Before the last election the incoming government promised there would be no forced amalgamations, but no one seems to believe them. Councils are now required, on a very short timeframe, to undertake a self-analysis entitled ‘Fit for the Future’. These documents will be assessed by IPART, the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal, which will make recommendations to the Government. This report draws on a draft of the City’s response, which is 87 pages long, as well as the Society’s experience. The document can be downloaded from the City of Sydney website: http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/council/news-and-updates/fit-for-the-future
Glebe has experienced a forced amalgamation at first hand, in 2003, when Glebe was transferred from Leichhardt to the City of Sydney. There was considerable division at first in the Society about whether the transfer was desirable, or whether we should fight it. The State Government has a long history of fiddling with the boundaries of the City, and also with its voting rights. This is because of the obvious prestige and importance of the City, and the reluctance of its electors to go along with whichever of the two major parties controls the State.
Historically, in the West, local government is the oldest political institution, and the most representative. It is the closest to the people, and the easiest for them to control. Although its powers in Australia are quite limited, and they are not dealt with in the Constitution, it is still a battleground where many of the issues of the day are debated. This is especially true of the Inner City councils of Sydney and Melbourne, which show a distinct tendency to be stroppy and take independent views.
The experience of amalgamation
For a time after 2003 the situation was quite rocky. The City also had to absorb South Sydney, and the process of amalgamating the planning controls was not completed until 2012. It took some time for the City to achieve what Glebe people would regard as adequate levels of consultation. The more recent additions to the City had strong traditions of their own, in some cases probably quite superior to the previous City administration. Over time though, the City has developed extensive consultation processes itself.
However, we were fortunate in the quality of the Councillors and their capacity to represent Glebe, and the strength of the City soon began to show. As the City’s submission makes clear, it has a very strong rate base and impressive assets. I remember being taken aback when I realised the City’s surplus for the financial year was equal to the total income of Leichhardt.
“We do not support the amalgamation of the City of Sydney into the mega-council proposed by the Government” – President, Glebe Society
With the passage of time, not only was the City able to undertake a series of major capital works, but it was able to afford to hire very capable and experienced staff. Over the last 12 years the City has steadily built and upgraded throughout the area it controls until most of us believe we are now better off than we could ever have been under the previous regime.
Most strikingly, the City has embraced policies of sustainability that are in advance of those of the State and Federal Governments, and in line with those of the most progressive governments both here and overseas. It has published master plans in areas such as energy efficiency, renewable energy and advanced waste treatment, and I suspect that it is the leadership shown in the face of the challenge of Climate Change that the State Government, and the major parties in NSW, have found most unforgivable. It demonstrates for all to see that they have failed the most important challenge of our time.
I think this is the reason the State Government has tried so hard to remove the present Lord Mayor, and why it is likely to continue to fiddle further with the boundaries and voting rights. Other councils may have their problems, and there may be reasons for change: but the City of Sydney has been, and continues to be, a humiliating success.