NSW Labor is backtracking on its opposition to the Baird government’s draconian plan to slash the number of councils across the state from 152 to fewer than 70.

The backflip started this week on inner-Sydney’s Leichhardt Council when Labor councillors joined their Liberal opponents to call an extraordinary meeting at the town hall. At the meeting they joined forces to rescind a previously passed motion that flatly rejected the government’s plan to drastically cut council numbers.

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The Lab-Lib unity ticket then voted to support a proposal to merge with Ashfield and Canada Bay, though their preference was to allow Leichhardt to stand alone.

The council’s Labor group is led by former mayor Darcy Byrne, a long-standing staffer with Anthony Albanese, titular head of the Socialist Left in NSW.

Byrne recently contested ALP preselection for the state seat of Balmain, but he was trounced by Verity Firth, another member of the Albanese faction. At the state election on March 28, she lost — for the  second consecutive time — to Greens MP Jamie Parker.

The Liberal group is headed by John Jobling, a 78-year-old political veteran who spent 19 years in the NSW upper house before retiring in 2003.

By co-operating with the Baird government’s Fit for the Future blueprint in Leichhardt, the “hard left” faction has signalled a general retreat and acceptance of the Coalition’s wide-ranging attack on local government.

Councillors across NSW are scrambling to meet the government’s June 30 deadline to decide whether to merge voluntarily with neighbouring councils, or be subjected to forced amalgamations.

Standalone councils do not appear to be an acceptable option. As Peter Boxall, the former Canberra mandarin who now chairs the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART), which is supervising the council review, warned: “Councils not proposing a merger … would need to provide a sound argument that it is not the best option.”

His pointed remarks seem aimed at councillors publicly supporting the standalone position, most of whom are merely indulging in political posturing. The fact is major parties have been advocating mergers for years.

Admittedly, some progress has been made. In 1910, NSW had a whopping 324 councils, which were merged over the years. The number dropped by a further 20 under Labor between 1996 and 2008.

Both major parties are willing to support amalgamations where they see an opportunity to gain political control. Think of the board game Monopoly, except where the winner isn’t the player who owns High Street real estate but the one who controls the town hall, Crown real estate, rezonings and development applications.

The Baird government’s merger plan will have its most drastic impact in the size of local government in Sydney. Boundaries will be redrawn to create mega-councils in the inner city, north, south and west.

The aim is not to increase community democracy but to establish service provider hubs: out goes 20th-century municipal self-government and in comes 21st-century outsourcing, competitive tendering and privatisation.

A closely guarded secret is the eventual fate of Sydney City Council, where the dominant figure is lord mayor Clover Moore, the headline-grabbing independent demonised by The Daily Telegraph and right-wing broadcaster Alan Jones.

One much-rumoured proposal is the merging of the City of Sydney with Randwick, Waverley, Woollahra and Botany Bay councils. “This new super council would have a population greater than that of Tasmania,” complained Sydney independent MP Alex Greenwich, while other reports have SCC swallowing inner-city Marrickville and Botany Bay to build a local government “gateway” between Sydney Airport and the CBD.

Supporters of reducing the size of local government say it will be cost-saving and more efficient, while its opponents claim the very opposite. Local Government Minister Paul Toole, Nationals MP for Bathurst, argued in Parliament: “NSW has 152 councils that range in size from six square kilometres to 53,000 square kilometres and in population from 1,200 to 300,000 people.

“Currently there are 41 councils in Greater Sydney and each has its own local rules and regulations. That means multiple licences, fees and approvals for small business and different development rules. Our city cannot continue to be constrained by boundaries that were set more than 100 years ago.”

The gorilla in the room — avaricious corruption in local government — is rarely mentioned. Yet the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has regularly reported that it receives more complaints about councillors, council contracts and local government officials than any other branch of the public sector.

The potential for mega-councils to create mega-corruption has not been discussed.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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