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Will John Howard save democracy in Queensland?

Also published as "Dictatorial conduct" on Online Opinion on 12 Aug 07.

John Howard, the same man who privatised Telstra against the wishes of 70% of Australians and even more strenuous opposition from rural Australia, and who sold out the interests of beef and pork producers in signing the Australia US Free Trade Agreement in 2005 has emerged, in the past week, as the unlikely saviour of Queensland democracy.

What fair democratic-minded person could possibly have objected to the following words coming from the mouth of our Prime Minister on Tuesday 7 August?

"I challenge the Premier of Queensland, let the people speak on your amalgamations proposal," he said.

"Let the people of Queensland decide and let this be a reminder that if you remove the check and balance of this system, if you have Labor governments at every level, this sort of behaviour will become the norm.

"Within the limits of the constitution, we will do what we can to force the Queensland Government to consult the people of Queensland, to force the Queensland Government if necessary - to shame the Queensland Government into actually consulting the people of Queensland."

John Howard since backed up these words by offering to fund, through the Australian Electoral Commission, putting the question of amalgamations to the affected residents of Queensland through referenda to be held concurrently with the forthcoming Federal elections.

This offer, along with attempts already underway by Queensland Councils to consult with their communities, has drawn over-the-top responses from Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and the Local Government Minister Andrew Fraser. At the last minute, when the legislation was being rushed through Queensland parliament in the early hours of Friday 10 August, amendments were added to the legislation that would allow the Queensland Government to instantly dismiss any Council that attempted to conduct any referendum or which requested the AEC to conduct a referendum.

The Courier Mail of 11 August reported that Andrew Fraser had threatened to dismiss councils even for counting or collating votes returned in response to ballot forms already sent out.

The Mayors of Warroo, Boonah and Nebo shires defied Fraser and counted their returned ballots, nonetheless..

John Howard subsequently, on 16 August, enacted legislation, with the support of the Federal Labor Party, to over-ride the Queensland laws in order to allow Councils to conduct referenda. By Sunday, both Beattie and Fraser had changed their tunes. In an interview with Barry Cassidy on ABC Televison's "Insiders", Beattie said, " ... if people want to have a protest and the Prime Minister wants to pay for that protest vote, then that's fine by us, we're not going to fine councils." However, Beattie neglected to reflect upon the trouble that his behaviour over the previous ten days had put the Federal Parliament to.

Mr Beattie also made it clear that he had no intention of abiding by the wishes of residents in any council were the outcome to indicate opposition to amalgamation. His justification was an AC Nielsen poll of all of 1000 Queenslanders, which he claimed showed that 73 per cent said "that we need stronger councils to deal with our growth." Why it follows, even if these figures are to be accepted as the true feelings of all Queenslanders in regard to the question of amalgamations, that those in areas, where opposition to amalgamations was strong, should accept that verdict, was not explained.

Many Queenslanders, who now are now rushing into John Howard's arms, need to ponder whether Howard is sincere in his apparent indignation against the Beattie Government's dictatorial conduct, or whether they may only be being used by John Howard, and Peter Beattie, also, as pawns to suit their respective cynical purposes.

As a correspondent to The Courier Mail of Saturday 11 August of the forced amalgamations in Victoria in 1994:

(Liberal Premier) Jeff Kennett ... sacked all the councils in the state, replaced them with administrators sympathetic to his objectives, then set out to determine how the boundaries should be redrawn. As a result, all the councils were run under the tight control of the premier for 18 months or so while the amalgamations were implemented. There was no chance for referendums or consultation or negotiation with mayors or Councillors. There was no agonising over "the voice of the people". Everyone was sacked and out of the way while the process was driven through."

Prime Minister John Howard, although only Federal Opposition leader at the time, nevertheless, did nothing to dissuade his Victorian colleague from a course of action which was every bit as dictatorial as that which is now being undertaken by the Queensland Labor Government.

In government, John Howard has lowered the standards of democracy and government accountability to levels many would never have believed possible before. As a house of review, the Senate has been emasculated. All manner of important legislation is rammed through, in exactly the same way that the forced council amalgamation legislation was recently rammed through The Queensland Parliament with little or no opportunity for scrutiny of the legislation. Bills which have become law in this fashion include:

  • Telstra Privatisation
  • "Work Choices"
  • Bills currently before the Senate to take away the rights of aboriginal communities to manage their own affairs and to alter their land tenure

The misnamed "Work Choices" laws, which have changed the very fabric of our society was not even put to electors in the 2004 elections. In 2005 Howard announced his intention to enact industral ralations 'reforms' to be known as "Work Choices". Even before the bills were presented to Parliament, an unprecedented saturation level campaign of TV, Radio and Newspaper advertising was launched. This cost the taxpayer AU$55 million. Since then, the Government itself, by having belatedly changed the original legislation in election year, has acknowledged that the claims made in this advertising campaign were false.

During the 2004 election campaign Australian electors were bombarded with all kinds of advertising material promoting the supposed achievements of the Howard Government. One of these was the notorious "Strengthening Medicare" campaign, the claims of which were known, even at the time, to have been false. This campaign cost taxpayers AU$20 million.

John Howard's Government has shameless used the pork barrel to win votes in strategic marginal seats.

The Howard Government has also cut the funding to organisations which have been in any way critical of Government policy. Scientists working for the CSIRO who have been critical of the Governments inaction in the face of the threat of global warming have been sacked.

So, it would seem that John Howard's new found commitment to democratic principles may not be quite as strong as his moving condemnation of the Beattie Labor Government's outrages would lead many of us us to believe.

In fact it is striking how congruent the policies of Howard and Beattie are:

  • Both support the export of every possible tonne of Australian coal in spite of the obvious and growing peril that this poses to our global environment.
  • Both encourage rampant population growth to suit property developers and land speculators
  • Beattie, in common with all Labor Premiers indicated their support for the Australian US Free trade agreement, which grossly disadvantages Australia farmers, even before Federal Labor had adopted a policy on it in 2004
  • Both are engaged in extensive programs of privatising publicly owned land and other assets.
  • In 1999, even before the "never ever" GST legislation had been passed through the Senate in the face of heated popular opposition, the Labor state premiers, with Beattie foremost amongst them, fell over themselves, to sign agreements with Howard over the distribution of GST revenue.

As Mark Latham pointed out in "The Latham Diaries" the Victorian NSW and Tasmanian Labor Governments all acted to harm the electoral prospects of Labor in 2004, apparently to suit their own selfish interests.

The upshot of all of this may be, unless we are careful, that Howard will win in 2007, thanks to a swing against Federal Labor in Queensland, but will fail to reverse Beattie's amalgamations just as he failed to reverse Kennett's earlier unpopular and ill-considered amalgamations in Victoria. When Queensland Labor next faces the people in 2009, the horrors of the re-elected Howard Government may well cause many to forget Beattie's current outrages against democracy as previously happened to Bracks in 2006 and to Iemma, Carr's successor, in 2007.

Ironically, the best way for Queenslanders to punish the Beattie Labor Government for trampling on their democratic rights, may prove to be a strong vote for Labor in the forthcoming Federal election.

Comments

Just how long have you lived in Queensland? The councils are living in the past, and Australian Government system has long needed an overhaul, so why not start at the bottom.

The Mayors and CEO's are jumping up and down as they are the ones to lose their influence & power as when you merge five into one, there is but one Mayor, and one CEO, and fewer Councillors to drain moneys from the public purse.

Irrespective of What Party they follow, I want the best persons for the job, not someone who will Pandy to their mates to the detriment to the rest of us.

The above post seems to be mostly opinion and fails to acknowledge facts contained on other pages which support the case against enforced amalgamations.

The amalagamations are strongly posed by residents of these local communities (e.g. 80% opposed in Stanthorpe Shire), so it is not just about a few Mayors or CEO's acting to preserve their own selfish interests.

(Aussieida, I thought I saw a request for registration, but it has mysteriously vanished. My apologies. Please contact me, if you did want to register.)

Since the system is all about stealing land and power from the majority of people and giving more to the rich and dominant, any streamlining of it will make the situation worse.

People are able to affect local, smaller government and make it accountable, but they have little power over the agenda and accountability of State and Federal government.

Aussieida sounds like about 70% of human beings; he does not question anointed authority, doesn't have a concept of a system, and will always take up the cry of the 'leadership' and assist them to do what they tell him they must.

It is just like Mussolini - very popular for making trains run on time, pity he had to kill people.

No, he won't, democaracy is not his agenda, that is ours apparently.