Thursday, 16 August 2007
Matters of Public Importance
Local government is the most fundamental unit of democracy in this country. It has a longstanding tradition dating back to the culture and laws we inherited from the UK and have refined since. That makes it all the more bewildering that Queensland members of the opposition did not support this discussion today and gives the lie to the Leader of the Opposition’s claim that he is supporting the Prime Minister on this matter.
Having said that, local government serves all manner of communities, from far-flung shires in the heartland of Australia to cities like Brisbane, which has an operating budget greater than the state government of Tasmania—if you like, a state within the state. The recent move of the Beattie government to force the amalgamations of councils was a cynical, ham-fisted move that will impact on smaller provincial cities and rural communities right throughout the state.
Before we head into the fullness of the debate, let me make one thing perfectly clear: neither my colleagues nor I oppose amalgamations per se. If two or more cities or shires want to come together in a free expression of will by their residents, if there is consultation, a case made for and against as we have in referendums, and a poll or plebiscite following that, then I am comfortable with the decision, as are all of my colleagues.
There is an argument, of course, that some doughnut councils might be better served by joining the nearer provincial city, and there has been some evidence of that. So we are not against amalgamations per se. There are others like Crows Nest and Rosalie that want to come together. There is a fair amount of evidence that Hervey Bay and Maryborough want come together. If these things are properly subject to consultation and tested by a vote then I will support the results.
But there is a country mile between that approach and the thug-like approach where no dissent of any sort is tolerated. In fact, people in provincial cities that support amalgamation believe all local authorities are entitled to a free vote. But what do we have? We had a five-year consultative program called the triple S process, in which 118 of Queensland’s 125 regular councils were constructively participating. They were well into it. There were trying to find ways of sharing machinery pools, group buying and doing all those sorts of things.
They were not dishing it up to the government—quite the contrary: they were working with the state government to achieve the three S process. But, 18 months into it, it was suddenly abandoned. Why? I suspect it was because they proved that these councils, with a few exceptions, would be best staying as they were and that resources could be shared between adjoining councils. So what happened? It was cancelled overnight and in its place, a so-called Local Government Reform Commission, perhaps more aptly named the local government amalgamation commission, was given three months to suggest new boundaries, albeit within constrained terms of reference.
One month was allowed for submissions. This is the most fundamental unit of democracy and we have one month for submissions. We have six weeks, do we not, when the AEC looks into our boundaries? Then in the two months that remained—60-odd days or, I suppose you could say, about 48 working days—the commissioners were asked to consider 37,000 submissions. Then there were to be no public hearings and no testing of evidence. How is that? In fact, the commission’s report was presented at 10 one morning last week, and it was signed off by lunchtime the same day. What sort of scrutiny did state cabinet give the report? None.