Cohn keeps demergers on the agenda


Resilient and tireless community advocates from Canterbury‑Bankstown to Bombala, from the Central Coast to Tumbarumba, and more, have worked for the last seven years to undo this mess without success under the provisions of the Local Government Act as it stands.

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NSW Greens Spokesperson for Local Government, Dr Amanda Cohn, has introduced her Bill to amend the Local Government Act to make it easier for communities wishing to demerge their local councils to do so.

Amanda Cohn and supporters outside NSW parliament
Amanda Cohn with representatives from some of the groups campaigning for council demergers

By Jacquelene Pearson

Greens MLC, Dr Amanda Cohn, has ‘lived local government’ before being elected to the NSW Parliament. She was Deputy Mayor of Albury for five years. That’s not a touch on the 38 years Labor’s Minister for Local Government, Ron Hoenig, spent on Botany Council but it is long enough for her to understand how a bad council can have a huge impact on a local community.

“I have heard loud and clear from communities across NSW, that amalgamated councils have had a huge negative impact on local democracy,” Dr Cohn told The Point before joining a recent webinar.

Cohn is on a mission to make it easier for communities still suffering through the consequences of the failed 2016 council mergers to demerge their councils and return to their former local government area boundaries.

She doesn’t believe Minister Hoenig is doing enough to fix the mess created by the Coalition Government with its ‘fit for the future’ forced amalgamations.

“The new Minister for Local Government has said that he hasn’t pursued any change to the Local Government Act but we know, because of Cootamundra, that the Local Government Act hasn’t allowed councils to demerge.

“The Act currently requires the council itself to make a submission to the Boundaries Commission. That is then assessed and if that submission is supported then the Minister can support the demerger.”

The existing process sounds OK on paper but, according to Cohn, Cootamundra-Gundagai has completed all the above steps. Their submission was successful, but they are still waiting for the green light to demerge.

“Minister Hoenig says he intends to demerge Cootamundra-Gundagai, but he is forcing them to go through another round of public inquiry rather than amend the Act.

Time for action

“He is the minister, and he is able to move legislation and he hasn’t done that. I asked him about this at budget estimates. He made three different excuses: he hasn’t been the Local Government Minister very long; legislative change takes a long time and is very complicated; and he didn’t think the cross benches in both houses would support amendments.”

Cohn didn’t agree with any of those objections. On November 22, she tabled a Bill in the Legislative Council, the Local Government Amendment (De-amalgamation Plebiscites) Bill.

“What my bill does is enable community members to petition the minister to call for plebiscites. If a plebiscite is held and a majority votes for demerger, the minister is bound to make that happen.

“He has to, by proclamation, dissolve the current amalgamated council and the former councils get reconstituted.

“As member of the upper house I represent the whole of NSW and this Bill will help a real diversity of communities across the state of all political stripes.”

In her second reading speech, Dr Cohn told the chamber, “Local government plays a crucial role in shaping the places that we call home. It manages the best parts of community life, from public libraries and community centres to parks and open spaces, sporting facilities, and swimming pools.

“Councils take seriously their responsibility to make decisions that influence our built and natural environments because they know those decisions resonate for generations.

“That is why it is so critical that communities have a say in the local democracies.

“In 2016, 17 new councils were created through forced amalgamation by the previous government. This has made many people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

“The forced amalgamations of 2016 were promised to offer huge savings and efficiency. Instead, they delivered rate hikes, shrinking services, and a loss of local representation.

“The justification for those forced amalgamations was never made clear to impacted communities. Former Planning Minister, Anthony Roberts, referred to the forced council mergers as failed policy.

Abject failure

“On the other side of politics, the current Minister for Local Government, Ron Hoenig, called the forced amalgamation of Bayside Council in his electorate an abject failure.

“Resilient and tireless community advocates from Canterbury‑Bankstown to Bombala, from the Central Coast to Tumbarumba, and more, have worked for the last seven years to undo this mess without success under the provisions of the Local Government Act as it stands.

“Today I introduce the Local Government Amendment (De‑amalgamation Plebiscites) Bill 2023. “The bill will amend the Local Government Act 1993 to empower communities through plebiscites on de‑amalgamation that will ensure the restoration of former local government areas—that is what communities want.

“There are three barriers to de‑amalgamation in the Act as it stands. The first barrier is that smaller communities whose councils were amalgamated into larger councils have effectively lost their voice if the larger council and larger community do not support their calls for demerger. “Guyra is one such example.

“The second barrier is the uncertainty regarding costs for councils pursuing demerger through the provisions of the Act as it stands.

“In Opposition, Labor successfully amended the Local Government Amendment Bill 2021 to ensure that the cost of any de‑amalgamation is fully funded by the State Government.

“Now the Minister has curiously stated, including at a recent budget estimates hearing, that there is no cost to fund.

“There would obviously be an immediate administrative cost for a demerger, even if the separate councils are more efficient in the long run. I have seen credible estimates in the order of $10 million.

“If councils foot that bill, it is local communities that pay, through cuts to local services because of rate‑pegging.

“Those communities have already paid multiple times over through dysfunctional local democracy for the past seven years.

“The third current barrier to de‑amalgamation is legal.

“Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council has done everything by the book to demerge under the Act as it stands.

“Their case has been supported by the Local Government Boundaries Commission and by the Minister.

“But the Minister says he is unable to enact the de‑amalgamation under section 218CC of the Act, with no statutory mechanism under the legislation to create two independent and fully functioning councils.

“Instead of moving amendments to the Local Government Act as I am today, the minister is forcing this exhausted community to have another public inquiry by the boundaries commission, calling this so-called new pathway a salvage.

Clearest way forward

“Amending the Local Government Act provides the clearest way forward for Cootamundra-Gundagai and any other councils that will take this pathway in future.

“I am proud to have worked with and have the support of community groups representing a broad and diverse range of impacted local government areas: Save Bombala, Residents for Demerger of Canterbury Bankstown Council, Central Coast Friends of Democracy, Gundagai Council in Exile, Save and Grow Guyra, Inner West Residents for De-amalgamation, Protect Pittwater Association, and Save Tumbarumba Shire.

“Here is what they have told me about the impact of forced amalgamation on their communities. Snowy Valleys Council, formerly Tumut and Tumbarumba shire councils, is facing a dramatic decline in cash reserves, with staffing efficiencies decreased and rates being raised by up to an extraordinary 75 per cent in some cases from special rate variation and rates harmonisation.

“That is despite the merger proposal promising a three-year payback period when merger benefits would exceed merger costs.

“Councillor representation for residents of Tumbarumba was reduced more than fourfold.

“Northern Beaches Council recently voted to close the council customer service centre at Avalon. One Pittwater resident said, ‘We went from our own council with nine councillors that represented the Pittwater area to three councillors in a council of 15.

“’The concerns which are Pittwater specific are now basically ignored because of the numbers game.

“’When we were amalgamated, 63,000 Pittwater residents were immediately disenfranchised. Local government is supposed to be a democratic system which provides a forum for citizens to vent their concerns on issues that directly affect them.’

“A councillor at Hilltops Council has spoken up about the amalgamated council eating into its financial reserves just to stay afloat and the inequitable application of water and sewer fees and services across three diverse former shires.

“Central Coast residents have described the difficulty of living in a council area under administration for four of the past seven years: ‘The merger of Gosford and Wyong has failed to deliver the benefits that the New South Wales Government claimed it would. Instead, seven years later, we have increased rates, loss of staff, loss of services and the removal of local democracy.’

“At Canterbury Bankstown Council, the 2023-24 budget predicts that the council will not be able to fund required asset maintenance by 2026-27 and will require a rate increase providing $40 million per year from 2026 just to balance the books.

“Residents have complained that the new council is unable to meet basic needs, like park and street maintenance, where the former councils could.

“Inner West Council has already held a poll of its residents in which 63 per cent of residents voted to demerge Inner West Council, formerly Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville councils.

“Inner West councillors have told me, ‘Under the amalgamated council, services have deteriorated. The promised efficiencies from the merger, to free up spending for services and community programs, have not been realised.

“’Instead, the performance of the council has declined, and there have been significant cost blowouts. Many residents complain of a reduction in services and reduced localisation.

“’Council debt has increased, and rates increased in some areas as a result of rate harmonisation across the three council areas.’

“Regarding Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council, the boundaries commission report itself stated:

… the level of anger towards the 2016 merger decision felt by many in the Gundagai community has not subsided …

“What has changed however is the effect that this anger is having on the mental health of the community and the Council’s employees.

“Communities across our State have weathered a loss of representation, a lack of accountability, diminished local services and the serious burden of significantly increased rates amid a cost-of-living crisis.

“Amalgamated councils have not allowed effective representation.

“Critically, this bill is not about whether any particular council should or should not demerge. This is about ensuring that these decisions are made with the unequivocal support of the community itself.

“The bill seeks to do two things. Firstly, it seeks to provide a clear pathway for councils already undertaking to de-amalgamate through the boundaries commission by removing the legislative roadblocks that the Minister has stated are thwarting his intention to demerge Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council.

“Secondly, it seeks to empower communities with a direct voice for de-amalgamation through a plebiscite process.

“Despite Labor’s best efforts in 2021 to amend the Act to create a pathway for de-amalgamations via section 218CC, this falls short in that it provides a pathway only to the point where the Minister responds to a council whether or not the Minister supports a de-amalgamation proposal.

“Section 218CC fails to provide the final processes of proclamation, dissolution and reconstitution required for de-amalgamation.

‘De-amalgamation efforts currently have nowhere to go but to section 212, which requires the Minister to consider another public inquiry report before recommending that the Governor dissolve the area.

Fixing roadblocks

“The bill fixes this roadblock by amending section 218CC to ensure that the final processes for de-amalgamation are provided for… if the Minister supports the de‑amalgamation proposal, the Minister must make recommendations to the Governor for proclamations under division 1 to give effect to the de-amalgamation proposal.

“This provides for the necessary remaining stages of de‑amalgamation that were missing from section 218CC.”

Dr Cohn said the second purpose of the bill was to empower local democracy through a plebiscite process.

“These amendments to the Local Government Act allow electors of a former council area that has been amalgamated to bring forth a petition that triggers a binding plebiscite for de-amalgamation of that former area.

“The Minister may initiate a plebiscite on the Minister’s own motion at any time but must initiate a plebiscite within 28 days of receiving a petition.

“The petition must consist of more than 10 per cent of electors of a former area, be submitted within 12 years of the constitution of the new area and include a proposal for the reconstitution of the former area and a statement of reasons in support of the proposal.”

Under the Bill, the plebiscite would have to take place  no later than six months after the Minister receives the petition. It would protect council assets and planning instruments during the plebiscite and de-amalgamation process, prohibiting the new area from selling businesses or other assets of the council and making or amending a local environment plan until the date the result of the plebiscite is known.

“I hope that through the bill communities across our state can be empowered, have a voice about their local representation in the future and have the level of local democracy that they deserve. It is something that I hope every member of this Parliament can support. Let’s put the local back into local government.”

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