Kiama councillors have unanimously decided to take the NSW Government’s merger proposal to the people by holding a local referendum on the issue.
“The process so far has been like something out of an Orwellian novel. We need to introduce an element of democracy,” said Councillor Andrew Sloan, when proposing the motion.
“There has been no opportunity for residents of this community to have a say. More than that, the Government had a policy of no forced amalgamations at the last election.”
Final approval for the poll is expected to be given soon at a special meeting of Council, once further details of the costs and timing are presented. Less expensive options than the preliminary estimate from the Electoral Commission, if it were to do it, of $120,000 are being investigated.
Given the passion on show at the Extraordinary Meeting of Council on 23 February, there seems little doubt the expenditure will be approved.
Councillor Dennis Seage said while it was a large amount, it represented just $5.21 per resident, and was well worth spending. “They have forced our hand and we have to do it,” he said. “We need to fight tooth and nail to make sure we keep our independence.”
Councillor Gavin McClure said while some say the merger is a done deal, that is even more reason to have the poll. “How dare the Government put our community through this?” he said. “They have shown total disregard for our community – what a waste of money, what a waste of time and what a stress to put on the people who live here.”
Mayor Brian Petschler said he was concerned about the undemocratic way the process is unfolding.
“Whilst I am concerned about the cost, it does seem to me that there is a legitimate right of the people that are going to be most affected by this process, a right that we expect in this country, to have a say in what happens to us.
“If this is the only way we can do it, so be it. It is important our voice be heard.”
The poll will back up the survey done by IRIS that showed 92% of residents opposed the merger. While Council has confidence in the statistical rigor of the survey, they are alert to the tendency of some to dismiss the results as ‘only a survey’.
While he voted for the motion, Councillor Warren Steel expressed concern that the action may backfire as people experience merger fatigue and there is no compulsion to vote.
Other councillors believed that, while stressed by the uncertainty and the holes in the process, people want to do all they can to stop the merger happening.
“This proposal has galvanised the community like no other,” said Dennis Seage.
It is still being clarified when the poll will be held, as residents need to be given 54 days notice before it is conducted, to comply with Local Government Regulations. There are also considerations such as school and public holidays to take into account, meaning the end of April would be the likeliest date at this stage.
The Keep Kiama Council Local Committee, which now enjoys the status of an official resident advisory group, is firmly in favour of holding a vote.
It is also a strategy that has been suggested by such divergent anti-amalgamation proponants as Gareth Ward MP, South Coast Labour Council Secretary Arthur Rorris and David Shoebridge, Greens MP and Local Government spokesman, who visited Kiama recently.
Council had previously asked the Delegate, Greg Wright, to conduct a poll as part of his investigations into the merger, but has received no response to its request. No other delegate has instigated a poll.
In addition, he has indicated he expects to complete his report by the end of March, leaving no time for a poll of residents.