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   Aug 14

EDITORIAL: NSW government leaves regional councils alone

IN deciding not to proceed with council amalgamations in regional NSW, new Premier Gladys Berejiklian has washed her hands of a policy that was one of Barry O’Farrell’s big-ticket items when he brought the Coalition to power in 2011.
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As Mr O’Farrell’s successor, Mike Baird, found to his cost, having a bookshelf full of reports written by experts in favour of the policy was not enough to win it widespread support. Now, with an apparent party room mandate to clear the decks as best she can of any unpopular O’Farrell and Baird-era projects, Ms Berejiklian has decided that council amalgamations can proceed in metropolitan Sydney, but not in the rest of the state. Given that the basis of law and policy in has historically –and legally –been to treat all people equally, the idea that the council mergers imbroglio should be decided by moving one way in Sydney and another way in the bush has all the hallmarks of a ticking time bomb.

Yes, Ms Berejiklian’s announcement has taken the tension out of things in the short term. But by shoving regional council amalgamations into the too-hard basket, the Premier has effectively quashed any chance of substantial local government reform for a generation to come.

Given its timing, the councils announcement may have helped draw the public’s attention away from theother major state political issue on Tuesday, a march on Parliament House by some 700 or so public servants protesting against the privatisation of the state’s disability services. As the federal Coalitionis finding out, the NDIS is becoming a very expensive policy, financially, and while Canberra says it’s still committed to the project, lock, stock and barrel, it was a Labor initiative, and so may yet find itself trimmed in the name of the national budget.

The NSW government’s finances, by comparison, are robust indeed thanks to the booming property market, and the millions of dollars the Coalition has wasted in pursuing unrealised council amalgamations is unlikely to make a huge difference, economically. But what the backflip has done, however, is to hand a big win to Newcastle’s Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes, and to her Port Stephens counterpart Bruce MacKenzie, who will now go down as the council leaders who stared down a government.

It is now up to them to convince their respective ratepayers that the decision to retain the status quo was the right one.

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