Thursday, August 02, 2007

Struggle in Paradise

Noosa Heads on an Elegantly Dressed Wednesday

A heartfelt SOS has reached me from my spiritual homeland Noosa Heads, Queensland, Australia. Regulars will know that I keep a residential retreat there which I call Mum’s House. Disaster has befallen gentle Noosa in the shape a meddling Labor (Australian spelling) State Government that’s been sitting in the same place for far too long without any decent opposition. In its dotage, it finds itself capable only of sourcing creative ways to order new stationery. Sound familiar?

Those versed in Australian politics will know that there is one layer of bureaucracy for every hundred or so people yet a growing trend towards a hefty democratic deficit in terms of elected representation. The origin of my namesake’s ire is that the State Government of Queensland proposes an amalgamation of Noosa with two neighbouring councils to create one ‘Super Council’, which it claims will,

‘provide optimum outcome for the future delivery of services and the overall sustainability of local government in the region, by removing structural inefficiencies.’

By ‘structural inefficiencies’, the State Government undoubtedly means the good burghers of Noosa Council who have stood as David against Goliath International, an infinite consortium of developers who would build sky-scraping pleasure palaces for Saudi princes and Michael Jackson where scrub turkeys and black cockatoos harmoniously coexist with local residents and holiday makers. While Noosa’s neighbours Maroochy and Caloundra have squandered their shoreline on soul-free system-builts, Noosa has developed a unique domestic architectural style with a palette reminiscent of the Caribbean. Unfortunately, most of the world has now bought into the rehabilitation of what we in the UK used to call ‘tower blocks’ with a snort of derision, and now sees hundred-storey Dubai Dick Sticks as the pinnacle of architectural achievement. Tiresome.

A tick-box ‘Commission’ was set up to ‘review’ the State Government’s proposals and has recently published its ‘recommendations’. I would offer a prize for guessing the outcome but, as you know, all competitions have been suspended in sympathy with one’s beloved BBC’s current plight. The flimsiest of arguments are offered for the pro-amalgamation case like this for example,

‘The region currently has a hierarchy of well defined commercial and retail centres with a regional local government being better able to maintain this hierarchy so as to avoid duplication of facilities, and oversupply of functions which leads to urban blight.’

What? WHAT! And most if it is that incoherent. There’s rubbish about people having to ‘cross boundaries’ to go to work and do their shopping and rather a lot of mention of expanding the capacity of the local airport. If you’re looking for the plum in this pie, direct your thumb to that.

You can read the whole thing here if all your hair shirts are in the wash.

You’d think, that with such a compelling case for sustaining the present stewardship of the human-scale village habitat and exemplary record of protecting the natural environment for which Noosa is justifiably renowned and the expertise gleaned from forty years of successfully defending public good over private interest, this would be a piece of piss to Noosa Council. Not a bit of it I’m afraid.

Instead of using its acquired acumen to calmly dissect the paltry case put forward by the State Government and draw up a credible proposal for alternative arrangements for joint service delivery that don't involve getting all the garbage trucks repainted, Noosa hit the panic button and managed to come across as a bunch of hysterical Nimbys about to be invaded by the hoi polloi. ‘We’re a niche market’, Noosa Council informed the Commission. ‘Do you need any help constructing the electric fence?’ the Commission helpfully replied – NOT.

The council has headed its campaign Keep Noosa Special. Why not just say No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs? As if that isn’t bad enough, they’ve subtitled it 'It’s Ours!!' Two explanation marks – wow, someone means business. Even worse, they’ve got a picture of pariah for hire ‘Sir’ Richard Branson in a prominent position on the publicity material. Yes, the patron saint of self-interest himself is the visible figurehead of this campaign. Was Rupert Murdoch not available? Do I need to point out that Branson owns one of the airlines that use the local airport? Did no one think that a billionaire foreign businessman fronting a campaign on behalf of a community of ordinary, caring Australians might seem a tad incongruous? I could weep.

But that’s not all. The top line is not the only aspect of all this that makes me cringe. Get into the body of the ‘argument’ and you find howlers so crude, they’d even laugh about them in Hackney. Noosa makes the case for itself as an ‘iconic brand’. Whatever happened to ‘village community’? In a rare moment of clarity, the Commission tore this one to shreds.

‘The notion that Noosa is a tourism icon is not disputed by the Commission. However, the Noosa Shire Council is not iconic and it is unlikely that any visitors to the shire would have any interest in or contact with, the council in the normal course of their holiday visit.’

Ouch! Who’s image managing this, Britney Spears?

Worse still, someone hasn’t fully understood the Government’s proposal as one of the objections put forward by Noosa is,

‘Noosa’s autonomy would be lost in a combined Sunshine Coast Council. We would represent only 1/6 of the population therefore we would have limited ability to influence decisions.’

Did no one read the guidance before putting finger to keyboard? What is this ring-fenced ‘we’? Are we to believe that all the residents of neighbouring Maroochy and Caloundra are pro high-rise? The proposal is for 12 councillors and one mayor on an undivided basis. Your ability to influence decisions is most certainly under threat dears, but not for that reason, for this reason. Currently the three areas have a combined population of 290,000 with a total of 34 elected representatives between them. In twenty years time the projected population of 474,000 will be represented by just 13. That’s what you need to be worrying about.

Noosa Council is very proud of the mass support it’s been able to generate with nearly 32,000 form letters and postcards being despatched from a population of just over 48,000. That equals the number of people who are registered to vote but it’s not to say the protests all came from individuals or Noosa residents. The report makes it very clear that the Commission was unimpressed, dismissing the deluge as orchestrated – which it very obviously is.

True democracy is based on individual participation and not mass mailing. Whilst we’re on the subject of a moral high ground, UK readers might be interested to know that, unlike here, councillors in Australia get a proper wage. I’m not suggesting for one minute that Noosa councillors are concerned only for their future employment but the pro-activity of both councillors and officers in this campaign does compromise it to some extent. And there is certainly no excuse for doing a Dennis Denuto and expecting the Commission to pick up on the vibe of the thing.

So – what have I been asked to do? Plead with you to deliver more of the same to an already pissed-off government in the next few days. If the cause appeals to you, please do so. I’m going to, not because it makes sense, but because I know what the people of Noosa are trying to achieve, no matter how clumsily it’s being executed.

I will say this to Noosa – you have ballsed up rather royally so I suggest you stop panicking and start making friends with your fellow citizens along the coast if you want to galvanise people power against the developers camped on your doorstep waiting for the axe to fall. And for effsake, learn how to mount an argument without sounding like you’re running a Park Avenue apartment block…


Andrew said...

Thanks for the welcome TSP. The Australian state of Victoria has undergone local council amalgamations and there aren't too many complaints now. But the larger council of the amalgamated group tends to dominate. What I don't like is not having wards and elected councillors responsible to electors in their ward. The proposal seems to be twelve councillors to represent the whole are, rather than smaller wards. It is great fun to bother your local ward councillors when your rubbish bin is not emptied. Seriously, it does give people better representation at council. Oh, and our are not paid a wage, but do get significant allowances.

R.H. said...

Queensland is a funny State, liberal and reactionary at the same time. It's the only State to have abolished the upper house, and was radical in Labor politics from the start, unionism has always been strong, probably because of the mostly rural economy, and in attitude among the populace, it's still like old Alabama in America. Don't forget that Premier Bjerke was worshipped there, while probably more right wing than Ronald Regan. And yet the bloke they've got now: Labor's Peter Beattie, is the latte set's finest lapdog.
So work it out. Strange place.

R.H. said...

Andrew, Williamstown council has amalgamated with Altona, etc, but we still a councillor responsible for each ward. The Mayor gets paid about $48,000 per annum, and I don't know how much the others get, but they're paid as well. The bloke with the really big salary is the CEO, who cops about $250,000 a year, which I reckon is ridiculous.
Amalgamations are no good because they distance councils overall from very local issues, and as you say, the larger (and in our case, more suave) area tends to get more attention. Meanwhile the old and magnificent Williamstown town hall sits empty except for poetry readings, while the now enlarged council has a newly-built and furturistic building in Altona for it's (grave) deliberations.

That's so pants said...

Hi Andrew

I don't like the idea of not having ward councillors responsible to constituents either. I know all three of my councillors here in London personally and one of them I have called on any number of occasions to mediate when I have had issues with council services. She is marvellous.

Councillors on the Sunshine Coast do get a living wage - in Maroochy it's fairly decent. I think this is a good idea. One of the problems with not paying councillors is that it excludes full time wage earners because it's more or less a full time job. That limits the pool of candidates significantly. However, when the councillors are salaried (as opposed to expenses only) their participation in campaigns to affect change can't be considered neutral. Their partiality has to be at least questioned, however just the cause.


I agree Queensland politics is a funny beast. I lived in QLD during some of the JB-P years. I went to University of QLD and participated in anti-Joh activity. You are right of course, he was kept in power by the rural population and a very useful gerrymander. I haven't had anything to do with the Beattie regime other than to witness the disillusionment of friends and family.

My Mum comes from Williamstown! The scenario you describe of the larger area dominating the agenda is the great fear on the Sunshine Coast. Noosa has worked hard to reject inappropriate development and protect the environment for a very long time and the thought that it could all change very quickly is quite depressing.

However, the proposal for undivided representation means it's not just a numbers game. It's entirely possible that the 'Noosa effect' could filter down to its Southern neighbours given the high level of political engagement displayed by Noosa and its champions.

The question of political representative vs executive remuneration you raise is an important one. Councillors carry out executive functions like reviewing planning applications. It stands to reason that if you cut the number of people doing that by one third AND expand the work at the same time you have to hire in people to fill the gaps. A councillor taking home $60-70K is good value compared to the amount they'd have to pay a consultant.

Then there is the question of removing the direct link between the people and their representatives. HOW exactly are they then accountable? What recourse do residents have? The reason I was so cross with Noosa is that they (rather arrogantly I thought) assumed that amassing a huge amount of popular support was going to win the day and didn't look closely at the proposals. It only took me half a day to go through all the material and see that their arguments were seriously flawed. Government commissioners are daft but they're not THAT daft.



R.H. said...

There's just been a piece about it on the ABC's 7:30 report. Here's some points made:

There's too many councils; 157 should be reduced to 72.

Councils are having financial problems; 40% of them struggle.

Queensland has a growing population with stress on services.

-On the other hand:

It's a power grab by the State Government.

Changes could wreck the tourist market in the UK. (Why travel here for overdevelopment when they can go to Spain?)

Developers are getting ready to move in.

Apparently local sporting celebrities, etc, are being enlisted to fight against it, but Beattie seems very determined. Opponents of the plan say it'll hurt Queensland Labor politicians in the coming Federal election, financial boffins (supporters, I guess) say it'll do it good.

I've never liked Beattie, he's a total con man. Meanwhile Bob Abbot looks remarkably like Ned Kelly. And maybe that's the whole issue: ordinary folk getting flattened by spiv authority.

That's so pants said...


Interesting - thanks. I found the comment about the UK tourist market strange. As far as I know people from the UK don't go to Australia for the beaches. They have always gone to Spain and flocked to the most overdeveloped parts by choice. I wonder where the 7.30 Report could have got such a notion. I think it does show how superficial the media's understanding of the issues is. In the course of writing that blog I looked at some of what has been written so far and was quite perturbed about the general unwillingness to explore the issues seriously.

Bob Abbott has been has been a great mayor and I think you're right about the disenfranchisement of ordinary people. Everywhere there seems to be less room for diverse views and personal styles in favour of a grey-suited, corporate stereotype. No wonder people are losing interest in politics.



phil said...

They (the 7.30 Report) got the notion from full-page ads placed in newspapers by a consortium of UK travel agents. I thought the argument a bit weak at the time so your analysis seems spot-on. An ad from overseas commercial interests in a local issue also tends to raise some questions.

jeanie said...

Hey there - found your blog through google as I am in a shire affected by amalgamation and have family whose livelihoods and services will be severely affected by amalgamation - for a lot of the points that you raised.

Both shires (or rather soon to be called "regional councils") are to the north of Noosa.

May link to this post in my next tirade on the subject - but well written and a good new angle and perspective.


That's so pants said...

Hi Phil and welcome

Yes - curiouser and curiouser. I know how tough it is to maintain an objective perspective on this when you are in the middle of it all. I live next door to the site of the London Olympics and I couldn't bring myself to participate in any of the discussion because the absurdity of it would certainly have driven me to homicide. I can tell you my family who are resident in Noosa are not best pleased with my performance here - feeling quite let down by my views as I've expressed them. The fact remains though that Noosa Council mishandled this and it could be costly. Even worse, some alliances and motives now seem questionable.

Hi Jeannie

Welcome to you too! I'm sorry to hear that your own family will be adversely affected by the proposed changes. Boundary redistributions always have negative consequences and I think it is doubtful whether they provide any cost benefit in real terms and even if they do, whether the disruption to residents' lives can be justified. My sister is a council employee and has already experienced quite uncomfortable foretastes of things to come in terms of workplace wellbeing.



Andrew said...

Interesting input from all. RH, Queensland is a strange place indeed. I believe it only City of Melbourne where there are no wards.

As you are aware Pants, your post pre-empted wide national broadcaster coverage.

I am with you on that it should be a paid position. To do it properly takes many many hours and not paying them narrows the representatives down to people who can afford to do it.

Good effort by you doing research. It is hard work, but you can argue with the facts behind you.

That's so pants said...

Hi Andrew

You heard it here first eh!

Salaries for councillors is emotive stuff in Britain where the ethic of altruistic civic service vies quite untenably with wealth worship. What the lack of a living wage for elected local members translates into is a lot of retired people or those on benefits and people of independent means representing a population mostly consisting of wage earners.

I always check my sources thoroughly. My personal motto is

"If you can't hack the slog, don't do the blog."



R.H. said...

Andrew, as you probably know, conservative Premier Jeff "Boofhead" Kennett ordered the amalgamations in Victoria, whilst turning all the big mental hospitals into housing estates, along with lots of Government schools. Meanwhile services like gas, electricity, water supply, public transport, and even prisons, have been put into private hands. Which is annoying, because in the old days you could ignore an electricity disconnection notice until you found the dough to pay it, now you'll get cut off the same afternoon.

Councillors from way back have always been local business men; there was no money in it, but it was good publicity. Meanwhile Labor councillors who owned nothing were notorious for taking bribes.

There's still lots of crooks, and it's all pretty funny. We've had a Billy Bunter lawyer mayor here (who was actually president of the entire Victorian Municipal Association) who wrote letters to our suburban newspapers -using invented names and addresses, in support of measures he favoured. He got sacked -from both positions, but is still trying for a comeback.

The majority of these people nowadays are pushing their own carts anyway, with many regarding council politics as a first step on their way to becoming prime minister. They're ambitious.

I've always believed if you scratch a Labor politician you'll find a conservative underneath. Because really, they're all the same crowd. So Beattie's turnaround doesn't surprise me -especially in a funny old place like Queensland.

Some of you 'furriners' might reckon Australia is an egalitariarn country.
Don't believe lies.

R.H. said...

Just as a matter of interest: I know England once had a German king who couldn't speak English. Well you may like to know that Melbourne currently has a Chinese Lord Mayor with the same disability.

But no matter: the chattering classes adore him, as they do all things foreign.
Very cute.

That's so pants said...


I don't think there is such a thing as 'an egalitarian society' anywhere in the world now.



R.H. said...

Yes well you have a definite class system and so do we. The difference is our upper classes truly are the twits you pretend yours to be.

That's so pants said...


I think our UCTs are totally authentic. They are a British invention after all.