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Queensland's burning - local government amalgamations Beattie-style

By Scott Prasser - posted Thursday, 27 September 2007


Enforced state government amalgamation of local governments is not new in either Australia or Queensland. However, the Queensland Beattie Labor Government’s decision in August to cut the number of local authorities from 156 to 72 and to sack 724 elected councillors deserves our attention in terms of its processes, rationale, and what it tells us about the status of local government in Australia and democratic practice at a state level.

Even by Queensland’s executive government top-down decision-making standards the Beattie Labor Government’s enforced amalgamation of local governments announced at the beginning of August has been breathtaking in its speed of execution, breadth of impact, and lack of consultation.

Further, the Beattie Government’s threat to sack any council holding a referendum on the issue has given the issue wider significance especially as it has provoked unprecedented federal government intervention.

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Prime Minister Howard announced he would change the Commonwealth Electoral Act to override the Beattie Labor Government’s “dictatorial” and “undemocratic” actions and allow the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct polls for those local government areas that wanted to hold these.

No previous national government has sought to intervene so directly in local government or state responsibilities or on these grounds of democratic practice. That this action was supported by federal Labor who were also openly critical of the Beattie Government’s processes in this matter suggests that the Howard Government’s actions were not totally partisan.

The issue is not whether some of the recent amalgamations in Queensland were necessary, as some were. Rather, the debate has increasingly focused on how it was done as it is in relation to processes that democratic standards can be best assessed. Indeed, the issue highlights the meaning of community consultation, just where does local government fit in our system of government, the nature of state governments in relation to democratic practice and whether “national” standards need to be imposed on miscreant state governments as in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s in relation to civil liberties.

Background to local government amalgamations

During the past three decades the number of local governments in Australia has fallen from just over 900 to approximately 600. In recent years there has been renewed interest in amalgamations with numerous federal, state and local government sponsored inquiries into local government financial sustainability.

This issue has been driven by two different influences. On the one hand drought and the decline of many rural areas have caused many local authorities to struggle with a declining rate and population base. In other cases rapid population growth and development in “sea-change” regions and the stresses this has caused local governments has spurred amalgamation.

Where local government fits into Australia’s rapidly changing and increasingly nationally dominated federal system, also figures in these discussions, though Australia has yet to pursue this issue as comprehensively other countries.

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In relation to Queensland local government, amalgamation has largely been off the agenda since the 1990s when there were a spate of amalgamations and other local government reforms introduced by the Goss Labor Government in response to the reform process unleashed by the Fitzgerald Commission of Inquiry.

Proposals by the Electoral Administrative Review Commission (EARC) for amalgamations across 16 local governments met considerable opposition and caused the Goss Government to establish a Local Government Commission, as recommended by EARC, to investigate and consult on these proposals. By 1994 it resulted in four amalgamations with others following. Despite the consultative process these amalgamations were seen as contributing to its poor 1995 election results and fall from office in 1996.

The National Party-led Coalition government abolished the Local Government Commission and amended the Local Government Act so that amalgamations could only occur if the matter was referred to the Local Government Electoral and Boundaries Review Commission by the Local Government Minister, who would act only if convinced that there was considerable community and clear local government support. Further, any proposals for amalgamation had to go to a local referendum (though Parliament could still reject the referendum result).

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Democratic Audit of Australia discussion paper, September, 2007.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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