Local government boundaries in Sydney

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A proposal to the inquiry into municipal boundaries in
Waverley, Woolahra, Randwick, the City of Sydney, South Sydney, Leichhardt and Marrickville

Bob Gould

The present City of Sydney, South Sydney and Botany, plus part of Leichhardt, Marrickville and Woolahra municipalities, should be amalgamated to produce a major City of Sydney, which would administer both the CBD, the significant inner-city residential areas, the South Sydney industrial area, Mascot Airport and the functional port part of Botany Bay as well as Centennial Park and the new film complex at the former Sydney showgrounds.

It would have a population of about 200,000 and should have five or even six wards of four councillors elected under proportional representation (PR). The area I’ve outlined is a natural geographically unified area for the central core of the Cumberland region.

The boundaries of the City of Sydney, expressed another way, should include the old Sydney City boundaries that prevailed from 1948 until it was broken up in the 1960s, plus the whole of Botany Municipality and the suburb of Annandale.

All boundaries that follow a street should include both sides of the street in one municipality or the other. The rest of the municipalities subject to the current inquiry should be reorganised in municipalities with between 80,000 and 120,000 people, which is the population figure considered by most urban economists to allow for a sufficient economy of scale in the provision of local services, to make local government reasonably economic.

The commissioners undertaking the redistribution of municipal boundaries should attempt to design municipal areas that have unifying geographical and regional features.

I believe that these councils of 80,000 to 120,000 people should generally be divided into four wards of four. I believe that the ward principle, with proportional representation (PR) and wards of four, is vital in local government because it gives people in the wards a reasonable chance of knowing their representatives and exerting pressure on them.

In the sphere of local government the lives of local people are affected very directly by decisions made by their representatives, and for this reason a ward system, with a sufficiently large number of representatives per ward to ensure diversity, is preferable to any all-in system for the whole municipality, or to smaller, first-past-the-post arrangements such as the present set-up in Botany, where there is no diversity at all because of the electoral system.

I believe wards of four with PR is an indispensable principle, because it ensures that significant groups in any area get representation, as the quota is 20 per cent. In practice, it will usually mean that Labor and Liberal get major representation, but as well you get representation from environmentally minded independents, Democrats, Greens, conservative independents and others, whose presence can keep the major groups honest, so to speak.

In local government, a certain tension between Labor, Liberal and environmentally minded independents is a very healthy thing and leads to proper scrutiny of measures affecting people’s day-to-day lives.

The broad principle of wards of four with proportional representation would enshrine a basically democratic arrangement at the core of local government.

For the other municipalities, the boundaries of Randwick should be left untouched, other than some minor adjustments (such as to bring both sides of a street into one municipality), as Randwick is already around the top end of the appropriate size.

Waverley and the rest of Woolahra should be amalgamated as one municipality. The residue of Marrickville should be amalgamated with Ashfield. The residue of Leichhardt should be amalgamated with Drummoyne.

All these four new municipalities should have four wards with four aldermen elected by proportional representation.

These proposals, while they involve, in several instances, somewhat larger municipalities, with councils of 16, actually involve a slight reduction in the number of aldermen in the whole region, with the obvious consequent financial saving.

Mayors of all municipalities, including the new City of Sydney, should be elected by the aldermen. The present direct election of the mayor of the City of Sydney is an anomaly. All other representative bodies, state and federal parliaments and most councils elect their leader or mayor in the representative chamber, rather than by direct election, and there is no sound reason why the City of Sydney should be an exception to this.

Social, historical and demographic considerations involved in this proposal

The breaking up of the City of Sydney in the 1960s was a piece of political vandalism that was imposed for narrow electoral purposes. The 1948 boundaries of the City of Sydney worked perfectly well and gave Sydney a strong municipal and corporate identity, economic viability and a considerable extension of services to residents.

If local government is to be preserved properly, a balance between economic viability and democratic considerations has to be struck, and a combination of a sensible size, with four wards of four, achieves this result for most areas.

A larger area with five or six wards of four, is appropriate in the Sydney urban core.

One feature of all the municipalities that would emerge from my proposal is that they would all have a broad social, economic and cultural mix among the residents, which would give some momentum to a unified but diverse social and economic life in each municipality.

Proportional representation and wards of four are intrinsic to ensuring broad representation in local councils, and a significant size is necessary to ensure a sufficient rate base to make councils economically viable.

Residents, ratepayers and municipal employees all have a legitimate interest in local government. I would urge adoption of the above proposals, and then negotiation with the appropriate unions representing municipal employees to ensure no redundancies, and that the economies of scale resulting financially from the above amalgamations should result in maintaining the same level of municipal employment, by way of extending and improving municipal services.

I would stress that the above proposal is a unified whole. Amalgamations without wards of four and PR would be a disaster because they would be undemocratic, and would probably be opposed by the municipal workers unions for the obvious reason that in a less democratic set-up it would be more difficult for them to advance the legitimate interests of their members.

The real changes being lobbied for by the governing group in the present City of Sydney are particularly unfortunate because they would add a small, primarily residential area in Glebe, Kings Cross and Surry Hills, to the overwhelmingly commercial CBD, which would weight the whole set-up towards the interests of commercial development, and often against the residential interests of the people in the suburbs added.

(In my view it is fairly obvious that most of the options put forward by the City of Sydney contain an element of window-dressing, and that the real option being lobbied for by the current ruling group in the City of Sydney is the option of incorporating Glebe, Kings Cross and Surry Hills in the existing City of Sydney area.)

By way of contrast, the carefully considered network of amalgamations that I’ve proposed above would produce a major Sydney municipal region in which the residents and ratepayers of all areas would have a substantial interest and say, and in which the interests of those who desire commercial development would be in a proper balance with the interests of residents, with the interests of residents having a powerful entrenched role because of the large number of residents voting and the representative diversity ensured by the Proportional Representation electoral system in wards of four.

December 18, 2000

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