Tip the scales back to resident power

Pip Hinman at a speak-out for demerger in Newtown on November 26. Photo: Merilyn Fairskye

The NSW Coalition and NSW Labor voted on November 23 to gift developers another opportunity to tip the scales in their favour and away from local residents and local government.

They decided to remove councils’ ability to charge for compliance investigations, despite warnings that this would lead to councils being forced to reduce compliance activity. We have seen from the Mascot Towers’ and Opal Tower examples where the lack of compliance leads: unsafe buildings and environmental damage.

At the polling booths this week I’ve been heartened by the positive response from residents — young and old — about demerging the three councils: it has become a discussion and it is good to hear from many what could be done to tip the balance back towards residents.

Obviously, there could be better representation. Even those arguing against the demerger admit representation has been eroded. Of course there could be a range of options to fix this, including the reestablishment of precinct committees. But Labor and Liberal councillors recently voted against those too.

The essence of the YES campaign has been about putting the local back into council: that means that unless residents have a greater say in the running of local services, of local streets, of planting trees and of stopping over-development, the inner west, home to so many engaged and proactive residents, is going to deteriorate further.

In many ways the immediate fight to stop WestConnex torpedoing our inner west has been lost, but the bigger fight remains — to pressure the state government to reverse their plans for the Western Harbour Tunnel, to ameliorate its impacts (especially air pollution from the unfiltered exhaust stacks) and to demand more say over road use to make the area a safer place for active transport.

For the inner west, this has a lot to do with climate change. But it is simply also about safety and practical common sense: we want to feel safe cycling, walking and we want more green space to cool our cities down.

Regardless as to where you stand on demerger, we all need these things. The question is how to get them? How to tip the power imbalance away from the state government and its developer mates back to us — the people who rent, live and work here?

It is no surprise that the network of activists who played the biggest role in trying to stop WestConnex from subsuming neighbourhoods are the same people who are campaigning for demerger. They have had their voices ignored twice in succession: once during the fake consultation over the forced merger, and secondly when WestConnex was rammed through despite the overwhelming community opposition to the government supporting tollway companies to put more cars on the roads, and to use our tax dollars to do it.

A majority YES vote to demerge will not be the end of this struggle — far from it. It is going to take a lot more resident determination and campaigning, and the new councillors working for them, to put a strong case to the NSW Boundaries Commission and force the no-holds-barred arrogant state government to act on it.

Voting for councillors who will be prepared to put up a fight is going to be important. Given the balance is so tipped away from local democracy, no single councillor, or group of councillors, will be able to do this without working with residents.

In my view, most of the angry protesters across several cities, who claim to be fighting for their right not to be vaccinated, represent an alienated section of the population who have had a gutful of state and federal governments ignoring them. The Liberals and other right-wing groups are opportunistically jumping in to stir the populist pot, making this a potentially dangerous Trump-style movement.

The brazen political alliance between Inner West Labor councillors and minority Liberals over the first term of the forcibly merged councils stymied progressive reforms and produced a toxic internal culture — all of which played into the hands of the state government.

Ultimately, putting renters and rate payers at the centre of council’s work will be the only way to tip the balance back away from council becoming a vehicle for developer greed. The climate emergency and housing affordability crisis necessitate that the incoming council work hard to harness resident power to do the things that local governments are supposed to.

[Pip Hinman is running for the (Stanmore). This article was first published in the .]