A new Bill before the NSW Parliament would allow the State Government to address 'dysfunction and poor performance in local councils.' However, the effect would be to make democratically elected local councils accountable to the Minister.
On Monday, Council voted to ask the Minister for Local Government to withdraw the Local Government (Early Intervention) Bill because it would undermine democratic representation.
If councils don't follow the Minister's directions, he or she could appoint an administrator and suspend a Council for three months (and extend the suspension for a further three months without notice).
The Bill contains no criteria on how and when the Minister could exercise these extraordinary powers. The absence of any safeguards creates a real risk that these powers could be used for partisan political or corrupt purposes.
The respected former mayor, state and federal member for the North Sydney area, Ted Mack, was so alarmed about the proposed Bill that he wrote an opinion piece, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 March. He wrote:
"The Early Intervention Bill has earth shattering repercussions for local communities.
"If this bill becomes law, saying no to coal seam gas fracking, saying no to shooting in National Parks or opposing the inevitable development outrages will be grounds for dismissal. This bill will effectively silence local councils against vested interests and an out of touch state government.
"The government is attempting to justify this grab for extra power by claiming it will give greater flexibility in dealing with councils which it believes are performing poorly. The problem is the phrase "poor performance" does not appear in the bill and is not defined. "Performing poorly" could mean opposing a "favoured" developer.
"Will councils who put their communities first, ahead of bowing to the dictates of the minister, be regarded as 'performing poorly'?"
I have written to the Minister requesting the Bill be withdrawn. I have also asked that the Terms of Reference of the reviews currently being undertaken in NSW into local government be extended to include measures to assist Councils improve their performance.
Earlier this month, a majority of a Commonwealth Parliament Committee recommended that a constitutional referendum on the financial recognition of local government be put to Australian voters at the 2013 federal election.
This referendum would resolve uncertainty about whether the Commonwealth Government has the power to provide direct financial assistance to local government - which threatens funding for local government.
During a recent meeting in Canberra, Capital City Lord Mayors were told the Federal Government is unlikely to proceed with the referendum unless it is supported by State Governments.
I have written to the Premier to ask the NSW Government to support the referendum.