Thousands took to the streets in Sydney in May to vent their rage at “Casino Mike”—NSW Premier’s Mike Baird, so dubbed thanks to his kickbacks for Sydney’s casinos and developers amidst his repressive lockout laws, Westconnex motorway plan, boosts to police powers and tree clearing in Sydney’s east.
The rally followed his most recent, shocking affront to democracy—the sacking of elected councillors across NSW. Forty-two councils and have been sacked and the new amalgamated councils will be run by Liberal government-appointed administrators for the next 14 months, with no elections until September 2017. Baird has appointed Liberal cronies including mining industry and pro-development figures.
The administrator of the Inner West council, replacing councils previously opposed to the Westconnex motorway, is Richard Pearson, a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Planning. This is the very department that signed off on Westconnex.
Former Nationals Deputy Leader and Shadow Mining Minister John Turner is the administrator of the new Mid-Lakes council, incorporating Gloucester Council, which was opposed to coal seam gas mining. He is still on the payroll of mining companies including Glencore and Whitehaven Coal helping run their “community consultation”.
Baird’s plan is designed to slash jobs and services across the merged councils, as part of a neo-liberal cost cutting exercise. He has the same rule for the rich agenda as the federal Liberals under Malcolm Turnbull—cut spending on services and boost business profits through tax cuts.
The decision on which mergers would proceed was made with an eye to boosting the Liberals’ chances at the federal election. A number of councils in Liberal and marginal seats have avoided forced mergers, such as Hills and Hawkesbury councils in Sydney’s north-west, and Kiama and Shoalhaven councils.
Barnaby Joyce, facing a close race with Tony Windsor in New England, has avoided the merger of local councils in his seat.
Mergers will mean savage job cuts as the merged councils “streamline” services. A study commissioned by Marrickville Council on the planned merger with Leichhardt and Ashfield revealed the promised “savings” would come from cutting 200 of the 1150 full-time staff positions.
The government will also save through slashing the number of elected councillors. The merged Inner West area, for example, will go from 36 to 15 councillors.
The United Services Union, which represents council workers, is arguing there should be five-year job guarantees for workers. It says it has secured support from the crossbench MPs in the NSW upper house, Fred Nile and the Shooters and Fishers Party, to put this into law. Delaying the cuts for five years is seriously short-sighted. The union has taken no serious action against the amalgamations.
Council amalgamations in Victoria and Queensland both meant major job cuts through sackings and contracting out services. The Australian Services Union estimates 11,000 council jobs were lost in Victoria after Kennett rammed through mergers in 1994 and more than halved the number of councils. The state government forced the contracting out of 50 per cent of all council services.
Two of the new super-councils have had their first meeting shut down by angry protests. Around 200 residents occupied the meeting venue of the new Inner West council, forcing administrator Richard Pearson to abandon the meeting after less than five minutes. Activists have promised to shut down its June meeting as well with Greens MP Jamie Parker telling the crowd “this Inner West Council will be ungovernable. It will not work”.
A similar protest shut down the first meeting of the new Mid-Lakes Council as chants of “out, out, out” filled the room. Similar action will be needed to defend services and jobs when the new councils being rolling out cuts.
Baird’s shocking new police powers
The Baird government has announced another set of shocking new police powers. Fresh from passing laws aimed at coal seam gas protesters it has introduced two new draconian measures.
New “serious crime prevention orders” can be issued by a court to control a person’s daily life through restrictions potentially on use of computers, telephones and even carrying cash. These are designed to target serious criminals, yet can be imposed without the need to prove they have committed any crime.
Even more alarmingly, under new “public safety orders” senior police can order a crowd or individual at any public event or premises to move on where they “pose a serious risk to public safety”. The decision as to what amounts to a serious risk will be entirely in the hands of police.
This could easily be used to target protesters. Although the laws have been justified as designed to deal with terrorism, these kinds of measures would not be out of place in a police state.
By James Supple