Last week the Queensland Government announced that the number of local governments in Queensland would be reduced by half as a result of an extensive review of local government undertaken by a commission established by the Government to investigate local government in the state.
There are several pertinent background facts to bear in mind when assessing these proposals.
First is that Queensland is the most decentralised of the mainland states, but yet west of the Great Dividing Range populations are sparse and distances between centres are huge.
Second, 1,000 to 1,500 persons a week are settling permanently in Queensland, the vast majority in South East Queensland (SEQ) and along the coastal fringe around provincial cities. This has been occurring for the past 20 years and has profoundly altered the demographic complexion of the state.
Third, local government has no constitutional recognition (remember a referendum to grant this was defeated in 1988) and so is a creature of state governments which, in theory, could abolish this tier of government overnight.
Predictably there has been a mixed response to this initiative. There was a great fear in National Party circles that there would be forced amalgamations in rural shires which would result in local areas grouped into large geographical areas with the seat of local government in a remote, albeit “central” place. This has not generally happened, probably because there are few economies of scale to be had by such an exercise and that such an event may well create more problems than it solves.
As the National Party still overwhelmingly recruits its activists and politicians from the shire councils, such a re-arrangement of local authorities may well have weakened its base. The party has won a reprieve, although recruiting from such a narrow base does nothing for the quality of its representation.
The bite has come for coastal communities where rural areas are adjacent to urban and provincial city overspill. In tandem there has been an attempt to regionalise smaller units such as on the Northern outskirts of Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast, in the Hervey Bay area and in Far North Queensland with Cairns and the Douglas Shire, to name a few.
The initial rage came from mayors and councillors who saw their units being amalgamated and therefore their jobs and perquisites of office disappearing. While this can be dismissed as posturing, and it largely is, the Government has saved some local angst by allowing merged and regionalised units to retain or gain (as the case may be) a ward system whereby local entities elect local representatives to a wider decision making body, as currently happens in Brisbane, and the Gold Coast.
In essence it is a simple and necessary reform brought about by the march of immigration and urbanisation; the necessities demanded by economies of scale and the need for a modern system of local government to deliver the best value for money and effort expended.
Amalgamation is a good thing in theory but always needs sensitive handling. With the consultation process and the legislative debates to follow as the scheme is enacted, this will be the challenge for the Government. What can be said is that the process will not be derailed by selfish parochial interests of people who like to be big fish in small and shallow ponds.
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