I speak on the Local Government Amendment Bill 2021, the rating bill.
Technically the bill responds to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal review of the council rating system. However, as we have heard from previous Labor speakers, what we all know is that this bill is really about mopping up the mess caused by the Government's failed forced council amalgamations.
Primarily, the bill introduces measures to assist councils that are forced to harmonise rates the option of doing so over an extended period of time.
It also establishes a new rating category for environmental land and allows the council to levy special rates for all infrastructure jointly funded by other levels of government.
It allows the timetables for postal voting to be determined by regulation and allows returning officers to conduct countback elections in the first 18 months of their term, thereby sparing communities from expensive by-elections.
Importantly, the bill allows councils to make superannuation contribution payments to councillors.
I intend to focus my contribution this evening on the issue primarily around rate harmonisation.
However, I first commend the move in relation to superannuation for elected councillors. We know just how important a strong, well‑supported local council is for our communities. It is the level of government that is closest to the people and responsible for some of the most important services on which people rely—well beyond rates, roads and rubbish.
For a council to successfully serve a community it needs to be led by representatives who represent the community itself. Our communities are too often failed because good, experienced people do not run for office because of financial barriers that make it impossible for them to do so.
Disproportionately, that of course means that good, effective women do not run for election.
It is a disgrace that in this State women comprise less than a third of councillors and mayors currently serving on councils across New South Wales.
Ensuring councillors are paid superannuation removes one financial barrier to good people running.
Unfortunately, this bill takes that important first step but does not make it mandatory for councils to pay superannuation to councillors and mayors, leaving it up to councils to decide for themselves. I encourage the Minister to adopt Labor's very sensible amendment to make it mandatory; otherwise, we will have a situation where there are councils that, for example, are wholly made up of men, who will be determining whether or not it is going to pay superannuation and potentially locking out women who might be interested in running for council.
That undermines the good purpose of this measure. I encourage the Minister to adopt Labor's amendment in that regard.
The primary objective of this bill is to address the chaos in councils forced to merge by the Baird Government in 2016—namely, the harmonisation of rates that would result in some residents paying less while their neighbours just across the street may well have to pay hundreds of dollars more.
The Liberals rate rise will not earn a dollar more revenue for our cash-strapped councils, but it will raise rates for thousands more families, home owners and businesses in the middle of a pandemic.
It will not address the precarious financial position our councils find themselves in thanks to these forced mergers, nor will it empower councils to invest more in the services and infrastructure our communities need right now.
It is really important to acknowledge that everyone in the community knows that the Liberals' council mergers were a terrible mistake. They were forced on communities across our State and they were driven by politics—namely, to benefit the New South Wales Liberals.
Let us remember what happened back in 2015.
When the then Premier announced the merger policy he said it was, and I quote, "in the long-term interests of every ratepayer in this State". We were promised that rates would not increase but now they will.
We were told that services would improve but now we are told we will have to pay more just to continue the current services—not to improve them, not to deal with infrastructure backlogs or with the whole range of issues that councils are trying to grapple with out there right now.
This rests on the fact that these councils were forcibly amalgamated, and now residents are going to have to pay more.
In my electorate residents of Ashbury, Marrickville, Dulwich Hill, Petersham and Lewisham will all see their rates go up.
Rates harmonisation is lifting the minimum rate across the Canterbury-Bankstown Council area to $728.18 for residential properties and to $794.27 for businesses.
The increase will disproportionately impact Ashbury residents, whose land value is considerably higher than the average land value across the Canterbury‑Bankstown local government area—a giant LGA. Many residents of the former Marrickville Council, including in Marrickville, Dulwich Hill, Petersham and Lewisham, will see their rates increase by up to 20 per cent.
That means a family who once paid annual rates of $710 on their home will see their rates go up to $850. A couple managing their bills after buying their first home, for example, and who currently pay the average rate of $765 per annum, will see their rates jump by 18.7 per cent to $908. An older self-funded retired couple who have lived in their home for decades, supporting themselves without Government assistance and paying the highest rate of $1,110, will now pay $1,316 a year—an increase of 18.6 per cent.
Similarly, businesses in the former Marrickville LGA are facing rate rises of between 7 per cent and 19 per cent, adding costs at a time when, of course, business are focused on getting customers back and creating local jobs after the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Right when households and businesses need a hand up from this Government, what are they getting? They are getting giant rates bill increases. It is a slap in the face for these residents and these businesses.
The Inner West Council consulted residents and businesses about what this new rate structure would mean for them, and I quote one local business owner in Petersham, who said:
We own a shop on New Canterbury Road, Petersham, and the change in rates is 22 per cent higher. How can we continue with these rises and pandemics?
Here is an example of the knock-on effect for renters of this rate increase. One respondent said:
I provide low-cost housing in Newtown. The increase in council rates compounds the impost of land tax already imposed by the State Government. The rent will barely meet the annual outgoings. I will be forced to sell property, putting one low-income family on the street.
Lastly, the local government Minister might want to listen to this resident, who said it best:
You lied to us. My rates are going up 22 per cent under the new structure. When the councils amalgamated we were told it would be more efficient, which implies lower rates not massively higher rates.
The fact is that we in the inner west are getting used to being conned by this Government.
The latest insult to our community is that at the very same time this Government is making residents pay more, they have also been ripped off by the Government to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
In fact, Inner West Council was ripped off by $24 million, and Canterbury-Bankstown Council by a further $40 million.
That is tens of millions of dollars that our community was cheated out of.
The Stronger Communities Fund was established to support councils that were forcibly amalgamated by this Government. Instead, the fund was used as a pre-election slush fund, with more than 95 per cent of the $252 million gifted to councils in Liberal electorates just before the election.
Local councils in my electorate did not even get told they could apply for this fund. In fact, $100 million of the fund was gifted to councils that were not even amalgamated. This is pork-barrelling on a breathtaking scale. The fund was meant to support merged councils to deliver improved services and infrastructure for ratepayers.
That includes fixing up parks, fixing roads and footpaths, building cycleways and public toilets, and delivering environmental services, childcare centres and swimming pools—these are the services that residents in our amalgamated councils need and deserve.
The Inner West Council, for example, would have used these important funds for projects like building much-needed links in the cycling network across the LGA.
A second field is needed at Tempe Reserve for the hundreds of local football club members who need space to play.
Leichhardt Aquatics Centre could be upgraded so that residents have a place to swim.
They are some of the essential services that residents have been deprived of because of the allocation of this slush fund to Liberal electorates.
It is absolutely imperative that we know residents across the area are missing out.
As the shadow Minister and colleagues on this side of the House have noted, the Opposition will move a number of amendments to ensure this bill actually gives residents in communities like mine a fair go.
We are demanding the Government extend the maximum time period for harmonisation of rates from four to eight years. This is about trying to at least minimise the pain—to make sure residents are not hit with an absurd bill shock in the middle of a pandemic.
We are calling on the Government to lay out a process for councils that were forced to merge in 2016 to progress demerger proposals. Councils should be able to offer a business case to show that they are better off returning to their former boundaries and the Minister should be held to a strict time line to assess these.
Labor never supported these undemocratic and shameful mergers and has always promised to provide communities that want to restore their local councils with a clear pathway to do so in the State Parliament.
We ask the Minister to consider these very reasonable amendments.
Importantly, Labor is also demanding that the Government create a financial support grant for forcibly amalgamated councils that missed out. It is not another slush fund—it should be transparent, targeted funding to ensure that residents who are being forced to payer higher rates will see higher levels of service, and to guarantee improvement in local infrastructure.
That means improvements to parks, roads, footpaths, cycleways, childcare services and all the things that residents need.
Make no mistake, the lack of upgrades and services provided in our local community is a result of the Government forcibly amalgamating our councils. It continues to rip these councils off to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
Finally, we think the Government should go further than its current commitment and mandate that councils provide superannuation to councillors and mayors.
Leaving it up to councils to decide is not good enough and shirks the responsibilities the Minister and her department have to improve the breadth and depth of people elected to serve their local communities, including women.
It will be disappointing if the Minister cannot consider these amendments because what it takes for the Government to try to fix the mess it created is to admit that it made it in the first place.
Admit that it is a mess, and then put in place genuine remedies, not half measures or bandaid solutions.
That is why I encourage the Government to consider the amendments put forward by Labor and look after the inner west residents who have so far been betrayed by the Government.