NSW council mergers hit a wall – and may go backwards

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After multiple years of making plans and implementing them, the NSW government is now on the verge of announcing something which should have come much sooner. For councils that have already been amalgamated, there will be plebiscites where voters will be asked to decide on whether the amalgamation should be wound back and the former councils restored. In addition, all of those amalgamations which have yet to be implemented appear likely to be cancelled. That means no amalgamations for the eastern suburbs of Sydney, the north shore, Newcastle or Wollongong, along with a scattering of other council areas.

This decision leaves the NSW government’s amalgamation plans in a complete mess. Councils that were facing mergers have been divided into two classes based on whether lawsuits were launched by those councils delaying the amalgamations. Regardless of their merits, amalgamations won’t go ahead where they haven’t yet been implemented, meaning in some cases we will see tiny councils like Hunters Hill and Burwood surviving alongside much larger neighbours.

I’ve made no secret that I am supportive of some enlarging of councils in the eastern half of Sydney, although many of the proposed amalgamations were unnecessary or unwise, but it was always problematic to implement the decision without a democratic mandate. It’s not surprising that elected councils would oppose amalgamation: I don’t think it should be necessary for the council to support a proposal. But a proposal agreed to by the state government should go to a plebiscite of the people in that community before being implemented.

I suspect quite a few of the mergers would have been successful if plebiscites had been held, at least in Sydney. Now we face the possibility that unwise mergers will be undone after a lengthy period of pain and after the spending of large amounts of money on the amalgamations.

We have recent experience of multiple local councils in Queensland de-merging following overwhelming plebiscite results, but all of these cases were in regional areas. I do expect that most of the regional council mergers will be undone by plebiscites, although some may survive.

We have no real sense of how plebiscites will go in Sydney, or how unpopular the amalgamations have been. There are some that on their face merge councils that are already quite large (Canterbury-Bankstown, Hornsby-Ku-ring-gai) or combine areas with no common interest (Bayside council) but I suspect that a lot of local voters are happy with the new councils in Parramatta, Inner West and Georges River, to take some examples. We will never find out if voters in the eastern suburbs or north shore would have supported amalgamating their councils – such a plebiscite could have decided the issue and saved a lot of political pain a few years ago.

The results of the plebiscite could end up being messy. What if Ashfield votes to stay in the Inner West but Marrickville votes to leave? Things will be particularly messy in the Parramatta-Cumberland area, where pieces of each council were broken up. I live in Parramatta and the new council is not much larger than the old council: it just covers different areas.

What if the voters in the heartland of Parramatta vote to reject the amalgamations, but the new additions from the Hills, Hornsby and Auburn councils vote to stay? What if Granville votes to return to Parramatta council, but the former Holroyd and Auburn councils (which don’t share a border) want to stay as Cumberland?

Whatever happens, this should produce some interesting electoral contests. Up until now, the campaign against council amalgamations was focused on the forced nature of the mergers. Will there now be room to debate the merits of particular council sizes and boundaries in the context of a fair democratic fight?

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Ive lived through an amalgamation (Gold Coast City) which was pretty painful, but definitely was a big improvement on the previous 2 smaller, more parochial Councils. The NSW scenario sounds like it was poorly handled from the start. Its likely the country areas will be more protective of “their” Council, not wishing to give up their involvement, although they would almost certainly be better off in many ways by joining other small Councils. But that of course always depends on the quality of the new CEO and how he brings it all together. All those small town Mayors and Councillors will be loathe to give up their possies.

  2. Since it’s the CEO doing most of the work running council the position of Mayor must be made redundant. And while we’re at it, wind back some of the powers that our state Gov have given to them. Councils are over stepping their powers in alot of areas which only causes resentment

  3. The Land and Environment Court decision habded down in the Cabbonne-Orange-Blayney appeal had a clue in the judges opinion.
    In it he allided to the Act which says “any 200 ratepayers or 10% of the ratepayer (at large) can ask for amalgamation.” Apparently there is no balancing clause to the opposite. The Act is unbalanced and should be rescinded or rendered more balanced to let 200 etc., stop amalgamation…

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