Independents ramp up anti-amalgamation campaign in byelection

Anti-amalgamation activists will target Liberal candidate Felicity Wilson on her history of support for council mergers as a senior executive at the Property Council of Australia, as they seek to make the North Shore byelection a referendum on the matter.

And in a sign that the independent vote could be critical to the outcome of the April byelection, they are encouraging local doctor Stephen Ruff not to stand against their preferred candidate, the Mosman councillor and former Save Our Councils Coalition [SOCC] president Carolyn Corrigan.

Ms Wilson was one of the chief cheerleaders for council amalgamations as an executive director of the developers' lobby group, arguing in a submission to the NSW government last year that having fewer, larger councils would be more efficient.

She is now running for the usually safe Liberal seat against four candidates who have placed their opposition to council mergers at the centre of their campaigns, and anti-amalgamations activists have vowed to target her.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian acknowledged last month that the government's policy of forced council amalgamations could cost it in the North Shore by-election, but more recently she said that nobody had raised the issue with her during a day she spent in Mosman.

North Shore Network convenor John Young said his group was toying with the slogan "Felicity Wilson = council amalgamations", and would recommend that voters put the Liberals last, following SOCC's successful "Nationals last" campaign in Orange.

"It's going to be a very lively election because, two weeks ago, Gladys Berejiklian had the hide to say council amalgamations were a non-issue," Mr Young said.

"We're going to make sure it's number one."

Ms Wilson signed the Property Council of Australia's submission to the Property Boundary Review when she was acting as NSW executive director in February 2016, three months before the government announced its policy of forced council amalgamations.

The document recommended that the government proceed with amalgamations compulsorily if necessary, that it proceed with the new boundaries and that incentives be introduced to improve council leadership and enhance the status of mayors.

On Monday, Ms Wilson stood by her support for council amalgamations.

"Felicity Wilson supports the government's plan to reform local councils, which will produce better services for local ratepayers, improve governance, and reduce duplication and waste," a Liberal Party spokeswoman said.

"In the coming weeks, Felicity will continue to talk to local residents and businesses to ensure their voices are heard during the upcoming process."

The council amalgamations issue has been toxic on the North Shore. Liberal Trent Zimmerman declared he was opposed to the policy during his campaign for the federal seat of North Sydney in 2015, and later conceded the issue had probably contributed to a 13 per cent swing against the party.

The North Shore electorate includes three councils - Mosman, North Sydney and Lane Cove - that are to be merged.

Candidates for the byelection include Ms Corrigan, Dr Ruff and Greens Justin Alick, who oppose amalgamations, North Sydney mayor Jilly Gibson, who backflipped in February on her previous opposition to taking legal action to prevent mergers, and lawyer Ian Mutton.

Mr Young said he and several others had written to Dr Ruff encouraging him to withdraw his nomination in order to avoid splitting the anti-amalgamation vote, or Ms Wilson may sail through by default.

Anti-amalgamationists are organising two candidates' forums next week, which are "going to be all about 'put the Liberals last'," Mr Young said.

This story has been amended to note that Save Our Councils Coalition designed the Orange campaign.

This story Independents ramp up anti-amalgamation campaign in byelection first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.