by Amy Remeikis
Queensland: vote no, or risk weakening “one of the few restraints” on the state government.
That’s the message from the Queensland Council of Civil Liberties on the upcoming four-year term referendum, expected to be held at the same time the state votes on its local governments.
The government, with the opposition’s support, voted to extend Queensland parliamentary terms from three years to four, with a fixed October election date, late last year.
The change, which only the Katter Party voted against, needs the seal of approval from the Queensland public, given it would need a change to the state’s constitution.
But president of the QCCL, Michael Cope, said Queensland’s history, as well as its lack of checks and balances in the form of an upper house or bill or rights, should be evidence enough that the public reject the move.
“QCCL is concerned that, given the elite consensus in support of this proposal, it will go through without its merits being considered by a fully informed Queensland public,” he said.
“In our view, given that Queensland has no upper house, no human rights act and a well-known history of authoritarianism, parliamentary terms should not be increased until democracy and public accountability in this state have been significantly improved.
“It is ironic that when the Labor Party abolished the upper house, one of its arguments was that it was a safe thing to do because parliamentary terms were only three years long.
“One of the few restraints on government in this state should not be watered down without both sides being given a proper chance to put their case.”
Queensland’s Referendums Act puts limitations on public expenditure, stating that when it comes to arguments about the referendum, the government can only spend money “to prepare and publish a newspaper notice” about the referendum, publish and distribute pamphlets in a variety of languages, allow the Electoral Commission of Queensland to provide information about the question or bill, and pay public servant salaries.
“There is no provision in the Referendums Act for the public funding of the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ cases,” Mr Cope said.
“The only provision for public assistance in the debate is that the Members of Parliament who voted against the proposal will write the ‘no’ case, and the ‘yes’ case and the ‘no’ case will be distributed to voters.
“We contrast this with the situation in the case of Commonwealth Referendums to change the constitution, where there is public funding for both sides of the argument. Why does this not occur in Queensland?”
Usually, the political parties mount their own arguments, but with both the major parties in-step on the issue, no major campaign is expected.
It is understood a public awareness campaign about the referendum, funded by taxpayers and carried out by the ECQ, is being planned, but no further information is available at present, with the government reticent to talk anything referendum-related until the writs are issued.
That won’t happen until the Premier pays a visit to the Governor. When even that is due to happen is also under wraps, despite the local government election date creeping closer.
The average term of government in recent years has been two years and nine months.
Governments of both political persuasions, which only have about 18 months to push through a legislative agenda before turning to election planning, have traditionally supported the move, while oppositions have rejected it.
This is the first time that on this issue, both have been on the same page.