Questions have been asked about NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s ability to implement the government’s agenda after another policy backflip, this time on the controversial council mergers plan.
Ms Berejiklian on Thursday conceded defeat in her fight to forcibly merge more than a dozen Sydney councils.
Citing protracted legal battles with several councils and the uncertainty this was causing ratepayers, the premier admitted the government had failed to effectively implement the policy, but defended its merit.
“Is the policy the right one? Yes. Did we get the implementation wrong? Absolutely,” Ms Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.
“This is a decision that’s weighed heavily on the government.”
The government’s about-face on amalgamations has occurred after several other policy backdowns, including the failed attempt to ban greyhound racing and changes to the NSW fire services levy.
The amalgamations of 14 councils currently challenging their amalgamations will no longer proceed, but those local governments already merged will remain.
The amalgamation policy was dealt a blow earlier this year when the NSW Court of Appeal blocked a forced merger between Ku-ring-gai and Hornsby councils due to a lack of “procedural fairness”.
The High Court was also due to hear Woollahra council’s challenge to the merger with Waverley and Randwick in Sydney’s east.
Ms Berejiklian in January decided to walk away from planned amalgamations in the bush, but she forged ahead with those in the city.
The premier on Thursday said she still believed the policy was “absolutely the right thing to do” for councils in metropolitan areas.
“But when some councils choose to use ratepayer money and take this issue to court, that is outside of our control and we did not anticipate how long those processes would take.”
There are 20 already-amalgamated councils across NSW.
Local government elections for the merged councils and the 14 affected by Thursday’s announcement will be held on September 9.
Woollahra Mayor Toni Zelzter described the government’s decision as “a great day for local democracy”.
Opposition leader Luke Foley says the back down is another example of the NSW government abandoning policy on the run.
“Another day, another backflip. It’s not so much a case of a bad policy, as a bad government,” Mr Foley told reporters.
The Labor leader also questioned whether Ms Berejiklian would consider re-introducing forced mergers in the future.
Mr Foley said the government should give rate-payers in local government areas that had already been amalgamated the opportunity to vote on whether they could de-merge.
“If the government has a skerrick of decency, what they’ll do is allow plebiscites, democratic votes in all those council areas where forced mergers exist today,” he said.