Newly-installed NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is poised to make a final decision over whether or not to forge ahead with local council mergers and potentially wind back others on the eve of St Valentine’s Day.
The departure of former Premier Mike Baird and NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole; the shock Nationals loss at the Orange by-election and the ascension of Nationals Leader John Barilaro have provided strong incentives for Ms Berejiklian to distance herself from the old regime and style herself as a Premier who listens and acts on voters’ concerns. Ms Berejiklian has indicated that she will make her move early this week, possibly as early as tomorrow (Tuesday).
Stopping forced amalgamations in their tracks could also mean that her party avoids a whipping in two up-coming Sydney by-elections: former Health Minister Jillian Skinner’s North Shore seat and Mr Baird’s Manly electorate, both of which have been hotbeds of resistance to council mergers and are vulnerable to incursions by independent candidates.
A third by-election where mergers may come into play is now on the cards with the resignation of Labor Gosford MP Kathy Smith resigned this week due to ill health. She won Gosford by 200 votes in 2015. Gosford City and Wyong Shire Councils merged to form Central Coast Council in May last year.
While Ms Berejiklian is likely to heed Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s calls in January for a select few regional councils to be allowed to stand alone – namely, Blayney Shire, Cabonne and Orange; Dungog and Maitland; Bathurst and Oberon; Uralla and Walcha- there are other regional and metropolitan councils embroiled in legal action to fight their mergers.
The government will need to decide whether councils like Mosman, Strathfield, Hunters Hill, Oberon and Woollahra are rewarded for their ‘bad behaviour’ in rebelling against the government’s forced merger agenda.
Another, even thornier decision is whether to hold costly plebiscites and run the risk of reversing the mergers of the 19 new councils created from 42 in May last year, should ratepayers vote that way.
Council administrators, who took over from sacked councillors when the new councils were created, have already stated publicly that the integration of staff, systems and services is already well advanced and grant funding has been allocated to projects using the money for mergers promised by the state government and savings already chalked up. Also to consider are the redundancy packages handed out to senior staff and new staff hired.
Holding such plebiscites for merged councils may be too much of a back down for the new Premier, who has publicly stated her support for mergers in the past.