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Wednesday, 8 August 2007
Page: 65

Senator BOSWELL (Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (12:45 PM) —I wish to raise today an important matter of public interest that is of concern to so many Queenslanders. The forced amalgamation of local councils in Queensland from 156 to 72 is causing great angst in most of the communities affected. Premier Beattie’s Labor government is acting as though drunk with power and simply shutting down the viability and local identity of many Queensland communities. The decentralised nature of the state means that Queenslanders beyond Brisbane have a strong and enduring attachment to their local institutions, social and business networks and self-governance. They are fiercely independent and self-reliant and are demanding a say in their own future. Premier Beattie has rammed through the local government amalgamations in state parliament, so I do not ever want to hear anyone from Labor stand up in this place and accuse the government of rushing legislation through.

The Queensland Premier is so out of touch and arrogant that he is reported in this morning’s Courier-Mail as declaring that he could govern Queensland for another century if he wanted. That is the most extraordinary statement. It would have done Stalin proud. The federal government has restored the right of any Queensland council to express their opinion and to run a plebiscite on the amalgamation if it wishes. The Premier says it will not stop the involuntary amalgamations. The point is that people will get a say. Just like we provided them with a say on the Traveston dam issue, the federal government is letting the people speak because Premier Beattie has denied them this basic democratic right.

Unlike the Queensland Premier, I want to hear what Queenslanders are saying. Since the announcement of federal funding for the referenda, Queenslanders have been saying plenty. The Redcliffe mayor, Allan Sutherland, says his city wants the plebiscite. Councillor Sutherland says that he and other councillors are pushing a wheelbarrow to state parliament today filled with 22,000 signatures on an anti-amalgamation petition. Councillor Allan Sutherland told Brisbane ABC radio this morning:

You know, when we were walking across the highway this morning, there’s our big glowing city sign in full light-Redcliffe, first settlement city. Well it won’t be, it won’t be a city, and I’m just so upset that the government are hell-bent on pushing this through.

He says the City of Redcliffe will take up the Prime Minister’s offer to pay for a plebiscite, saying:

All of the councillors are on the phone last night saying bring it on, absolutely. And I notice that there’s still the threat of the fine, no matter what, even if the federal government are paying for it. Well I’ll write out my cheque now. I just want the people of Redcliffe to have their say. And I do think that’s what the government is scared of.

The ABC also reported that Noosa residents who are fighting the amalgamation of the shire say they are disappointed with the federal opposition leader’s response to forced council reforms. Kevin Rudd, who is a former Sunshine Coast resident, has called for Beattie to make any amalgamations voluntary. He placed ads in Queensland newspapers calling on Beattie to change his mind, but to no effect. So much for federal Labor getting things done with state Labor. What a divided mess! Friends of Noosa spokesman, Bob Ansett, told ABC radio that Mr Rudd’s lack of intervention is likely to lead to a backlash against Labor from local voters. He said:

It’s been very disappointing because I think initially he seemed to think that there was certainly an argument for some of the councils anyway to avoid the amalgamation process. I suspect that there’s going to be a real backlash against the opposition, the Labor Party, in the federal election coming up in a few months.

The new seat of Flynn is one which will suffer greatly if the forced amalgamations go through. The number of councils in the Flynn division will be slashed from 28 to nine whole councils. The whole state of Queensland will be represented by more state members—89—than local shires, of which there will be 73. Brisbane radio 4BC reported that Aramac mayor, Gary Peoples, believes many councils will take up the offer. Councillor Gary Peoples said:

There’s a lot of people across Queensland would like to voice their opinion on it, and I think ... it would be their right to let them have their say.

The Premier said this morning that his initial legal advice is that the federal government does not have a head of power to do the referenda. He threatened that it could end up in the courts and that there may be an injunction of some kind sought. As the Redcliffe councillors said, ‘Bring it on.’ Bring it on, Premier, and see where you end up by challenging the rights of Australian citizens to express their opinion. Every Australian citizen has a right to conduct their own public affairs. Is the Premier of Queensland really going to go to court and argue against that? Is he going to jail local mayors? You could forgive Queenslanders for thinking that Premier Beattie cares more about the rights of Dr Haneef than about them.

If Premier Beattie fights in the courts to deny hundreds of thousands of Queenslanders a voice, he will not govern Queensland for the next century; he will not last till Christmas. If he goes down that track, he will be hounded from office and will take the federal Labor Party with him. At the Nationals’ Federal Council last weekend, we passed the following resolution:

That this Federal Council of the Nationals calls upon the federal government to provide sufficient immediate federal funding to enable Queensland local councils to: (a) conduct a referendum within the boundaries of their existing council on the decision by the Beattie government to destroy their local council; (b) allow local elected councillors to prepare a case of objections to show how the draconian boundary changes do not work for local communities.

The Nationals were listening and we acted promptly to address the concerns of Queenslanders. Within days, the Prime Minister announced that the Australian Electoral Commission would conduct these plebiscites free of charge to those councils that wished to take up the offer. This move has great support in Queensland. An independent market facts survey taken following the announcement of changed boundaries found that 58.9 per cent of respondents wanted a local referendum regardless of cost. The survey found that 60.5 per cent said that community identity would suffer under the changes, with 59.6 per cent expecting a lower quality of council service.

The other ramifications, which have not really surfaced yet, are that the transition committees to set up the new councils are stacked with union members. It looks like local council employees will no longer exist as such. The Queensland local government minister has said that they will ensure that council workforces are considered as local government employees and not constitutional corporations. Does that mean that they will come under a statutory authority that would just be part of a recruitment drive for the AWU? The federal Leader of the Opposition appears to be happy about supporting the AEC process, according to comments made as recently as this morning, but will he have the power to stop Premier Beattie challenging that basic democratic right?