The Queensland Parliament has passed laws Friday cutting the number of regional councils from 156 to 72 after a night of intense debate in the House. The bill was passed into law at 4am Friday morning after a marathon 14 hour sitting when the Government used its numbers to guillotine the longest Queensland parliamentary debate in 14 years Beattie told Parliament amalgamations will provide stronger local representation. "This is an historic day to give councils greater clout than they've ever had before," he said. However Opposition spokesman Mike Horan said “it's a shameful night tonight.”
The council amalgamations issue has become embroiled in the phoney-Federal election campaign with John Howard offering to hold plebiscites on the issue. Beattie said running federally-funded referendums in affected council areas would cost Australian taxpayers more than $10 million and would be a waste of money. He has now retaliated by passing the Bill with amendments allowing the State Government to summarily sack any councils that hold merger referendums. This move has attracted the ire of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties who have described the power to sack councils as "over the top". ACCL president Terry O'Gorman says the Queensland Government should immediately scrap that amendment to the new law. "It's over the top and it's Peter Beattie at his bullying worst," he said. "The reality is if people want to have a vote to see if their councils should be abolished, they should have a right to do it.
The peak local government body Local Government Association of Queensland says is a ploy linked to electoral redistribution. LGAQ president Paul Bell said that by amalgamating local councils, the state government has found a way to skew redistribution to bring about an outcome more favourable to itself. “Clever tweaking of local government boundaries means ABS [Australian Bureau of Statistics] figures have been manipulated so that the QEC [Queensland Electoral Commission] is more likely to come up with favourable outcomes in these regions,” he said. “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.
The amalgamations are most unpopular in small but influential high-end tourist towns such as Noosa and Port Douglas who fear they will be gobbled up by nearby larger administrations such as Sunshine Coast and Cairns. State Liberal MPs have submitted proposals to the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct ballots in the Redcliffe and Noosa council areas, where majorities of residents have signed petitions opposing the merging of their councils. A loose coalition group of high profile residents known as Friends of Noosa has pledged more than $100,000 to mount a legal challenge to fight the Queensland Government and stop Noosa from being forced to amalgamate with Caloundra and Maroochy councils. The group also organised an 8,000 strong protest march in Brisbane on 3 August against the amalgamations.
Federal Labour leader Kevin Rudd is anxious not to be caught in a wedge politics issue. Aware that the one million strong city of Brisbane is unaffected by the mergers, he has so far sidestepped the debate merely offering to “look very carefully” at the issue. Rudd said he would examine the plans and consult with the LGAQ. "I'll be looking very carefully at the recommendations for, not just the Sunshine Coast and not just Noosa, but right across this state," he said. "The best pathway forward if there is to be amalgamations, is for them to be voluntary.
The move to amalgamate was first announced by the Queensland Government in April this year. Premier Peter Beattie and local Government minister Andrew Fraser released a joint statement where they announced the establishment of a seven-member Queensland Local Government Reform Commission. The commission was to spend three months considering new boundaries for the long-term sustainability of local government across the state. Beattie said that of Queensland’s 157 councils, 88 service populations of 5,000 people or less, which he said was unsustainable.
The Commission led by Bob Longland released its report on 27 July. The two volume 455-page report followed the government lead and recommended boundary changes and amalgamations which reduce the number of Councils in the State from 156 to 73. The commission reported that the original local government boundaries were set 100 years ago largely based on the territory that could be covered in a day using transport modes prevalent at the time. It said these boundaries do not align with population shifts, community expectations, and developments in communications and transport that have occurred since.
As well as reducing the overall number of councils, the commission’s other key recommendations (pdf) were
a) reducing the number of SE Queensland councils from 17 to 10,
b) leaving 37 councils (including Brisbane) untouched
c) not amalgamating large western councils due to the inability of structural reform to lead to any significant service delivery or capacity benefits
d) forming a new Torres Strait Island Regional Council and the Northern Peninsula Area Regional Council involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island councils
e) not amalgamating Aboriginal councils at this time, due to their unique features
f) giving councils the ability to petition the State Government to alter the name of a new local government area
g) changing council electoral arrangements of councils to conduct their election on 15 March 2008 on an undivided basis
h) changing the electoral composition of councils to reduce the number of councillors in Queensland from 1,250 to 526
i) reviewing the financial sustainability of councils on a regular basis
j) providing State Government assistance to manage transition and early implementation of the reforms and build the capacity of councils that have existing capacity or sustainability issues.
Beattie will be hoping that the longer-term benefits will outweigh the current chorus of disapproval.