By Julian Bajkowski
New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell and his Local Government minister Don Page could soon have the most formidable of internal opponents to deal with when it comes to trying to push through contentious and controversial council mergers.
Christine Forster, a Liberal councillor on the City of Sydney and the high-profile and outspoken sister of Prime Minister Tony Abbott is making an all-out bid for the presidency of the state’s so-called ‘council of councils’ better known as Local Government New South Wales.
With solid support from a record number of Liberal and conservative-leaning independents, Ms Forster is rated as a strong opponent to incumbent president and independent Coff’s Harbour City councillor, Keith Rhoades, who is recontesting.
Doing the numbers on which way councils and their councillors vote during the process is notoriously difficult because many candidates with links to established political parties often stand as independents. Even party insiders quietly admit they only ever have a partial picture of party links and leanings.
Part of Ms Forster’s presidential appeal among her supporters is that she would be able to draw on her strong, high-level relationships with both the O’Farrell government and the new federal government.
Although her opponents privately dismiss the effectiveness of such party connections as overstated, there is a grudging recognition that frequent criticisms of local government not being representative of the mainstream community could be partly neutralised by electing a conservative head who could lobby from the inside.
Part of that sentiment appears to emanate from the Independent Local Government Review Panel process that is most likely to influence whether the O’Farrell government will seek to instigate the kind of forced council mergers that helped tip-out the Labor state government in Queensland.
Ms Forster told Government News that the local government sector was now facing “a once in a generation reform process.”
“I am standing because I think that local government needs the strongest possible voice to achieve the best outcomes,” Ms Forster said.
“I believe I am a political fighter. I am a Liberal, but I will take the fight up to state government. Being a Liberal, I do have established relationships with senior ministers.”
“I’m not shy about opposing things that our sector don’t want and don’t support. I’ll be very firm in my discussions with state government to represent all of my stakeholders – every council, every shire every councillor, regardless of political persuasion,” Ms Forster said.
While both the NSW state arm and the federal branch of the Liberal Party have maintained a ultra-tight control over public messages and statements from their ministers and members while in government, there are still a number of highly divergent views on issues burning away internally that Ms Forster may have to take up the cudgels over.
One core national local government issue is the push for Constitutional recognition of the sector to head off a based projects, where Liberals support is flaky at best – despite strong advocacy from Nationals who fear for the level regional support without intervention from Canberra.
That scenario could put Ms Forster in the interesting position of trying to sell and muscle Constitutional reform to it most trenchant opponents.
If that fight needs to be had, Ms Forster says she is up for it.
“If I was to be successful in becoming the president I would represent my stakeholders’ view,” Ms Forster said.
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