QUEENSLAND: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Revolt grows over forced council amalgamations
, September 1, 2007
Despite widespread opposition, Queensland premier Peter Beattie is pushing ahead with forced council amalgamations, writes Peter Westmore.Despite widespread opposition, the Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, is pushing ahead with forced council amalgamations, though federal Labor fears that it may cost Labor seats in the forthcoming federal election.
The Prime Minister, John Howard, pledged that the Federal Government would bankroll local government referenda if councils wished to ascertain the views of their people on the issue. Mr Beattie responded by legislating that councils which conducted referenda would be peremptorily sacked.
Mr Howard trumped this, by introducing legislation to override the state law.
Latest Brisbane Courier-Mail
online polling has brought the angst towards the amalgamations issue closer to Labor's heartland in outer metropolitan state seats and the federal seats that Labor needs to win at the coming federal election.Discontent
Almost 70 per cent of respondents from Redcliffe - in the seat of Petrie, held by Teresa Gambaro (Lib.) with a 7.4 per cent margin - said the issue had tainted Labor. That discontent would flow over into Longman, Minister Mal Brough's electorate with a 6.6 per cent margin, and Dickson held by Peter Dutton (Lib.) - all neighboring electorates affected by the same amalgamation, and all winnable seats for Labor before amalgamations.
The new seat of Flynn has anger from Aramac, Blackall and Tambo in the west, to Emerald, Bauhinna and Taroom in central Queensland, and Monto, Eidsvold, Banana and Calliope in the east.
Labor had a chance of picking this seat up before amalgamations, but the dictatorial rule of Beattie, and Howard's move to give ratepayers a democratic say, have opened people's eyes to the dangers of having Labor in power in all federal and state parliaments. Flynn will be a great deal harder for Rudd to win.
These are only some of the shires angered by what has happened. Translate this across the state and the Courier-Mail
's headline on August 20: "Rudd to pay, council merger backlash to deliver ballot blow", is not far off the mark.
There has been a massive revolt in rural areas, with several councils - which face the axe under the State Government plan - announcing that they would conduct referenda despite the threat of sacking.
Local councils have been supported strongly by the Local Government Association of Queensland, which has conducted its own poll on the issue.
A survey of 1,100 people, weighted according to the population in local government areas, showed that overall, 53.8 per cent either opposed or strongly opposed the amalgamations while only 22.4 per cent either supported or strongly supported them. There was no significant difference in support by gender. There was a slight increase in opposition among older residents.
An even larger proportion stated that there should be a referendum on the issue before council amalgamations were implemented.
While the Beattie Government justified its decision on the basis that local government would be financially strengthened by amalgamation, only 24 per cent of residents agreed, with over 44 per cent disagreeing. In relation to other issues, including local identity, quality of local government planning, quality of council services and other issues, there was an even stronger negative vote.
In only two local government areas, Townsville and Bundaberg, was there support for council mergers.
Communities are offering to use their own money to pay for a vote on amalgamations, Local Government Association of Queensland president, Cr Paul Bell, revealed.
"People are responding to government threats to sack councils that spent money on referendums. The first communities to put their hands in their pockets to save their councils from dismissal have been in Tambo and Ilfracombe," Cr Bell said.
"We expect others to follow as community anger grows at the stand-over tactics being employed by the state," he said.
"Mr Beattie is obviously very afraid to hear from voters because he knows the overwhelming result will be against amalgamation.
"He denied people a chance to vote in April on changes to the Local Government Act and he turned the reform commission process into a farce by giving it insufficient time to read 45,000 submissions.
"All this has made communities even more determined to be heard, even if they have to pay for the chance to exercise what surely should be their free democratic right for a say in the most profound changes ever made to the way in which Queensland is governed.
"To say, as the government has, that council boundaries should be changed because they've been in place for 100 years is like saying state boundaries should be changed for the same reasons - in other words it's a nonsense."
While political observers believe the forced amalgamations are intended to destroy the rural base of the National Party, many of whose MPs gained a grounding in local government, the Local Government Association has argued that the plan is designed to manipulate electoral boundaries in the forthcoming redistribution.
"Australia has one of the world's best organised and fairest electoral systems, but that hasn't stopped the government doing everything it can to massage the figures on which the Queensland Electoral Commission [QEC] bases its decisions," Cr Bell said.
"The commission relies on Australian Bureau of Statistics figures to draw up state seat boundaries - statistics drawn from within local government boundaries.
"By amalgamating particular local councils, the state government has found a way to skew the new redistribution to bring about a more favourable outcome, despite massive population growth since the last redistribution in 1999," he said.
"The number of state seats is unlikely to change in the redistribution later this year, but it will be affected by the huge increase in population in coastal Queensland's government-held seats where the number of voters is well over quota. Under the old local government boundaries, these seats would have been substantially redrawn before the next state election.
"But clever tweaking of local government boundaries means ABS figures have been manipulated so that the QEC is more likely to come up with favourable outcomes in these regions.
"It's a smart and politically-clever move from the government's point of view. It's lawful, but it's an abuse of power and the state's communities in the name of political convenience.
"We knew all along that the government's stated concern over councils' financial stability and the polling research-driven 'need for stronger councils' was not what this was all about, because the figures just didn't back up those claims in any way. Now, the real truth is out," Cr Bell said.- Peter Westmore