It started with the “Get Clover” law. Then the rules were changed to keep the public in the dark over plans for a second casino. To appease the Shooters and Fishers micro-party, hunting will return to our national parks.
And now Barry O’Farrell’s latest assault on democracy? Taking away your representation at local council.
The "Early Intervention" Bill, coming up for debate soon, gives the Local Government Minister the ability to interfere with council operations or sack councillors if they are deemed to be underperforming. Underperformance is not defined but is instead left to the minister’s discretion with few checks and balances. Imagine if certain members of the former state government had had that power!
Essentially this bill gives party-partisan state governments new tools to manipulate councils they claim are underperforming.
A government may end up unfairly targeting councils run by a party other than their own, or force them to back down from making decisions it doesn’t agree with. They could overrule councils who won't bow to developers and lobbyists and rezone land, who refuse development applications due to community impacts, or oppose coal seam gas fracking. The O'Farrell Government could harass local councils even more than they currently do over important community projects like Oxford Street’s Rainbow Crossing.
The bill makes a significant philosophical change to councils’ duties. They will no longer be accountable to only you and your local community, but also the local government minister. Why should one minister be granted so much power?
This bill creates additional conflict for councils who choose to advocate on behalf of their community against state government decisions. Those councils with policies independent from and at odds with the government may end up coming under fire.
Councils will be reduced to state-owned corporations, which can be sacked for failure to comply with the interests and agenda of the government of the day.
Democracy demands that councils be accountable to their communities over and above the sitting government. People elect local councils to plan for their communities and to manage day to day services like waste, childcare and libraries. If they are unhappy with how this is done, they can vote the council out at the next election. Interference should only be a last resort where there is serious and proven dysfunction.
Under the current system, a public inquiry is held if a council is accused of being dysfunctional. Only after a rigorous, open and transparent process can the council be dismissed, preventing interference for political reasons.
State and federal governments don’t have to put up with constant disciplining, interference and manipulation by other tiers. Local government shouldn’t have to either, and councils will only cease to be the play-thing of the government of the day if they receive constitutional recognition. Giving governments the power to bully councils and sack elected representatives defending your neighbourhood and amenity is a step too far.
This State Government’s obsession with playing with democracy is distracting them from doing the job it was elected to do: re-building New South Wales after years of neglect.
Supporting councils to do the right thing and holding them accountable is vitally important. But we must also remember what we learnt from the former government: ministerial discretion and unchecked power can be both dangerous and undemocratic.
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