Perth council mergers: Principal argument rejected by court as protesters rally

ABC News Updated 1 minute ago Tue 25 Nov 2014, 3:56pm

Perth councils have been forced to abandon one of their principal grounds for a Supreme Court challenge to the Western Australian Government’s mergers plan.

Several councils including Subiaco, South Perth and Serpentine-Jarrahdale, claim the Government’s plan to cut Perth councils from 30 to 16 is invalid because it does not comply with the Local Government Act.

The lawyer representing the councils, Chris Shanahan, said the action was about the process and the way Local Government Minister Tony Simpson sought permission to go through with the mergers.

He argued in court that Mr Simpson had initially made the “artificial” decision to split the plan into 12 pieces to avoid giving electors the right to vote on the changes.

But after legal argument with Chief Justice Wayne Martin, Mr Shanahan conceded this did not apply to his clients because the Local Government Advisory Board had not accepted most of Mr Simpson’s proposals, and he abandoned the argument.

Mr Shanahan also claimed there was proof of extensive bias by the board’s chair, Mel Congerton, and other members in favour of the merger plans.

He revealed an email by Mr Congerton sent in July 2013.

“Let the minister know that he’s doing a great job in the trenches,” Mr Congerton purportedly wrote.

“In the words of Churchill – we will prevail.”

Justice Martin questioned whether this was relevant given it was not until later that year that the Minister announced his proposals for council mergers.

Mr Shanahan also outlined an email to Premier Colin Barnett’s by Mr Congerton where he expressed an interest in becoming a local government commissioner, as previously revealed by the ABC.

“That might give rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias,” Mr Shanahan said.

He also said meetings by board members with Mr Simpson and the involvement by Local Government Department members in the board’s deliberations pointed to bias.

That argument was rejected by the lawyer representing the State Government, Craig Bydder.

He said if the board had been doing the Government’s bidding it would have gone along with its wish for a greater City of Perth, including the University of Western Australia, QEII hospital and Kings Park.

Mr Bydder agreed with Justice Martin that the most which could be said was Mr Congerton was generally supportive of the council merger plan.

Mr Shanahan also suggested local governments and electors should have been allowed to make their own proposals for boundary changes before the Local Government Advisory Board made its recommendations to Government.

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