Meeting hears case for Inner West Council de-amalgamation

An aerial view of Haberfield and Leichhardt, within the Inner West Council LGA. Photo: Inner West Council/Facebook.

By MARKELA PANEGYRES

A resident-initiated meeting drew good numbers to discuss the case to de-amalgamate the Inner West Council (IWC) on Wednesday, 4 August.

Speakers at the 78-strong Zoom forum included Brian Halstead of the Save our Councils Coalition, who spoke about a new de-merger alliance of people from councils across NSW.

Halstead said the savings and services promised by the NSW Government’s forced merger policy had not eventuated, and the scare campaigns now being waged about the cost of de-mergers were “misleading”. Shared systems and assets were the way to go in any de-merger, he explained.

“Five years on, the anger is still there,” Halstead said, adding that several councils were seeking to give communities a say via a non-binding poll.

“Inner West residents, you are not on your own,” he said, “but it’s going to be a battle.”

Former Leichhardt councillor Hall Greenland, who is active in the campaign to save Callan Park, told the meeting the main issue was democracy and that the forced amalgamations had gutted council’s planning powers. Former Leichhardt councillors Issy Wyner and Nick Origlass’ push for the open council reforms in the 1970s showed many people do become involved in community decision-making when they can, he said.

Colin Hesse, Greens Inner West Councillor and a former Marrickville Councillor from 2004 to 2008, spoke about how the Coalition Government, under then Premier Barry O’Farrell, started pushing for large councils as part of its forced privatisation push.

Independent councillor John Stamolis said rates in some amalgamated councils were rising, in some cases steeply. He said IWC’s services delivery had deteriorated and good staff had been lost. Five general managers later, and with Mayor Darcy Byrne facing suspension on code of conduct charges, “the culture in council could not be worse”, he opined.

An illustration promoting the de-amalgamation of Inner West Council. Image: Joel Tarling.

Referring to the cost benefit for proposed Inner West Council de-amalgamation, produced by business management consultants Morrison Low, Stamolis said it was honest in so far as it admitted data, time and methodology limits. “But, it downplayed the fact that the state government said it would fund the de-merger,” Stamolis said.

Newtown resident and Socialist Alliance candidate for Damun ward Pip Hinman, who initiated the forum, said democracy, local representation and fighting the corporatisation agenda were important reasons to support de-amalgamation. “Councillors have been reduced from 36 to only 15 in the amalgamated Inner West Council,” she said.

The forced mergers of Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville councils in 2016 were aimed at “weakening local resistance — to WestConnex and other inappropriate developments — especially along the rail corridor”, Hinman said.

The main argument from Labor and Liberal councillors is that it will be very expensive to de-amalgamate, Hinman said. Even if we assume the cost is about the same as the forced merger “it will still pale beside the democratic, social, environmental and financial cost of carrying on with this mess”.

Among the contributors to discussion were Jennifer Aaron from Leichhardt Against WestConnex, Greens councillor and former Mayor of Leichhardt Rochelle Porteous, Greens councillor Marghanita de Cruz, Independent councillors Victor Macri and Pauline Lockie, and Maire Sheehan, also a former Mayor of Leichhardt.

Both Macri and Lockie took up the scare campaign by Labor about council going into administration, saying it was not a foregone conclusion. Depending on the vote for de-amalgamation, they said it would be up to the new council to chart a pathway forward.

A Google Docs document, Stay in touch: the case for de-amalgamation, has been created to keep interested parties abreast of the de-amalgamation campaign.

This article first appeared in Green Left. It is republished here with the kind permission of Green Left.