The Brisbane City Council elections

There are local council elections across Queensland today. Here in Brisbane, we are voting for Mayor as well as the local councilors. According to reports the election will be tight – and I can vouch for the fact during the last fortnight we have been drowned by a tidal wave of polls, robot-calls, letter drops, emails and – wonder of wonders! – one real live human doorknocker.

The Brisbane City Council is the largest local government authority in Australia – and one of the largest in the world. It dates from 1925, when 20 local shires and towns were consolidates into a single-mega-council. This size has given the BCC greater political heft than the local councils in other Australian capital cities, and the Mayors of Brisbane gain extra authority from the fact that they are popularly elected.

The creation of the Brisbane City Council came as part of a package of reforms introduced by the Queensland Government under the radical Premier Edward ‘Red Ted’ Theodore. Over a few years in the early 1920s, Queensland abolished the upper house of Parliament, abolished capital punishment (the first place in the British Empire to do so), introduced a compulsory age of retirement for judges – and converted local councils into the BCC.

The creation of a mega-council was controversial, as amalgamations always are. Where, for instance, was the appropriate boundary of Brisbane? I live in Sandgate, on the extreme northern edge of the city, and in 1925 Sandgate was a separate town, with a separate mayor and council. The locals didn’t want to join Brisbane, especially as they had just recently (1911) spent a small fortune building a brand new art deco town hall, designed by the local architect George Prentice.

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There are other, similar, late 19th and earch 20th century council chambers across Brisbane that became redundant as a result of amalgamation, such as South Brisbane Town Hall. It was okay for George Prentice though, whose firm Prentice and Hall went on to get the commission to build the new City Hall.

There are great advantages in having a larger council area. It is easier to design an integrated transport system, for instance, or to borrow library books across a wide network of council libraries. Other effects are more intangible. The Mayor of Brisbane – or Ipswich or Townsville or Toowoomba – has greater political clout in dealing with other levels of government, and the state government doesn’t carry the can alone for every urban misfortune. In New South Wales, state governments rise and fall trying to deal with Sydney’s transport problems. Here in South East Queensland, the problem of urban congestion is shared – not fixed, mind – but shared.

Everywhere, corruption flourishes at the local government level – all those zoning applications and tenders for supply of goods or services are a great temptation to small councils and smaller councilors. I suspect that the size of the Brisbane City Council has kept at bay the sort of small but profitable fiddles that occur in the suburban councils of Sydney or the other capitals. Though I’m not naïve – a larger government area sometimes just leads to the fiddles scaling up too.

Because voting is compulsory in Australia, the habit of voting is strong, even at this most humble level of government. So I’ll be fronting up at the polling booth this morning. Queuing to vote seems to me a mark of adulthood, and an act of community solidarity. It reminds me a little of that other habit of the good citizen: the ceremonial weekend visit to a Bunnings warehouse in search of hardware supplies. They both involve the whole community, people line up as couples or in family groups, they speak of respect for property and stability, and they both have sausage sizzles.

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6 responses to “The Brisbane City Council elections

  1. Thanks for another great bit of history Marion.

  2. I too very much appreciate this well written piece, Marion.

    I am waging a small and quiet campaign among local historians that we have to start thinking regionally in our local historical work. Most of us are not that parochial to ignore what’s happened outside of the old shire boundaries. For goodness sake, I am very pleased to hear as much as possible about Sandgate, an area which which is far away from my own area of main interest, the Brisbane Southside. If we are honest, we are thinking about the ‘other’ places in history as distant townships. Our general approach in local historical societies is as if we still living in pre-1925 !

    I think that the Greater Brisbane approach is at the moment one step too far at the moment. The Brisbane History Group Inc. does great work but, if you study its scope in publications, it is fairly bounded in the ‘Central Brisbane’ region — Toowong, St Lucia, West End, South Brisbane, City, Petrie Terrace, Bowen Hills,Spring Hill, Fortitude Valley, New Farm, Teneriffe, and then across to Herston and Kelvin Grove. In the recent decade, an effort has been made to form a Western Suburbs History Network, and I have been working with other local historians in the last few years to get a Brisbane Southside History Network (BSHN) up and going. It is hard work, endeavouring to get that level of cooperation, even though there is a genuine desire in local historical societies to find collaborations.

    Networks are a start but the fact is that, if we are going to be true local historians of Brisbane post-1925, we need to be developing historical scholarship at that scope. And is plain fact that in 2016 we don’t have that. The work of the late emeritus Professor John Robert Laverty (1923-2013) was up to 1925 and focused on the Central Brisbane region, and although I have a great respect for the work of Dr Denver Beanland, his anticipated history of the Brisbane City Council will mostly likely be about the institutional history of the Council, rather than the local history of Greater Brisbane in the sense of social histories and broad community histories.

    The type of vision for an inclusive history of Greater Brisbane is what a few of us have started in the Mapping Brisbane History Project (http://mappingbrisbanehistory.com.au/). It is very open for anyone who like to participate, and the only requirement is a respect for the historical and geographical methodologies we are employing to make the project work. I would be very pleased to provide any guidance and training free of charge. The project has been going since 2012 and has been funded from two Brisbane City Council Community History Grants. We would welcome further support.

  3. Good luck with that Neville.

    • Thanks, Marion….but is that, “Good luck with that…because really going to need it !” Which is fine, because it is true…it is ambitious and visionary.

      • A bit of that, Neville – and a bit of ‘too complicated to respond pecking away on my iPad’ – which is why I’ve moved to the desktop.
        I think the world is divided into Lumpers and Splitters, and I’m a Lumper. A proliferation of small groups that break away disturb me a little. They have a place – like the Sandgate Historical Society has a place with its museum and pamphlets on early Sandgate This and That – but in general I prefer what the Brisbane History Group does, looking at the city thematically. They probably do concentrate on the inner city, but partly that’s because the outer suburbs of Greater Brisbane were either independent towns or barely urban at all. The other way to look geographically at the region is to look at ‘south east Queensland’, ‘the Great Southeast’ or Peter Spearritt’s idea of the Two Hundred Mile City.
        I think historical talent – like any other talent – is too thinly distributed in the population to be spread innumerable small organisations. Your Brisbane Mapping Project sounds great as a way of bringing this talent and enthusiasm together and I wish you well with the project.

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