Local Government Amendment (Amalgamation Referendums) Bill 2017

Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE ( 11:25 ): I give The Greens’ strong endorsement to the Local Government Amendment (Amalgamation Referendums) Bill 2017. If the Government had any sense it would endorse and embrace this bill with open arms, because it gets them out of a terrible mess when it comes to their so-called reform process in local government. This is the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party bill, brought forward by the Hon. Robert Borsak, but it is a community bill, because the bill will be supported by not only the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party but also the Labor Party. It has the strong endorsement of The Greens and I hope that the Christian Democrats will endorse it too. I note the Hon. Paul Green indicated his support for it in an earlier contribution.

Putting to one side the fact that every political party in this Parliament except for the Coalition supports the bill, when one speaks to the people of New South Wales about the Government’s reform process in local government, they shake their heads, they are in despair. They cannot believe that half a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money has been burnt by this Government on what is one of the worst reform processes we have ever seen in New South Wales. New South Wales does not have a great history of government but one would have to put the Baird-Berejiklian local government reform process, helped by the likes of Paul Toole, up there as the award winning failed, hopeless, compromised, shemozzle of all time.

This is a community bill to try to save the Government from the mess that it is in. First, all the outstanding mergers that the Government has not yet been able to push through despite the unwilling locals are caught up in court because this Government cannot even get the law right when it is trying to do a job for local communities. It has been told that now by the Land and Environment Court and the Court of Appeal, and it is just waiting to be told it is wrong by the High Court. Every court in the country basically is telling the Government that it cannot read the law. The Government is trying to do a job on communities by forcing through amalgamations without listening to the local residents. The Government is hiding the KPMG report. It is failing to engage with residents and its ineptitude is costing both the State Government and local councils millions of dollars.

This bill says stop for all those outstanding merger proposals in areas such as Mosman, Woollahra, Strathfield and Willoughby. The Government cannot take another step to force amalgamations until it has heard from the residents in a binding referendum. What a great idea that would be. Why should it take two years to finally get a law passed that says the Government must talk to local residents before it destroys a local council? Of course, the Government should have done that from day one and the Government should support this bill, as should every member of Parliament. The bill also says to those councils that have already had a merger forced upon them—after enormous cost to local residents; millions of dollars of ratepayers’ and taxpayers’ money flushed down some IT toilet by this Government—in long-suffering communities like Gloucester Leichhardt, Pittwater, Gundagai, Tumbarumba and Marrickville, that they can have a referendum in three months. I think maybe they should have it sooner than that.

The bill says that they can have a referendum in three months—I think they should have it sooner than that. They are referendums of the constituent parts of these amalgamated councils, and they are binding. The good people of Leichardt get to have their say, as do the people in Pittwater and Gunnedah, and if those councils do not want their new unloved mega council, which was imposed upon them by Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian and their property developer mates, they get to unpick it through a binding referendum. This is a great bill. Should we not make sure that we rush it through both Houses of Parliament to give residents a say? The Greens suggest that we should go beyond that. I can foreshadow that we will be moving amendments to automatically unpick all those unloved amalgamations. Our amendments will save the residents of Pittwater, Gloucester, Leichardt, Marrickville, Gundagai and Tumbarumba from the cost and expense of these forced amalgamations by unwinding them. Residents were not asked about these amalgamations in the first place; they have been illegitimate from day one. The Greens contend that they should be unpicked today in this Parliament.

We support this bill, but I also indicate the level of community support for it. When residents were asked what they thought about these forced amalgamations they were unambiguous. We know that the residents in Kiama got asked about this and 95 per cent of them said that they did not want the amalgamation—in the one place where it seems that some people might have been listening. But in Guyra, 85 per cent of respondents said they did not want the megamerger; in Leichardt, 61 per cent of respondents; in Marrickville, 72  per cent of respondents; and in Pittwater, 58 per cent of respondents said they did not support a forced merger, but when one talks to the residents on the streets of Pittwater I would suggest it is closer to 90 per cent; in Gloucester, it was 81 per cent of respondents; in Canterbury, it was 60 per cent of respondents; and in Gundagai, it was 76 per cent of respondents. I suggest that if someone were to go to Gundagai with a “We love the amalgamated council” t‑shirt on today they would be run out of town more quickly than you could say, “National Party votes are drying up.” An extraordinary revolt is happening on the streets in the suburbs and towns of this State.

What is the cost? We now know that even those forced amalgamated councils are paying through the nose already for the unwanted and unloved forced amalgamations. Poor old Hilltops Council, a merger of Boorowa, Harden and Young councils, is already $1.5 million in the red. The Government gave it $5 million and it has already spent $6.5 million for the information technology [IT] and other amalgamations. They are saying, “How are we going to fund the shortfall?” Sydney’s Northern Beaches Council, a merger of Manly, Pittwater and Warringah councils, was championed by the Government as a great financial success. What happened? The Government gave them $10 million and it has only got $105,000 left in the kitty. They are still facing huge additional costs. To date that council’s biggest outlay has been $2.5 million to sack staff and $2.8 million for some of the IT work. The Northern Beaches Council acknowledges in its operational plan:

It is recognised that council will incur further restructuring costs such as the cost of integration, aligning positions within the new organisational structure and new salary system which will exceed the funding provided … Accordingly, the Long Term Financial Plan has been prepared on the basis that once the [funds] has been fully utilised, existing budgets will firstly be used to pay for those merger and transition costs not funded through this mechanism prior to the identification of net savings.

Ratepayers are paying for this failed amalgamation agenda. The Government should be listening to people like Brian Halstead, the president of Save Our Councils Coalition, who has said that the costs are even more. In fact, Mr Halstead said:

The amount that the government allowed was based on the KPMG report, which under costed amalgamations and because they’re not allowing councils to book the ongoing staff costs and administrators against the funding.

He also said that some council staff were spending a quarter of their time managing the merger process. He said further:

If I was a ratepayer, I would be thinking that these amalgamations have been forced on them by state government. It’s only reasonable that the state government bear the costs …

Residents around New South Wales support the bill. The Greens support it, but we will be seeking an instruction to the Committee of the Whole to allow a second set of amendments. We should do it now. I commend the bill to the House.

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