In 2007, Peter Beattie’s Queensland state Labor government demanded that the number of the state’s local authorities be reduced from 156 to 72, claiming that Treasury had found that a number of small councils, particularly in rural areas, were financially weak and unsustainable.
It was argued at the time that amalgamating local authorities into super-councils would streamline services and operations, lead to greater efficiencies and ultimately result in overall cost savings for ratepayers.
However, the Beattie government’s policy was strenuously resisted by many Queenslanders, who formed action groups and rallied public support against the amalgamations.
Premier Beattie threatened any council with instant dismissal if it held a referendum on the issue. The Howard federal government allowed referenda to be held, which resulted in resounding votes against amalgamation. However, Beattie pressed on regardless.
Liberal National Party (LNP) members used the Queensland public’s disenchantment with the issue to shore up their support in rural and regional areas. Before the March 2012 state election, they promised to reverse the amalgamations if elected to government.
However, on coming to power, the Campbell Newman’s LNP government settled for a far more limited rollback.
The government initially invited Queenslanders to express their views on amalgamations by August 31. However, the Mayor of Toowoomba, Cr Paul Antonio, was reported on ABC News (August 17, 2012) as alleging that the consultative process the government had set up was “designed to fail and that the process was just to keep people quiet”.
Only 19 former shires subsequently submitted proposals for de-amalgamations. According to anecdotal evidence, many shires did not bother to submit anything because of the restrictive conditions and limited time frame.
The new Local Government Minister, David Crisafulli, caused much consternation by ruling out 14 of the submissions, and allowing only five in favour of council de-amalgamation (Douglas, Isis, Livingstone, Mareeba and Noosa) to proceed to a further stage of government consideration.
Given that the minister made his decision only 19 days after the close of the submissions, it is difficult to see how he could have had time to investigate each one properly.
Minister Crisafulli then conducted a series of meetings across the state with the stated aim of hammering out “better deals” for disaffected residents in the areas where calls for de-amalgamation had been rejected.
This peace mission was to involve two or three proponents of de-amalgamation and council representatives under the mediation of the minister. He admitted that he only demurred on letting through the submission of one of the “old shires”, Stanthorpe (a town in the Granite Belt area of south-east Queensland), because the local MP was a Cabinet colleague. This brought gasps of disbelief from the delegation.
Residents were further alarmed by his comment that the process was crafted with the prosperous “Douglas and Noosa shires in mind”. He admitted that the “strong community-backed proposal and the signatures of 25 per cent of electors” were minimum requirements for de-amalgamation, but revealed that ultimately the only consideration governing his decision would be the local council’s future “financial viability”.
The case for de-amalgamation is based on good fiscal sense.
Robert L. Bish is professor emeritus at the University of Victoria (British Columbia, Canada). He was co-director of the Local Government Institute from its establishment in 1995 until 2002. In 2001, he produced a research paper on local government amalgamations for Toronto’s conservative C.D. Howe Institute. His study concluded that “forced amalgamations are the product of flawed nineteenth-century thinking and a bureaucratic desire for centralised control”.
Professor Bish argued that the inflated municipal authorities resulting from amalgamations were unsuitable to the need for society to adapt readily to rapid change. Moreover, establishing super-councils would not lead to cost efficiencies, but rather to cost increases, inferior service and less accountability, as ratepayers became increasingly distanced from local authority.
Thus Queensland minister David Crisafulli’s claim that he rejected certain de-amalgamation proposals because smaller councils would be financially unsustainable just does not hold water.
The disappointment experienced by Stanthorpe residents in having their application for de-amalgamation turned down was echoed in other shires across the state.
The Campbell Newman government’s claim that stand-alone shires would be financially unfeasible is contradicted by evidence from Australia and overseas showing that smaller local authorities are far better able to contain costs, purely and simply because they are on the spot, know their area and can see the issues more clearly.
In Canada, the failure of the amalgamated Greater Toronto Authority has led to consideration of a return to smaller local authority areas. In Australia in 2002, the Shire of Delatite in north-eastern Victoria was de-amalgamated into the two municipal areas of Benalla and Mansfield in response to community pressure.
Council amalgamations have seen staff numbers grow to cope with their expanded roles. The resulting system is less responsive and accountable, budgetary constraints are few, and, under the corporate structure, councillors are little more than a board of directors.
This is a denial of the voters’ rights to democratic representation.
Mary Rofe is a spokeswoman for Queensland’s Return Our Shires Action Group (ROSAG) in the town of Stanthorpe, author of ROSAG’s submission “Sustainability through Diversity”, and chairwoman of the Granite Belt LNP women’s branch.
Robert L. Bish, Local Government Amalgamations: Discredited Nineteenth-Century Ideals Alive in the Twenty-First (C.D. Howe Institute, Toronto), Commentary No. 150, March 20, 2001.