The gauntlet has been thrown down by NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro, who has agreed the September 2021 NSW local government elections should be postponed until a decision on demerging Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council (CGRC) is made public.
Mr Barilaro and Member for Cootamundra Steph Cooke met with representatives from Gundagai Council in Exile (GCIE) last week and reiterated their personal support for demerging the individual councils of Cootamundra and Gundagai, which were forcibly amalgamated in 2016.
GCIE representatives Glen Moore, Gordon Lindley, Jim Saunderson and Dr Paul Mara travelled to NSW Parliament House in Sydney for the meeting to discuss the demerger and release of a Local Government Boundaries Commission (LGBC) report.
The report was submitted to NSW Minister for Local Government Shelley Hancock for consideration in February 2021 after the LGBC – an independent statutory authority – completed its 2020 examinations of the two elector-initiated proposals to demerge Snowy Valleys Council and Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council.
GCIE chairman Dr Mara has called for the immediate and full release of the LGBC report and a consultant’s report commissioned by the LGBC.
According to Dr Mara, Mr Barilaro also agreed that without a decision to demerge, nor the release of the LGBC report, a delay in the upcoming local government elections should be considered.
Following the meeting, Dr Mara highlighted the economic and social disaster caused by the merger for both Cootamundra and Gundagai ratepayers and residents.
“Forced amalgamations are simply lazy policy,” he said. “The communities of Gundagai and Cootamundra have been hit with a 53 per cent rate rise and left with a deficit of around $28 million as a result of the council amalgamation.
“None of the efficiencies or benefits mooted by the proponents of amalgamation from former NSW Premier [Mike] Baird have been met.”
Dr Mara added that by its own measures, the NSW Government has failed and the previous premier [Mr Baird] had failed.
“But all the concerns of the people of Gundagai, including loss of identity, loss of jobs and increased cost, have been realised,” he said. “Gundagai and Cootamundra are paying a tax for a merger they didn’t want and don’t accept. Enough is enough.”
Dr Mara said the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, NSW Labor Party, Member for Cootamundra Steph Cooke and Mr Barilaro have called for the report to be released.
Liberal Member for Albury Justin Clancy and Independent Member for Wagga Wagga Dr Joe McGirr have also joined the chorus of parliamentarians seeking transparency.
“What are the Liberal Party, Minister for Local Government and the suits at Macquarie Street hiding?” said Dr Marr.
He said their lack of action simply confirm the general belief it’s not about people, good governance, economic management and better service delivery, but rather about city-based politics.
“The government mouths support for regional and rural communities, but denies the residents and ratepayers of Gundagai and Cootamundra the fundamental right of self-determination, and refuses to accept the clear will of the people,” said Dr Marr.
He said the people of Gundagai have engaged fully in the process laid out by the NSW Government and LGBC but have been shafted every step of the way with the amalgamation process.
“There has been no transparency and no respect shown to the will of the people,” said Dr Marr.
“The will of the people has been denied by city-based politicians and the suits at Macquarie Street.
“The people of Gundagai no longer trust any process laid out by this government and have every right to question whether the report of the Boundaries Commission will truly represent their views.”
On Tuesday, 15 June, Mr Barilaro told Region Media the communities and council of Cootamundra and Gundagai have worked hard to try to deliver the benefits the merged council was meant to deliver.
“It hasn’t worked and the communities of Cootamundra and Gundagai have made it very clear they want to see their council demerged,” he said.
The LGBC was tasked to review the demerger proposal and when that report is handed down, the NSW Government’s response will need to be in line with community expectations, added Mr Barilaro.
“I’ve been opposed to forced mergers of councils in regional NSW from the outset, and nothing has changed my mind of that position,” he said. “Had we listened to communities at the beginning of the council merger process, way back in 2016, I can guarantee we wouldn’t be here.”
Dr Mara said GCIE would not accept any findings of any report from the NSW Government that doesn’t recommend a demerger.
“I am calling on the current premier to show some heart and real concern for the bush,” he added. “Stop the spin and politics, intervene now, premier, and restore the previous boundaries of the Cootamundra and Gundagai shires and let us get on and repair the damage caused by this lazy and vindictive policy.
“There are two parties to this coalition government. It is up to the Liberal Party to listen to the other party which represents the people its policies affect.”
The future of Snowy Valleys Council – founded by the forced merger of Tumut and Tumbarumba councils – also hangs in the balance as the report and decision sits with Minister Hancock.