NSW council amalgamations: Nationals leader John Barilaro turns on mergers after Mike Baird resignation

NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro after a press conference where Premier Mike Baird announced his resignation in Sydney. 19th January 2017 Photo: Janie Barrett Photo: Janie Barrett
NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro after a press conference where Premier Mike Baird announced his resignation in Sydney. 19th January 2017 Photo: Janie Barrett Photo: Janie Barrett

The future of forced council amalgamations in NSW is in doubt just one day after Mike Baird resigned as premier.

In a statement on Friday, Nationals leader and Deputy Premier John Barilaro vowed "to put an end to the local government mergers in the bush".

But the vow doesn’t extend to Newcastle.

A spokesman for Mr Barilaro anything “around Newcastle, the Illawarra and Greater Sydney” was “a question for the Liberal Party”.

However the proposed mergers between Maitland or Port Stephens and Dungog appears dead in the water. 

After initially saying Dungog and Maitland were “not under the regional NSW banner” – Mr Barilaro’s office later clarified, saying the Nationals would oppose that merger.

Dungog is part of the seat of Upper Hunter, held by Nationals MP Michael Johnsen.

Dungog Mayor Harold Johnston – who was initially gobsmacked that the Nationals didn’t consider the area as “regional” – said the change of mind was “good news”.

“It’s good from the point of view that Dungog is recognised as being regional and not metropolitan or urban,” he said. 

“I’m not sure if they even know we exist.”

The controversial forced amalgamations policy was driven by Mr Baird and endorsed by the cabinet, despite widespread opposition.

However, the issue was blamed, along with the aborted bid to ban greyhound racing, as a factor in the Nationals' disastrous loss in the Orange byelection last October which saw Troy Grant resign as party leader.

"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," Mr Barilaro said.

Mr Barilaro's statement makes no reference to the Sydney councils still fighting their forced mergers. Councils such as Woollahra, Mosman, Hunters Hill and Strathfield have managed to so far prevent their amalgamations by launching legal challenges. 

The government, however, has continued to insist that it wants to merge them.

Merger proposals in rural areas that have not yet proceeded include: Armidale Dumaresq, Guyra, Uralla and Walcha; Bathurst and Oberon; Blayney, Cabonne and Orange; and Dungog and Maitland. The merger of Newcastle and Port Stephens councils, as well as Shellharbour and Wollongong, also remain pending.

The Minister for Local Government, Paul Toole, a Nationals MP, has been approached for comment.

Opposition leader Luke Foley dismissed Mr Barilaro's call as "a search for relevance". "What does that mean?" Mr Foley asked. "Will he do the right thing and unwind the forced mergers that have already been implemented in regional NSW? Will there be one policy for the regions and one policy for the suburbs of Sydney [and the rest of NSW]?"

Mr Foley suggested Mr Barilaro's statement was "a bit orchestrated". "He'll huff and puff and demand something and she'll give it to him so he can say he's delivering for the people in the bush they've abandoned in the past few years".

Earlier on Friday Labor’s shadow minister for the Hunter and Port Stephens MP Kate Washington called for the government to end the state of “limbo” around mergers.

“This state of limbo has to come to an end,” she said.

“Residents of Port Stephens, Dungog, Newcastle and Maitland have been waiting over a year for answers. Further delay is unacceptable.

“The community has had a gut-full of the ongoing threat to forcibly amalgamate councils, a threat which has also denied residents the opportunity to participate in the local government elections last year. It's undemocratic.”