NEWS this week of further delays in elections for councils under a merger cloud will do nothing for the NSW Government's cause as it pushes on with what it says is a necessary local government reform.
The news is likely to strengthen the resolve of those fighting the mergers – including those at Oberon who have fought every step of the process of the town’s proposed amalgamation with Bathurst.
Worse for the NSW Government, the news might start to sway those who, until now, have been broadly supportive of council mergers in NSW and have been prepared to give the NSW Government the benefit of the doubt.
There has already been plenty of criticism of the fact those councils that have been forcibly merged have been told they will have to wait until September 2017 for elections.
Regardless of the reasoning, the delay reinforces a persistent concern: that ratepayers’ right to representation is under threat.
So there will be plenty of interest in the news this week that the Office of Local Government has written to councils that have not yet been merged – and that includes Bathurst and Oberon – to say that unless they are merged by the end of this month, elections cannot be held until March 2018.
If the new councils are not created before August 2017, elections will not be held until September 2019 – or even September 2020.
While the proposed merger between Bathurst and Oberon remains held up in the courts, the city’s next council election grows ever more distant – and the voices speaking up against the merger gather another piece of evidence to illustrate their concerns.
The NSW Government could argue that the court challenges are out of its control and are simply delaying the inevitable.
What has been within the NSW Government’s control, however, has been the timing of these ambitious reforms, and the timing is looking to be increasingly poor.
The long lead-up to the mergers – the reports and warnings, the pronouncements and preparing of the ground – and the long conclusion amid the court battles and delayed elections are running the risk of eroding the last of the public goodwill for changes to the local government sector.
Asking a ratepayer if they think their council can be improved is one thing.
Asking them if they think ratepayers should wait two years before they can replace a dismissed council is a whole other question.