Berejiklian government axes Wollongong, Shellharbour council merger

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has walked away from her government’s forced merger of Wollongong and Shellharbour councils.

The champagne has been popped in Shellharbour as the city celebrates council merger victory on Tuesday afternoon.

There were tears and hugs all round as mayor Marianne Saliba was told the Wollongong-Shellharbour amalgamation had been axed.

Cr Saliba described merger backflip as “a bit of a reality check”.

“I never thought for a minute that we didn’t deserve to stand alone and I certainly never thought for a minute that we should have been merged,” Cr Saliba told the Mercury.

“I’m really proud of my colleagues and the community that have been very much involved in this particular battle because we stood to lose a lot, so I’m very grateful to the new Premier and I want to thank her for listening to the people of Shellharbour.”

Councillor Saliba also thanked parliamentary secretary for the Illawarra Gareth Ward. who delivered the news via phone shortly after midday.

All 20 existing mergers will remain in place in Sydney, while the remaining five merger proposals will proceed subject to the decision of the courts. 

None of the pending merger proposals for regional councils will proceed. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Mr Ward confirmed with the Mercury the Shellharbour-Wollongong merger would not proceed.

“I, from day one, have opposed mergers in our region. No one can dispute that,” Kiama MP, Gareth Ward told the Mercury.

“I stood up at both public hearings, I made written submissions which were very detailed … and made sure that, in spite of the fact this was a policy that the former Premier was pursuing, I put the interests of our region first and made sure that I stood up to my own party.”

The Premier will confirm the merger backflip during a press conference at NSW Parliament House at 12.30pm on Tuesday.

Mr Ward spoke in the joint partyroom meeting on Tuesday morning and, prior to that, met with Ms Berejiklian to discuss the merger.

“This, of course, is the right thing for our region, but this does not mean that reform ceases,” he said.

“The reason that Fit for the Future started was to ensure that councils were accountable to their ratepayers, that they ensured they did had sustainable budgets [and] that they maintained their assets.

“As far as I’m concerned, councils need to use this as a lesson in ensuring that they are financially stable moving forward.

Mergers will proceed in the Sydney metropolitan area, Ms Berejiklian confirmed, but Mr Ward said he was “very pleased” with the government’s about-face on the controversial Illawarra merger.

The decision was reached in an extraordinary meeting of cabinet, convened for the express purpose of resolving the council mergers issue. 

More to come

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THE BATTLE OF SHELLHARBOUR

The Valentine’s Day announcement that the Wollongong/Shellharbour amalgamation will not go ahead comes after a 14 months slog from the southern Illawarra council to stave off a “takeover” from its larger neighbour.

By simply standing her ground and repeatedly declaring she would “do whatever it takes” to save her city, Shellharbour Mayor Marianne Saliba can now claim victory.

It’s been a tense, turbulent and colourful fight which divided the two cities – once friendly neighbours – and created public divisions between Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery and Cr Saliba.

Some highlights since plans to amalgamate the two councils began include:

  • October 2015 – IPART releases its Fit For the Future recommendations, declaring Wollongong fit, and Shellharbour not fit (Shellharbour later said this assessment was based on incorrect data). This led IPART to suggest a “merger between Wollongong and Shellharbour could be explored”. Likewise, a merged Kiama and Shoalhaven council “would likely perform better in terms of long-term financial sustainability,in particular for Kiama given the potential efficiencies available from a merger”.
  • December 18, 2015 – Mike Baird and Paul Toole announce a proposal to merge numerous council across the state – including Wollongong and Shellharbour (and Kiama and the Shoalhaven). Marianne Saliba says she’ll “fight right up until the day I have to hand over the keys.” 
  • January 8, 2016 – This is a takeover: Divisions between Wollongong and Shellharbour appear, with Cr Saliba saying the state government is  “absolutely ripping the guts out” of her community. “Right now Shellharbour has seven councillors that live in our city, making decisions for the people of Shellharbour,” she said. “If this merger proposal goes ahead  … we might get three councillors for our area. Three out of (the proposed) 13 leaves Shellharbour as a minority; this isn’t a merger, this is a takeover.”
  • February 1, 2016“You lied, Gordon”: The frosty relationship between Wollongong and Shellharbour turned explosive at a Wollongong council meeting which degenerates into a shouting match between the two cities’ mayors.  Incensed Shellharbour mayor Marianne Saliba shouts from the public gallery and is asked to leave before being escorted from the council chambers. She leaves shouting: “We’ll all stick together you told me, and you lied, Gordon, you lied.”
  • February 14, 2016 – About 50 Shellharbour residents stage a Valentine’s Day protest to “Save Our City”. The turn out pales in comparison to Kiama protests throughout January and February, where thousands gathered to voice their opposition.
  • February 15, 2016 – What’s in a name?: Wollongong puts forward its case for the new council to be called – surprise! – Wollongong City Council, fanning the flames of the takeover debate with Shellharbour.
  • February  23, 2016 – Wollongong councillors speak passionately against the merger at a council meeting (which some worried might be their last) calling it “a dark day for our city, and a dark day for our staff”.
  • February 25, 2016 – Border control: The NSW Government is compared with ISIS in a bizarre Shellharbour council debate about an interim heritage order to be established around the council’s northern border. Deputy mayor Paul Rankin declares: These people are going to rewrite our history, this is no different to what ISIS [Islamic State] are doing over in the Middle East, going back and changing the history, wiping out borders, destroying monuments”.
  • May 11, 2016 Verdict in: The government announces that Wollongong and Shellharbour would be forced to merge while Kiama and Shoalhaven would be left to stand alone.
  • May 12, 2016 A spanner in the works: Shellharbour council – along with a number of other councils – lodges 11th hour legal action to halt the planned merger. On the same day, the Local Government Minister’s office accidentally sent out a press release declaring the new council would be named the Greater City of Wollongong.
  • May 30, 2016 – A vanity exercise: Kiama MP Gareth Ward slams Shellharbour council for wasting money on a legal fight.
  • September 20, 2016: Shellharbour’s legal case is dismissed by the Land and Environment Court with Justice Tim Moore saying there was “no defect in the process for this proposed amalgamation”. However, Minister Toole refrains for making a proclamation about the merger and Shellharbour lodges an appeal against the ruling. “I think we owe it to our residents to fight, to try and save the city,” Cr Saliba says.
Outside the Local Government NSW conference

Outside the Local Government NSW conference

  • October 17, 2016 – Marianne Saliba seizes the opportunity to publicly air her grievances with NSW Premier Mike Baird, confronting him twice as he visits Wollongong to speak at the Local Government NSW conference. The next day she hits out at Mr Toole at the same conference. Mr Baird agrees to a meeting with Shellharbour.
  • January 23, 2017 – A new hope: As Ms Berejiklian is sworn in as Premier after Mike Baird’s resignation, anti-merger protesters seize on her comments she is interested in listening to communities over mergers. Cr Saliba says she hopes “commonsense will prevail”.
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