New local government minister Gabrielle Upton will have her work cut out for her managing the government’s council merger policy. With mounting legal bills and court dates imminent, councils are calling on the new premier to soon decide whether her government will proceed with pending amalgamations.
At least six Sydney councils are due in court within the next month as they continue legal challenges to the mergers, with the bill footed by ratepayers surpassing $200,000 at most councils.
Woollahra Council, which has so far spent $850,000 on legal appeals, is expected to have a special leave application to the High Court heard in mid February.
But Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s promise to “listen to the community” has been viewed by some councils as a sliver of hope that the policy will be abandoned.
So too has the appointment of Vaucluse MP Gabrielle Upton to the local government ministry. Ms Upton once lent her voice to Woollahra Council’s anti-merger campaign.
On Tuesday, Ms Upton confirmed she, too, would consult with communities on the issue.
“It is early days but Premier Berejiklian has indicated that she wants to look closely at the issue. And on my part there is some learning and listening to do. Councils should be about local communities and serving their best interests. They deserve the best possible services and infrastructure.”
Within days of Ms Berejiklian’s swearing-in as the 45th premier of NSW, Woollahra mayor Toni Zeltzer wrote to the new premier requesting a meeting for a “fair and open hearing”.
Alluding to the declaration by Nationals leader John Barilaro that local government mergers in the bush would not be pursued, Cr Zeltzer called on the premier for equity of treatment.
“I wholeheartedly agree that any policy decision you make on the future of the proposed council amalgamations should be applied unilaterally,” Cr Zeltzer said in her letter last week.
The retirement of North Shore MP Jillian Skinner has raised the prospect of another by-election backlash akin to the coalition’ shock defeat in last year’s Orange by-election, where council mergers were regarded as a major factor.
The North Shore electorate incorporates parts of three council districts which are fighting the mergers – Mosman, North Sydney and Lane Cove.
Mosman mayor Peter Abelson said the government could expect the anti-merger voice to be heard “loud and clear” at the by-election, which may be held before the council’s Supreme Court appeal in April.
“There’s no doubt that if there were a by-election without this being sorted out there would be a very strong protest vote against the Liberals.”
North Sydney’s high-profile former independent mayor, Genia McAffrey, said she had been encouraged to run in the by-election by anti-merger campaigners, but would not contest the seat.
In Hunters Hill, where barristers for the council are preparing to return to court on February 22, mayor Richard Quinn called on government to end the uncertainty.
“It’s one of the fundamental issues Minister Upton is going to have to deal with. And I would hope she does deal with it first,” he said.
“The longer the government takes to resolve this, money is being spent by both the council and the government. It’s in all of our interests that it gets resolved asap.”
In October 2015, Ms Upton told an anti-merger rally in Double Bay she did not support the merging of Woollahra Council, but later reversed this stance in favour of the government’s position.