The decisions made by local councils have huge and immediate impacts on our life and the place where we live, especially in terms of development.
This is particularly true of Camden Council, which is smack in the middle of the fastest growing area in Australia – the South West Priority Growth Area (pdf).
According to the 2010 Strategies and Land release document the Camden Local Government area is on track to see 89,000 more houses, an increase in our population of 245,000 people, three new industrial areas, 12-16 new supermarkets and up to 63 new community centres over the coming decade. And it will be our council that approves almost every part of this and what is, and is not, allowed.
On the plus side, the next 10 years of this council will be a golden period for balancing the books as the increase in rates income that comes with that population boost will make the council’s finances look very flush without much effort at all.
But it’s what happens after this period that has to be prepared for - a time when all that’s new starts to age. Suddenly the council’s budget will be consumed by the maintenance of ageing infrastructure.
We don’t want to end up like Bankstown Council (see page 23 - pdf) with a shortfall on road maintenance of more than $9million and a backlog of uncompleted roadworks close to $50million. And that is very possible because in the next 10 years Camden’s population will exceed Bankstown’s current population by 100,000 and be even more than Parramatta’s is today.
This is the type of city coming to our area.
This growth is also why party politics has reared its ugly head. It’s why a Liberal bloc has arrived in our council and why a Labor Party bloc is running under its party banner for the first time in Camden.
The big parties are here because some time in the near future, with the inevitable rapid increase in our population, the Camden State electorate and the Camden council area will be split into two or maybe even three parts. That makes three State seats that could decide an election. Three seats that need representation.
Local mayors often become State members as Liz Kernohan, Greg Corrigan and now Chris Patterson have shown. Our current mayor, Lara Symkowiak, clearly has political ambitions as she has already tried to run for a senate seat.
The major parties value the suburbs on the Sydney fringe because, so often, this is where elections can be won or lost. That is really why the big parties are here. Not for the community but for power.
When the Liberals ran as a bloc they supposedly broke "a sort of gentlemen’s agreement" with the ALP that opened the doors for the Labor Party to do the same this time around and in a single blow wiped out Camden’s council of individuals. Those individuals were, admittedly, a motley bunch with different allegiances, but they were OUR motley bunch.
And in coming to power the Liberals have also shown what happens when party politics comes to town.
Every glossy mail-out from the Liberals on this council has implied they were responsible for every new park and every council success. Yet the voting record of this council often shows that all of the councilors voted together to move these successes forward – not just the Liberals.
But as I have written before, when the Liberals have exercised their power as bloc to defy the Independents, it has often been at the expense of transparency and to close their ears to the voice of this community.
Community groups have had public addresses silenced in council chambers, a general manager has been sacked without explanation, rules have been changed to make the working of the council less transparent and now it is harder than ever to bring a petition before council because of the new demands forced through by the Liberals and their allies.
During their tenure, the Liberals have gone after their critics ruthlessly. They fought with and undermined the Camden Chamber of Commerce, ignored a 4000 signature petition from residents and decisions have been made that mean The Advertiser newspaper, which was vocal about this council during some of these battles, rarely if ever gets advertising. Have a look at the latest issue and compare it with The Chronicle and you will see what I mean.
These are the areas where the Liberals influence has been truly felt – not in building parks, playgrounds and sporting centres. It’s an illustration of what party politics will do to this region if it remains unchecked. I could be cynical but I don’t believe for a second that a Labor bloc wouldn’t seize a similar advantage if it was in power.
It’s why we should all hope to see the Liberals as a bloc gone. We should also hope equally that a Labor bloc does not control our council.
We need balance and a focus on what is best for our community.
Sure a Liberal here and an ALP councillor there is fine but overall, holding the centre, we need community minded councillors that do not follow party lines.
The future of Camden and the 245,000 new residents who will come to call this area home over the coming years depends on it.