Council merger opponents in regional NSW have pinned their hopes on new Nationals Leader John Barilaro to plead their case with NSW Premier Mike Baird.
The Amalgamation – No Thank You (ANTY) group from Cabonne, whose council is slated to merge with Orange and Blayney Councils, met with Mr Barilaro last week and said that he “confirmed that no merger would proceed unless it had first been through him”.
ANTY’s Marj Bollinger said Mr Baird, former Deputy Premier Troy Grant and NSW Local Government Minister Paul Tools had repeatedly refused to meet the group but she was impressed by Mr Barilaro’s attitude when she met him.
“The meeting was a feeling of fresh air compared to the negativity and rejection we have been experiencing from those who have gone before,” Mrs Bollinger said.
“From Mr Barilaro’s comment that before a forced merger was taken to the governor it would have to come to him first we concluded that he’s the one to stop it going ahead.”
Mr Barilaro apparently advised the group that he was “happy to look at alternate options if there are options out there – one might be to exclude Cabonne from the merger”, although no mention was made about what might happen to Orange or Blayney Counncils.
The Monaro MP replaced former National Party Leader Troy Grant last month after Mr Grant resigned following the National’s disastrous showing at the Orange by-election in November when Nationals candidate Scott Barrett was toppled by only 50 votes by Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party candidate Philip Donato in a hefty swing against the Nationals.
Jock Hayes from ANTY said that Mr Barilaro now had “a much greater understanding” of the group’s case against Cabonne merging with other councils, particularly with Orange, which is carrying some debt.
“Mr Barilaro did not confirm whether Cabonne would be forced to amalgamate pending further court action but confirmed that no merger would proceed unless it had first been through him … that he was now much more aware of the reasons why Cabonne has fought so hard to stand alone and would take up the issue with Mr Toole,” Mr Hayes said.
ANTY argued in its Fit for the Future submission that Cabonne Council connects a series of 14 towns and villages over more than 6000 sq kms and that amalgamation could lead to council job losses and have a negative domino effect on schools, businesses and communities. Cabonne is loathe to merge with Orange because it fears being sidelined and also because Orange is carrying some debt.
Shadow Local Government Minister Peter Primrose called the Deputy Minister’s merger statement evidence of a “major rift” between the Nationals Leader and Mr Baird.
“This split in the NSW Cabinet is a real test for the National Party in NSW – are they really prepared to stand up to the Liberals and stop the forced mergers?” Mr Primrose said.
“Deputy Premier Barilaro has made it clear that there will be no more forced mergers without the approval of the National Party. The people of Cabonne have fought this forced merger all the way. The Nationals should not let them down again this time.”
But he appeared to suggest the Cabonne anti-merger group’s optimism was unfounded.
“The last time Mr Barilaro promised to oppose forced council mergers was in his campaign speech to Bombala RSL Club on 18 March 2015. Then he was elected to Parliament and voted for forced mergers ever since.”
Mr Barilaro has been contacted for comment.
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