Honouring the will of the people

At time of writing, we?re still awaiting a date for the federal election (originally announced for 14 September). What is forgotten in all of the speculation is the referendum that will also be put to voters at the forthcoming election.
The referendum proposes altering the Constitution to enable the Federal Government to directly provide financial assistance grants to local governments, not indirectly through the States. Currently, the Federal Government provides these grants (eg through the Roads to Recovery program) but the change to the Constitution would formalise the process. It would also symbolically recognise the role of local government in the delivery of services that have traditionally belonged to the States, including infrastructure, health care and aged care.
Local government plays an important role in construction. Indeed, local councils not only approve licences to open or extend quarries, rural and regional municipalities even own some quarry sites.
Our news site regularly reports of quarry applications before local councils, often amidst public angst. As much as quarry operators bemoan the red and green tape involved in seeking environmental permits from the three tiers of government, I don?t envy the role of local governments in quarry approvals either. 
They have to walk the tight rope between encouraging investment and growth in their communities and satisfying the same ratepayers that elected them, while having to placate their ?bigger brothers? at State Government level and occasionally in the federal sphere. In fact, local governments will often (in Australian Rules football parlance) ?handball? tough, unpopular decisions to bodies like the Land and Environment Court or to the State Government rather than risk losing face with their constituents.
It?s easy to dismiss activist residents as ?NIMBYs? and Luddites but we shouldn?t forget that we Australians deeply value having our voices heard. We elect our representatives to work in our best interests and we are unforgiving if they fail to live up to that expectation. Nor are we forgiving if we believe that democracy is being undermined by perceived vested interests, especially now that more local government decisions are vulnerable to challenge than in the past.
It is common for building applications rejected by local councils to be overturned by administrative tribunals on points of law. In Queensland, Barro Group is appealing to the Planning and Environment Court a refusal by the Redlands City Council to expand its Mount Cotton quarry. Barro argues that the expansion is for the community?s benefit; transporting materials from outside Redland will blow out the costs of home builds, large investments and council budgets. The company is also understandably frustrated that it spent considerable time and resources satisfying every ?possible approval? yet the council embarked on a different course.
On the Sunshine Coast, Parklands Blue Metal is also awaiting the outcome of its appeal to the same court after the regional council refused its proposal to extract 500,000 tonnes of diorite at Yandina Quarry.
As devil?s advocate, I pose the following questions: Despite concerted efforts at compliance and communication beforehand, is it reasonable for a business to appeal the decision of a popularly elected council that has honoured the will of its constituents? How can a commercial entity win the community?s respect if its action prevails? What kind of reputation does litigation give the broader quarry industry? Like the coal seam gas debate, does the industry risk being viewed by our communities as a schoolyard bully, not a friend? 
And will litigation only embolden communities against future quarry applications?
For the quarry industry, local government is a bridge to the community. It is in the industry?s best interests to collaborate with councils. As frustrating and prolonged as approvals are, a council is a crucial ally in your quarry operation. Challenging local government decisions risks long term alienation from the community you profess to represent. Clearly, a middle ground must be found – but divesting decision-making power to the State at local government?s expense is not an answer.


Since the publication of this editorial, the federal election has been called for Saturday 7 September, 2013. The Rudd Government has also announced that it has withdrawn the referendum proposing the recognition of local government in the Constitution. “I have been a long-term supporter of constitutional recognition for local government but I think we’re going to have to look at that in the next term,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared after calling the election.

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