Strong indications are emerging that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian will halt mergers between local councils currently involved in legal stoushes and wind back mergers that have already happened, should ratepayers demand it.
Eleven councils are embroiled in legal battles to resist mergers and 20 new councils have been created since May 2016.
Keith Rhoades, President of Local Government NSW (LGNSW), the peak body for councils in the state, was upbeat about his meeting with Deputy Premier John Barilaro and new Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upon yesterday (Wednesday), providing a clue that the government’s merger agenda is on the verge of collapse.
“It would be inappropriate to reveal the content of those discussions, but I can certainly say they were both constructive and productive,” Mr Rhoades said.
“I have said all along that I was confident the Berejiklian/Barilaro Government and the new Local Government Minister would listen to the people and these reports appear to confirm that confidence.”
Ms Berejiklian has freely admitted that she will be “looking at council amalgamation policy” with a Cabinet meeting likely this week.
Her comments after being sworn in as Premier also shed light on her intentions when she said “there’s no doubt that some communities would prefer they didn’t go through that process”.
National Leader Mr Barilaro recently came out in support of halting three regional council mergers: Armidale Dumaresq, Guyra Shire, Uralla Shire and Walcha Councils; Orange, Cabonne and Blayney Councils; Bathurst and Oberon Councils.
Government News reported on December 2 last year that Monaro MP Barilaro was taking up cudgels against the government’s merger plans, at least for some regional councils.
However, he was silent about contentious mergers in other regions, such as the Hunter, the Illawarra and the Central Coast, where there has also been fierce opposition to mergers. Mergers between Shellharbour and Wollongong and Newcastle with Port Stephens have both led to strong local campaigns.
The new Premier removed Local Government Minister Paul Toole in last week’s Cabinet reshuffle, perhaps another sign that she was intentionally distancing herself from her predecessor’s intransigence on council mergers.
The choice of Ms Upton as Mr Toole’s replacement also appeared to be a clue that the political tide was turning against forced amalgamations.
The Vaucluse MP spoke at a Woollahra anti-merger rally in October last year, where she encouraged people to sign a petition against a merger with Randwick and Waverley Councils but she later appeared to reverse her position under pressure from her party.
While the government is likely to halt council mergers currently before the court, it may also allow plebiscites for those councils ordered to merge last year.
Mr Rhoades said the government should hold plebiscites in the 20 new council areas this September and give voters the opportunity to vote on whether they wanted their council to deamalgamate.
“I would urge the government to undertake these plebiscites this coming September when the residents and ratepayers of amalgamated councils go to the polls in local government elections and indeed to send all councils who missed out on elections last year to the polls at the same time,” he said.
“It saves ratepayers money and it ensures that local democracy will truly be returned as quickly as possible.”
There is a history in Australia of plebiscites unpicking local council mergers.
Four Queensland councils, Noosa, Douglas, Livingstone and Mareeba, voted to deamalgamate in 2013 following Labor Premier Anna Bligh’s 2008 local government reforms when 157 councils were slashed to 73.
Forced local council mergers became a thorn in the side of former NSW Premier Mike Baird and had begun to bite at the ballot box.
Nationals candidate Scott Barrett spectacularly lost to the Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party’s Philip Donato at the Orange by-election in November last year with many blaming his loss on the unpopular merger proposed between Orange, Cabonne and Blayney Councils.
But there is more to come. The government will be fearing a further hammering in two Sydney by-elections: Former Health Minister Jillian Skinner’s North Shore seat and the Manly by-election to find Mr Baird’s replacement.
Ms Skinner’s electorate takes in parts of North Sydney, Mosman and Lane Cove Councils, all of whom are all fighting mergers. A groundswell of dissent occurred in Mike Baird’s Manly electorate, when the new Northern Beaches council was created from Manly, Pittwater and Warringah Councils in May last year.
Council mergers that may never happen
Armidale Dumaresq, Guyra Shire, Uralla Shire and Walcha councils
Bathurst Regional and Oberon councils
Blayney Shire, Cabonne and Orange City councils
Burwood, City of Canada Bay and Strathfield Municipal councils
Dungog Shire and Maitland City councils
Hornsby Shire* and Ku-ring-gai councils
Hunter’s Hill, Lane Cove and City of Ryde councils
Mosman Municipal, North Sydney and Willoughby City councils
Newcastle City and Port Stephens councils
Randwick City, Waverley and Woollahra Municipal councils
Shellharbour City and Wollongong City councils
New councils that could hold plebiscites
Armidale Regional Council
Central Coast Council
City of Parramatta Council
Edward River Council
Georges River Council
Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council
Inner West Council
Murray River Council
Northern Beaches Council
Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council
Snowy Monaro Regional Council
Snowy Valleys Council
Dubbo Regional Council