.

Peter Boyle, a Marrickville local government area resident and the Socialist Alliance candidate for the federal seat of Sydney, told the inquiry: “There is a strong and well-founded suspicion among community activists that the state government's forcible amalgamation of our councils is politically motivated precisely because our communities have been successful in standing up to powerful interests closely connected to the Baird government.

“This very morning [February 2] some members of our community were actively resisting drilling for inappropriate and irresponsible development that is the $20 billion WestCONnex tollway monster. And if I were not preparing for this submission I would have been down there with those community activists in the heart of Tempe Reserve today.”

He supported calls for a plebescite on the amalgamation proposal and for mass action to stop this attack through “people's power”.

Former Leichhardt Mayor and current Greens councillor Rochelle Porteous slammed the government's forced march and secrecy surrounding the KPMG document the government was relying on.

“This is a forced amalgamation: it not voluntary”, said Porteous. “The process is flawed. Why haven't we been given the KPMG report? Why was this inquiry announced during the school holiday period? Why did the registrations for this inquiry close 24 hours after schools went back?,” she said to a standing ovation.

Porteous echoed many speakers when she called on the government-appointed delegate, Cheryl Thomas (a former senior manager for the Property Council of Australia), to support a plebiscite. The NSW Local Government Act says the Boundaries Commission may conduct a survey or poll.

Labor MP for the state seat of Summer Hill Jo Haylen said she opposed the amalgamation, stating it was “a politically motivated attack on local government”. She added that if the forced merger went ahead, two other areas — Hurlstone Park and Ashbury — should be included in the new inner west council.

Because the government cannot rely on support from the minor parties in the NSW Legislative Assembly, it is fast-tracking the amalgamations through the Boundary Commission, a statutory body.

From mid-2016, administrators could be running new councils across Sydney and NSW for up to nine months. Council elections, due in September, would then be delayed until March next year. Minister for local government Paul Toole told mayors and councillors earlier this year that he could appoint administrators or existing councillors could continue to run the new entities.

At the end of February, the delegates' reports and the written submissions will go to the Boundaries Commission. Toole is expected to then recommend to the NSW Governor that new councils are proclaimed by the middle of the year.

This is despite a NSW Legislative Council inquiry, which reported its findings last October. It recommended against forced amalgamations and queried the government's method in determining the viability of current councils.

While this is the expected course of action from the government side, it is not assured. The opposition to the forced amalgamations is growing and, as the West Australian experience showed, governments can be forced back.
As one resident pointed out in the Ashfield hearing: “They [the government] know our views and they are not going to be deterred by eloquent argument. What we need is a mass protest — people on the streets maybe in Baird's own seat in Manly — to make our point.”

[Submissions should be sent to the Council Boundary Review, GPO Box 5341 Sydney NSW 2001 before 5pm on February 28 or online here.]

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