Premier Mike Baird says Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s promise to pay for councils to hold plebiscites on mergers would make no difference to his local government reform program.
“The mergers are already done and we know that this is a stunt because ultimately the decision would rest with the state government,” Mr Baird said.
Mr Shorten promised on Monday that that if Labor were elected it would provide $20 million so councils could ask residents to vote on mergers. “This move will give the people of NSW the power to stand up to the Baird Liberal government, and their plan to unilaterally dispense with democracy and force councils to merge, and to sack elected councillors,” Mr Shorten and shadow local government spokeswoman Julie Collins said in a statement.
“Even those councils that have been spared amalgamation would be able to request a plebiscite to affirm community support, sending a clear message to the Liberals to keep their hands off the council.”
In May, the Baird government sacked more than 40 councils and formed 19 new and bigger ones. The government also indicated its intention to dismiss about another two dozen councils pending the outcome of legal action.
Labor says its plan is similar to the Howard Government’s in 2007, when the Queensland state government forced councils to amalgamate.
But even if NSW councils were to hold plebiscites, their results would be non-binding.
Local government expert Professor Brian Dollery said, however, they would most likely prove an embarrassment to the Baird government.
“It would put Baird in an acutely embarrassing position if they held plebiscites and people voted against amalgamation,” Professor Dollery, from the University of New England’s Centre for Local Government, said.
“Amalgamations are so unpopular with the local communities. We know from history, any poll they have is always against them.”
Kiama Council held a plebiscite asking residents if they wanted to merge with Shoalhaven, and 95.5 per cent of those who voted said “no”. However, less than half of the population enrolled to vote participated.
Waverley Council also voted to hold a poll on mergers at the same time as the July 2 federal election, but has since reversed the decision.
Mr Baird accused Mr Shorten of trying to “pick up a few extra votes” on the back of resistance to council amalgamations.
“The Leader of the Opposition has shown he is willing to pull any political lever he can to ensure that he wins office,” Mr Baird said while announcing three business taxes worth $1.8 billion over four years would be abolished from July.
“These aren’t proposals, this is reform done and already delivering benefits to the community.”