Independent Member for Wagga Wagga, Dr Joe McGirr, has expressed bitter disappointment at the decision not to demerge Snowy Valleys Council after Minister for Local Government Shelley Hancock last week announced that the current boundaries of both Snowy Valleys and Cootamundra-Gundagai councils would remain unchanged.
Dr McGirr has repeatedly called for the councils to be demerged, citing the deep opposition to the amalgamation from parts of the community.
The Minister’s announcement comes about five months after she was handed reports from the Local Government Boundaries Commission, whose commissioners recommended three to one in favour of the demerger. The one dissenting voice was an officer of the Office of Local Government, nominated by the chief executive.
In Cootamundra-Gundagai’s case, the Boundaries Commission’s recommendation was not to demerge the council, however it did not represent the unanimous view of the four commissioners.
Commissioners Lesley Furneaux-Cook and Rick Firman recommended that the Cootamundra-Gundagai demerger proposal go ahead, however the ultimate recommendation was carried on the casting vote of the chairperson, Bob Sendt.
Dr McGirr has already written to Premier Gladys Berejiklian, expressing his bitter disappointment at the decision not to demerge Snowy Valleys, and has asked her to overturn it.
“This feels very much like the city kicking the country. It feels like the government is ignoring its regional base,” Dr McGirr said.
“The Coalition is supposed to be governing for the whole state, but it seems like we have the Liberals disregarding the views of their regional partners.”
Dr McGirr is disappointed that Minister Hancock has not backed the recommendation of the majority of the commissioners, in the Snowy Valleys case.
“The Minister’s response has instead been to ignore the clear majority decision and instigate a review of the Local Government Boundaries Commission,” he said.
“This is not just shooting the messenger. This is wiping them out entirely. It sends a clear message to anyone else who wants to disagree.
“There should, at the very least, be a detailed public response from the government to the majority report.”
Dr McGirr said the report from the three commissioners in favour of demerging noted the breadth and depth of the continuing opposition to the current Snowy Valleys Council boundaries.
“This completely vindicates what I have been saying. The Snowy Valleys Council has tried very hard, but the level of resentment makes the current situation entirely unworkable,” he said.
“The original amalgamation was a bad decision by the government. In my view, this report is more evidence of that.”
Dr McGirr acknowledged that the Local Government Amendment Bill 2021, which was passed in May, did offer a mechanism for a newly elected Snowy Valleys Council to pursue a fresh push for a demerger.
“But it is almost farcical that the approaching local government election means a newly elected Snowy Valleys Council will be left with pursuing demerger action which, if successful, would ultimately mean elections are needed in not one, but two, newly formed local government areas,” he said.
“Common sense suggests that the best course of action would be to begin the demerger process now.”
Meanwhile, Nationals MLC Wes Fang said the decision “ignores all evidence and data, and sets aside the very guidelines laid out by our own Government for council demergers”.
“The Boundaries Commission were the independent umpire tasked by the NSW Government to determine if the Snowy Valleys Council should undergo a demerger. After conducting months of hearings, consultation and analysis, this independent body came to a decision; there should be a demerger,” Mr Fang said.
“The communities of Snowy Valleys and Cootamundra-Gundagai have followed the guidelines outlined by the NSW Government and the independent umpire has subsequently made the determinations. For the Minister to set aside the decision and shift the goal posts after an adverse determination, is wrong. The Minister’s next steps should be immediately reversed and a pathway for demerger outlined.
“I have always said, if the Boundaries Commission determination is that a demerger is supported, I would back the communities I represent and support this decision. We now know this was the decision made, yet the Minister for Local Government will ignore this decision, along with the will of the Tumbarumba community. I will not ignore them. I will support this community.
“The NSW Government must work to restore faith with the Tumbarumba community, not propagate mistrust and shift the goalposts when a decision doesn’t go its way.
“I will not abandon the Tumbarumba community, I will back them because the independent umpire backs them. I will raise this with the Deputy Premier and my NSW Nationals’ Parliamentary colleagues as a matter of urgency.”