New South Wales Treasurer Andrew Constance has thrown a political hand grenade into the debate over forced council mergers in his state, after he was reported as telling a gathering of accountants that Sydney needs just five councils, not 41.
Sydney’s Daily Telegraph has quoted Mr Constance as describing the number of local governments in the city as “terrible” in response to a question, adding that the Baird government would ultimately have to “pull out the stick.”
According to the tabloid, the Treasurer subsequently “stressed” his comments were a “personal view” and not the policy of the Baird government.
Even so, the statements are likely to inflame tensions between the state’s councils and Macquarie Street over what many mayors believe is fast shaping up to be a broken election promise over not forcing amalgamations without first securing mandate at the ballot box after former Premier Barry O’Farrell campaigned on the promise of returning development powers to councils.
Acrimony over merging councils transcends both political and geographic boundaries.
Part of the backlash against the Labor Bligh and Beattie governments in Queensland was attributed to forced council mergers that promised cost reductions but instead delivered a deterioration in municipal services which was exacerbated by an increase in costs.
Electoral anger over the debacle was subsequently exploited by now LNP Premier Campbell Newman who successfully campaigned on a promise to put unpopular mergers to referenda to determine whether the forced marriages should be annulled.
In NSW councils representatives gathering at the annual Local Government NSW conference this week were irked by an apparent reticence by Premier Mike Baird and local government minister Paul OToole to face questions from councillor over the state government’s ultimate plans.
The chief gripe from councils is that following a change in leadership in the state government from Mr O’Farrell to Mr Baird, the previous overt commitment to not force mergers appears to have departed along with the former Premier.
Adding to that tension was a legislative bid to give businesses in local government areas two votes rather the existing one, a move widely criticised as an attempt to finally unseat the City of Sydney’s independent Lord Mayor Clover Moore.
Councils rounded on the state government over the new laws amid fears the commercial interests of larger businesses, like shopping centre owners and retail giants would be given precedence over those of residential ratepayers and small business tenants.
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