Queensland to undergo historic reform

With more than 1,100 Councillors, Queensland’s 125 local Councils and 32 Indigenous Councils are to undergo their first sweeping reform in more than a century.

Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, and State Local Government and Planning Minister, Andrew Fraser, announced the establishment of a seven member Queensland Local Government Reform Commission in April.

The Committee will be headed by former Electoral Commissioner, Bob Longland, along with six Commissioners, including former Queensland Local Government and Planning Minister, Di McCauley; former President of the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) and former Mayor of Cairns, Tom Pyne; Chair of Queensland Treasury Corporation, Sir Leo Hielscher; former Deputy Premier and Treasurer and a Member of Queensland Parliament, Terry Mackenroth; former Leader of the Queensland Liberal Party, Bob Quinn; and former Electoral Commissioner and Director General of Local Government and Planning Department, Kevin Yearbury.

The commission will spend just three months considering new boundaries for the long term sustainability of Local Government across the State. It is due to report back to the Queensland Government by August 1. Proposed boundary changes and amalgamations will then be put before Parliament by September.

Premier Beattie and Minister Fraser said this announcement follows an assessment of the Local Government Association of Queensland’s (LGAQ) voluntary Size, Shape and Sustainability (SSS) Program, which finds that Councils have failed to initiate reform themselves.

Premier Beattie said a finance audit of the majority of Councils involved in the SSS process had shown 43 per cent were either financially weak, very weak or financially distressed.

“Too many ratepayers across Queensland are living in Council areas which are not financially viable, and that has an impact on vital services,” he said. “Queensland’s population has tripled to four million in the past 50 years, but our system of Local Government has not moved with the times.

“Of the 157 Councils, 88 service populations of 5,000 people or less and in the grand scheme, that’s unsustainable. There are simply too many inefficient Councils struggling to serve their communities.”

Minister Fraser said it was critical a Commission be established to finish the job started by the SSS process.

“Financial Sustainability Reviews in Queensland align with the recent national report conducted for the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) by PricewaterhouseCoopers,” he said. “The report showed Councils across the country face major financial sustainability challenges and, without reform, up to 30 per cent might not be sustainable.”

“The SSS program was an opportunity for Councils to voluntarily assess their long term viability and consider reforms like amalgamation with neighbouring Councils, boundary changes or sharing their resources to cut costs. Despite the best endeavours of many individuals, it is clear that very little is going to result from the work done through that voluntary process. In fact only two sets of Councils – Crows Nest and Rosalie and Goondiwindi and Waggamba Shires – had any prospect of achieving structural reform before the 2008 Local Government elections.

“It is now time for the State Government to step up to the plate to provide the leadership to ensure the necessary reforms are in place by the next Local Government elections.”

LGAQ President, Councillor Paul Bell, said that based on the Terms of Reference given to the Reform Commission, the Beattie Government intends to regionalise Local Government administration across Queensland.

“The local is being forcibly removed from Local Government,” he said. “Instead ratepayers and citizens will get a defacto regional State Government.”

Councillor Bell said the Local Government Reform Commission’s Terms of Reference specifically require it to take into consideration the boundaries of areas covered by the regions, for which regional planning advisory committees have been established. 

“The commission is also required to direct its recommendations to consolidating regional natural resource management areas,” he said.  “The word ‘regional’ is used frequently in the Terms of Reference. It is regional government writ large. 

“When you consider Victoria fits into Queensland 7.6 times and still has 79 councils following its amalgamations in the 1990s, and that 60 to 70 councils are being proposed for Queensland, you can see the term ‘regional government’ is not far fetched. 

“These units of administration will cover vast areas the size of many small countries. In the most basic terms, ratepayers and regional government constituents could have to travel four or five hours to access their local seat of power – hardly local democracy.”

Western Australia is now the only State that has not yet imposed Local Government reform.

Western Australian Local Government Association (WALGA) President, Councillor Bill Mitchell, said the Queensland action served as a sobering reminder to Councils and communities around Western Australia that their progress towards self determination could be taken away at any time.

“The Queensland example has shown that even when the sector is shown to be moving towards a common goal; if it is not considered to be adequately far reaching, or if it is seen to be too slow, the State Government has the power to take over,” he said. “It also brings into focus the importance of honest and open relationships between State and Local Governments, as this announcement has taken the Queensland sector by surprise.”

“Although Local Government in Western Australia is positively engaged in the reform debate and the State Government has continually assured us that it will not impose change, this example serves as a lesson for us – we must manage change ourselves or it will be thrust upon us.”

Facts about the reform

  • A complete review of Queensland Local Government boundaries will commence immediately.
  • All Councils will be reviewed, except Brisbane City Council, which was formed by the amalgamation of 17 small Local Governments.A Local Government Reform Commission has been established to determine boundaries, names and electoral arrangements for the new Councils. While the Queensland Government has entrusted the Commission to come up with the best options, it will take submissions from Councils, organisations and the community to assist with its deliberations.
  • The Commission will provide its recommendations on the new Local Governments to the Queensland Government in August 2007.
  • Local Transition Committees will be formed to guide the transition to a new Council, for those Councils amalgamated.
  • Queenslanders will go to the next election in March 2008 to vote for the Councillors to represent them on the new Councils