Cynical hypocrisy on council elections provides a chance to promote genuine democracy

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.

Like & share:


  1. actual stirring of democracy! be careful mr b, in my experience this kind of talk rouses panic in the oz breast. nowadays it may get you on an afp ‘watch’ list, too.

    but for now: huzzah!

  2. Let’s not forget that Howard was staunchly against the constitutional recognition of local government not too long ago. This is less a change of heart than yet another attempt to win votes by blaming the state Labor governments and using it as a wedge against Kevin Rudd. Unfortunately for Howard, Rudd has already come out against Beattie’s amalgamations and this leads me to believe the wedge won’t work.

    Most of Australia couldn’t care less about Queensland councils and those who do probably realise that Howard’s not the defender of local government he claims to be. Still, my view is from Brisbane and I can’t claim to speak for those from the rural areas who are affected the most. Beattie and Bligh are going to cop a beating at the next state election, though.

  3. On a slight tangent on the issues of democracy and hypocrisy.

    I was wondering at a recent meeting of Just Rights Qld ( a group campaigning for a bill of rights – exactly what rights underpin a democracy?

    It’s not just the right to vote – as these plebiscites are about to prove, a vote with no consequence has no value. Except perhaps to cynically garner a little backlash support for an unnamed federal government.

    Freedom of speech seems likely, the right to education, too – without an informed electorate, voting is mainly guesswork – which leads me to think that government accountability should be in there somewhere, although how to frame that as a right eludes me at the moment – the right to truth in government, perhaps? Sounds pretty revolutionary in today’s environment.

    But one that seemed unlikely to be within the fundamental rights underpinning a democracy, is housing, thanks to the disgraceful changes to the Electoral Act by the Coalition government – if you don’t have stable housing, it now directly threatens your right to vote. As well as restricting your access to education, employment and society in general.

    Speaking of cynical government hypocrisy, though – did you see Joe Hockey spouting his theory that the ALP’s new IR commission would be a place for old union bosses to go when they retired?

    The only trouble being, his professed outrage over that came out on exactly the same day that Amanda Vanstone left the senate to take up the post of ambassador to Italy. Because actual cronyism is completely separate from hypothetical cronyism.

  4. Senator, I don’t quite share your open enthusiasm for election-day opinion ballots. The GOP put anti-gay marriage referenda on the ballot in numerous US states in 2004 — no doubt with the intent to engage in some cognitive priming, and steer the mindset of voters in the booth onto this moralistic field of play for their electoral decisions.

    The Prime Minister is shamelessly taking a leaf from this playbook, effectively allowing the government in power to be the only actor able to campaign on election day. It’s an abuse. Citizen-initiated referenda might provide some equality of access, at best.

  5. Mister Z, the thing about the Republicans putting referenda forward on the same day as an election is that voting in the US is not compulsory. Referenda, in these forms, act as a way to “energise the base” and get people out to vote in Congressional elections that they’d normally stay home for. In Australia we are compelled to vote by the AEC and any referendum will usually be secondary to the election if held on the same day.

    That having been said, Australia doesn’t strike me as a nation particularly interested in direct democracy. We’re quite happy to leave the decision making to politicians provided we get asked through community consultation before anything goes through. Once we’ve elected our representatives, we’re happy to bitch about them from the sidelines for the next three years.

  6. In our state the council is looked upon as being a money making racket.I say racket because our rates are spent on what councillors deem as important,not what is important like road repairs,street lighting,security cameras in malls to catch vandals & graffitti offenders.I could go on listing different items but to no avail.Our rates go up each year,but apart from council functions with business people from industry,other dinners, trips,renewing of their council cars.Ratepayers are left asking the same old questions since we had the misfortune of this person being elected by his peers three years ago.There is never money in the budget for roads etc,but no shortage when it come to beer,spirits and wine to stock the 3 bars.

Comments are closed.