NSW councils have reacted angrily to State Premier Mike Baird’s exhortations that they put the ‘interests of ratepayers’ first and produce plans to merge within 30 days.
Mr Baird wants to compress NSW’s 152 councils by around one-third but councils have said they won’t be bullied into it and they will fight him in court if they have to.
Only nine of the state’s councils submitted merger proposals to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) under the Fit for the Future process.
The tribunal publicly released its report on October 20, a report that labelled 87 of the proposals unfit, leaving those councils open to forced amalgamation.
Phil Jenkin from the Save Our Councils Coalition called the Fit for the Future process ‘a farce’ governed by the diktats of state government.
“IPART has done what it was told to do,” Mr Jenkin said. “Ninety percent of Sydney councils have been found to be financially sustainable but what has rendered them so-called ‘unfit’ is the fact that they can’t jump a hurdle of scale and capacity in the Sansom report of 250,000.
“From a community point of view, we totally reject this whole process that this government has done. Totally reject it. We will not be part of it. We will fight the government and we will win. We will fight this government wherever it takes, including in the courts. They will lose this battle,” he said.
Holroyd City Council Mayor Greg Cummings, whose council was recommended to merge with Parramatta, Auburn and parts of the City of Ryde and Hills Shire Councils in the Sansom Report, said he was amazed the government was using only scale to reject councils’ stand alone proposals.
“We are debt free. Scale is the only government criteria. This is a political fix,” Mr Cummings said.
“[The government has said] you now have 30 days to have a shotgun wedding. Pick a partner. Well my community doesn’t want no shotgun wedding and we will fight to the end.”
Meanwhile, an unlikely political alliance of the Greens, Labor, the Christian Democrats, Independents and the Shooters and Fishers Party has resolved to battle Mr Baird if he tries to push council amalgamations through the Upper House. All were there in force after this week’s press conference at Parliament House.
Greens MP David Shoebridge said the only case the government had made for mergers was ‘a political case’.
“The government does not like pesky local councils that listen to their residents and stand up to state government,” Mr Shoebridge said. “Almost every council, when they’ve asked their residents if they want to merge, their residents have said no.
“If they want to force the issue, the Premier can either stand and hold his breath until he goes red in the face, or he can refer it to the Boundaries Commission,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“The Boundaries Commission process will take months; it will insist upon having further engagement with local residents, it will insist upon looking at communities of interest.
“The government doesn’t want the Boundaries Commission because they can’t win it.”
If the government bypasses the Upper House they will need to reform the Boundaries Commission and hold a public inquiry.
Christian Democrat Leader Fred Nile said the government was running a ‘steamrolling campaign”.
“You know the main motto of governments: you never have an inquiry unless you already know and get the answer you want,” Mr Nile said.
“IPART has told the government what they wanted to hear and they’ve said that the majority of councils are unfit to stand alone because they did not agree to merge. You don’t agree to the government’s terms, therefore you’re not fit to stand alone.
“Thirty days and it will be all over in his mind…we stand for councils to make up their own mind, whether they want to amalgamate or not.”
But it is clear that Mr Baird is resolved to drag councils kicking and screaming into his merger plans, no matter how much they bellyache.
The Premier has given councils a 30-day stay of execution but he refused to say what would happen to those councils who did not comply with merger demands or how the government would get mergers over the line.
Mr Baird said yesterday during the release of the IPART report: “”We have come to the end of the road. We are determined to get on with this.
“We have consulted, we have engaged, we have implored, we have given significant incentives,” the Premier said. “We are the ratepayer’s friend, I can assure you.”
North Sydney Council has already indicated that it will mount a legal challenge and more councils are likely to follow suit.
A NSW Parliamentary inquiry into the Fit for the Future process is due to report on Friday October 30.
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