Merge protesters ambush Beattie

31st July 2007Furious protesters threw eggs and water at Queensland Premier Peter Beattie during a series of ugly clashes over forced council mergers in the State’s central west.

Mr Beattie, who travelled with his wife Heather to Barcaldine, drew the wrath of 500 protesters who chanted “bugger off Beattie” and booed and jeered the Premier as he tried to address the crowd.

Mr Beattie, also accompanied by Local Government Minister Andrew Fraser and Primary Industries Minister Tim Mulherin, was in town to witness the removal of Barcaldine’s most famous landmark, the now-dead Tree of Knowledge.

But anger over the council issue overshadowed the special ceremony.

Boos drowned out the Premier’s speech as he tried to announce an additional $1.48 million to help preserve the tree, which is recognised as the birthplace of the ALP.

An egg lobbed at the stage hit local government and planning director-general, Michael Spillane.

Mr Fraser did not escape the hostility either, with crowds chanting “Fraser the fornicator”.

“I’m pleased to see the debate continues under the Tree of Knowledge – the tradition that started in the 1890s is alive and well in Australia,” Mr Beattie quipped as he tried to address the crowd.

The tree’s folklore dates back to 1891 when a group of shearers gathered beneath its branches and agreed to strike against their employers.

The 200-year-old ghost gum was declared dead last year after being deliberately poisoned.

Mr Beattie was later again ambushed by the angry mob, with one protester dousing him, his wife and Mr Fraser with water.

Mr Beattie said he expected a backlash to his council reforms but was taken aback by the level of anger.

“Bush people are normally better mannered than that to be honest,” he said.

“I didn’t expect people to be throwing water and I think tomorrow they’ll be disappointed in their behaviour.

“I don’t think that’s the way the bush behaves.”

The government on Friday accepted recommendations from the Local Government Reform Commission to slash the number of the state’s councils from 156 to 72.

Under the plan, Barcaldine, Jericho and Aramac shires will merge to form a single council.

Smaller councils such as Jericho are furious about the mergers, fearful they will have no representation under larger merged authorities.

Mr Beattie said he would consider dividing such councils to ease some of those concerns.

“That will then ensure that the councils that are amalgamated will actually have direct representation on the council,” he said.

Merged authorities would also be able to choose the name of their new council, he said.

Mr Fraser threatened to sack mayors planning to hold referendums on the changes, describing such a move as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

“I don’t think it will come to that, I think common sense will prevail,” Mr Fraser said.

“The referendum serves no purpose in determining the boundaries.”

* To see the full report from the Local Government Reform Commission, visit the State Government’s Stronger Councils website.