Darling Downs Shire!

Amalgamation Queensland June 2007

To understand what is happening in Queensland today it is worth reviewing what happened in Victoria in 1992 under the Liberal Government of Jeff Kennett. Before his election there was a guarantee of ‘no forced amalgamations’. Within months of his election a process began which formed 78 new councils from the existing 210. Average populations went from 21 000 to 62 000 and areas went from 1 000 to 3 000 square kilometers. Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) was introduced and rates were initially reduced by 20%. Some councils had their rates capped. Economies to cope with these major funding changes came from a 30% reduction in staff employed by local government. Elected representatives (councilors) reduced from over 2 000 to around 600.

The major areas of concern following this major reform in Victoria have centered less on local democracy but rather more on the local economic impact of CCT, local employment and service delivery. Regional centers tended to benefit from available contracts more than local enterprises. Considerable debate continues about the net benefit to communities (or otherwise) of the reforms and a significant resentment and angst continues.

Supporters of the reforms tended to dismiss their impact on community as conservative or nostalgic. Local experience with the new Warwick Shire tends to question that assumption.

The Beattie Government in Queensland has followed a remarkably similar path. Reform is identified as the answer to the universal local government issues of financial stress, inability to plan for population growth and the difficulty of coordinating with other government agencies. As in Victoria under the Cain Government, previous attempts to implement change by Goss in 1992 largely failed. It became obvious to many observers that the SSS process introduced in Queensland by the LGAQ and the Local Government Department under Boyle in 2004 was doomed to failure and that the government was probably aware of its shortcomings early on.

It was easy to blame the participants in the flawed SSS process for its failure and in April 2007 Minister Fraser announced that SSS was at an end and a Reform Commission would assume responsibility. To describe the reaction of most councils to this announcement as ‘stunned’ and ‘outraged’ would be an understatement.

Many of the criticisms leveled at local government are difficult to defend but there is little evidence to suggest that these have been addressed by reforms in Victoria. There is plenty of evidence to highlight the difficulty that results from a poorly planned and poorly implemented reform process.

Many in local government reject the notion that ‘bigger is better’ given that the government’s own report shows some small councils in far better shape than some major cities. Issues of governance and management are not addressed by reducing the number of shires.

Recent announcements by Premier Beattie and Minister Fraser leave little room for believing that amalgamation of shires will be abandoned. A recent delegation of Mayors and community organizations organised by Agforce was given an assurance that they would be welcome to meet with the Minister after the recommendations of the Reform Commission have been announced.

Two aspects of the current amalgamation process are clear

  • Local Government, LGAQ in particular, has misunderstood the political agenda of the Beattie Government. It appears that factions within the party are at odds and that old enemies of the party within local government have been targeted. Dismissal of LGAQ from the reform process has led to howls of ‘betrayal’ and unproductive behaviour by their leaders.
  • Everyone, particularly rural local government, has underestimated the Beattie Government’s determination to complete the mission. Lessons learned from local government reform in other jurisdictions, particularly in Victoria, have clearly influenced the process so far. Kennett had a substantial majority in both houses of parliament, a position of strength previous would-be reformers did not enjoy. Goss was not in the strong position in 1992 that Beattie enjoys today. Emotional demonstrations from the bush without supporting logical argument will have little impact.

While the Beattie Government may perceive some short term political benefit, the longer term implications for communities are less optimistic. As usual, the devil is in the detail. While it would be foolish to underestimate the depth of government planning for implementing its reform strategy, given its recent history, there is little evidence of serious consideration given to the ‘on ground’ impact of amalgamation.

The appointment of an interim CEO with responsibility for integrating administration for amalgamated local governments until the election of new councils in March 2008 and the potential for all that work to be undone by the newly elected administration overnight is a recipe for disaster. The destabilization of staff during the current hiatus will pale into insignificance by comparison. The process of appointing the interim CEO in itself will inevitably offer an opportunity for payback where smaller councils have been ‘taken over’ but may have the majority of representation in the Interim Committee over the ‘Big Brother’ regional centre.

Even where amalgamation involves councils of relatively equal size the appointment of the interim CEO and the ensuing power struggle will be fraught with conflict and bitterness. The potential loss of scarce talent in senior administration positions is a very serious risk. Expectations of good will and commonsense are unrealistic in a climate of conflict dedicated by forced amalgamations. The Beattie Government has chosen this path because it supposes that local government is incapable of instituting reform through any voluntary process. If that supposition is true, it is unrealistic of the Beattie Government to expect that any process imposed on an unwilling and besieged local authority will engender a welcome response. If there is no mandated process to regulate amalgamation for years into the future the government will have missed an opportunity to achieve a positive outcome and will leave a legacy of community disruption and disaffection with local government for a generation.

The threat of amalgamation of local authorities in Queensland has produced quite predictable outcomes.

  • Destabilisation of council staff
  • Dispute between elected representatives within and across boundaries
  • Concern from local business that rely on local government spending
  • Concern from residents who rely on local services
  • Concern from communities about support for local sporting and cultural facilities
  • General concern about the viability and future of small communities in a larger centralized area from which they feel remote

It will be absolutely crucial to the success of any amalgamation that residents of the ‘new’ local authority feel included and welcome and that the services and lifestyle they enjoy will not be disrupted. (2012 Authors Note. This warning has been ignored and the transition mismanaged)

It is the responsibility of the Beattie Government, as instigators of this reform, to ensure that its implementation is as seamless as possible by giving the new entities and its operatives the tools, guidelines and timetables appropriate for the task.

(The author acknowledges the use of material from a document prepared by MAV June 2006 in the composition of this article)

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