A merger of Wollongong and Shellharbour council could be off the cards, after Deputy Premier John Barilaro on Friday vowed to put an end to local government mergers in regional NSW.
In what’s been labelled an “extraordinary policy challenge” to the Baird Government’s amalgamation agenda, the state Nationals leader said ending “uncertainty and anger” over the mergers would be one of his first orders of business under a new premier.
“The policy of local government amalgamations has impacted 20 councils, 12 of which are in regional NSW causing uncertainty and anger, and others are locked in costly legal action – that all stops today,” he said.
Shellharbour mayor Marianne Saliba, who has been the loudest critic of an amalgamation with Wollongong and led a legal challenge against Mike Baird’s plans, said Mr Barilaro’s stance had given her renewed hope that the government “may back off” on its Illawarra merger.
“We are regional NSW and I think it would be most appropriate for the new premier to withdraw the merger,” she said.
Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery was pleased with Mr Barilaro’s statement but remained skeptical, saying he would be “surprised if they let us off the hook”.
“I wonder if we will conveniently be considered regional – at times we’re part of the metropolitan area, usually when they’re distributing money, and then other times we’re regional,” Cr Bradbery said.
“Also, there’s three state Labor seats here so there’s no political advantage for the government in letting us off the hook.”
Perhaps indicating a shift in the government’s amalgamation plans, Kiama MP Gareth Ward was keen to emphasise that he has “always” been opposed to merging the two councils.
“I made my opposition to both mergers known,” Mr Ward said. “My position has always been the the government shouldn’t proceed with the merger and my position hasn’t changed.”
He has in the past spoken vehemently against Shellharbour’s legal action, but made a submission to the government’s Boundaries Commission arguing against a Wollongong/Shellharbour merger.
Mr Ward said any change in the plans would be up to the new premier – set to be Gladys Berejiklian – and a decision of cabinet.
Wollongong MP Paul Scully said the new premier must heed Mr Barilaro’s call and reverse the plan for a Wollongong/Shellharbour council merger.
“The deputy premier has heard loud and clear that communities are opposed to forced mergers, concerned that this will result in nothing more than reduced services, job losses and higher rates.”
“These are the very points NSW Labor has been making since December 2015.”
Mr Barilaro said he planned to make “fixing this problem” of council mergers “one of his first orders of business in NSW Government discussions”.
However he said there had been no agreements made between he NSW Nationals and Liberals after Mr Baird resigned on Thursday.