No time for ego – or an entourage

RUSHING AHEAD: Some 660,000 more people will settle in western Sydney in the next 20 years and local government will be at the forefront of the changes.
RUSHING AHEAD: Some 660,000 more people will settle in western Sydney in the next 20 years and local government will be at the forefront of the changes.

Recently, on a wet Saturday morning in a back room of an outer western Sydney golf club, I sat listening to a small group of people. They were some of western Sydney’s mayors, councillors and general managers.

The context is important. Last week the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced that Sydney’s population has reached 5 million. What should have been the headline (but wasn’t) is that two-thirds of Sydney’s growth over the last 10 years has occurred in the west, with nine western Sydney local government areas in the top 10 for biggest growth.

These are Blacktown, Parramatta, Liverpool, Camden, The Hills, Canterbury-Bankstown, Penrith, Cumberland and Campbelltown. The outsider is the City of Sydney which is ranked fourth.

The mayors, councillors and general managers were gathered to discuss action priorities for western Sydney for the coming years.

In the last decade, western Sydney added over 390,000 people. Put another way, during the last 10 years two out of every three new Sydneysiders has been a westie. And this will continue. As Sydney adds another million over the next 20 years – to reach 6 million in total – about 660,000 of this million will settle in western Sydney.

Our mayors, councillors and general managers will deal with this growth day-in and day-out as it hits the ground.

I notice as these men and women rush out of the rain into the golf club that they arrive alone. They have no staff, no drivers, no PAs. Federal and state parliamentarians have staff around them all the time. So do senior public servants. 

All morning our representatives talk through what should be done to advance the interests of western Sydney over the coming years. These are very important times. Last week the draft district plans of the Greater Sydney Commission ended a period for public comment.

Now the deliberations of the commission will be conducted behind closed doors. What the 10 commissioners decide will be the parameters of western Sydney’s growth in the coming decade.

The commissioners are all experienced, wise professionals, as you would expect. All were appointed by the state government. And only one lives in western Sydney. The commission will deliver the blueprints for western Sydney’s growth – for local councils to implement.

Over the blueprints will come infrastructure, and then new dwellings and schools and hospitals and shopping centres, and (hopefully) giant concentrations of new jobs.

The mayors and the councillors and general managers discuss where funding for all this will come from. Only six per cent of the nation’s tax cake is spent by local government. The real money is spent by state and federal governments, and their attention to western Sydney comes alive at election time.

The next elections – state and federal – are likely in 2019, so our mayors, councillors and general managers discuss strategies to attract the commitments of politicians when they descend seeking votes.

I enjoy my eavesdropping at morning tea. A mayor is talking to his general manager about a continuing problem with a local resident. The resident is behaving badly again, said the general manager. Drunkenness and a ferocious dog are mentioned. The mayor says he will look into it.

After four hours the mayors, the councillors and the general managers call it a morning. Some rush off to local events wondering aloud to non-existent staff whether the rain has forced cancellations. Others drive home to grab family time. And one mayor drives off to see a man about a dog.

Our region is served well by these people. But I wonder if we are doing the future on the cheap, that we are failing to provide local government with the resources to match the gigantic task that western Sydney is asked to perform.

  • Professor Phillip O’Neill is the director of the Centre for Western Sydney at Western Sydney University