The council is at the core of most country communities - or at least that was the case until some very unwise mergers took place while Mike "Greyhound" Baird was Premier.
In our local area Gundagai and Tumbarumba are still smarting over the abolition of their councils, and the protests will go on until the mergers have been reversed.
Our very city-centric Liberal/National Coalition state government just doesn't seem to understand the word "local".
When the National Party was rolled by the Shooters in the 2016 Orange by-election, suddenly mergers of Blayney, Cabonne and Orange councils were shelved. Mike Baird was skittled, and new Premier Gladys Berejiklian pledged to walk away from council mergers in the bush.
So had the Coalition learnt a lesson? No. Mergers that had already happened, like Gundagai and Cootamundra, Tumbarumba and Tumut, were not unravelled.
... Tumbarumba was second only to Sydney as the most financially sustainable council ...
Result? In the March NSW elections, the Liberals' vote in Tumbarumba dropped by 27 per cent. Lesson learnt? Not on your life. The new Minister for Local Government, Shelley Hancock, has not even visited Tumbarumba, and refuses to come. Feelings in Tumbarumba are running red-hot. An anti-council merger group, Save Tumbarumba Shire (STS), organised a "plebiscite" on forced council mergers alongside last year's local government elections.
STS asked voters at Tumbarumba, Rosewood and Khancoban booths: "Should the NSW Government restore the former local government area of Tumbarumba Shire, with a locally elected council?"
The plebiscite was held under normal election conditions, with sealed ballot boxes, anonymous and confidential voting, and experienced, independent scrutineers present at the opening of the ballot boxes and the counting of votes. Of the 1275 voters who lodged formal votes at the council elections, 1207 (94.7 per cent) voted in the plebiscite, with the stunning result that 1125 voted "Yes" to support the demerger of Tumbarumba Shire. Only 6.8 percent voted "No". That anger continues. Last Wednesday I attended a meeting with a different large group of people who are likewise petitioning Shelley Hancock to reverse the merger with Tumut.
The group included Tumbarumba Shire's last mayor, Ian Chaffey. "Baird's review, conducted by Professor Graham Sansom and Treasury Corp, found that Tumbarumba was second only to Sydney as the most financially sustainable council," he told me, adding that Tumut ranked 60-something. "Tumbarumba's isolation should have made it a special case. The mountain between Tumut and Tumbarumba is a divide. There is no common social or business link with Tumut, nearly 70km away," he added. "Part of Sansom's report said that an amalgamation of Tumbarumba with anyone else didn't fit," Chaffey continued, "and anyway, from those early Dubbo meetings there was a guarantee that there would be no forced amalgamations." Another member of the group was eager to make the point that there was a huge "cultural" difference between the old Tumbarumba Shire Council and the amalgamated body. "Tumbarumba got value for money from its shire," he said.
The conversation went to examples of huge community-council partnerships, like the pre-school, after school care, aged care, community transport, housing subdivisions - a lot of Section 355 committees that carried out council functions. "Tumut is big enough for private enterprise, so their emphasis is on cost recovery, whereas Tumbarumba's culture was that we couldn't expect others to do it. Because Tumbarumba was too small for many services, the council worked with volunteers to get it done," another said.
A local estate agent in the group pointed to the situation with the showground and caravan park, where the amalgamated council pretends to consult, but then local advice is ignored. Others nodded. People in Tumbarumba were used to being able to approach council, and with Tumbarumba's volunteering spirit, something would be done."This Tumut mob lacks time frames," said another. "The Khancoban Golf Club was having financial problems so negotiated with the old Tumbarumba Shire to subdivide some land. Since amalgamation nothing has happened. By the time they get an answer they may be ruined financially."
Khancoban is about 150km from Snowy Valley's Tumut headquarters. Is this what the NSW Coalition calls "local" government? Ms Hancock, come and visit Tumbarumba. But don't bring excuses. Bring the deed that restores Tumbarumba's own council.