NSW Premier Mike Baird has rejected calls to bring forward a September 2017 election date for newly merged local councils, saying there is too much work to do to amalgamate councils first.
The wholesale dumping of councillors and mayors on May 12, when 19 new councils were proclaimed, led to calls for local government elections to be brought forward to ensure ratepayers were not disenfranchised for 16 months.
The push for earlier elections comes amidst criticisms that new council administrators are in the government’s pocket and fears that unpalatable developments will be rushed through while administrators are in charge.
Anger has also been provoked by the news that administrators and panels will decide on the distribution of Stronger Communities funding – up to $15 million of government funding for each new council, primarily for infrastructure.
But Mr Baird defended the decision to delay local council elections in Question Time yesterday (Tuesday) and said: “bringing bodies together involves a lot of work.”
“It involves dealing with different IT systems, and that does not happen overnight,” Mr Baird said.
“Each individual council will have different contracts with different suppliers, whether they be lighting, roads or parks contractors. Bringing them together will produce economies of scale that will deliver benefits to local communities.
“Councils also have different planning and events departments, and there will be different senior management structures.”
Mr Baird said that local council elections were held from between 16 and 28 months after the 1994 Victorian council mergers.
“This Government wants this process to happen as quickly as possible, and that is why we have said that elections will be held in 16 months,” he said.
“That is the shortest time in which we can complete the work that will ensure the best possible outcomes to enable councils to deliver benefits to their communities.”
Mr Baird took aim at the Opposition during Question Time.
“I know that members opposite do not understand the hard work involved in ensuring that the systems, the people, the processes, the structures and the strategies are right so that we can hand over new councils that will deliver benefits to ratepayers. I know members opposite do not understand that, but it is what needs to be done.”
NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole has previously laid the blame for delaying council elections at that the feet of Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).
“The Electoral Commission advised the Government that it was impossible to hold elections for new councils in September 2016,” Mr Toole said.
“The Commission also indicated that it was their preference that elections for new councils be held in September 2017 to allow them to be ready. Further, the time allows Administrators to successfully integrate the council organisations in time for the election of councillors to new councils.”
But Summer Hill Labor MP Jo Haylen, whose state electorate includes the new Inner West Council, which was the scene of angry protests in May, said the government was just making excuses.
She said a properly resourced AEC could speed up the process so elections could happen earlier: “There is no reason whatsoever that the Minister can’t call elections for September this year.
“Only local government elections will ensure a truly representative voice for local people,” Ms Haylen said.
Projects including WestConnex, the Sydenham to Bankstown rezoning and the Parramatta Road revitalisation mean that it’s a high stakes game for the Inner West over the next 16 months.
“Each of these projects is opposed by the local community and will require the involvement of council at all stages,” she said.
“With the merged council under the control of an unelected official, local residents effectively have no say in how these massive projects will impact them and their suburbs.
“Residents are concerned that the administrator will allow the Baird Government to steam roll local opposition and let development go unchecked.”
Ms Haylen said that since the three councils were forcibly merged into the new Inner West Council and an administrator appointed her office had anecdotally noticed a spike in the number of development applications being bulked up and resubmitted from what residents were telling them.
Former Leichhardt Labor Mayor Darcy Byrne said putting off elections was increasing tension at local level.
“That’s the one thing that Mike Baird could do to reduce the current chaotic circumstances, to bring the elections forward so that new councils can get some democratic legitimacy sooner, rather than later,” Mr Byrne said.
“People are very suspicious about why elections have been delayed for the best part of 18 months. Even people who support amalgamations have been shocked.
“Paul Toole says that’s what’s in the proclamations. Well, that can be changed by him at the stroke of a pen.”
Mr Byrne said elections could be held much earlier in 2017, despite the government’s argument that it would take the AEC time to draw up new rules and boundaries.
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