Queanbeyan Mayor Tim Overall and his council supporters have gained their preferred outcome from the forced NSW council mergers announced on 18 December, after the Queanbeyan Council majority voted to resist amalgamation.
The NSW Government announced a proposal to merge Queanbeyan City Council with the high rate income-yielding western part of Palerang while the eastern part of Palerang, centred on Braidwood, would go to Goulburn.
Over in Palerang, Mayor Pete Harrison said he is deeply disappointed and noted that the previous forced amalgamation that created his council 10 years ago, “resulted in no savings whatsoever, but a lot of costs” as Palerang established itself.
The number of NSW councils are proposed to reduce from 152 to 112, with regional councils reducing from 109 to 87.
The NSW Labor Opposition has called current boundary changes and mergers a Liberal Party stitchup. “The Baird Government has pursued the political advantage of the Liberal Party at the expense of public interest by ignoring two years of independent reports to draft new council boundaries across NSW”, said a media statement from Opposition leader Luke Foley’s office.
A Queanbeyan Council spokesperson countered that the NSW Government expects the merger of councils both in Sydney and regionally to “assist the sustainability of the local government sector and provide for improved services and infrastructure, and downward pressure on general rates.
“This is not a surprising step forward in the local government reform process,” Queanbeyan Mayor Tim Overall said. “One of the options put before Queanbeyan City Council at its 11 November meeting was to move down the path of the partitioning or adjustment of boundaries with Palerang, however this was not supported by Council at the time.”
How will the process work? Mayor Overall said, “I understand the Minister will grant authority to the CEO of the Office of Local Government to appoint delegates to assess the issues and benefits of the proposed merger and conduct a public inquiry which will be open to residents of both Palerang and Queanbeyan. The Delegate report will be referred to the Boundaries Commission for a final recommendation to the Minister for his determination regarding the proposed merger.
Council election date delayed until 2017
Also announced was a deferral of the date for Local Government elections from September 2016 to March 2017 at this stage. As Queanbeyan Council understands it, “Until then, the Minister advised its ‘business as usual’ for the councillors.”
Pete Harrison for Palerang said that “we have nothing to work with at this stage,” so it’s unclear how the councils will proceed but public consultation is promised.
The proposed boundaries do not reflect the old Tallaganda Shire boundaries but for some reason would include Major’s Creek, Krewaree and the Araluen Valley in the Queanbeyan council area.
Queanbeyan understands that “the government will provide further information to councils on the next steps in the first working week of January 2016. A website has been established by the Government to provide more information later today.
“The NSW Government also announced that it would provide $5m in funding to cover the costs of mergers and $10m towards infrastructure works,” according to the council press release.
Jobs and service centres
Major questions about public sector jobs and location of service centres are only some of the issues that need to be addressed. According to the Local Government Act, jobs in localities under 5000 residents cannot be abolished. This would safeguard Bungendore, Braidwood and Captains Flat. However, concerns have already been raised about the situation for Queanbeyan Council jobs if efficiencies and rationalisation are taken at face value.
Opposition claims a jerrymander at work
Expanding on the claim of a party political nature to the current amalgamation process, the Labor Opposition noted: “The Government’s focus on political gain has ignored the recommendations of both the Independent Local Government Review Panel’s 2013 Sansom Report and the recently released IPART report.
“In the two years since the original Sansom report was released in 2013, councils have been forced to respond to a changing set of criteria for survival. The final merger boundaries have thrown all criteria out the window.”
The outcome in Sydney will see two new Liberal super councils established around the Parramatta and Sydney CBDs, according to this analysis.
In the West, the merger of Parramatta with parts of Holroyd, Hornsby, The Hills and Olympic Park will establish another Liberal Party council next door to Sydney’s second CBD in Parramatta.
In the East, the merger of Randwick with Woollahra and Waverly councils will create a new Liberal Party stronghold, claim the Opposition.
Regional councils also have their party political aspects.
“This is boundary rigging, plain and simple. Mike Baird is ignoring independent reports to stitch up Liberal super councils,” said Opposition Leader Luke Foley.