COUNCIL AMALGAMATIONS IN QUEENSLAND
LOCAL GOVERNMENT RE-ORGANISATION - OR IS IT?
It's was 1927, 80 years ago, give or take a month or two, the then Queensland Government initiated a Royal Commission into the "present distribution and size" of Local Authorities in Queensland.
The Commission came back with a recommendation that the then 152 Local Authority areas be reduced to 86. However, for reasons we can only reasonably guess at without a lot of research, the government of the day elected not to proceed with the recommendations. In all probability, it wasn't proceeded with because it could have had very disastrous effects for the Government of the day, as a direct result of a massive backlash from the electorate.
To alienate so many people simultaneously, for so little gain, may just not have seemed such a good idea at the time. Not so for our present, and fearless leader, Premier Beattie, who with quixotic fervour, and with his Local Government Minister doing a commendable impersonation of
Sancho Panza, have set about with enthusiasm to tilt at the windmills of Queensland.
Or are they?
There is no doubt that the Queensland Government Local Government Report of 2007 is a spectacular visual presentation and should be entered in every award category available to it, advertising, public relations, graphic presentations and the like. As a presentation it's without peer. On the substance side however it's not such a brilliant piece of work being the ultimate in generalisations, desperately short on detailed reason, high on rhetoric and not attempting to seek alternatives or resolve the matter in any other way.
Over the years changes have been made to Local Government boundaries, and amalgamations have been undertaken, not always happily, but by and large things seemed to have worked out. Which of course begs the question would they have worked out in any case?
As is the situation with the presently enacted amalgamations, the claim is made in each case that the centralisation that accompanies amalgamation leads to greater efficiencies and so a better and less expensive service to the ratepayers. Again, that is a speculation rather than a fact and assumes that cost is the only factor involved in community management.
Unfortunately, centralisation for ratepayers, and the public, is more about control than efficiency. The other more local effect is that it removes the representative of the people further from the people, and in turn that representative less understands the issues within the community, which in turn leads to a lesser standard of representation and satisfaction on the part of the community.
Since the inception of Local Government in Queensland there has always been recognition that Local Government has played an important part in the government of Queensland in that it serves a very local community and is directly responsible to those very local people. It is the form of Government that is closest to the people and, in all probably the most passionate level of Government that we have. Over the years Local Government has done quite a reasonable job regarding local administration and at all times have been overseen and financed by and through the State Government and, more lately, the Federal Government as well.
A significant change took place in 1993 when Local Government moved from being an agent of the state, with "prescribed" or "delegated" powers to becoming a law making "Government" in its own right. The change in the 1993 Act was so subtle that at the time it was given little recognition and promoted as a good and responsible thing to do. Most people at the time accepted it as an irrelevancy and barely gave it a second thought.
This change was given effect by the Goss Queensland government and only a few years after the Hawke Federal Labor government had unsuccessfully carried out a referendum seeking formal Federal recognition of Local Governments. It is interesting to note that in the most recent Beattie government reorganisation the new amalgamated areas are designated as "Regional Governments", and this takes the history back a little further.
In the 1970's when Geoff Whitlam defeated Malcolm Frazer, and after the period of government by 'the committee of three', some sweeping changes in the way the country was governed were promoted. Some of the changes were definitely for the better but as with all zealous reformers there is a tendency to remove standards without really having anything to replace them with. Then there were the "directional" changes and these are the ones that are of most concern here.
Firstly, there was a push towards republicanism, and secondly, a move towards "regionalisation". The republican movement has continued without achieving its unpopular goal, but it would seem that "regionalisation" now has its first score on the board. This may not seem to be such a drastic change but it has to be recognised in the present day environment and events that we know, having been promised, will happen in the future, to the detriment of some local governments.
One of those future events is a further referendum question on the "federal recognition" of local government. Mr. Rudd has promised that this will take place and it is now obviously clear to Mr. Rudd that having realised that republicanism and regionalisation could not be effectively sold to the public by the methodology used by Mr. Hawke, another method has to be tried. This second method is a State initiated regionalisation as a first achievement, with the Commonwealth recognition being the second, but almost certainly not the final act!
Simply put, as top down didn't work… let's try bottom up.
Should all of this succeed, and given the 1993 Goss local government legislation on the matter, this will leave us with
two (2) distinct and autonomous levels of Government with the present State government being subservient to the Federal government through the Constitution and, the Regional
Councils subservient to both the State and the Commonwealth, by their respective legislation.
Clearly this amounts to gross over-government particularly when all three levels are autonomous. All will have to be funded and all will have the right to impose one or more forms of taxation and, additional taxation can be taken as a given. Taxes such as the GST stamp duties and government charges will be the initial targets together with rates and land taxes. The potential for buck-passing will be monumental and there is absolutely no guarantee that this revised form of government will be either less costly or will better represent the people. In fact all the indicators point the other way.
The next development will be the recognition by the governments that they are impeding each other and so a tussle will ensue between the governments to gain supremacy. Depending on the way the Federal governments elects to distribute funding, and it will retain the significant revenue raising powers itself, will determine on which level of government becomes "ceremonial". In fact the Federal government will direct funding to ensure it gets the outcome it wants.
At this time, looking realistically at the situation, Local government will merely "be recognised" in the Constitution without specific designated powers while the State Governments, in theory at least, will have residual powers. Clearly the Federal government will favour the form of subservient government over which it has the most control and so the States and Constitution will become mere tools in the hands of manipulators.
The Federal government will work directly with the Regional level of government and then it's game, set and match. We can be assured, if recent determinations by the High Court, like the Industrial Relations decision, are any guide, there will be no judicial intervention and instantly both the 'republican' and 'regional' questions will cease to be questions and metamorphose over time into fact.
Now if we just skip back to that thought about power and control mentioned previously, the reality of the matter immediately becomes apparent.
Control the Federal Government and you control everything. No dissenting States, and it can be guaranteed that some 50 to 100 regions around Australia will be bereft of co-ordination, co-operation and dominated by self-interest.
Problem is that it is not our representatives that effectively control the federal government.
For the effective life of a Parliament, driven by interest groups and other social engineers who are so obscure as to be invisible, but nevertheless, are unbelievably powerful. These groups work through the two-party system and the only time that their progress is impeded, in the interests of the people, is when neither of the major parties have complete power.
By way of example, prior to the last Parliament, the Howard government had no Senate majority and the level of disclosure forced by the Senate was far in excess of anything we have seen in the last three years. In the weeks leading up to the forthcoming Federal election some lip service will be paid to "what the people want", but within the same period after the election, it is "what is good for the people", which are two entirely different matters.
So when we look at the current council amalgamations just remember we are looking at a process, however well disguised, that took its first steps in 1927 and has been working towards its objective to this day.
The worry is that we all know what the results will be. The world's social and economic environment is set out before us in clear and unequivocal detail. The end game is what we see in the 'republic' United States today, and it's not about the form of government, it's about the form of control, and right now it's still your choice.
RETURN TO: AN