The Prime Minister has put forward legislation which will allow taxpayers from around Australia to fund plebiscites for people in Queensland who want to express their view on whether they support their local council being forced to amalgamate with others. The Queensland government has already made it clear it will ignore the results of the plebiscites.
Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister’s stout defence of the right of people to have a say about major changes which affect their lives doesn’t extend to giving Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory the right to have a say over whether they support the federal government giving itself sweeping new powers to take over Aboriginal townships – changes extending far further than just forcing local councils to amalgamate.
In another display of breath-taking double standards, the legislation which empowered the takeover of entire Aboriginal townships and gave unprecedented, wide-ranging personal power to the federal Indigenous Affairs Minister was given a one day Committee hearing in Canberra, a very long distance from the people who were directly affected, at less than two days notice. By contrast, the Committee looking at the legislation empowering the Australian Electoral Commission to undertake plebiscites on the amalgamation of local councils is having three days of public hearings – in Noosa, Emerald Port Douglas – all areas in regional Queensland which are amongst the most peeved at the planned council amalgamations. While still far more rushed than is desirable, people have 10 days to put in submissions for this Bill, which consists of 4 pages of text, rather than little more than one day for the 500+ pages of unprecedented laws taking control of many aspects of the lives of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.
Despite the monumental double-standards, I’ve long been partial to bringing in some form of more direct democracy in Australia, whether through Citizens Initiated Referenda or some other mechanism. So in that sense, there probably hasn’t been a better opportunity to promote the ideal of more direct engagement with the public on political matters of concern to them.
I certainly don’t see a problem with having a referendum on council amalgamations on the same day as the federal election. As my fellow Democrat Senator, Andrew Murray, has pointed out, in the United States everyone from the President to the dogcatcher is elected on the same day. In states like California and countries like Switzerland referenda on many important questions are also simultaneously put to the people on election day. I wrote a post last November on some of the ‘ballot measures’ asked in various states of the USA in conjunction with their Congressional elections – questions ranging from stem cells to same sex marriages to the minimum wage to legalising marijuana. No doubt I wouldn’t like the outcomes of some votes if we had the same system here, but there’s plenty I don’t like about what governments do too – whatever system one has it will deliver some results one doesn’t like.
The important issue is to provide the mechanism for the public to be able to decide what questions that want to put to ballot, rather than be stuck just with questions governments think will help them. There’s a few other questions which it would be good to ask – not least for Aboriginal people in the Territory to give a view on the takeover of their townships (which I should emphasise might not be as negative as some of us opposed to John Howard’s actions might assume, at least in some towns). Maybe one on troop withdrawal from Iraq would be interesting too.