Auburn in western Sydney deserves to be known as a “rotten borough”, the term used to describe tiny electorates in 18th-century England that repeatedly returned wealthy MPs who “owned” the constituency.

The most notorious was Old Sarum in Wiltshire, which had three houses and seven voters who always voted for the sitting aristo.

For more than a century, the ALP has “owned” the state seat of Auburn and controlled the local council.

When the constituency was created in 1927, the first MP was Labor firebrand premier Jack Lang, and his successors were all from the ALP: Edgar Dring, Thomas Ryan, Peter Cox, Peter Nagle, Barbara Perry and now Luke Foley, the Opposition Leader.

Auburn was proclaimed a borough in 1892, which started its long history of a Labor-controlled local council. In the past few years, Labor has lost its overall majority due largely to corruption scandals that have hit the party at state and local level.

This week, the beginning of the end of Auburn as a “rotten borough” will be set in motion. Local Government Minister Paul Toole will move to suspend the 10-member council and appoint an administrator to take charge.

At the same time, Toole will hold a public meeting as a prelude to merging Auburn with neighbouring Holroyd Council. The merger will then need to be ratified by the CEO of Local Government Donna Rygate and the Boundaries Commission, but these are regarded as mere formalities.

At Toole’s direction, the council is also facing a commission of inquiry to be headed by Richard Beasley SC. It follows a spate of media revelations about council handling of development applications and voting improprieties.

NSW local government elections are scheduled for September, but every indication is that they will be postponed until March 2017. There are two good reasons for the six-month delay:

  1. Merged councils will need time to restructure their management, and political parties also need time to choose candidates to contest the new structures; and
  2. More importantly, if Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s weekend comment that the next federal election would be held in August, September or October comes to fruition, this would necessitate a shift, because council elections cannot be staged during a federal campaign.

The chief reason that Premier Mike Baird has been able to monster Auburn Council with such rousing finesse is the outrageous media profile of deputy mayor Salim Mehajer.

He has been a gift to the Coalition. A Lebanese-born property developer, Mehajer is an independent councillor who generates tabloid headlines and commercial TV coverage reminiscent of Big Brother. His wedding last August featured a cavalcade of bearded bikies, a jet, four helicopters and a fleet of sports cars that closed off streets in Lidcombe. A fireworks display, a 10-tier wedding cake and entertainment by Missy Higgins and former NRL player Beau Ryan capped what Mehajer claimed was “the wedding of the year”.

Last week Toole suspended Mehajer from office for four months following a finding from the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal that he had failed to disclose all his financial interests.

Mehajer, who regards himself as a prospective future prime minister, has rejected the findings and indicated that he will appeal against suspension.

However, he has other troubles to contend with. This week he faces court on 77 technical charges brought by the Australian Electoral Commission relating to his 2012 election campaign. He intends to fight for his reputation. 

The alleged scandals surrounding Mehajer have come so thick and fast that he has captured public attention while the Coalition’s political agenda has moved forward on silent castor wheels.

First under former prime minister John Howard but more strategically under former premier Barry O’Farrell the Liberals have driven into Labor’s western Sydney “heartland” and built a loyal constituency of “battlers” and new arrivals whose chief aim is to conform, submit and climb the ladder of success.

Baird and Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian are directing a transformational funding program that is turning Parramatta into Sydney’s second capital city and an economic powerhouse in its own right.

It represents social and political engineering on a scale that no Australian city has ever seen. While Baird and his inner circle are convinced that western expansion is the key to the party’s salvation, many hidebound traditionalists on the north shore and the wealthy eastern suburbs remain unconvinced.

They still need a road map or an Uber driver to find Auburn.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey