Originally published in the National Indigenous Times, May 2007.
QUEENSLAND: The forced amalgamation of local governments in Queensland is nothing new for the not-so-Sunshine State, writes AMY McQUIRE*.
I paid a visit to the sunshine state last month. It was good to take a break from the increasingly cold climate of Canberra in favour of a place where long winter coats are still on the “out-of season” racks. But within a few days of arriving, I realised that it wasn’t just my body temperature that was heating up.
The local newspapers were awash with the news of the latest outrage from Queensland Premier Peter Beattie. And it all seemed to be condensed into one word. Amalgamation. Or rather two. Forced Amalgamation.
On April 17, the Premier announced (out of the blue) that the state government would establish the Queensland Local Government Reform Commission to reconsider council boundaries.
Beattie also announced that the commission would establish an Indigenous reference panel to look at the future structure of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander councils.
Beattie cited a review that showed 43 percent of local councils were unviable and said that they were either “weak, very weak or financially distressed”.
The fear of mass amalgamations involved with the sweeping changes to local government structure has had many council members and Queensland citizens up in arms. And although I╒m an expat, but one who still supports the mighty Maroons, I dare say I have to join them.
The turning point is not so much the amalgamations themselves, but the fact Beattie╒s reforms are being “forced” in favour of being “voluntary”.
Beattie╒s reasoning is that if councils are given the prospect of voluntary changes, the system of government will not be in place in time for next year╒s March local government elections.
But this has failed to quell the cries of the masses that have likened the Premier to a dictator. Some members of the town of Cloncurry have even gone as far to put him amongst the likes of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin (both of whom, despite their failings, enjoyed more popular support).
Just last week a rally was held in the town of Barcaldine, ironically the birthplace of the Australian Labor party. The rally attracted almost 1,000 residents from 20 neighbouring shires including Opposition Leader Jeff Seeney.
“It’s a tidal wave of protest against the dictatorial attitude of Peter Beattie and his government in overriding local government across the state,” Mr Seeney told Australian Associated Press (AAP).
“If they’re going to be amalgamated … they should have been allowed to make that decision themselves … and the local people in the local communities should get a say whether they want to see their councils amalgamated.”
In the words of Shadow Minister for Local Government, Howard Hobbs in Parliament the day after Beattie made his announcement, the premier is a proper “dill”.
And you know when you╒re agreeing with those “not-so-green” farming Nationals, and even going so far as to steal their insults, that there is something very wrong with the government of the day.
The prospect of amalgamation brings up concerns of smaller towns in Queensland who will suddenly find themselves administered by a “Super Shire”, thus leading to under-representation, loss of jobs and a lack of services for local residents. And now these citizens may lose a proper voice in local government, similar to the voice they have already lost in protesting the developments in the first place.
Even if the statistics pointing to almost half of the councils being unviable (keep in mind the review didn╒t include the Indigenous councils) was entirely accurate, the fact remains the premier has undermined the democratic right of Australian citizens to have a say in their own form of government.
But it’s not the first time it has happened.
Now maybe non-Indigenous Queenslanders can finally understand what it╒s like to be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders living in the “Smart State” under Peter Beattie.
I’m sure many Indigenous people weren╒t entirely shocked by the Premier’s actions because his “dictatorial qualities” were well and truly on display when he extinguished an entire Indigenous affairs department without warning in September last year.
Just like local councils, Beattie deemed the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy (DATSIP) a failure, and so merged it with the Department of Communities.
After pressure from Indigenous groups nation-wide, he finally buckled and appointed a Minister for Indigenous Affairs, without re-creating the department, a change dubbed ╘cosmetic╒ by Murri leader Sam Watson.
Fortunately, consultation is being undertaken with Aboriginal councils but unless it is undertaken properly, Beattie will have effectively undermined Indigenous voices in government for the second time in six months.
His dictatorial attitude even extends to a proposed mega-dam in South East Queensland.
The Beattie government is still adamant it will press ahead with the Traveston Dam, despite a recent Senate inquiry that received submissions from Aboriginal elders, environmental groups and others, including one of his former politicians.
According to AAP, out of the 187 submissions received for the inquiry, only one was in support of the dam and that was the one lodged by the Premier himself.
Currently, an inquiry is now being made into Deputy Premier Anna Bligh’s office on allegations they rigged a poll aiming to measure support for the dam on Nationals MP Rob Messenger’s website.
Despite the fact he may wear an Akubra when visiting the outback, Beattie still seems to have his sights set squarely on South East Queensland.
The Premier also seems to be blinded by the legacy of his idol, the late Joh Bjelke-Petersen and so has apparently not noticed there are Aboriginal people in the state who deserve representation in government.
After all, his name may be Peter Beattie and he may be from Queensland, but he certainly isn╒t there to help.
Amy McQuire is a Canberra-based journalist with NIT. She is of Darumbal/South Sea Islander heritage and comes from Rockhampton in Queensland.