THE FEDERAL BY-ELECTION FOR NORTH SYDNEY held on Dec 6th 2015 resulted in a massive swing against the Liberal party due to opposition to the Baird Governments forced amalgamation agenda. – (See HERE)
HOWEVER, WILL MIKE BAIRD SEE THE LIGHT, OR CONTINUE ON THE PATH TO SINK NSW INTO AN UNHOLY MESS OF FORCED COUNCIL MERGERS?
Saturday December 6th 2015, day of the North Sydney federal by-election, dawned with a gold spreading light over Alexandra Bay in Hunter’s Hill, and the foreshores and suburbs of the North Sydney Federal Electorate.
It was to be a seminal day in this Liberal heartland. A day of calling – not to Federal leaders, but to Mike Baird, self-proclaimed “man of faith”, and Premier of NSW.
Minute by minute, hour by hour, more and more people cast their votes against his policies and direction, delivering a massive 13.5% swing against the Liberal party, and reducing the Liberal primary vote to less than 50% for only the 3rd time ever.
“I am guided to do everything I possibly can to look after every single person in this state and to do it fairly and justly” Mike Baird is quoted as saying of the impact his faith has on his leadership.
More recently, it appears that he has been failing to heed this guidance. His Government has been pushing through a rash of changes that put the commercial gain of private (and often foreign) developers well and truly ahead of the well-being of the people and communities of NSW, swinging the pendulum disastrously towards insensitive profit-driven over-development, and away from the protections that deliver sustainable growth, environmental and social protections and community amenity.
Prime among these “private developer friendly, anti-local community” agendas is the proposed state-wide forced council mega-merger agenda. Others include; critical changes to planning laws, and a rash of proposed public land and asset sell offs / re-zonings, including at Royal North Shore Hospital.
Serendipity, some might say. There was not supposed to be an opportunity to cast a vote on this massive pro-developer, anti-community lurch in State direction for another 3 years. The unanticipated resignation of a Federal member, changed all that. The Liberal candidate was President of the State Liberal party. The by-election fell at the exact moment that the Baird Government was moving to implement it’s unpopular and undemocratic forced council mega-merger agenda. The people of North Sydney, did not miss the opportunity to call Mike Baird to account.
Serendipity or divine intervention? – Seminal events like this are perceived differently by different people. One thing certain, the message was clear – the number of people that have faith in the direction of Mike Baird’s leadership is shrinking rapidly.
Certainly, there has been little in the way of “fairness” or “justice” for the people of NSW in the development and implementation of the forced council amalgamation agenda. In fact quite the reverse.
A man of faith, motivated to lead “fairly and justly”, might be expected to lead his Party to adopt policies that are evidence-based, which have the support of leading academics, which stand up to scrutiny by bi-partisan parliamentary inquiries, and which have the demonstrated majority support of the people of NSW. The forced amalgamation agenda does not meet any of these criteria.
Instead, rushing to implement forced council mergers across NSW, has been overwhelmingly rejected as an effective method of delivering needed local government reforms. It has been widely condemned by academics, local government representatives and by a bi-partisan parliamentary inquiry. It is opposed by a majority of residents, and by many local communities through-out NSW. In short – it is being pushed through against the weight of publicly available evidence and advice. See here for details.
Furthermore, the manner in which the agenda has been forced on councils and communities would not meet common standards of ethical and moral leadership. The proposed state-wide mergers have far reaching impacts for the people of NSW, yet they have not been taken to an election. Instead, the Government has used tactics such as: misrepresentation – publishing biased, misleading and/or unjustifiable claims designed to artificially discredit councils and sway public opinion; using flawed methodologies and unsound criteria and assessments to deliver inaccurate claims and outcomes regarding council “fitness”. In addition, the Government has used heavy handed, coercive and bullying tactics that would breach common fairwork practices – to apply undue pressure on councillors to enter into “voluntary” merger proposals against the majority wish of their local communities.
In reality, the original objectives of the Local Government reform process appear to have been hijacked. The forced amalgamation agenda is now being pursued – not as a means of true reform of local government – but as part of the Baird Government’s direction to implement a “Big Brother” approach to planning through-out Sydney and NSW.
Through forced amalgamations, and other activities (such as giving “Big Brother” powers to the Sydney City Commission, without community consultation) the Baird Government is moving to free up public asset sales and maximise private commercial development by systematically demolishing the opportunity for local community engagement, input and opposition to developments that may adversely affect their local areas.
Wonderful and Utopian as this may seem to the Baird Government, the ultimate effect of this is disastrous for the people of NSW. It results in unbalanced planning outcomes in which the commercial profit of the developer predominates, community amenity is sacrificed and local communities are voiceless and powerless to redress the balance. This, in turn, results in massive insensitive over-development, with rapidly falling levels of community amenity.
“Spooked” by the by-election result, rumor has it that the Baird Government is now deliberating on “optimal” new council boundaries based, not on evidence of benefit to the people of NSW, but on which boundary positions will best protect Cabinet Ministers seats if (or when) there is a backlash at the next State Election. (Back-benchers, it seems, are to be thrown to the wolves).
If true, this is just a further nail in the coffin to any pretense at evidence-based decision making or “fair and just” leadership. If allowed to continue, the opportunity for real and lasting local government reform will be missed and instead NSW will descend into an unholy mess of hap-hazard, politically motivated and community opposed mergers, at huge cost to the public purse, and with little to no deliverable benefits.
There is, however, the opportunity to take a different path, and that is to implement the recommendations of the Upper House Legislative Standing Committee Number 6 – which, among other things, recommends withdrawing from forced amalgamations, and, as an alternative, passing legislation to strengthen the existing Regional Organisation of Councils .
Regional Organisation of Councils (ROCs) are not new. They are the partnership bodies through which local councils already co-operate to share services and deliver economies of scale, contribute to regional planning and deliver regional scale and capacity. To achieve full potential, however, ROCs need to be strengthened through more effective enabling legislation. This could be easily achieved as (unlike forced amalgamation) there is bi-partisan support for this to occur.
There are many advantages to pursuing a strengthened ROC model as an alternative to forced mega-amalgamation, – not just financial and social, but also to improve planning outcomes for Sydney and NSW. The key point of difference is that the ROC model preserves local representation, engagement and input into decision-making for local communities and – the mega-merged council model effectively abolishes it. For more information on ROCS see here.
The strengthened ROC model pathway is evidence-based, has bi-partisan support, and is supported by leading academics in the field, as indicated above and here.
Tellingly, it also has the majority support of the people of Hunters Hill, whose opposition to forced amalgamation saw the biggest swings against the Liberal Party at the North Sydney By-election, with a booth topping 18%
So, the golden dawn of Saturday Dec 5th heralded an opportunity for Premier Mike Baird, to hear a calling and to deliberate in good faith;- To withdraw support from the flawed and undemocratic process of forced amalgamations, and implement instead the evidence-based, widely supported recommendations of the bi-partisan Upper House Legislative Standing Committee number 6.
There is also the opportunity for Premier Baird to re-evaluate the direction of his leadership, which, in the pursuit of policies that support the sale of public assets and profiteering of private enterprise over and above the common good, is swinging dangerously far away from a) the mandate he was provided with at the last State Election and b) the intent of the faith that guides him – “to do everything I possibly can to look after every single person in this state and to do it fairly and justly”.
Because, as fast as it is swings away, so swings away support from the people of NSW.