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SSC Newspaper : April 2013
Strathfield Scene 11 www.ourstrathfield.com.au the big issue By Peter Lynch and Bernadette Chua When Professor Graham Sansom unveils his “independent” interim report into the future of local government this month, he will be braced for a tirade of abuse and suggestions that he is far from impartial. Leading the charge will be Strathfield Council, which has put up a $50,000 war chest to fight amalgamations to the last ribbon on the protest tree outside the Homebush Road council chamber. The bearded and quietly-spoken University of Technology Sydney (UTS) professor is something of a bogey man among local government managers in the Inner West. And the Strathfield campaign has been among the most strident. More so since a story in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph named the local government area (LGA) as a candidate for forced amalgamation with Burwood and Ashfield in a piece purporting to be an interview with NSW Local Government Minister Don Page. Admittedly the mention of Strathfield was without attribution, but there was little doubt where Mr Page stood. “It’s not an option to stay as we are – we have to change in order to be sustainable in the future,” he said in the story last December. That is why Strathfield has been mobilised. There is a Save Our Strathfield website (www.saveour strathfield.org.au), bumper stickers and a petition that has recently received a flood of support as more residents realise the threat is real. Even Mayor Gulian Vaccari, a staunch Liberal in almost every other respect, has been strongly supporting the campaign to keep the LGA independent. But recently, the rhetoric coming out of Macquarie Street has changed. Just this month Mr Page tried to damp down the growing grassroots anger. “I note that a number of mayors are unnecessarily alarming councillors, workers and ratepayers with claims the government is secretly plotting forced council amalgamations,” he said, adding that some councils were spending large sums battling forced amalgamations that weren’t taking place. Strathfield wasn’t named here either, though it looked a likely candidate for the minister’s ire. But Mr Page’s attempts to lay the blame on local politicians for rallying their residents wasn’t deterring anyone. All the utterances so far from the minister and Professor Sansom have done little to still concern that, one way or another, councils’ numbers are going to be depleted. The mantra “no forced amalgamation” has been stated over and over. But cynics point out that, sometimes, there is a fine line between force and persuasion. To many, Mr Page only has himself to blame for the furore that is being fermented among local residents. His “independent” committee of three has been “outed” for their utterances in support of amalgamations in the past. And while he is moving to try to stop the groundswell against the proposals from the panel, it is probably too little too late. Even their most sensible proposals may get no support. Professor Sansom told the Scene he will advise that combining councils is the future for NSW, despite the recent de-amalgamation of several Queensland communities. “Generally, my view is that amalgamation will be beneficial. Obviously there are many things we need to look at before implementing it to more NSW councils,” he said. “In places such as Victoria, most councils remained amalgamated with one exception of a rural council, but that was under special circumstances. It has been around 17 to 18 years since the Victorian councils amalgamated and they are now seeing the benefits.” Professor Sansom is a strong believer that despite one council currently being in surplus and another in debt, the panel will examine the books and make projections for the financial outcome of each municipality. “The panel will be looking at the 25-year sustainability of each council and an external treasury are going to be looking at how financially viable each council is. We have to look at all factors,” he said. “One council might be in a strong position now, but might not be in 25 years. The panel is getting the advice from an external treasury to make the financial assessment of each council.” Currently, NSW rates are the cheapest in Australia. But Professor Sansom told The Sydney Morning Herald that public sentiment against the rate rise is “unrealistic”. He believes increasing rates will be the best way to secure the future of cash-strapped councils and improve amenities. Not a view, you would think, that would win the professor – or Mr Page, for that matter – many friends in a well-managed, financially viable LGA like Strathfield. “Councils have different financial structures and requirements depending on their size, their location and the needs of the community they’re serving,” he told a UTS publication. “So we’ve got to come up with a range of possible solutions that cover the varied needs of different sorts of councils in different parts of the state. We need a package of options so that councils can tailor solutions to the needs of their particular local area. One size fits all is not the right approach.” How true. Which is why allowing local residents to elect their representatives and run their own affairs is suddenly so popular. In truth, Professor Sansom and Mr Page may have done local government in NSW a big favour. It has galvanised them to explain to residents the value of their services – and how local democracy is a treasure worthy of preservation. Save our Strathfield is raising thousands of signatures to protest any change to the LGA. They are planning to target the Chinese, Korea and Indian communities in the coming weeks. But if their bumper stickers and volunteer door-knocking campaign does nothing but educate residents about the services and amenity their rates are buying , it will probably have been a worthwhile exercise. Perhaps at the end of this sorry debate, assuming Mr Page is a man of his word and our LGA is preserved, Strathfield Council can send him a bill for $50,000. After all, it was he and his panel who created ratepayers’ fears. My view is that amalgamation will be beneficial Professor Sansom How Don Page anD graHam SanSom cost you $50,000 The Save our STraThfield peTiTion haS received a flood of SupporT.