NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s surprise decision on July 27 to abandon plans for more local council mergers is a win for communities who strongly protested this undemocratic decision, said the Socialist Alliance candidates standing for the Inner West Council in the September 9 election.
Susan Price, who is the Socialist Alliance candidate for the Ashfield ward, said: “While we welcome the change in policy for those councils that have been given a reprieve, the merger of the three local councils — Ashfield, Marrickville and Leichhardt — into the very large Inner West Council remains fundamentally undemocratic.
“It also raises the question: why are amalgamated councils alright for some areas and not others?”
Berejiklian said she was acting to reduce the “risk of uncertainty” on those councils in the lead up to the election.
That means she was concerned the courts would find the amalgamations were unlawful — something communities across the state have been saying since then- Premier Mike Baird announced the undemocratic plan. And she is running scared of the electoral backlash.
The decision also gives a reprieve to those councils in predominantly Liberal-National heartland. Metropolitan local governments, including Mosman, Willoughby, North Sydney, Lane Cove, Hunters Hill, Ryde, Strathfield, Canada Bay, Burwood, Ashfield, Ku-ring-gai, Hornsby, Woollahra, Randwick and Waverley will no longer be forced to merge.
In the limited consultation that took place in the inner west, residents made it very clear they opposed amalgamation for the same reasons as the councils who took legal action against the state government. They were not convinced by the government line that the amalgamations would reduce mismanagement, waste and duplication.
Pip Hinman, who is the Socialist Alliance candidate in Stanmore ward said: “Now that we can see which councils have been spared forced amalgamation, it is very clear the government has done the electoral arithmetic.
“The merger of the inner west councils was a thinly veiled attempt to crush the grassroots opposition to the wasteful WestConnex toll road. But it did not succeed. If anything, opposition to WestConnex, and to UrbanGrowth's plans, has grown.
Blair Vidakovich, who is the Socialist Alliance candidate in Leichhardt ward, said: “Local councils, the closest level of government to the people, are very important for local democracy. They provide resources that keep communities alive and flourishing.
“Council mergers have been pushed by conservative state governments across the nation as attempts to stamp out grassroots democracy and resistance to neoliberal big business interests.”
The government's backflip came after the NSW Legislative Assembly passed a bill on June 22, proposed by the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, to make it illegal to force such mergers. The Greens won an amendment that no council amalgamation can ever happen again without first holding a referendum in the local area.
While Labor supported this bill, it has come under fire over its lacklustre opposition in council. Leichhardt Council minutes show that on two occasions in March and April last year, Labor councillors voted with the Liberals apposing investigating legal action against forced amalgamations and against council running its own polling on the issue.
Socialist Alliance supported the campaign in the Inner West against the forced council merger, and spoke at the community consultations. It also supports the de-merger bill.
“We believe the three original councils should be reconstituted, jobs re-offered and council offices be utilised. While the three local councils were not without their flaws, they were at least more accessible and accountable than the current Inner West mega-council,” said Price.
“The neoliberal argument does not stack up. Councils, the closest level of government to the community, must be given more resources and authority to make decisions in an accountable and transparent way. They could do a lot more in solving social problems, such as the dire lack of affordable housing, on which the NSW government is turning its back,” added Hinman.
Meanwhile, it was revealed on August 9 that before the September 9 elections the government will remove councils’ ability to decide on developments of $5–30 million. Minister Andrew Roberts cited “inappropriate relationships” between councillors and developers as the reason. Price called this out as completely undemocratic and said it had more to do with “the far too cosy relationship” between the NSW government and developers.