Mergers dropped: Port Stephens welcomes Premier Berejiklian's announcement

A proposed council merger between Port Stephens and Newcastle has officially been dropped.

Fourteen months has passed since the Baird state government proposed the merger, among a raft of others, in the name of efficiency.

The Examiner covered the issue extensively throughout the A Line in the Sand series. This included hearings the state government set down in Salamander Bay and Shoal Bay to review the Newcastle proposal.

On Tuesday – one year to the day that Port Stephens residents first rallied against the proposal – the new Premier Gladys Berejiklian has dumped all regional mergers. The mayor of Port Stephens, Cr Bruce MacKenzie, was a vocal opponent all along.

He warned the Coalition that Port Stephens would not elect a Liberal candidate on state or federal levels for two or even three terms.

“I’m relieved that sanity has prevailed,” Cr MacKenzie said.

“I really think the mergers were needed in Sydney, with too much duplication but it was never warranted here.”

The proposal prompted Port Stephens Council to make a case for it to either stand alone or, if left no choice, merge with Dungog.

Eighteen-thousand Port residents signed a petition against the merger. While a survey showed 93 per cent of Port residents opposed the idea.

Port Stephens even sent a bus load of angry residents to Macquarie Street to show their opposition to the merger when the item was debated in Parliament.

“The new premier has seen the light,” Cr MacKenzie said.

“Between the greyhound ban and the mergers [Ms Berejiklian] the Orange by-election showed her the government was on the wrong track.

“To dump the merger is a smart move. I just feel sorry for the people of Dungog when their council isn’t sustainable.”  

Ms Berejiklian convened a media conference on Tuesday afternoon when she made the announcement.

Port Stephens general manager Wayne Wallis welcomed the decision.

"Port Stephens Council's Fit for the Future status as a financially sustainable organisation, combined by the massive groundswell of community opposition to the Newcastle merger, was finally heard in Macquarie Street and the state government has acted accordingly,” he said.

"Council's focus is now, as it always has been, on moving forward on our comprehensive program of work,” Mr Wallis said.

"The efforts of staff to both keep delivering council services to our normal high standards, whilst putting in a considerable amount of work on transition planning deserves commendation", he said.

Cr MacKenzie acknowledged the Port Stephens community for its tireless efforts.

"Most deserving of commendation is each and every member of our community,” he said.

"It has been a period in which we have all needed to call upon the resilience that we are known for. Fourteen months later this resilience has paid dividends.

"Council will apply the same unwavering commitment to best serving the Port Stephens community now and into the future and we look forward to standing united with the community on the issues that will affect us all.”

Pressure mounted on the Berejiklian government to determine its commitment to the policy after Nationals leader and deputy premier John Barilaro vowed last month to end local government mergers in the bush.

Mr Barilaro's commitment came the day after Mike Baird announced his resignation as premier on January 19, and before the Liberal party room had anointed Ms Berejiklian their new leader. 

Since taking up the premiership, Ms Berejiklian signaled she would reconsider the policy, promising to listen to the community and, after chairing her first cabinet meeting, declaring "I will fix this". 

She briefly considered plebiscites to determine if mergers should proceed.

Council elections will now take place on September 9.

- with SMH

BRUCE MACKENZIE

BRUCE MACKENZIE