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How not to look after the regions

This is a story of how not to look after the regions, that part of the great Australian electorate that is likely to decide the outcome of the next Queensland and federal elections.

The federal and state political arenas are in upheaval over what is behind a growing number of voters’ emphatic and perhaps permanent rejection of the policies and outlooks of Australia’s mainstream political parties.

This week’s Newspoll told the story: neither the Coalition Government of Malcolm Turnbull nor Bill Shorten’s Labor Opposition can muster anything like the 40 percent primary vote support pundits say is needed to win an election. Instead, many voters are embracing another political player: Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party. The Rockhampton flood crisis, floodwater under a bridge

Other opinion polls have One Nation electoral support at more than 20 percent in Queensland where, in some regional areas that have previously shown enduring support for the mainstream conservative side of politics, Hanson’s appeal threatens to be just as strong as it is for the LNP.

There’s been tonnes of stuff written and spoken about why all this is happening, with one expert’s opinion seeming no more credible than the next. But let me report on a situation that might give you a clue.

Several of the state’s rural and remote councils are involved in a protracted struggle with sections of the federal bureaucracy over their use of council plant and equipment to clean up and rebuild after flooding. Anyone with more than a passing knowledge of regional Queensland knows that the place floods regularly, and that it is largely left to local councils to get their communities back on their feet after the waters recede.

In fact, the regularity of flooding is such that this obligation has become a more or less permanent part of the work that councils do to help their communities. Jobs are created, towns and regions are allowed to recover quickly and the local economy benefits as a result.

The councils doing this work are supposed to have their costs reimbursed under the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. That is how the system is supposed to operate and has operated for many decades.

Enter the Federal Government, which suddenly decided in 2015 to refuse to pay 34 Queensland councils for the flood recovery work they performed using their plant and equipment back in 2013-14.

Some of these councils are now left more than $1 million out of pocket. Small change for Canberra but a sum that, for a lot of communities, directly affects the ability of their local council to maintain jobs and help them recover from natural disasters.

Take a place like Winton, where more than half the population of the shire relies directly or indirectly on the council for work. The consequences of what Canberra is doing will be devastating.

But here is the thing about Canberra’s attitude that has most folk flummoxed. The practice of councils using their own plant and equipment - rather than getting private contractors to do it as the bureaucrats would prefer - saved about $275 million in taxpayer funds between 2011 and 2014 across 65 councils!

Both the LGAQ and mayors of these councils have so far tried but failed to get the Government to see sense on this matter. But when you hear stories like this and then look at what the opinion polls are saying, is it any wonder a growing number of people are wanting things to change in Canberra?

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