NSW council mergers and the loss of democracy in rural Australia

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Protesters against council mergers outside NSW Parliament. (Photo by Nick Dole via abc.net.au.)

The NSW Government's compulsory council amalgamations are vehemently opposed by rural communities who fear the loss of their democratic voice, writes Glen Cooper.

THE FORCED amalgamation of Guyra and Armidale Dumaresq councils has angered a usually conservative community.

This community has made it plain for many years that it wants no part of amalgamation with Armidale.

They have attended countless meetings to voice their concerns and try and make it understood that this would be of no benefit for them — it would only create loss of representation. The future of their community would be decided by people who are many miles away with no real connection to them and their democratic voice would likely be overpowered by a larger neighbour.

The community of Guyra is a farming based community. The residents are conservative and they believed that their National Party representatives would stand by their community. But instead they have sold us out — unlike in Walcha, where local MP Barnaby Joyce managed a stay of execution until after the Federal election. However, one would have to be very nervous about what will happen then.

Why do the Guyra locals see no benefit in this algamation? Guyra has a small population that, when merged with Armidale, will also have a small representation. This, in turn, will allow Armidale to dictate what and how things will done, what assets are to be sold off and make decisions motivated by what will benefit Armidale's bottom line. 

Armidale Council's financial position is known to be bad after a number of poor decisions in the past. They need the State Government's promised monies and the income they can get from the merger. This is not Armidale Council's first go at this — it merged a number of years ago with Dumaresq Council and that experience proved detrimental to the latter, smaller council.

The experience of other rural councils forced down this road in the past has been a loss of services, jobs and representation. If you live in rural Australia, the further out of town you live, the poorer the service you get — and this is accepted.

With the Armidale/Guyra merger, this situation will get a whole lot worse. Imagine if you are 100km from Armidale, you can forget any work on your roads or infrastructure, as this has been the experience of small rural councils that had been amalgamated in the last round. If you live outside the 50km signs of Armidale, you may as well just shut up and pay your rates.

Local people have also questioned the rise in rates to match those of Armidale. Why would anyone want to pay higher rates for poorer service in which you have no say? A look at any local paper in the New England region will show that Guyra is not alone. No-one wants anything to do with amalgamation with Armidale because there is no benefit to the smaller communities, only loss. We keep getting told that bigger is better, that there will be savings and better services but when we look at the earlier amalgamation around us, the only winners are the larger council areas. Having personally experienced an amalgamation with a larger council, I know this to be true. 

The National Party have abandoned the community's wishes on this subject and they have used up a great deal of local good will on this issue. The exception may be in areas where they saw a risk in the upcoming Federal election, since this is where they seemed to have put in a lot of effort to hold off amalgamations — at least until after the election.

If I lived in Walcha or Uralla I would not be feeling very confident as to what woud happen after the Federal election, either. These residents would very likely be forced into an amalgamation that they wanted nothing to do with.

You have to ask yourself is this the democracy we thought we lived in, or has "head office" imposed a dictatorship?

You can follow Glen Cooper on Twitter here 

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