Local Government Minister Ron Hoenig prepares to greet the media scrum after leaving discussions with CGRC Councillors. Hoenig has failed to deliver what Councillors and residents want, which is a swift and cost-effective demerger of CGRC.

“Betrayed” and “betrayal” were just some of the strong words used as CGRC’s Councillors came from the CGRC building on Tuesday morning. The Times spoke to former Gundagai and CGRC Mayor Abb McAlister, post the event Tuesday night and he said that he felt worse on Tuesday than he did when the original announcement was made to forcibly merge the two Councils, due to the fact there was hope that Tuesday’s announcement might provide some hope. It hasn’t.

CGRC Mayor Charlie Sheahan issued a statement last Thursday. It said, “I have been extremely patient with the current Minister, the Hon Ron Hoenig MP, after meeting with him in May, when I expressed the importance of timely action on this important project. Currently the CGRC organisation has key personnel in interim roles as we are unable to offer permanent positions because the organisation is on notice. The uncertainty of the current workplace is not a good situation for employees, and many have already left, and I am sure others will be considering their future under the current uncertainty. As an elected Councillor I have a responsibility to the ratepayers but equally I have a responsibility for our staff and the organisation. I am extremely frustrated at the delay in getting the process started, and it will be a difficult and challenging process. It is now over 6 months since the election of this Government, who in opposition strongly opposed forced mergers and who supported an amendment to the Local Government Act 1993 that would put the cost of demerging onto the State Government. I strongly urge the Minister for Local Government to get moving on this before our Council disintegrates. There is just on a year until the next local government elections, and we are still in a position of limbo. Our last three letters to the Minister, some of which were also sent to the Premier, raising our concerns have gone unanswered. My patience has run out, and I believe the Minister and this Government has treated our Council, Council staff and the community unfairly.”

The unhappy marriage and merger of the former Gundagai and Cootamundra Councils was thought to soon be coming to an end. A media alert came through over the long weekend that the Local Government Minister Ron Hoenig was to be holding a a press conference at the entry to the Council chambers at Coota on Tuesday at 12:30pm.

The Times sent two Journalists to cover the event, doing so as they believed it may be the biggest announcement since the forced merger. When you have been in the writing game for a while and lived the forced merger process you entertain just a few scenarios for the Tuesday, ‘doorstop’ event. So much so, that part of the story was able to be dictated by the senior journalist to the other during the trip over, including a recap of the history. Unfortunately the story has been re-written yet again. There was a sense of hope that a time frame would be provided and an allowed amount of funding allocated as two benchmarks for the announcement. The Councillors, townsfolk and the forcibly merged Council got neither, but it got worse when the Journalists arrived.

Mr Hoenig was running an hour late. Why? Who knows? But when Prime, Win, ABC, The Gundagai Independent and The Coota Times were asked to arrive 15 minutes early to accomodate him, you could tell a bad taste had already been left in the Journo’s mouths before the festivities kicked off. It resulted in the minister being savaged by the media throng. He was unable to answer several questions to a satisfactory level expected of a Minister, dismissed others and disagreed with the findings of leading Academic, Professor Joseph Drew. It became clear that Mr Hoenig will be doing it his way and this will be to the detriment of the former Cootamundra and Gundagai Councils as well as the State Government. The former Minister Greg Warren has disappeared in to the ether and he must be wondering what he did wrong to be shafted out of the role, the same way the people of Coota and Gundagai have been shafted. Another inquiry will be held among other benchmarks before CGRC will be entertained by the NSW Labor Government as having potential to be demerged. We will get to that soon.

You have to give it to Steph Cooke. It was her government who forced the mergers but did so before she was elected. She arrived on crutches to support the CGRC and its Councillors and people and spoke passionately and rightly about Labor’s disgraceful decision to move the goal posts once again. To make a weary Council who is losing staff both on the ground and at a senior level continue along another undetermined amount of time regarding indecision and ill will between both towns is reprehensible. She was scathing of Labor.

She said, “It’s clear the NSW Labor Government has zero understanding of this issue, and is kicking the can down the road by setting up another inquiry, which it appears, is the only way the Labor Party know how to govern. “If, as they claim, legislation is needed to help facilitate the demerge process, then I say to the minister: make it happen. Step up and take some leadership on this issue; show that you aren’t completely back-flipping on your promise to honour and fund the original demerge decision, which were commitments the then opposition made to these communities prior to the election. “And let’s not forget, local government elections are now less than 12 months away, which leaves very little time for the demerge process – should it go ahead – to be completed. “The NSW Labor Government has never had this community’s back, and that’s been well and truly demonstrated here today. We are now back at square one, and the communities of Cootamundra and Gundagai remain in complete limbo, unable to plan for their future. “It has been a tough fight to get to this point, and clearly it’s not over, but the people of Cootamundra, Gundagai, and those in nearby villages, can be assured they have my full support as we continue the fight to get the outcome our communities want, and more importantly, deserve,” she said.

The times is going to gift Mr Hoenig a copy of The recently released Maher Cup Book which was expertly collated by Neil Pollock of West Wyalong. Mr Hoenig proposed as part of his plan that there may be a boundary readjustment. History shows that just a generation or two ago, men were willing to put their lives on the line on a football field between the two towns over an inch here or a centimetre there. He may get some perspective of the tribalism, tradition and history of these proud bush towns who have seen the birth of the World’s greatest cricketer and a Dog on a Tuckerbox which is a national icon.

Hoenig had been under pressure to deliver a demerger date and the applicable funding for it to occur with CGRC mayor Charlie Sheahan last week releasing a statement that his Council could disintegrate if the demerger did not happen soon. The plan presented, however, doesn’t answer the questions on the tip of both town’s tongues. Cootamundra was never meant to merge with any Council, however, during the days of the dynamic duo of Mike Baird and his deputy Paul Toole, bush Councils such as Coota were told to go and find a “dance partner” or they would be pushed into an unhappy marriage. The former Harden Shire Council was told the same and held initial talks with the former Cootamundra Council, who were also their former Maher Cup rugby league foes. Rivalries were put to one side under the Government’s threat of a forced merger with synergies found between Harden and Coota including the fact they shared the same Local Government computer system. When the axe fell, Cootamundra were forced to partner with Gundagai, a Council area some 50 minutes away. Harden were forced into a messy three-way merger between themselves, Boorowa and Young. And a computer system bill of well over $14 million accrued across the last 7 years with the staff still working off spreadsheets instead of the state of the art, unworkable software.

The communities of Coota and Gundagai fought their merger from day 1 with Gundagai appointing a Council in exile made up of former Councillors and prominent locals. Bad blood ensued between the two towns with some staff copping flack off residents of the neighbouring Council area if they worked outside of their normal area.

Deficits started to pile up for CGRC with Councillors struggling to work within the confines set down by the State Government. This decision comes 6 months after Labor took office and the focus will now turn to neighbours Tumbarumba and Tumut, the latter shares a boundary with Gundagai and is now known as Snowy Valleys. They too are suffering from considerable financial stress. Further to the financial stresses to these communities they endure the mental strain on their workforce with several unions including the United Services Union (USU) piling on the pressure for the demerger to occur for CGRC before the last election.  This saw then member for Goulburn Wendy Tuckerman announce that CGRC be demerged or risk an all out assault on her Seat on a margin of just a few percent. She made the announcement but had no cash to put towards it. Labor won the election and inherited Tuckerman’s decision and still have no cash to throw at the project. Well, they both have it but don’t want to spend it. On Tuesday, it was announced that a new pathway for the de-amalgamation would be put into place, including propositions for where the boundaries should be, electoral matters of potential wards, division of assets and liabilities, allocation of staff, rates and service standards and the possibilities of shared resources. The plan will then go off to be assessed by the Boundaries Commission for the third time.

Labor have muddied the waters and it’s starting to look like the demerger may not come to fruition quite like CGRC wanted, or at all. The NSW Government must be satisfied that the hearing process provides enough certainty to the local community and CGRC before CGRC will be dissolved. There’s a couple of options. Council stay the course in an unhappy and financially unviable Council or they attempt to present a case which may never satisfy a government who appears like they don’t want to really support a demerger, even though they themselves made it a huge election promise. If Labor wanted to make it look like it was all too difficult and steal the hope away from bush communities who by the end of this year could be facing another extended drought, there are those who will agree it was a Labor success. Mission accomplished.

Hoenig could have saved himself the trip and put a media release out and saved the time of the local media who have lived and breathed this since 2016. Despite the waste of time and resources it turned out to be, Mr Hoenig still had the gall to face the media where he was absolutely torn to shreds. “I have found a way to enable both Councils to demerge, I met with the Councillors and offered them an opportunity to decide themselves…. When my predecessor found the pathway, the pathway led to a dead end. There was no mechanism for it to go forward. This is the only mechanism to enable under the act for the demerger to go forward.” He started the press conference and when asked if this is what Labor voters expected when in the booth, Mr Hoenig said, “Cootamundra-Gundagai never voted Labor anyway.” This brought scoffs from the media in attendance with Hoenig not focussing on those who had. But! Should it matter who voted for who in a seat when a government governs for all? He said, “My own Councils in my community were merged too and I can tell you that’s been a disaster too…. They’ve all been disasters, but I have great faith in democratically elected Councillors who can solve the most difficult problem…I have confidence and faith that they’ll be able to do this.”

When asked if he could use his position at all to rewrite the act to provide the smooth sailing originally promised, Mr Hoenig replied, “If you’ve got the magic pen or the magic wand then lend it to me and I’ll wave it, but unfortunately the Local Government Act I’ve inherited….means that this is the only pathway I can determine to move forward, there is no other legislative process to be able to move forward…It’s not something I can turn over overnight, if it was I would have done so by now.” Unfortunately the ‘magic pen’ Hoenig referred to was the same pen Paul Toole had and used to re-write the initial boundaries and it has gone missing. When the states law makers hide behind a response that they can’t change the laws, the mob quickly sorts you out.

Mr Hoenig could not provide an answer for where the funding is coming from and could not give an estimated figure. When asked what he thought of Dr Joseph Drew’s report on how much a demerger for CGRC would cost, he responded, “I’ve seen Professor Drew’s reports and there are some things I just don’t agree with. You can’t just pull figures out of the air and say $3 million dollars for an IT system. A demerger like this doesn’t involve a new IT system.”

Local Member Steph Cooke said, “The minister has tried to sugarcoat it today but at the end of the day, we are back to square one. There needs to be a plan put together, he needs to go back to the Boundary Commission for consideration, and recommendation, go back to the minister for his consideration, for proclamation and if that all goes well, we may have a demerger on our hands,” she said.

The minister is claiming he is hamstrung by Wendy Tuckerman’s decision to demerge, however, by being leader of the house in the legislative assembly, one would think Mr Hoeing would have Premier Chris Minn’s ear in regard to demerging. Cootamundra and Gundagai believed their hard work and endless fighting had finally resulted in something. That the grave mistake of the coalition and their endless terror of forced mergers would finally see an end, but as it turns out, it feels like both governments when in power have worked against the community rather than for it. We deserve better than empty promises. May 12, 2016 will go down as a day of infamy for the Coalition and marks the day when the forced mergers commenced. October 3, 2023, some 7 years and nearly 5 months later will also go down as a day of infamy but for Labor. A day of inaction, empty promises and failures. A bad joke!

A stroke of a pen created this mess. Another stroke of a pen can undo it. Is there anyone in the Labor Party who has the gumption to stand up and speak the truth on this issue? There was, but he is gone.

The party did a job on one of its last true country representatives in Mick Veitch at the last state conference. His forced departure shows that Labor isn’t interested in the bush. They removed a true blue country representative and will also be removing hundreds of millions of dollars from the regions. Maybe Macquarie Street will realise how important the bush and its farming communities are when the next drought hits and the tractors and prime movers are forced to protests in front of Parliament House when there’s no funding to assist those who makes their food and fibre. Farmers are receiving some of the worst prices for their lamb and sheep at the moment and although they may get through the next harvest, the forecasts are grim for a dry 2024.

Will it be one term for Labor both at a state and federal level? It’s possible. If the Voice doesn’t get up it will be very damaging federally. It’s yet to be seen what sort of man Chris Minns really is. The honeymoon period is still in its early glow. That will also come to an end soon.

The Sheahan family capably presided over this area at a state level for many years. For long time servant and current CGRC Mayor Charlie, Tuesday’s announcement must be most hurtful. He knows and understands the bush better than most and a city slicker has come out and told us how it’s going to be done here. There’s nothing worse in the bush than hearing that from men in shiny shoes that haven’t seen dust.