Unfit for our future

Natalie Buckett on how Mike Baird’s council amalgamations became a political weapon against progressivism

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In September 2014, the NSW Coalition government announced its plan to force local councils to amalgamate under a policy labeled “Fit for the Future”. Given that many dismiss councils as a group of locals discussing bins and playgrounds, improvements to the functions of local government appear, ostensibly, a valid proposition.

The catch is, the Baird government is in the business of cultivating problems that demand politically convenient, conservative solutions. The government’s proposed council mergers, a closer look reveals, fit this agenda perfectly. Unfortunately though, as an attack on local democracy isn’t quite as glamorous as an attack on Sydney’s nightlife, council amalgamations haven’t captured the interest of many young people.

The suspicious circumstances surrounding the planned council mergers have been well documented, if not well publicised. The policy transitioned from recommended voluntary mergers of unfeasibly small or ineffective councils with larger ones, to forced amalgamations founded on ‘independent’ assessments of sustainability or profitability. Aside from the government’s absolute dismissal of the findings of the review it commissioned, their interim replacements for merged councils are also problematic. An independent, unelected administrator is to replace democratically elected councillors. This ‘independent’ administrator will oversee the entire new electorate formed by the amalgamations.

The policy is based on the rationale that fewer necessarily equates to more efficient councils. Given the lack of consultation with actual councils, the government seems to have little explanation of why this is actually true. This lack of engagement with councils highlighted the sheer lack of transparency in this project, whereby councillors lost their jobs, with the government failing to provide them, or their constituents, sufficient justification.

Even if this process didn’t blatantly override the mandate and autonomy of elected councils, the government’s choices as to which councils merge, and which administrators oversee their electorates, is of particular concern. The councils that escaped forced amalgamations often coincided with marginal electorates in the recent federal election, such as Hawkesbury Council. Here, the threat of political disruption was prioritised over the supposed benefits the government rhetorically asserted when initially encouraging the mergers.

While crucial marginal electorates were spared, there are recognisable similarities between the councils that weren’t. In the inner west, the amalgamation of Leichardt, Ashfield and Marrickville into the “Inner West Council” saw the dissolution of one of New South Wales’ most progressive strongholds, with particularly robust Greens representation. Marrickville Council in particular, had made headlines regarding its controversial boycott on Israeli goods and services, and its more recent application of a “no business in abuse” approach, where the council sought to cease business relationships with companies associated with immigration detention centres. Similarly, Gloucester City Council, a council actively opposing coal mining and coal seam gas, has been merged with two other councils into the “Mid Coast Council”. It’s difficult to believe the government was unaware of the political composition and effect of the councils they targeted.

In both mergers, the government has appointed questionable administrators. The amalgamated Mid Coast Council is administered by John Turner, who boasts strong links to the coal industry. Similarly coincidental, the inner west councils that have spent endless time and resources opposing WestConnex have been replaced with administrator Richard Pearson, formerly of the Department of Planning, the very department that headed the project’s development in the first place. Speaking to Honi, NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said, “On any view of it, these were political sackings. Councils that were viewed either as expendable or as political adversaries of the Coalition government were the first on the chopping block.”

The impacts of forced amalgamations, much like the councils themselves, are local. WestConnex threatens the very environment of our University, with motorway ramps being proposed through Camperdown. Coal seam gas, in particular, threatens the future of the Gloucester community. “There undoubtedly have been some deeply unsavoury and corrupt individual councillors, but the great majority of councillors are working, as they see best, in the interests of the community,” said Shoebridge. “All of those good councillors have been sacked as well as the handful of rotten apples.”

The disruption of local government poses yet another risk to communities that particularly benefit students. “There is a raft of services provided by local councils that are directly relevant to students… we’re talking not just libraries, we are talking about access to community venues and halls where events can be held, we are talking about creative arts services that are often subsidised by local councils, community centres that provide sports facilities and indeed most of the local parks and sporting fields.”

Administrators, particularly those with political incentives divergent from the interests of their community, pose a genuine risk to the provision of crucial local services. These administrators have been empowered by the state government to wield control over communities that they may have little connection with or understanding of, to make crucial decisions regarding their resources, their infrastructure and their rates for a considerable period of time. Moreover, the nature of councils has now fundamentally changed. Even following the incoming council elections in 2016, amalgamations will see representatives that do not know the specifics of an area making crucial decisions about the future of communities. Even the minor differences in composition of inner west areas require councils to engage with each area individually to ensure tailored and accurate representation. Perhaps most importantly, given how reliant many young people are on local government services, it is concerning that the Baird government have pandered the metric of success as profitability. The wellbeing of citizens and their communities should not be a second thought.

The true value of local government lies in the proximity between constituent and representative.Forced amalgamations threaten that proximity, and in doing so, threaten the kind of local democracy that, especially as young people, we cannot afford to lose.

Editor’s note: The author of this article is the daughter of an independent councillor on Hawkesbury City Council.