06/08/2014 - 16:57

Democracy in need of counselling

06/08/2014 - 16:57

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Colin Barnett’s determined push to cut the number of local councils is a great example of how out of touch politicians are with public opinion.

Democracy in need of counselling
… or the highway: Despite a host of dissenting voices, Colin Barnett is determined to get his way on council mergers.

Colin Barnett’s determined push to cut the number of local councils is a great example of how out of touch politicians are with public opinion.

Here's an early plug for The Political Bubble – Why Australians Don’t Trust Politics, released last week by the idiosyncratic Mark Latham.

Judging from its promotional literature, it makes pertinent observations.

“Australians once trusted their democratic process,” one promo reads.

“While we got on with our lives we assumed our politicians had our best interests at heart.

“No more. The trust has collapse.

“What can be done about the democratic deficit?”

Latham’s on the money there.

Like thousands of voters Australia-wide, I now disbelieve election promises and so-called solemn core undertakings.

The most infamous of recent times is, of course, Julia Gillard’s back flip and buckling to the Greens on taxing CO2.

Closely behind trails Tony Abbott’s promise not to boost taxes, and then doing precisely that in his first budget.

Of course such behaviour is also common much closer to home.

Try this from Colin Barnett, whom one-time Labor leader Eric Ripper so aptly nicknamed ‘The Little Emperor’, due to his proclivity of wanting things his own way, no matter what.

Mr Barnett does what he likes irrespective of pre-election claims, even when his party’s parliamentary ranks urge otherwise.

According to a December 15 2012 report in Perth’s Post Newspapers, he said: “The state government is not to go down the part of widespread forced amalgamations [of shires].

“We do not intend to do what [former Liberal premier] Jeff Kennett did in Victoria.”

On April 20 2013, Local Government Minister Tony Simpson, was reported, also in The Post, saying: “We have no interest in forced amalgamations.”

Not long after those reports appeared, and despite the conviction of the statements contained therein, it seems plans were quietly launched to move towards abolishing half of metropolitan Perth’s councils, which promises to cost ratepayers tens of millions of dollars in boosted rates over coming financial years.

For reasons best known to Mr Barnett, he wants growing metropolitan Perth to have 15 jumbo councils, not its 30 predominantly medium-sized entities.

Little wonder one-time Liberal frontbencher Rob Johnson used his budget address to condemn not only Mr Barnett’s pumping up of the state’s growing debt, but to warn against embracing unnecessary and costly hobby-horse dreams like council mergers.

“The government has taken measures in some areas to try and rein in expenditure and yet they are still spending tens of millions of dollars in non-essential areas,” Mr Johnson said.

“One of those areas is of course the forced amalgamation of metropolitan local governments.

“Can we afford to allocate tens of millions at this time when we are in such a serious financial position to something that neither the public or indeed local councils have called for, and in fact were promised would never happen?

“This broken promise is what I call a ‘Julia’ promise.

“By which I meant make a promise ‘not to do something’ and then clearly and deliberately doing the opposite.”

Thankfully there’s one Liberal MP prepared to publicly rebuke the imperialistic Barnett pathway.

Where are the others?

We know they exist because Mr Barnett withdrew a section of his Local Government Amendment Bill designed to remove ratepayers’ right to call council-wide referendums on unilateral moves to scrap their councils.

The legendary and popular Subiaco Independent Liberal MLA, Tom Dadour, had instituted that clause to ensure Subiaco ratepayers, and others, couldn’t have their councils abolished at a whim of future governments or premiers without voters having a democratic say.  

Mr Barnett’s decision to withhold moves to scrap the ‘Dadour clause’ followed a torrid Liberal Party room meeting.

In a hasty, Houdini-like back-flip, however, the premier set about redefining the word ‘amalgamations’ as ‘boundary changes’, resorting to semantics to override the clear intention of the Local Government Act he’d actually voted for as a minister in the Court government in 1995.

To make this appear even halfway legitimate, he moved to split councils (Cockburn and Canning) that were previously to be amalgamated entirely with another council, but in other cases (Swan/Mundaring and Belmont/Kalamunda) the actual proposals were unchanged – just differently labelled.

And to press ahead with his grand plan to reach the 15-megacouncil target, the premier has beefed-up the powers of a tiny and obscure quango – the Local Government Advisory Board – to oversee the amalgamations, renamed boundary changes, across metropolitan Perth.

Since neither Labor nor Liberal backbenchers and ministers have shown the gumption to block this onslaught on councils by denying residents a democratic say, others have been forced to step in.

Among them is onetime Vincent councillor Ian Ker, who has launched a Supreme Court challenge at his own expense, with South Perth, Subiaco and Serpentine-Jarrahdale council support, in a last-minute bid to rescue the democratic pathway by blocking the Barnett palace-led coup d’etat.


STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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