COUNCILLORS have put a kibosh on Parramatta having a popularly-elected lord mayor by 2024 after they voted to consult the community first.
Lord Mayor Bob Dwyer failed to convince his fellow Liberals to have a referendum on the matter at the September 4 local government election at the May 10 council meeting.
The main downfall of Cr Dwyer’s move was the timing, as councils have to inform the State Electoral Commission by May 20 if they want to put up a referendum in September.
The issue has seen an alliance between the Liberal lord mayor and Labor councillors.
At the meeting, Labor councillor Pierre Esber urged councillors to let the community decide the issue in a referendum, the wording of which does not have to be submitted until late June.
“Parramatta needs to move forward by having a lord mayor elected by the people,” Cr Esber said.
“By denying the people this chance, we are saying they don’t know how to select their lord mayor. It is not rocket science. If they can elect 15 councilors, then why not the lord mayor?”
But Liberal councillor Martin Zaiter put forward an amendment that council should consult with the community first before presenting a referendum.
“Lord mayor, I commend you for raising this issue: it takes someone with vision to put this forward,” Cr Zaiter buttered up Cr Dwyer before delivering the blow.
Community must decide
“But it should be up to the community to decide. Why should councillors, behind closed doors, decide (if there should be a referendum)?
“What is the point of democracy if we don’t bring in the community as part of the discussion?”
Cr Ben Barrak raised the old argument that councils should “mimic” the system of State and Federal governments, where the party members elect their leader rather than the people.
Labor councillor Donna Davis doubted any favourable outcome of community consultation, citing how that had failed to change council’s decisions on other matters, such as the makeup of Parramatta Square.
“Community consultation is only good if it’s listened to,” Cr Davis said.
“Why are we afraid to let people of this city decide who is going to lead them?
“We want all the bells and whistles of being a big City but we’re not allowing people to choose their leader.”
Independent councillor and former lord mayor Andrew Wilson said “no system of democracy is perfect”.
He pointed out that lord mayoral candidates would be hard-pressed to “man 100 voting booths” on election day.
“Parramatta has done well with our present system, it has not held us back,” he said.
Councillors voted 8-4 to support Cr Zaiter’s motion for community consultation.
After the meeting, Cr Dwyer told the Times he was disappointed.
“I’m disappointed we can’t put this to the people at the upcoming election.
“This means the earliest we can put up a referendum is in 2024. No chance of having a popularly elected lord mayor until 2028 at least.”
“I now know I couldn’t win this – although I think a Liberal lord mayoral candidate would have a better chance of being elected, as 37 per cent of people voted for Liberal councillors,” he said.
He sees the irony of Labor, rather than Liberal, councillors supporting him on this issue.
The present system of councillors electing their leader led to a “horse trade” system, with not always the most competent person getting the job.
Cr Esber told the Times that Labor would campaign strongly on the issue.
“The bottom line is, if the voters of Parramatta want to elect their lord mayor, rather than the Chamber, they have to vote Labor,” he said.
The reluctance of Liberal councillors to have a popularly elected lord mayor goes against the wishes of leading State Liberals, including Parramatta MP Geoff Lee and Baulkham Hills MP David Elliott.
By DI BARTOK
Photos: Current Lord Mayor, Bob Dwyer.