Residents of Sydney’s inner west let rip a roar of fury over Mike Baird’s forced council mergers last night, heckling the Government’s hand-picked Administrator and shutting down the first meeting of one of the most controversial new ‘super councils’.
The councils of Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville have been amalgamated into one massive new entity – the Inner West Council – and all of the Councillors and Mayors who residents had democratically elected have been replaced with an Administrator chosen by the state government.
The loss of representation has been roundly condemned as a ‘coup’, and demonstrators last night said they would not confer legitimacy on the Inner West Council or its Administrator, Richard Pearson.
A former public servant, Pearson was booed and berated when he entered a packed chamber at Marrickville Council Administration Centre. Hundreds had rallied before the meeting kicked off, and they were in no mood to compromise.
After the din kept up a few minutes, Pearson leant into his microphone and asked: “Will people allow me to speak?” The response – a raucous “no! no! no!” – eventually saw the new Administrator out, through a back door flanked by police. He was not seen again.
Former Mayors and Councillors then took the stage, and spoke until half an hour had passed, and the meeting was closed. (“I remember the rules of this Council,” sacked Marrickville Councillor Sylvie Ellsmore wryly observed.)
Protestors now plan to shut down all meetings of the new super council. Greens MP Jamie Parker said that “what tonight is demonstrating is that this Inner West Council will be ungovernable. It will not work”.
Perhaps the rawest nerve for Inner West residents is the WestConnex tollway. Through the forced mergers, the Baird Government has wrenched a key weapon out from under them in their battle to stop it.
All three local councils had been virulently opposed to the $16.8 billion project, passing motions against it, and even moving to try to prevent works on council-owned land to slow its advance.
“There is only one way to protect our community from WestConnex and from over-development and from the road lobby, and to save our local community from rapacious developers …that is to return democracy to the inner west right now,” said the sacked Mayor of Leichhardt, Darcy Byrne.
Former Ashfield Mayor Lucille McKenna said the Baird Government was “attacking our democracy on every level,” and that with local representation canned for nearly two years “God knows what can happen”. She said so-called consultation on WestConnex had been a “sham”.
There was deep concern that assurances from Richard Pearson that he will work for the community against the project would also be a sham. The former public servant was the Deputy Director-General of the New South Wales Department of Planning and Environment until recently, at a time when the government was pushing key approvals through it.
Pearson had pledged this week to “meet with the project directors of WestConnex to discuss how they can lessen the impacts of the project and improve the outcomes for local residents,” but critics point out that the local councils had actually been supporting a determined community campaign to stop the project altogether.
A spokesperson for WestConnex Action Group, Pauline Lockie dismissed the Inner West Council as a “travesty”.
“Mike Baird has swept aside elected Councillors, the people that we voted for, and put into place an unelected stooge,” she said.
Lockie said Pearson had been “hand-picked” by Baird so the government can “keep trying to bulldoze Westconnex through our communities”. She said that together they would “keep selling all of us – not just the Inner West, but also those in Western Sydney – out to tollroad operators and his mates in big business”.
“We all know that they are the only ones who are going to benefit from this tollroad if it is built,” Lockie said. Earlier that day, members of the group had confronted WestConnex contractors in St Peters, as part of an ongoing campaign of civil disobedience which is being waged as the roll-out of the project picks up speed.
When the angry inner west residents left the council building last night they were met by at least 20 police, many of them from the riot squad. No doubt they will see them again when the Inner West Council meets in Leichhardt next month, as the campaign to save local government and stop WestConnex continues.
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