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Forcible local government amalgamations – the bush bites back

“No more Pork, Barrelaro!” chanted the feisty ladies in front of the crowd as they marched out of Queanbeyan Town Park to John Barilaro’s office in Crawford Street.

250 angry residents from NSW amalgamated local government areas rallied outside the Deputy Premier’s office last Friday, demanding a return to democratic government, an end to further amalgamations, and “de-merging of previously amalgamated councils.

The protesters were joined by federal and state opposition leaders, ex-councillors, and community leaders from Gundagai, Cabonne, Sydney, Tumbarumba, Bombala, Palerang, Queanbeyan, Tumut, Cootamundra, Harden, Young, Boorowa, and other country towns affected by the State Government’s amalgamation policy.

The Deputy Premier was not at his office at the time to greet demonstrators, prompting accusations that he has been ignoring meeting requests for years.

Mr Barilaro has stated that he will put a stop to future amalgamations, however he also recently announced that he will not support de-merging of previous amalgamated councils.

Local resident, Peter Kontis was not impressed. “I expect a lot better from a local member, let alone a Deputy Premier,” said Mr Kontis, “Going to ground is not the sign of a leader.”

Country activist, John Knight, representing Save Gundagai Shire (SGS), called on the National Party to support the de-merging of previously amalgamated councils.

“If the National Party can’t get Liberal Party support to cancel all contested NSW council amalgamations, and de-merge all forced mergers, then the party should split with the Liberals,” he said.

Carolyn Corrigan, President of Save our Councils Coalition, demanded that the State Government investigate unsubstantiated claims of huge savings being made by amalgamated NSW council administrators.

“Communities from forced amalgamated councils deserve some transparency in their dealings with un-elected administrators. The Government must prove through the work of independent auditors that the reported savings are a reality, not creative accounting,” she said.

Former Mayor of Dubbo, Mathew Dickerson was also suspicious of these claims. Having studied the financial outcome of a number of previous mergers, Mr Dickerson was strongly opposed to the forcible amalgamation of councils.

“Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence,” he said.

“The government claimed that these mergers would provide downward pressure on rates, yet after the mergers, 77% of merged councils still made applications for rate rises, with the average increase being 30% above rate pegging.”

Tumbarumba community leader, and wine grape grower, Mr Brian Wilkinson believes that the amalgamation of Tumut and Tumbarumba in his region will lead to a dysfunctional council.

Tumbarumba, was the most efficient council in the state before the mergers, he said.

“However we have no real community of interest with Tumut. Our centres are geographically separated by a forest and a large mountain range. They are very far apart,” said Mr Wilkinson.

Mr Wilkinson will be looking for council candidates willing to campaign for de-merging of Tumut and Tumbarumba at the next local government election in September.

Labor shadow minister for local government, Peter Primrose said that a common complaint from residents of amalgamated councils was the process of assigning power to an unelected administrator.

“Communities feel dis-empowered because they haven’t been able to elect their own councillors,” said Mr Primrose.

Queanbeyan ex-councilor, Brian Brown, said that the current Queanbeyan administrator, Tim Overall, was making complex decisions on very large projects which should be made by a democratically-elected council, citing the $100m Ellerton Drive Extension project, and the recently announced CBD re-development as examples.

Labor shadow minister Peter Primrose, and Greens minister David Shoebridge, both announced that their parties would shortly table legislation to end the policy of forced amalgamations.

The federal labor member for Eden Monaro, Dr Mike Kelly, also announced that the federal labor party will fund a statewide plebiscite on the amalgamations as a way of moving forward, reinforcing democracy, and reinforcing rural and regional communities.

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