Delegates testify to amalgamation failure

Report from Joseph Monsour


The drive to form the Queensland Local Government Reform Alliance came from the experience of local groups working for de-amalgamation of shires within regional councils.

There was an expectation of change on the election of a new government.  The change was very limited.

The implementation process further restricted any corrections of the failed amalgamations of 2008.

Some of the groups s particularly the Stanthorpe and Monto group looked at the process and realised that each group working alone was not going to correct government policy.

Perhaps this came from intimate experience of how government policy was formulated and then how the policy was applied.

New governments seem to quickly take on the role of manipulating opinion rather than addressing real concerns.  In this case this is amplified by the Brisbane based media. They seem to quickly lose touch with the broad community. This contrasted sharply to the views represented at the recent forum at Stanthorpe.

What was realised was that in the face of government only a unified response would allow for a correction of the failed 2008 amalgamations.

I don’t need to give this group examples of the impact of bigger is better centralism that was forced on us.  You will all have examples of things like:

In Boonah if a dog is taken to the pound it must be picked up from Beaudesert – a 1 hour round trip. Not quite as bad as friend of mine in Weipa who had experience of bank centralism. He was issued with a replacement credit card and told he would have to pick it up from Cairns – a $1000 round trip by flight!

As I said I am not going into detail on the failure and costs to a community of a regional approach versus a local approach.  What is clear is that savings are few and far between.   For example one of the areas for regionalism was to overcome the difficulty remote councils had of getting experienced or skilled staff.  However the remote and regional council still face the same problems.  A former colleague of mine is now flying in and out to Central Regional Council.

How do we re-establish local government without a restrictive approach and a one size fits all?   When we set out the goals we have tried to reflect this. In contrast the State government set out very restrictive criteria with the aim of allowing only Noosa and Douglas to reform. It is true that the Minister allowed two others to go to referendum. I believe he did this with the expectation that the cost argument which he created would defeat the case. He was wrong and it showed that he does not understand the depth of feeling in the local communities and our need to have efficiently run and responsive local councils.

On Thursday night when we were preparing the final touches for organising this meeting – we met at 7pm using Skype over the internet – Australia was playing England for the Ashes.  Towards the end of the meeting Jack Muller from Monto revealed that Australia was 8 for 115.  At the end of the meeting we were 9 for 117.   You could forgive someone for writing Australia off.

It was not to be – they did not count on the cricketers toughing it out. In the end they staged a massive fight back and overcame the odds.  We face the same challenge and should not be daunted.

So we set out our own goals.  These are listed on the green handout.  The steering committee has made three recommendations into primary goals and two strategic goals.

The first primary goal is: To promote community acceptable natural Local Government boundaries that reflect locally held beliefs about community and identity, and provide local amenity and service;  

A local community generally has a good idea of what is local.  What defines a community is a sense of identity and local awareness- What is the business centre frequented. The sports team area, school district and hospital centre and land catchments and locations around a business centre and its geography.

We formulated the goal with the aim to allow community to have a proposal for reform to submit to a referendum based on natural boundaries and service delivery.  It is not a simple task but if properly considered by a boundaries commissioner after extensive consultation it should result in better local government.  To do otherwise by applying regionalism to seek economies of scale, as the amalgamation process of 2008 did just shifted costs back onto the community for little or no gain.   In fact tyranny of distance on the ground and in community awareness and increased bureaucracy has resulted in diseconomies of scale. Everywhere the debt burden is rising due to increased and ineffective administration.

As I said our goal is to achieve a community based response to local government reform.  For example Toowoomba and surrounds may result in a Toowoomba City Council and a Darling Downs Rural Council.  What area would make up a new Isis council? How the councils within North Burnett would be reconstituted. Would the best arrangement be the former Councils stand alone as in Redcliffe and Caboolture or would some former shires choose to be merged into local areas? Should we just go back to the former shire areas with shared services reducing cost overlaps? Should we apply differentials to different needs within a council area and have community sub councils.  The answers are not simple and the government given an opportunity shirked a response.

My personal views is that we should in most cases return back to the previous shires and begin again to look at reforms a process that was discontinued when amalgamation was forced.

Our purpose in this primary goal was to broaden a response in overcoming the problems of the forced amalgamations of 2008.  Central to the goal was for the change to be a community one not one imposed by force or by burdensome restrictions. It recognizes that one size does not fit all and the regionalism does not produce better local government particularly in non-metropolitan areas.

Underlying the goal and the recommendation of the steering committee to the QLGRA is the principle that change must be democratic and based on the will of the people by referendum.


The change must be democratic and based on the will of the people by referendum.

The second goal:    Recognition in the State Constitution of Local Government as a legal entity with a clearly articulated role in governing, such that it can only be changed after a majority vote in a properly constituted referendum;

The second goal reinforces the democratic principle by giving Councils state constitutional recognition and reducing the power of State government to repeat the changes it forced in 2008 without going to the people affected.

Third goalRetention and maintenance of reasonable levels of State and Federal Grants and Subsidies to support the necessary and important role of Local Government in providing and supporting rural and regional infrastructure serving not only local communities but also the state and the nation

This goal recognises the importance of funding from state and federal government to local government.

First it accepts that the infrastructure and service provided by local government are a state and national concern as well as a local responsibility but primarily it recognises  that revenue raising by state and federal government through taxation leaves little room for Council rates, fees and charges to satisfy the infrastructure spending need of the local community. For reasons of equity our political institutions favour government taxation to be raised across the country as a whole. This limits local governments.

It is an abuse of local government to expect that they can through rate revenue alone provide the necessary infrastructure to develop the local areas evenly after the other areas of government have taken the bulk of the taxation pie.

The remaining goals are defined as strategic.

The fourth goal: To promote the benefits of effective, community based ‘local’ government throughout the general public and as an area of learning and study in tertiary institutions;


This goal is fairly self-explanatory and is about community education and seeks to influence the education institutions provided by federal and state government to recognise and enhance the specialist skills needed by the employees of councils and to also enhance community awareness of local government.

The fifth goal: To share the commonality of our cause with all amalgamated shires and promote the sharing of strategy and resources to overcome barriers to de-amalgamation and boundary changes.

The final goal is also self-evident. Its purpose to advance a unifying framework to pressure state government policy to involve communities in genuine consultation and then referenda to re-establish efficient and effective local government. At the very least this requires referenda in the forced amalgamation areas and the best informed and community based approach to reform in local government area.

As I said earlier in reference to the cricket team if stand together confident of community support we will overcome the obstacles to change ahead of us.

Beattie is back to waste your money again!

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, many Queenslanders, who formed action groups and rallied public support against the amalgamations, strenuously resisted the Beattie government’s policy.

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. 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 and subsequently, only four shires are now enjoying a return to their former boundaries.

Many other local areas have been denied that opportunity and now face increasing rates and lowered services.

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, “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.

In Qld recently, the Queensland Treasury Corporation has released details of its Audit into Whitsunday Regional Council and have found that it is in debt to the tune of 87 million dollars.

The QTC said that Whitsunday Council would have gone broke last month if it had not been provided $20M in emergency funding from the Queensland Government.

Mayor Whitney told ABC Tropical that Council were looking at selling off assets to help repay its debts; “We have some vacant land, we have caravan parks….” many believe that the sale of Proserpine Airport may be back on the agenda.

Water and Sewage charges are to also rise by 9%.

Whitsunday Council’s debt would be incurring interest charges of around $4,732,800/year at 5.44%, which is $323.93 per year for every household.

Whitsunday Council’s Debt equals:

$2,481.11 for every man, woman & child living in the Whitsundays; $5,954.66 for every household; that is 9%-10% of what every household in the Whitsundays will earn as a wage/salary this year.

Academics such as Professor Brian Dollery of UNE, can confirm that no council amalgamation has ever resulted in cost savings – however the reverse has been the case in every instance.

This is what Mr. Beattie has done to Qld in the name of creating more efficiency and greater economy! Now he seeks election in Forde and who knows where his centralist philosophy will take us if he succeeds.

I doubt whether the people of Forde will be fooled by his doublespeak however just in case this may just serve as a timely warning.

Southern Downs Mayor backs away from Amalgamation philosophy

It seems that the  philosophy used to justify wholesale amalgamations in recent times, has not passed the practicality test. Not that its opponents in QLGRA and in other organisations were in any doubt about it. They have long maintained that forcibly amalgamated local governments would be more expensive to run and now one of the Mayors enduring the post amalgamation stress is agreeing that the touted economic benefits of amalgamation were ‘debatable at best.’ Faced with mushrooming costs and preparing to deliver an unpopular budget to ratepayers, it is not surprising that he is looking to shift blame.

This is the same Mayor who boasted about the amalgamated local area having a greater capacity to garner loans. It would seem that he has found that reducing the voices of local governments in Qld has weakened everyone’s position. The deal with the devil has not been to his liking it seems.

Meanwhile proponents of fairer access to boundary alterations for local governments in Qld, continue to join with the QLGRA. So we gather momentum as more people realise that bigger is not better and in fact is increasingly more expensive, less responsive and undemocratic as the closest government to the people slips even further into the hands of systems and bureaucrats and completely out of the influence of the citizens it is supposed to serve.


Mary Rofe