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WHAT IS THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT AMENDMENT (DE-AMALGAMATION PLEBISCITES) BILL?

The Local Government Amendment (De-amalgamation Plebiscites) Bill 2023 has been tabled in NSW Parliament by Dr Amanda Cohn, NSW Greens spokesperson for Local Government and former Deputy Mayor of Albury City Council. The Bill amends the Local Government Act 1993 to empower communities through a plebiscite process to de-amalgamate councils that were created through forced mergers in 2016.

The justification for these forced amalgamations was never made clear to impacted communities. Community advocates from a diverse range of local government areas have campaigned to de-merge for the past 7 years without success.

There are three barriers to de-amalgamation under the Local Government Act as it currently stands.

  • The first barrier is that smaller communities whose councils were amalgamated into larger councils have effectively lost their voice if the amalgamated council and larger community don’t support their calls for demerger.
  • The second barrier is uncertainty regarding costs. The cost of any de-amalgamation should be fully funded by the state government, but the Minister has stated that there is no cost to fund. There would obviously be an immediate administrative cost for a demerger even if the separate councils are more efficient in the long run. Credible estimates are in the order of $10 million. If councils foot this bill, it’s local communities who pay through cuts to local services because of rate-pegging. These communities have already paid multiple times over through dysfunctional local democracy for the past 7 years.
  • The third current barrier to de-amalgamation is legal. This has been made clear through the example of Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council, which has done everything by the book to demerge under the Act as it stands. Their case has been supported by the Boundaries Commission and by the Minister. But the Minister has been unable to enact the de-amalgamation, with no statutory mechanism in the legislation to create two independent and fully functioning councils. This means another unnecessary public inquiry.

The Local Government Amendment (De-amalgamation Plebiscites) Bill 2023 removes these barriers to de-amalgamation.

It allows residents to drive a plebiscite by providing the Minister a petition of more than 10% of residents from a former council area. The question at the plebiscite is “Should the [former area] be re-constituted as a separate local government area? Yes / No”. If a majority of electors of a former council area vote yes, the Minister must enact the de-amalgamation within 12 months. This gives communities a direct voice and a possible route for de-amalgamation where the amalgamated council itself does not support it.

The bill allows a council election to be postponed to allow for sufficient time to conduct a plebiscite and give effect to a de-amalgamation after a successful plebiscite, and provides that an election must be held no later than 12 months after a de-amalgamation to ensure that reconstituted areas are not held in administration for inappropriate lengths of time. It recommends that the direct and immediate costs of a plebiscite and de-amalgamation to be paid for by the state government not by councils. Councils will be prohibited from selling assets or amending local environmental plans during the plebiscite process.

Finally, the bill provides the necessary statutory mechanism for Cootamunda-Gundagai Regional Council and any other council that seeks to de-amalgamate through a submission to the Boundaries Commission, to successfully de-amalgamate.

The Bill is expected to be debated in February 2024.

It is supported by Save Bombala, Residents for the Demerger of Canterbury Bankstown Council, Central Coast Friends of Democracy, Gundagai Council in Exile, Save and Grow Guyra, Inner West Residents for Deamalgamation, Protect Pittwater Association and Save Tumbarumba Shire.

For more information about the bill, visit https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/bills/Pages/bill-details.aspx?pk=18485

Or contact Dr Amanda Cohn MLC at [email protected] or on 9230 2566.

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