Sydney’s Inner West residents will finally have a say on forced council amalgamation in a non-binding referendum conducted by the NSW Electoral Commission alongside the local government elections on September 4.
Residents’ views were ignored when the Liberal-National STATE government forced the merger of the former Marrickville, Leichhardt and Ashfield councils into Inner West Council (IWC) in 2016.
In token community consultation sessions, all but a handful of residents opposed the amalgamation of their local councils but the state government went ahead and disbanded their elected councils and forcibly merged them under an appointed administrator.
The result is a far less representative mega council, a decline in community services and a drive to outsource or privatise services and council buildings. Council workers have been made redundant and recently workers in the privately-managed council swimming pools were stood down amid the latest COVID-19 lockdown.
On top of this, residents are facing higher council rates through a “rates harmonisation” imposed by the NSW government.
Research by Dr Joseph Drew, Associate Professor of Local Government at the UTS Institute for Public Policy and Governance, shows that the government’s council amalgamation policy has left many councils struggling financially.
It resulted in an average 11.2% increase in costs in affected councils and raised staff expenses by more than 15% — largely in salaries of middle management and directors.
None of this is surprising because the government’s forced council amalgamations are part of its relentless corporatisation and privatisation agenda.
Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of the 15 Inner West councillors — five Labor, five Greens and three independents — publicly opposed the forced amalgamation in 2016, even giving residents a say has been blocked by a conservative coalition of Labor and Liberal councillors.
IWC council meetings have been farcical with impossibly large agendas and a disturbing culture of bullying that led to Labor mayor Darcy Byrne being found guilty by the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) of breaching the code of conduct, acting unethically and misusing his public office in attempts to silence critical councillors. NCAT is expected to decide on penalties to impose on Byrne on July 21.
In debates in the council leading up to the June 8 decision to hold the poll, Liberal councillors unabashedly supported the forced amalgamation, while the Labor councillors argued that de-amalgamation would be too difficult and expensive, and that the government would not allow it.anyway.
All the other councillors voted for a poll and to demand the state government bear the cost of de-amalgamation.
The poll question will be: “In May 2016, Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville councils were amalgamated into one local government area by the State Government. Do you support the Inner West local government area being de-amalgamated, so as to restore the former local government areas of Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville?”
The newly-elected council will receive the results and determine how to proceed.
Pip Hinman, who is heading up the Socialist Alliance ticket for the Damun ward in the elections, played a central role in the campaign that finally won the residents a say on de-amalgamation.
She told Green Left that a strong vote for de-amalgamation in the poll on September 4 would put serious pressure on the government. “Other forcibly merged councils, such as Gundagai and Tumbarumba, have applied to the Boundaries Commission for de-merger and four others, Bombala, Guyra, Pittwater and Canterbury-Bankstown, are also pushing to de-amalgamate.
“Democracy is never given to us from above on a silver platter. We have to fight for it. So, as well as a strong ‘Yes’ vote for de-amalgamation, we also need a new crop of councillors who are more willing to take up the fight.
“The Labor-Liberal alliance that has run the Inner West Council for five years have refused to lead this fight and even united to deny residents a say on this matter. The community cannot afford another term of this.”
[Get in touch with the Socialist Alliance campaign in the Inner West Council here. A residents' meeting to discuss the case to de-amalgamate will be held on August 4, at 6.30pm, at the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre.]