John Howard, the same man who privatised Telstra against the wishes of 70 per cent of Australians and even more strenuous opposition from rural Australia, and who sold out the interests of beef and pork producers in signing the Australia US Free Trade Agreement in 2005 has emerged, in the past week, as the unlikely saviour of Queensland democracy.
What fair democratic-minded person could possibly have objected to the following words coming from the mouth of our Prime Minister on Tuesday, August 7?
"I challenge the Premier of Queensland, let the people speak on your amalgamations proposal," he said.
"Let the people of Queensland decide and let this be a reminder that if you remove the check and balance of this system, if you have Labor governments at every level, this sort of behaviour will become the norm.
"Within the limits of the constitution, we will do what we can to force the Queensland Government to consult the people of Queensland, to force the Queensland Government if necessary, to shame the Queensland Government into actually consulting the people of Queensland."
John Howard since backed up these words by offering to fund, through the Australian Electoral Commission, putting the question of amalgamations to the affected residents of Queensland through referenda to be held concurrently with the forthcoming Federal elections.
This offer, along with attempts already underway by Queensland Councils to consult with their communities, has drawn over-the-top responses from Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and the Local Government Minister Andrew Fraser. At the last minute, when the legislation was being rushed through Queensland parliament in the early hours of Friday, August 10, amendments were added to the legislation that would allow the Queensland Government to instantly dismiss any Council that attempted to conduct any referendum or which requested the AEC to conduct a referendum.
The Courier-Mail of August 11 reported that Andrew Fraser had threatened to dismiss councils even for counting or collating votes returned in response to ballot forms already sent out.
The Mayors of Warroo, Boonah and Nebo shires defied Fraser and counted their returned ballots, nonetheless.
John Howard subsequently, on August 16, enacted legislation, with the support of the Federal Labor Party, to over-ride the Queensland laws in order to allow Councils to conduct referenda. By Sunday, both Beattie and Fraser had changed their tunes. In an interview with Barry Cassidy on ABC Televison's Insiders, Beattie said, " ... if people want to have a protest and the Prime Minister wants to pay for that protest vote, then that's fine by us, we're not going to fine councils". However, Beattie neglected to reflect upon the trouble that his behaviour over the previous ten days had put the Federal Parliament to.
Mr Beattie also made it clear that he had no intention of abiding by the wishes of residents in any council were the outcome to indicate opposition to amalgamation. His justification was an AC Nielsen poll of all of 1,000 Queenslanders, which he claimed showed that 73 per cent said "that we need stronger councils to deal with our growth". Why it follows, even if these figures are to be accepted as the true feelings of all Queenslanders in regard to the question of amalgamations, that those in areas, where opposition to amalgamations was strong, should accept that verdict, was not explained.
Many Queenslanders, who now are now rushing into John Howard's arms, need to ponder whether Howard is sincere in his apparent indignation against the Beattie Government's dictatorial conduct, or whether they may only be being used by John Howard, and Peter Beattie, also, as pawns to suit their respective cynical purposes.
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