John Howard has warned of possible “annihilation”, Labor’s poll numbers are buoyant, and with a Queenslander at the helm the ALP is hoping for major gains in the Sunshine State. But there is a cloud on the local horizon that may spell trouble for Kevin Rudd.

It’s had almost no publicity in the southern states, but the Queensland government has embarked on a major structural reform of local government
— in other words, forcibly amalgamating small shires into larger ones.

The Local Government Reform Commission has a brief to consider “the financial sustainability of councils, the ability of councils to fund essential community infrastructure and the need for a regional approach to planning and service delivery.”

Rural Queenslanders, goaded by the National Party, are up in arms about it. In the latest news, premier Peter Beattie yesterday read selections from a letter from Virgin chief Richard Branson apparently supporting amalgamations, only for it to be revealed later that the letter as a whole was much less favourable.

It can’t be disputed that some changes are needed in Queensland local government. But the trouble with this sort of top-down “reform” process is that governments get carried away and notions of democracy and local representation are allowed to take a back seat.

The outstanding precedent is the Kennett government’s clean sweep of Victorian local government in 1993-94, in which 210 councils were reduced to 78 and unelected commissioners were put in charge for “transitional” periods. Local concerns were ignored and (particularly towards the end of the process when the government was getting bolder) grotesquely large municipalities were created.

Contrary to received wisdom, Australia’s local government units are not exceptionally small or numerous by world standards. The Commission notes that “Queensland has 88 councils with populations less than 5,000”, but countries like France and the United States have many thousands of them — and often an intermediate regional level of government as well.

The rural backlash against the Kennett changes was seen as a major element in that government’s defeat in 1999. Rudd is well aware of the danger, and last week made his views known, saying that amalgamations should be voluntary and criticising the Commission’s terms of reference for being “skewed far too much in the direction of bringing about forced amalgamation options”.

It’s not clear that Beattie is listening, but if he’s not, Rudd’s protests might not stop rural Queenslanders from taking some of their anger out on him.

Submissions to the Commission close on Friday. Expect there to be plenty of them.

Peter Fray

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