The Ryan Independent

Commentary on global, federal, state and local issues from Brisbane's western suburbs

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The Queensland Council amalgamations and plebiscite: how to NOT consult the people, and how NOT to consult the people

December 15th, 2007 · No Comments · Posts

As a student in California following the infamous “Proposition 13” property tax cuts, I was fascinated to learn about citizen-initiated referenda and other aspects of direct democracy in that country. Yes, there are ways to supplement representative democracy with processes controlled by ordinary citizens. Most U.S. States and many local communities have mechanisms enabling voters to put (often binding) propositions on the ballot paper, along with other initiatives such as recalling elected officials. While these may not always be used wisely, they are unquestionably democratic, and even if seldom used, they serve as a safety valve preventing any build-up of intolerable differences between popular will and government policy.

Noosa’s Hell’s Gate. To be amalgamated, along with the rest of Noosa Shire.

This week saw the completion of the amalgamation plebiscites in a number of Queensland shires and councils, with results from the first few declared midweek and the remainder to follow in coming days. See the official results here. What are we to make of this exercise?

Senator Andrew Murray’s bizarrely optimistic interpretation notwithstanding, the council amalgamation episode must surely stand as a textbook example of governments failing to take direct democracy seriously.

From the outset the Queensland Labor government bypassed any real input from affected communities, and rammed through the amalgamation legislation. For their part, the Coalition backed a federally administered plebiscite as a political tool against the Queensland Government (does anyone believe they would have sought a plebiscite had the Coalition been running Queensland, and at a time when an election was not imminent?). This episode has been a textbook example of how to NOT consult the people, and, subsequently, how NOT to consult the people.

The Noosa vote, followed by that in Redcliffe, are the most instructive cases. In Noosa Shire, a very respectable 68.8% of eligible voters sent in their ballots. Of those who did, 95.3% opposed the amalgamation, meaning that at it is clearly opposed by at least 65.6% – nearly two-thirds – of all eligible voters. The corresponding figures for Redcliffe are 58.1% turnout, 86.8% voting no, and an absolute minimum of 50.5% of all voters – an absolute majority – opposed.

But the amalgamations will proceed anyway. Neither party was ever serious about consulting the public or being guided by the outcome. Labor must shoulder more of the blame here, but the Coalition’s motives were far from pure. The plebiscite exercise has all the trappings, but none of the substance, of direct democracy. The best we can hope for is that the cynicism and disrespect with which voters have been treated will come home to roost at future elections, and that proper use of plebiscites and referenda become a cause that candidates can safely and enthusiastically champion.

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