As a Shoalhaven councillor, Gareth Ward never advocated a merger with Kiama and Shellharbour.
At that stage he seemed to share the view of the vast majority of those he represented – that local government only works if it is truly local.
Yet, since becoming the Member for Kiama and breathing the rarefied air of Macquarie Street, it’s hard to know what Mr Ward thinks.
On Sunday he was lining up with former premier Nick Greiner to back forced council mergers.
It was his view that the 1645 hard-working employees of Kiama, Shoalhaven and Shellharbour councils were spending too much time ‘‘pushing paper and not enough pushing wheelbarrows’’.
Never mind that if you take out the person doing admin, then the bloke pushing the wheelbarrow has to stop pushing to do the admin himself.
Never mind the irony of being a politician criticising local workers for too much paper and not enough action.
That was his publicly stated view. Last Sunday.
Now, apparently, he’s changed his position completely, which must be close to a new speed record for political backflips.
It’s actually easy to understand why Mr Ward appears so confused. His party is pushing towards forced mergers, but they don’t want to be up-front about it.
That’s because the majority of people, especially in regional areas, don’t want forced mergers.
The experience of regional Victorians in the 1990s, when forced council mergers swept their state, shows why.
The wash-up was devastating job cuts, privatised and degraded local services, and huge distances established between councillors and the community they serve.
So why is the Coalition pursuing them?
Well, the fact is the Coalition government is being pushed hard by the large business interests they are close to.
Outsourced local services mean more opportunities for large corporations to generate profit. And greater profits can be secured if you control a giant super-council area, instead of a local community. If you haven’t heard much about this dramatic change during the current local government election campaign, it’s because you’re not meant to.
Gareth Ward may have been jumping the gun a little bit or perhaps he’s the delegated crash-test dummy, put up to see how hard he hits the wall.
Either way, the Coalition – both at the state and local level – are very careful to avoid being transparent about the changes they are seeking.
Recently we saw a farcical ‘‘consultation’’ process driven by the minister, as the Independent Local Government Review Panel travelled across the state, supposedly to seek the views of communities on its reform agenda.
The panel came through the Illawarra last month, actually.
Didn’t hear of it?
Not surprising really, as it was scheduled for 2pm on a Tuesday in Shellharbour, with virtually no publicity.
No wonder only a dozen people showed up.
This lack of scrutiny and proper consultation is why the local government elections on Saturday are vital.
People have a right to know whether their local candidates support the old Gareth Ward position on council mergers or the new one.
Graeme Kelly is general secretary of the United Services Union, which represents local government employees.