Updated 23rd December 2020:

This is an automatically generated email from the NSW Legislative Assembly.

The ePetition “Hold Local Government Elections Sooner” has closed for signatures and has been presented in the Legislative Assembly by Mr Gurmesh Singh.

The ePetition text in full is:

To the Speaker and Members of the Legislative Assembly, the concerned citizens of NSW draw to your attention the democratic principles and unpopular consequences arising from the decision to postpone the 2020 local government elections for 12 months. We respectfully petition the Assembly to: 1. Review its decision to postpone local government elections until September 2021 2. Remind the elected councillors of NSW of their extraordinary positions of responsibility during any period of deferred elections by requiring that they refrain from decisions or commitments that have, or may have, significant or unmeasured community concern or opposition.

The ePetition received 268 signatures and has been sent to the NSW Government for information. 

Background to this Petition

In the early months of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic gathered momentum, it was a reasonable response for the NSW Electoral Commission to postpone the statewide local government elections scheduled for September.

As the months passed however, and we began to control and to live with the virus, it has become obvious that elections can be safely and successfully conducted.

Democracy is important, so important to Victoria that they have pressed ahead with plans for statewide local government elections by postal vote, despite being hammered by a devastating second wave of the pandemic. Presumably, the candidates there can be safely protected by campaigning mostly through the media. Elsewhere, much business is carried out using the many means provided by the Internet. We have all learned to safely and successfully “socially distance” and a polling station is better regulated than your local supermarket.

The ACT has pioneered electronic voting for their election this year, but this does not involve the internet and voters still need to attend a polling station.

Meanwhile, several communities across NSW are in a state of disharmony and disarray because of the actions of their local councils. In my own electorate of Coffs Harbour, the council is pressing ahead with a $76m plus plan for a Cultural and Civic Space (CCS) for its city centre despite a petition to the State Legislature with more than 14,000 signatures in opposition and 827 letters of objection to the Department of Planning and Environment (and only 19 in support, 10 were neutral).

One very worrying aspect of this was a decision by Council to comprehensively evaluate the cost and funding of the project after it had decided to proceed. There is little prospect of Federal or State government funding, little prospect of any revenue from the completed project, building maintenance costs are potentially large and the Council’s funding model has failed.

What is most disturbing is the possibility of irreversible and below-market sales of other council assets to fund this project, sales conducted with reckless haste that arises from an urgency to proceed before anyone or anything can stop the project.

Most recently a prime community asset, the Coffs Harbour Airport and its environs has been leased for almost 100 years.

Both of these major decisions have been made on the casting vote of one person in a locked council of eight.

When I drew the attention of the State Minister for Local Government to this departure from Westminster tradition, I was told that: “Ultimately, the Council will be accountable to its community for its decision to proceed with the CCS project. The community will have an opportunity to demonstrate its support or dissatisfaction with the Council’s decision when voting at the next council election”.

This election has been delayed for 12 months and the Minister has provided no guidance as to how councils should conduct their major decisions during this period of suspension.

This petition is directed state-wide because there are other NSW councils in administration because of dysfunction and several others under performance review.

Timing of an Election

It has been argued that, in order to meet all of the requirements, it will take many months to organize an election and that this Petition is therefore “too late”. 

This is the reason for the second request that we “respectfully petition the Assembly to remind the elected councillors of NSW of their extraordinary positions of responsibility during any period of deferred elections by requiring that they refrain from decisions or commitments that have, or may have, significant or unmeasured community concern or opposition”.

When requested to place councils into caretaker mode during the period of suspended elections, the Minister for Local Government replied: “Caretaker arrangements do not take effect until 4 weeks before an election”.

In fact, the NSW House of Assembly has considerable powers to regulate the actions of councils at any time. This carefully worded petition is a reasonable request that, in a “pub test”, could not be interpreted ambiguously.

A Cobbled Council

It has been argued that this second petition clause will result in a paralysis in local government at a time when we desperately need to be responding to the challenges of Covid-19.

But nobody is advocating for cobbling or caretaking to the point of paralysis.

If there is a lot of Covid-19 stimulus money to be spent on LGA projects then I am sure that it could be better used for non-controversial projects like roads, pavements, bridges, parks, gardens, trees, recreational facilities, beach restoration, waste disposal or recycling etc.  These were the services mentioned favourably in the August 2020 Customer Satisfaction Survey of the Coffs Harbour Council. How about some money spent on the greatest social challenge of our time, the plight of our homeless citizens?

Somewhat paradoxically the Minister for Local Government has written: “it is the Government’s view that all councils need to be careful in how they use ratepayers’ money, particularly at a time when they are under financial pressure and facing significant challenges in maintaining delivery of community infrastructure and services because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

A Vocal Minority?

With a population of more than 76,500 in the Coffs Harbour LGA, it could be reasonably argued that the 14,000 plus opposed to the CCS project are a vocal minority. Indeed, the August 2020 Customer Satisfaction Survey of the Coffs Harbour Council found that “82% of Coffs Harbour LGA residents interviewed were at least somewhat satisfied with the performance of Council in the last 12 months.”

Max Brinsmead

January 2021