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Behave or else

By Scott Prasser - posted Wednesday, 28 February 2007


The clear message is that executive government rules.

Of the three levels of governments in Australia, only local councils, despite being directly elected by the people, can be sacked by another government, namely the states.

Earlier this month, new Local Government Minister Andrew Fraser sacked the Johnstone Shire Council in far north Queensland - the first time a council has been sacked in this state for 19 years. And to show he means business, Fraser also told the Douglas Shire to show cause why it, too, should not be sacked.

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The Government, under legislation, can initiate a dismissal of a local authority for approval by Parliament on the grounds of corruption, a council's "capacity to exercise properly its jurisdiction of local government" or its perceived incompetence.

The new minister seems to have genuinely sought to avoid the sackings and had a meeting with the Johnstone Shire last year. Instead of compromise Fraser was confronted with further internal dispute and threatened with legal action.

Fraser had little option but to proceed with the sacking once the legal issues had cleared. That his decision is supported by the Opposition indicates that the minister has no covert political motivations.

Nevertheless, there are several aspects of these council sackings warranting attention.

First, there is no allegation of corruption, although the Johnstone Shire was having some financial difficulties. Rather, based on advice from external investigators, the grounds for dismissing the Johnstone Shire and the impending sacking of the Douglas Shire, are largely because of the councillors' inabilities to work together and with shire staff and their undesirable behaviour that was deemed to be adversely affecting effective decision-making.

While such behaviour may be unpleasant, it is hardly unique to the Johnstone Shire as any observation of Queensland's sometimes stormy parliamentary proceedings testify. Other mechanisms could have been invoked to handle such behaviour.

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Second, the sacking of the Johnstone Shire was delayed by six months as two councillors took the Government to court questioning whether the decision was an administrative one and therefore subject to the Judicial Review Act.

The Supreme Court found against the councillors concluding that the minister was exercising parliamentary rather than administrative powers. In effect this court decision means there is no accountability of executive government to the courts on such issues. Given Queensland's history of executive dominance over Parliament it also means greater power to executive government in Queensland on these matters.

The clear message to local government is that executive government rules, so behave or else.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on February 20, 2007.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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