12 March 2024

Candidates flag interest in returning division discussion to Cook Shire chamber

| Lyndon Keane
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Portland Roads-based Cook Shire councillor nominee Jayson Watkin is just one of the majority of candidates who say they are in favour of restarting the divisional representation discussion after it was abandoned by the current council in late 2021. Photo: Lyndon Keane.

Introducing divisions to the state’s largest local government area could be on the cards after 16 March in a bid to better represent constituents living outside Cooktown.

That was the clear message from the overwhelming majority of Cook Shire mayoral and councillor candidates Cape York Weekly posed the question to after the subject was raised a number of times at the Meet Your Local Candidates Forum on 2 March, 2024.

Currently, the gargantuan 106,000 square kilometre Cook Shire council area – a footprint half the size of Victoria – is encompassed by a single division, meaning votes can historically go the way of candidates living in more densely-populated parts of the shire by virtue of their increased profile in the community.

The Local Government Act 2009 allows councils to request changes to elector representation, including through the implementation of divisions, with any proposal requiring ministerial approval before being assessed by the Local Government Change Commission.

It is not the first time divisions have been on the radar of Cook Shire Council.

In early 2019, the council investigated the option of introducing a second “North-Western Division” that would have included communities like Lakeland, Laura, Coen and Portland Roads, and been represented by two councillors.

READ ALSO Candidates pitch leadership aspirations to Cook Shire voters

However, the looming 2020 Queensland local government elections and the COVID-19 pandemic shelved the plan before the council decided in October 2021 that it no longer wished to proceed with the proposed change, opting instead to remain “one undivided shire”.

Of the three mayoral and 19 candidates who face an election showdown on Saturday, 14 responded to questions from Cape York Weekly gauging the likely appetite of the new council to reassess its position on electoral divisions.

More than 85 per cent of candidates this publication received a response from said they supported the concept of introducing divisions, although several suggested it was unlikely to be a priority for the council in the early stages of the new four-year term.

Portland Roads-based candidate Jayson Watkin is the remotest name on the councillor ballot paper and said “Cook Shire residents living outside the south-east corner of the electorate could definitely benefit from a division or two”.

“There’s an existing boundary at Musgrave where the Lilyvale Road heads east to Princess Charlotte Bay, and the Strathgordon Road heads west to the Pormpuraaw Aboriginal Shire [Council] boundary, which dissects the shire,” he said.

“It seems like a fairly convenient and strategic location for a divisional boundary.”

Despite covering an incredible 106,000 square kilometres – the largest local government area in Queensland – Cook Shire remains a single division. Photo: Electoral Commission of Queensland.

Councillor candidate Nash Snider said “given Cook Shire is the largest local government area in Queensland, and that our community is geographically dispersed and culturally diverse, yes, I believe the question about divisions is definitely worth exploring”.

Mayoral candidate Robyn Holmes, who currently sits on the council and was involved in the 2021 decision to maintain a single division said she was not opposed to a renewed discussion, adding she “would like to see a greater input from people who live north of Laura, as they are the ones who would benefit or be impacted if change is to happen”.

It was a no on the question of divisions from councillor candidate Nick Davidson, who told Cape York Weekly “I don’t think it’s a priority issue at this stage”.

“Without more information and a greater understanding of what divisions might look like, it’s a no from me,” he said.

“It has merit and is worthy of exploring, but we would have four years to work out what it looks like [so] if the question is ‘is it a priority?’, the answer is no.”

Ian Murray, who is vying to replace outgoing Mayor Peter Scott, said he believed Cooktown had seemed, at times, to be the council’s priority, a focus he said was to the detriment of the 4,500 Cook Shire residents not living in the town.

“I am in favour of divisional representatives to ensure the region is fairly represented at council level,” he said.

“Whilst the backbone of the shire, Cooktown is often the loudest chick in the nest at the expense of more remote communities.”

Cook Shire voters will elect a new mayor and six councillors when the rest of Queensland goes to the polls on 16 March, 2024.

Candidate Jeanne Masding says electoral division “would certainly be a topic for discussion” if she is elected to Cook Shire Council when voters have their say on 16 March. Photo: Lyndon Keane.

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