Greens Fight for Local Democracy

Today we defended the independence of democratically elected councils. 


Ms JENNY LEONG ( Newtown ) ( 17:37 :58 ): I speak on behalf of The Greens in debate on the Local Government Amendment (Rates—Merged Council Areas) Bill 2017. I state at the outset that The Greens oppose the bill. My colleague David Shoebridge in the other place spoke at length about our concerns. In particular, he noted that The Greens have a clear policy position in opposing rate pegging. We believe that councils are best placed to decide the appropriate rates in their communities. Democratically elected local councillors are responsible to their communities. If they believe they need additional rates to deal with key infrastructure and social services, or to ensure that they have adequate resources to do appropriate strategic planning it should be those elected councillors who make that decision.

I will briefly talk about the decision of elected councillors. In my electorate we do not have democratically elected councils because this Government amalgamated the former Marrickville, Leichhardt and Ashfield councils into the mega Inner West Council. It sacked our democratically elected councillors. For more than a year, instead of having local democracy and local representatives, we had an appointed administrator running our local government.

Let us consider, for a moment, how bizarre things are under this administrator. The administrator still holds council meetings and still puts up "administrator minutes" along the lines of mayoral minutes. The administrator puts up his "administrator minute", then hears people's views about it and then votes on his own minute. Surprisingly, he invariably supports his own minute! The member for Lakemba finds this amusing, but I sat in a meeting with the administrator where it was explained to me how the administrator would put up administrator minutes and would consider motions. I asked whether there had ever been a case where an administrator had not supported an administrator minute. It seems they always do support their own minutes. That seems to be how it works.

Local democracy in the Inner West has been undermined and democratically elected councillors have been sacked. I am glad that the administrator has at least seen the light on WestConnex and is now taking a very strong position against it, despite his initial view that he might not do so. I think he heard loud and clear that it would be in his interests to strongly defend our communities against the damage the project is likely to cause. This is clearly yet another example of the State Government attempting to take control away from local communities and away from councils so that control can instead be exercised from Macquarie Street.

There are many things that unite The Greens and Labor in our opposition to the neoliberal agenda of this Government. But Labor's behaviour in relation to this bill is somewhat concerning. In the other place, where this bill was introduced, Labor members spoke for a very long time about the problems they had with the bill. We have also, in this place, heard the member for Heffron and other Labor members raise their concerns about this bill and criticise it. Yet Labor actually supports this bill. Labor Party members talk about their concerns and raise their issues with this bill, but what are they going to do? They are going to vote for it.

I remind people in my community who are living in the Inner West Council area that it is only The Greens who are standing up in this Parliament and calling for our democratically elected council members to have their say over local issues. Our councillors should have their say, not the people in Macquarie Street. It is an unfortunate reality that successive New South Wales governments have amalgamated councils. The City of Sydney council is now run by Lord Mayor Clover Moore, but she only ran for that council because of a forced amalgamation legislated by the Labor Government. What was formerly the South Sydney City Council area was amalgamated with the City of Sydney, and that forced amalgamation was imposed on the community to reduce the number of democratically elected councillors in that area. Now the same thing is happening under this Liberal-Nationals Government—a forced amalgamation agenda is being driven. It is just another attempt to force amalgamations on our communities.

The Greens do not support this attack on local democracy and we do not support blanket rate capping as proposed in this bill. Let us be frank: the Government's main concern is that council rates in the areas that have been forcibly amalgamated will go up and it will be politically toxic. They have not only removed democratically elected councillors and appointed administrators. In order to minimise political damage they are also trying to make sure that rates are not put up to deliver much-needed services. In some cases, that may have to happen. No consideration is being given to whether a council may need, as a result of a merger, to increase its rates in order to be able to deliver the services its residents need—even if residents wanted that considered. It is all about the State Government taking control over as much of local government as it can. That is because local governments, especially in my area, have been vocal opponents of the State Government on proposals for bad, polluting tollways; on overdevelopment; and on the privatisation of land. What better way to silence that opposition than to remove it and attack local democracy?

This Government is deluded if it thinks rate cuts are the only way to keep the stench of forced amalgamations out of the suburbs of Sydney. This policy is on the nose and the only way out is to reverse all of the mergers. To the people who live in the areas where their old council has been amalgamated I say: The Greens will not stop fighting for their council to be de-amalgamated. We will not stop fighting for them to be represented locally. To the people of the old Ashfield, Leichardt and Marrickville council areas, as well as to the other regional and city areas facing challenges relating to amalgamation, I say that we know they will not stop fighting for local democracy, and we will stand with them.

Some councils are still challenging the legality of the amalgamations. If those challenges are successful, we need to ensure not only the protection of those councils—and democratic local representation for those communities—but also the de-amalgamation of councils that have already been amalgamated. We need to ensure local representation to make sure we do not lose the power of local government in our community. We need local government to have the power to stand up against the agenda of this State Government and its attempts to railroad through bad planning decisions to deliver bad infrastructure that pollutes and destroys our communities.

If we do not want a bizarre future of administrators introducing their own minutes and then making a decision about whether or not to support them, if we do not want to see administrators instead of councillors, and if we want to put control back into the hands of councils with individual, democratically elected local members representing the interests of their communities, we should not be passing this bill. I call on Labor members to deliver on what they say is their commitment to local democracy. I call on them not to support this bill. If they really believed in putting power back into the hands of democratically elected councils, they would not support this bill.


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