A bully in paradise

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Living on one of the Southern Moreton Bay Islands may seem close to paradise, but residents are up in arms by the local council levying extra money from them to pay for a new transport link. Ron Bowden reports.

Sunset on Macleay Island (all images by Bowden family)

MOST AUSTRALIANS would agree that we live in the best of all possible countries.

How many Australians would seriously consider they'd be better off in Europe, US, UK, South America – anywhere – than here? Not a lot.

Many wouldn't want to live where I do for a variety of reasons. But those who do live here, presumably made a rational choice when they first came. They no doubt weighed up the costs and benefits, found it was more good than bad, and here they are.

The Southern Moreton Bay Islands of Queensland are a good place to live. They're also a bad place to live. It depends on your point of view and your chosen lifestyle. These four islands are regarded by many of their 7,000 plus residents as close to paradise.

Island life has all the joys and problems of living in a country town, but the number one can of worms has been the apparent perception by successive councils of the islands as a costly liability.

To anyone aware of the political history of the islands, the thinking behind this perception and every consequent bad decision made by local government is understandable ― if indefensible.

No local or State Government has been prepared to take ownership of the problems of the islands ever since 1976, when the Bjelke-Petersen government foisted them onto the then Redland Shire Council with a pittance for compensation.

The islands were already subdivided ‒ itself the subject of one of the longest running lawsuits in Queensland history ‒ which prevented the council from ever recovering infrastructure costs from developers. Islanders are regularly told that they must pay for their own infrastructure because there are no broad acre developers to pay for it. As a result, the islands languished.

Cliff Terrace, Macleay Island

A direct outcome of this political mismanagement is that the Southern Moreton Bay Islands now have a vastly lower level of infrastructure than the rest of the urbanised city. For example, all the islands are unsewered. The result has been septic systems which, according to Department of Environment and Resource Management, have been leaching effluent into the bay for years, and more recently, the installation of expensive individual treatment plants.

Very many island roads are unsealed and many are unformed. Drainage is achieved, in most cases, with grass swales, either natural or not. Kerbing and channelling is, for the most part, non-existent. Dust is a serious health issue.

Other than school buses, there is no public transport on any of the islands.

For this lack of infrastructure, ratepayers pay a higher differential rate and are levied $200 p.a. additional on their rates, over and above the rest of the city.

Two of the four islands now have a permanent police presence, of course meaning two other do not ― being serviced from Redland Bay Police. The police presence that exists was extracted from State Government after long campaigns. According to the officers, both police stations are seriously understaffed.

The islands are serviced by relatively efficient passenger ferry system and vehicular barges. The passenger ferries and the vehicular barges are owned by the same company – Transit Systems Australia – both of which are monopolies and charge accordingly. There are no bridges. Fares on the passenger service are sufficiently high to discourage working families from living on the islands. In addition, workers must either work near a bus route or own an extra car kept on the mainland. Mainland parking is an ongoing problem and expense, and has been the cause of conflict and demonstrations over the past few years.

All goods arrive on the island by water, increasing the costs of goods and services.

There are no bridges to the islands from the mainland.

Despite these hardships, the population has increased ‒ according to council literature ‒ to around 7,000 permanent residents on the four islands.

Understandably, because of all the foregoing, the islands are not a dormitory suburb and have become a haven for those working from home, retirees and, to a lesser extent, Centrelink clients. The result is a low socio-economic community.

On 18 December 2012, the SMBI residents and ratepayers were notified, not by Council, but in the Bayside Bulletin that Redland City Council (RCC) will impose a levy of $88 p.a. on the ratepayers of the Southern Moreton Bay Islands (SMBI) for the proposed TransLink roll-out to the SMBI.

The reaction was predictable and immediate.

There was the the usual spin from Council and State Government:
“... significant social and economic benefits for nearly 7,000 people living on the islands.”

However, islanders saw the deceptions at once.

Sixty per cent of island land is vacant and much of that is owned by non-island residents. These people have no opportunity of recouping the levy and, to them, the TransLink roll-out is a direct cost with no benefit.

Less than 18 per cent of residents travel daily. The remainder, largely pensioners and Centrelink clients, travel infrequently and travel savings accruing are far short of the levy.

Redland City Council (RCC) was deluged with complaints, to no avail.  A meeting of island representatives with the Mayor, Karen Williams, lasted more than two hours and produced no change. At this meeting the Mayor noted that the State Government was contributing two dollars for each one from Council to the scheme. This was reiterated in the Mayor's monthly column in the island paper.

Subsequent investigations disclosed a statement from the State Minister for Transport's office that no such contribution was ever promised by State Government.

RCC currently contributes nothing to TransLink, unlike some other local governments. A cost imposed only on SMBI ratepayers means that these ratepayers are effectively subsidising the whole of the rest of Redland City.

The almost million dollars to be raised by the $88 p.a. levy is the result of conditions imposed on RCC by the State Government in private negotiations between the RCC mayor and the assistant minister for Transport, Steve Minniken. RCC has passed this cost directly to the SMBI ratepayers by way of the $88 p.a. levy.

How can this be the Council serving its ratepayers?

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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