Asking any long-time FNQ residents to make an informed electoral choice built on a six-syllable word is asking for trouble.
This is a populist "bone" thrown by the Joh Bjelke Newman LNP government under the guise of "respecting the ratepayers". It's an idea so retrograde that even Cairns Council wisely instructed councillors and staff to remain "neutral" on the issue. So the hillbillies in former Douglas are slugging it out.
We don't get it.
As the de-amalgamation report from the Treasury pointed out, Douglas Shire cannot survive financially as a council with this few ratepayers over such a large area. One of the self-appointed group leaders, Ken Dobbs, of the "Douglas Residents and Ratepayers Association", is pushing for a "no" vote on the de-amalgamation, with his group in agreement with these Queensland Treasury and Boundaries Commissioner reports.
Of course, the pro-de-amalgamation faction led by former Mayor Mike Berwick and the "Friends of Douglas Shire" (FODS) have been the long-time instigators of the push to de-amalgamate. In their extensive published report, prepared for David Crisifulli and the LNP government, they outline the rosiest of pictures for the return of Douglas to its former self-rule. The only thing missing is the residents hand in hand skipping thru a field of poppies. Here ya' go.
We're going to confine our analysis at the two major issues for the ratepayers - the financial viability of Douglas as a stand-alone council, and the threat by FODS to return Port Douglas to the supply of polluted water to residents and tourists.
The original reasons for the amalgamation of councils into larger regional councils was simple - small councils are inefficient, with often corrupt "mates rates" contracting of essential services. Small councils tend to provide a lower level of service than in larger, better funded councils, and meet the needs of a wider range of citizens. While the FODS report glowingly repeats the previous Douglas claims that "Most residents and businesses of Douglas shire enjoyed a high level of service at competitive rates and charges", in the final analysis the government found this claim lacking in substantive ways. Some of these shortcomings included roads built to substandard conditions, long-term refurbishment and maintenance of vital infrastructure ignored, and a shire office packed with middle-management paper pushers.
On page 40 of the FODS document is the sad truth about the Douglas infrastructure. While they may have been "fully funding depreciation", they weren't fixing a bloody thing. Engineers from Cairns were appalled at the decay in much of the Douglas infrastructure, and were required to make immediate, emergency investments of some $6M upon amalgamation. And another $10M since. IT'S IN THEIR OWN NUMBERS! Even at the higher rates (falsely attributed to the amalgamation), Douglas did not have the wherewithal to repair what was fast becoming a shire in collapse. And even Cairns has been stretched to make the necessary fixes. Douglas alone couldn't do it then, and can't do it now.
And even the "Friends of Douglas" report, (about slide 15, they're unnumbered) prepared by former Douglas Corporate General Manager David Carey admits they won't have any money for capital works! He suggests going cap-in-hand to the state government. A pathetic and unrealistic plan.
FODS also notes that rates in Douglas after the amalgamation increased some 20%. As they did in Cairns. As they did across the state. And as they're going to continue to do, at an increased clip under the LNP. Governments across Australia are all engaged in fiscal "tricks", as funding for commitments they make are pushed into the financial planning of the next level of government DOWN. In 2008, Val Schier and other council candidates, acting without the knowledge that Kevin Byrne had about the water treatment requirements, promised to hold rates increases to the CPI. When the new Council took over they were told, oh by the way, the State is forcing us to spend $350M on water treatment without a shilling to contribute. This is the "financial norm" in the 21st Century.
FODS's financial analysis ignores this fact. The State is doing less. The Feds are doing less. The days of moneybags being handed out by these governments are over, at least for the medium-term. Douglas can't survive with the same level of rates as Cairns, because new requirements for infrastructure, planning, employees, and other factors give Douglas a much higher operational cost per ratepayer. And with a return to the days of middle-management paper pushers, even more so. Costs have been driven up by State decisions to shift former State project burdens to councils. That's why Anna Bligh pushed thru the amalgamations - she knew that a small council like Douglas would be bankrupted by these mandates.
Finally, the water. The greenie ratbags who pushed thru the "no chlorine" water treatment system ignored persistent advice from engineers that the cleanest water in the world wouldn't survive a ride in the old, dirty, poorly designed Port Douglas water reticulation system. The "micro-filtration" system implemented, instead of the cheaper standard for chlorinated drinking water, was a system never designed to be hooked up to old, disease-ridden pipes. But the multi-million dollar experiment was sold to the community by the greenie-dominated council, who went along with the nonsensical solution faster than Springfield and the Monorail. Mercifully, the "risk analysis" done on this water scheme by the CRC after amalgamation forced the professionals at Cairns Water to put an end to the experiment. There's been no end to the bitching.
But there is no doubt the greenie schemers are attempting a comeback. They've even allowed for a 50% rate increase on water to pay for it.
So what does it all mean?
The fundamental electoral and management problem in Douglas shire is the thousands of property owners, ratepayers-all, who can't vote in this or any local election. At the end of the day they're seen by all as the "goose that lays the golden eggs". With new schemes being mooted by the "de-amalgamation" side that uses tricks to skew the rates onto the backs of the non-locals, does any of this really matter? We say build a toll booth at Turtle Cove, manned with queens, and charge people to go to/from whatever is north of there. It's a useful Working Holiday project.
Campaigns are being run on both sides without the benefit of the usual campaign disclosures. Who's funding both sides of this argument, and what benefit are they seeking for themselves? Mike Berwick, Ken Dobbs, and Julia Leu, along with others on the front line, should renounce their candidacy for mayor or council in a de-amalgamated Douglas Shire. But with so many "ratepayers" in Port not entitled to vote, it's hard to see much of a turnout when much of the electorate can't even figure out that "NO" means "YES".
PEOPLE OF DOUGLAS.ORG
QUEENSLAND TREASURY REPORT