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De-amalgamation. Why the scare tactics?

Pip Hinman worked with Greens and Independent councillors to push for a poll on de-amalgamation. Photo: Peter Boyle

Opinion By PIP HINMAN

The political forces that were against even asking the Inner West Council to request the NSW Electoral Commission for a poll on de-amalgamation – giving residents their first democratic say on the matter – were defeated by a majority of councillors agreeing.

Their efforts are now going into furious postings on social media aimed at frightening people from even engaging in a discussion about the benefits of de-amalgamation.

The purpose of the poll on September 4 is to gauge community views on the forced amalgamation of Marrickville, Leichhardt and Ashfield Councils by the NSW Liberal-National government in 2016.

If a majority of residents vote to de-amalgamate, it will then be incumbent on the incoming council to prepare a business case to put to the NSW government.

Those supporting de-amalgamation should vote “Yes” in big numbers and vote for people who will campaign for it on council. This will put sustained pressure on the NSW government to pay for the de-amalgamation.

Below are some of the arguments being put forward by opponents of de-amalgamation and my responses.

Pip is running for Socialist Alliance in Damun ward in the Inner West Council elections. Photo: Peter Boyle

‘The NSW government will never agree to de-amalgamate.’

The amended Local Government Act sets out a process for a demerger within 10 years of the forced amalgamations. A provision allows for the state government to pay the costs.  However, although the NSW government has quietly dropped its laws on the forced mergers and NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro has made his opposition to amalgamations public, this will not happen without a community campaign.

There is a growing movement to reverse the forced amalgamations across NSW. Gundagai and Tumbarumba have applied to the NSW Boundaries Commission to demerge and have had their cases heard.

Residents of five other councils — Bombala, Guyra, Pittwater, Inner West and Canterbury-Bankstown — are waiting to do so.

A strong vote for de-amalgamation in the September 4 poll would strengthen the community campaign to force the NSW government to reverse the forced amalgamation and pay all the costs of de-amalgamation.

‘The cost of amalgamating the three councils was enormous and the cost to de-amalgamate would be the same or more.’

The cost of merging the three councils has been estimated at roughly $30 million and only $10 million of this has been covered by the NSW government. Arguably de-merging may cost the same. But the NSW government made this mess, and it should pay to fix it.

The ongoing cost to the community of remaining in a mega council is far bigger.

The NSW government asserted in 2016 the forced mergers would save $2 billion over 20 years. But six years after the forced amalgamation, the promised savings have failed to materialise.

The 2020-21 Inner West Council (IWC) budget is forecasting losses topping $40 million (excluding capital grants and contributions), compared to $18 million deficit the previous financial year and $3 million the financial year before that.

Local representation has been reduced from 36 councillors across Ashfield, Marrickville and Leichhardt to only 15 in the Inner West Council.

Services have been cut; our rates are going up; and council agendas are overloaded. The cost of forced amalgamation is the endless milking of residents for poorer services and less representation.

‘I’m yet to see any real evidence of ‘dysfunction’ in the current council.’

Anyone who has witnessed council meetings has seen the impossible agendas, bullying and personal attacks on others. In other public services, this behaviour would not be tolerated.

Councillors don’t have to agree with each other, but they should be working for the public good – aiming to really represent residents. That means working with and encouraging resident’s groups to campaign for what they want.

‘If people want de-amalgamation to go ahead, they have to present a business case.’

No, that will be up to the incoming council to prepare if the poll reveals that residents want the Inner West Council to de-amalgamate. Business cases are not neutral.

‘The only way to win this fight with the NSW government is by following their rules.’

No major reform has ever been won with this conservative mindset: for example, same-sex marriage rights, the right to die with dignity and the right to safe abortion.

‘The push for a poll on de-amalgamation is just about creating more councillor positions to lower quota, which is to the advantage of unrepresentative council candidates.’

Making council local again and returning the level of representation our communities previously had will make council more representative.

A more diverse council would more accurately reflect communities in the inner west.

‘Better to focus on making council work better for us in its current amalgamated state.’

We have tried that approach for five years. It has not worked.

‘Have other councils de-amalgamated?’

In Queensland, several amalgamations were reversed, most notably Noosa, which split from Sunshine Coast Regional and Port Douglas from Cairns Regional. It can be done.

‘De-amalgamation will not give us a positive result any time soon.’

Community pressure and councillors committed to working with residents can make local councils more representative and transparent.

Check out how Issy Wyner and Nick Origlass pioneered “open council” in Leichhardt Council in the 1970s. It was a new form of community governance on council, where councillors were forced to hear resident’s concerns. Wyner and Origlass won more open space and public housing on the former industrial sites and rallied community support to block over-development.

Pip Hinman is running for Socialist Alliance in Damun ward in the Inner West Council elections. She worked with Greens and Independent councillors to push for a poll on de-amalgamation.

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