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Minister defends NSW council mergers

NSW’s local government minister is “quite happy to sing the praises” of forced council mergers, denying opposition claims the policy is unpopular and has failed communities.

A budget estimates hearing on Thursday probed the local government portfolio, with Wendy Tuckerman fronting MPs.

Opposition MPs took aim at the government’s policy, pointing to a recent Inner West Council ballot favouring a demerger, and the decision this week to demerge Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council.

The regional demerger comes after a July Local Government Boundaries Commission report highlighted substantial local opposition to the merged entity, and urged a split up.

“It’s my view that we have consistently seen the community extremely dissatisfied with the government’s forced amalgamation policy,” Labor’s Rose Jackson put to Ms Tuckerman.

“The day after you have now reversed the unbelievably unpopular forced amalgamation that led to Cootamundra-Gundagai, your position is still that this is still a raging success.”

Ms Tuckerman rejected claims the policy had failed and pointed to the Northern Beaches, Queanbeyan-Palerang, Cumberland, Dubbo and MidCoast councils as successful mergers.

“I’m quite happy to sing the praises of the councils that did merge,” she said.

In the case of Queanbeyan-Palerang Council, Ms Tuckerman said it was the state’s “most progressive and innovative council”, calling it a regional council “doing very well”.

Questioned on lessons from the sacking of Central Coast Council earlier this year due to its “dire financial state”, Ms Tuckerman said it was key councillors were fit to oversight council affairs and were financially competent.

Last year an administrator was appointed and Central Coast Council suspended after it reported a deficit blow-out from $41 million to $89 million in seven months.

The government was looking at developing a course for councillors similar to programs run by the Australian Institute of Company Directors, which could be mandatory and supported by government, the hearing was told.

Earlier, the hearing focused on claims of improper property developer links to councils and donations to council candidates, with Labor claiming weak laws were not protecting ratepayers.

Labor’s Mark Buttigieg queried Ms Tuckerman about one councillor he said incorrectly declared a property interest but only received a “slap on the wrist”. He was allowed to continue sitting on council following a multi-year review.

Another councillor’s husband ran an “end-to-end” property development business, but it was a situation Ms Jackson said did “not constitute technically a breach of the act”.

A separate case, alleged by Mr Buttigieg, was a $5900 donation in 2016/17 from a property developer-linked group to Sutherland council candidates.

“The purpose of this … is to show you that this legislation is impotent, ineffective and dysfunctional and doesn’t protect the NSW ratepayer,” Mr Buttigieg put to the minister.

Ms Tuckerman said she was working to bolster the framework around council misconduct and declarations.

“I have just announced that we will be doing random audits of all declarations made by councillors to try and strengthen and ensure that the community does have confidence in councillors that sit on councils,” she said.

Ms Tuckerman said her department was also looking at the backlog of investigations, noting “that has certainly been reviewed by the department and I’m pleased to say we have seen some improvement in that”.

The hearing comes after NSW corruption watchdog probes this year into Sydney’s Georges River Council and Hurstville City Council, and the City of Canada Bay Council.

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