(Private Members Statement, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
I refer to the proposed council amalgamations, which is an issue of great importance to my constituents. The Independent Local Government Review Panel, which was established to investigate and identify options for governance models, structural arrangements and boundary changes for local government, recently released its report and, predictably, recommended amalgamations. The proposal would merge some 40 metropolitan Sydney councils into 15 large councils, including a super City of Sydney representing almost 800,000 people by 2036 and encompassing seven existing local council areas, including all of my electorate.
While I support reform, I share widespread concern within my electorate that wholesale amalgamations are not the answer, particularly for the inner city. Rural councils representing small populations could benefit from voluntary amalgamations specifically aimed at improving efficiency and services. But how will inner-city councils, which are already performing well, benefit? Local government is the level of government closest to the people it represents. This is a strength, providing people with easy access to their local decision-makers. Local councils are able to provide locally targeted services in response to local needs, such as managing the impacts of homelessness, responding to noise complaints and providing disability services. Local government is the home of grassroots democracy and dramatically affects people's lives.
Mega councils will make it incredibly hard for grassroots local representation and locally targeted services. Under the proposal, residents and ratepayers will have less access to decision-makers and fewer opportunities to contribute to policies. Amalgamations will cause disruptions to operations and a wholesale reshaping of local government areas could create years of uncertainty and inaction. The discussion paper fails to provide evidence that amalgamations will improve finances and quality of service. It relies heavily on the assumption that economies of scale will create efficiencies. But economies of scale have their limits and in governance can create drawbacks such as inappropriately standardised services and policies, lack of local knowledge within an organisation and reduced access to decision-makers. With potential disruptions and loss of grassroots democracy, the case for amalgamations must prove widespread economic and service benefits before we venture down that path. Alternatives such as sharing resources and responsibility of providing services between councils must be explored thoroughly.
I welcome the panel's acknowledgement of the detrimental impact that rate pegging has had on the economic viability of local government, and I call for it to be removed. The panel justifies creating an inner-city super council in order to share the city's wealth further across metropolitan Sydney. The inner city drives Sydney's global city status and is a major contributor to the State and national economies. The City of Sydney council is one of the most financially stable governments in the country and its strong economic situation was recognised by the panel. It has excellent services and award-winning community facilities. Its engagement with both community and business is highly regarded. We cannot afford to put Sydney's global city status through uncertainty and through unnecessary disruptions.
There is a long history of State Government manipulation of local government boundaries in the inner city, leaving many residents suspicious of the latest proposals. Since the end of World War II the City of Sydney boundary has been altered by State governments four times, usually for party political purposes, with amalgamations or de-amalgamations depending on what benefitted the government of the day. In 1982 the Wran Government amalgamated the city with South Sydney Council. In 1987 the Unsworth Government sacked the council and it was again split the following year by the Greiner Government. In 2004 the Carr Government merged them back. Unlike councils in rural and regional New South Wales, only seven councils in or around the Sydney metropolitan area were identified by the panel as being at financial risk. Yet the panel has suggested widespread amalgamations across Sydney. Interestingly, in March four regional areas in Queensland voted to overturn the council amalgamations forced upon them in 2008.
I strongly believe there would be a similar voter backlash if amalgamations were forced upon New South Wales residents, particularly in the inner city. The Government has said that it will not force amalgamations on councils but this Government is already proposing to reduce community input in development proposals and make councils answerable to the State Government over residents and ratepayers. There is concern that the Government is pursuing an amalgamations agenda to further remove the community voice from decision-making. Local government is currently being reviewed by the Local Government Acts Taskforce, which has released a discussion paper for public comment. This review should be combined with that of the panel to establish holistic and comprehensive recommendations for local government. I call on the Government to retain a system of truly local and grassroots representative councils, and to renew its commitment against forced amalgamations ahead of the next election.