How much does it cost to sack 45 councils, remove local democracy and appoint 19 hand-picked, unelected and unaccountable council administrators to run your agenda? Apparently it costs at least $590 million. Mike Baird is costing New South Wales taxpayers and ratepayers nearly $600 million to do a job on local communities and rush through a deeply undemocratic process—a process that is now being challenged in the courts by a number of brave councils and councillors who know that their residents and their ratepayers deserve far better than what the Mike Baird Coalition is delivering.
While Mike Baird is boasting about the 19 amalgamations that he has forced through, nine forced amalgamations have been unable to proceed. The councils of Woollahra, Ku-ring-gai, Mosman, Strathfield, Hunters Hill, North Sydney, Lane Cove, Oberon, Cabonne and Shellharbour are all in the Land and Environment Court. The former mayor and deputy mayor of Gundagai are also in court on behalf of their recently sacked council. These four cases have exposed just how shambolic and malign the entire process of the Baird Government has been. The Government has already admitted that it cannot proceed with the current delegate’s report for the forced amalgamation of Strathfield, Burwood and Canada Bay. It did so in open court. That was because, as I understand it, the delegate failed even to comprehend what the definition of the word “community” meant in the Local Government Act. The Government is still arguing with residents about what the effect of its admission means at law. This arrogance by the Baird Government to try to cut legal corners has already left one forced amalgamation in obvious legal limbo.
Without pre-empting the outcome of the other cases currently being considered by the courts, now is a good time to summarise the issues that have been raised in those courts by the councils standing up for their ratepayers. In each case there are individual arguments relating to the individual councils. There were specific issues raised by rural councils, individual communities and individual delegates, but there are a number of common arguments that show just how deeply dysfunctional, and arguably unlawful, the process has been across the State. In the course of the litigation a July 2015 KPMG options analysis report was produced. KPMG is the consultancy firm that the Baird Government hired to conduct financial modelling on council amalgamations. That report was quickly stamped “Cabinet-in-confidence” to ensure that it was never seen by the public—or at least so the Government hoped.
The Government had good reason for hoping that the public would never see the report because it appears from the July 2015 KPMG report that that organisation was up to its neck in the Coalition’s forced amalgamation process before the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal [IPART] had even completed its Fit for the Future review. We now know that there was no independent review of the KPMG report, as Premier Baird and Minister Toole claim. KPMG came up with the alleged savings in the first place, and then effectively marked its own homework.
Only after the mythical KPMG savings were signed off on did a flawed public process begin. An almost universal complaint from councils was that they were not given reasonable notice of the public meeting for the delegate’s inquiry. In Woollahra’s case, the first public notice of the meeting was given on 20 January 2016—a time when many people are not paying attention to public affairs. The public meeting was held quickly thereafter, on 4 February 2016. Given the hundreds of pages of reports, the partial and inadequate financial material then available and the complexity of the issues, nobody could describe that as reasonable notice.
Many councils have also argued that the delegate’s role in the inquiry was a charade. They noted that their delegate refused to ask, take or answer questions on any substantive matters. The councils say that surely an inquiry requires the person undertaking it to do more than sit mutely and receive submissions. Many other councils have said that when Baird’s hand-picked delegates had completed their reports they were reviewed and basically rubberstamped by the Boundaries Commission. They say that they were not subject to a genuinely independent review. What does a review mean? Many councils say that the Boundaries Commission was required to do more than just a tick-a-box reading of the reports to say whether the delegate had mentioned the relevant provisions of the Local Government Act. That is all the Boundaries Commission did. It never conducted a proper review.
The councils also say that before the Boundaries Commission did a job on them and signed off on the delegates’ reports the councils, at common law and as a general principle of administrative law, had a right to procedural fairness. The councils were entitled to exercise those rights before the Boundaries Commission made decisions as potentially impactful as handing the reviews to the Minister with big green ticks. Across the State the messages have been the same. Chaos and disarray have dominated Mike Baird’s forced amalgamation agenda, with local democracy being trashed in a deeply flawed process. We will be watching the outcome of these cases closely and calling on the Baird Government and all members in this House to respect any decision that the courts hand down on these appalling forced amalgamations.