THE Baird government has broken its silence on the proposed Newcastle and Port Stephens local government merger, with minister Paul Toole telling parliament the council’s last-ditch proposal to merge with Dungog was under consideration.
About 35 Port Stephens residents, including former state MP Craig Baumann, were in the public gallery on Wednesday to watch a parliamentary debate on the proposed merger between Newcastle and Port Stephens councils.
The debate was brought on by a petition opposing the merger signed by more than 16,000 people, and lodged in parliament by Port Stephens MP Kate Washington.
After months of silence on the topic, the minister, Mr Toole, participated in the debate for the government, and despite saying he didn’t intend to “offer a view in either support or opposition to the petition”, he used the Dungog proposal to rope in the council as a supporter of his local government reforms.
“I have received from Port Stephens Council a proposal to merge Port Stephens Council with Dungog Shire Council, they acknowledge that joining with a neighbouring council will deliver significant benefits for ratepayers in the community,” he said.
Mr Toole also revealed the merger proposal made by Port Stephens Council earlier in March had been referred to the chief executive of the office of local government “to commence examination and reporting processes”.
“There has been no decision made on any council merger proposal,” Mr Toole said.
Before the debate, Ms Washington and Labor’s shadow local government spokesman Peter Primrose addressed the Port Stephens contingent in Martin Place. Mr Primrose pointed out that Mr Toole had conceded in question time on Tuesday that there would be at least two different dates for local government elections in the next year.
In parliament, with Mr Baumann and Port Stephens Mayor Bruce MacKenzie watching, Ms Washington said opposition to the merger with Newcastle had prompted “unanimity across the political divide” in the area.
“The Port Stephens community could not be described as Labor heartland [but] since the forced amalgamation process was announced I have been overwhelmed with offers from conservative voters wanting to assist me in the next election, because they feel betrayed by this government,” she said.
Newcastle MP and councillor Tim Crakanthorp also spoke during the debate, saying the amalgamation process had been “chaotic and confused”.
He said there was “no merit” to the proposal.
Newcastle’s Labor Mayor, Nuatali Nelmes, has been more willing to discuss the benefits of the merger, but Mr Crakanthorp said there would only be “modest savings” from the proposal that would come from “job cuts”.
“Premier Baird has announced the greatest act of boundary rigging in Australian politics since Joh Bjelke-Petersen,” he said.
Mr Crakanthorp accused the government of trying to “cost shift” onto local councils “before the recurrent budget revenues of this government start collapsing” as a result of a cooling property market.
“Unlike in the past this time the government wont be able to rely on profits coming from state-owned corporations to help its budget position, because they’re either being sold or they are already sold,” he said.
Nationals MP and the member for Upper Hunter, Michael Johnsen, also spoke during the debate, and accused Labor of being hypocritical by opposing the merger when the party’s submission to the Australian Electoral Commission during the federal redistribution last year had pointed out “already well-established links” between Newcastle and Port Stephens.
“They talk about communities of interest … they talk about media organisations covering both Newcastle and Port Stephens, they talk about the University of Newcastle servicing predominantly Newcastle and Port Stephens,” he said.
Mr Johnsen also pointed out the location of the Newcastle Airport in Williamtown, part of Port Stephens.
“State Labor say themselves that this is a good idea,” he said.
Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison also spoke against the merger during the debate, while Hunter MPs Clayton Barr and Yasmin Catley were both in the chamber, as was opposition leader Luke Foley.