For two decades, New South Wales governments have talked tough about reducing the number of local councils through local government amalgamation.

But they all backed away when local mayors and councillors raised community support and threatened their MPs with a brutal electoral backlash.

The fate of Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, swept out of office in 1999 after forcibly amalgamating metropolitan and rural councils, put the issue off limits. Predictably, during the NSW election in March, neither side uttered a word about council reform.

However, Premier Mike Baird has accepted the challenge of cutting local government down to size and promised $1 billion to fund mergers.

His strict timetable gives the state’s 152 councils until the end of next month to suggest which of their neighbours they are prepared to merge with. Only five major councils have been listed for “non change”: Blacktown, Penrith, Hawkesbury, Blue Mountains and Wollondilly.

Those councils that reach mutually agreed mergers will have their proposals sent to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) for assessment before a final report by October. Choosing IPART, chaired by former senior Canberra civil servant Peter Boxall, to make all the hard decisions is a nifty way of protecting Coalition MPs from political fallout — they can now blame the tribunal’s faceless government-appointed bureaucrats.

The merger project was initiated by former premier Barry O’Farrell, and then adopted by his successor, who launched the policy blueprint Fit for the Future, which has been under intense discussion in town halls across the state since last September.

Warringah, Manly and Pittwater are considering the creation of a Northern Beaches council, while Parramatta City is discussing a merger with Auburn and Holroyd councils, and part of Ryde and The Hills.

Randwick council’s Liberal Party mayor Ted Seng is pushing for a merger with Waverley and Woollahra, while Botany council, an ALP rotten borough for 50 years, has launched a community campaign under the slogan “Hands off Botany Bay”.

Sussex Street, head office of the NSW Labor Party, is quietly confident that super-councils in the Greater Sydney area, Wollongong and Newcastle, will play into their hands and build bulwarks of ALP influence.

The Nationals are equally certain that the painful mergers in regional areas will benefit them. Local Government NSW president Keith Rhoades said: “Amalgamation is not an easy decision to make, especially in the regions. Councils have to weigh the potential of increased efficiencies against possible additional costs.”

Local Government Minister Paul Toole, Nationals MP for Bathurst, a former mayor and schoolteacher, has a $1 billion package to oil the wheels of the merger bandwagon.

Baird and Toole are hoping that a bit of old-fashioned pork-barreling will produce better results than Kennett-style forcible amalgamations. But when the “cash splash” runs out, it is ratepayers who will pay for the mergers through yet higher rates.

The merger process is not being driven by high-minded democratic values but the corporate sector anxious to make profits from the new super-councils. Just think of the money to be made by private vested interests for supplying private bus services, computers, office equipment, waste-disposal services, etc, to a cluster of councils rather than one.

Polling shows that people feel “over-governed” and the tier of government they least like is local government. But will they feel the same when their council is suddenly swallowed up or moved three suburbs away?

Baird managed to sell power privatisation to a highly suspicious electorate, but he will need the salesmanship of “Louie the Fly” to convince them that fewer councils are a cheaper, more efficient option for local government.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey