By Paul Hemsley
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman’s offer to provide councils that were pushed into forced marriages with their neighbours the option of an amicable, no-fault divorce has been taken up with gusto by voters in the Noosa, Livingstone, Mareeba and Douglas areas.
Queensland Minister for Local Government David Crisafulli on the weekend commended the back-to-the-future decision by residents of the local governments to reverse the unpopular forced amalgamations by the then Labor state government in 2008 and reinstate the councils as they previously stood.
The vote in favour of de-amalgamation means that disbanded councils that passed a financial viability test imposed by the state government can now legally exist again in their own right.
The conservative Newman government’s reversal of the widely-loathed amalgamations contrasts sharply with efforts in New South Wales by political bedfellow Barry O’Farrell who has broken a key election promise not to impose forced council amalgamations.
Mr Crisafulli hailed the referendums as a “win for democracy” and said they “marked the final chapter in a dark period” for local government that “culminated in Labor’s forced amalgamations”.
Under Queensland’s moves to restore local autonomy, the Queensland Treasury Corporation (QTC) provided a full breakdown of the cost of splitting from the larger councils.
The Queensland government received 19 submissions with five areas including Noosa, Livingstone, Mareeba, Douglas and Isis which it referred to the Boundaries Commission for assessment. There are 73 local governments in the state.
However not all applications for divorce were successful. The former local government of the Shire of Isis had its petition rejected because of the likely financial burden on ratepayers.
The new councils will conduct elections for mayors and councillors in the last quarter of 2013 and four new councils are expected to begin work on 1st January, 2014.
Many shire councils ceased to exist in 2008 as a result of the state government’s Local Government (Reform Implementation) Act 2007 that enforced council mergers to create larger local government bodies.
The reforms were particularly controversial because councils themselves had to pay for the difficult amalgamation process, a move that eroded much of the value to ratepayers and created a community backlash and a grass roots lobby to reverse the often uncomfortable and expensive unions.
The former councils that qualified for de-amalgamation were Shire of Noosa, which became part of the Sunshine Coast Region; the Shire of Livingstone, which became part of the Rockhampton Region; the Shire of Mareeba, which merged with other councils in the Tablelands Region; and the Shire of Douglas, which amalgamated with the City of Cairns to become the Cairns Region.
On Saturday 9th March 2013, the residents in these areas voted in a referendum to decouple from larger councils and restore councils to how they were.
Mr Crisafulli has vowed to begin work to establish new councils immediately.
“Residents in the four areas have chosen to put their money where their hearts are to get their council back,” Mr Crisafulli said.
However restored independence will, literally, come at a price. While the amalgamations in 2008 were costly, local government areas to be reinstated will also need to pay for the re-establishment themselves.
Local Government Association of Queensland President Margaret de Wit also warned prior to the referendum that if the de-amalgamations are successful, there will be costs incurred in breaking up councils including elections to start new councils and setting-up premises again.
Mr Crisafulli said each council will need to meet all of the costs of de-amalgamation, including the costs of the remaining council, and provide the same level of services residents are getting now.
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