The pay’s not bad and the job comes with power, status and influence.

So why are fewer candidates putting themselves forward for election at this year’s Queensland local government poll? 

Electoral Commission of Queensland figures show a 10 per cent drop in the number of candidates since 2020. 

This has created a 33 per cent rise in the number of mayors and councillors who will be elected unopposed on March 16. 

With 61 positions filled without a single vote, the question is are people disengaged with local politics, or simply satisfied with the status quo? 

Griffith University political scientist Paul Williams has a theory for the “dearth of candidates”. 

Fixing roads are one of councils’ main roles.(Supplied)

Dr Williams says voters were so concerned with economic malaise and cost of living pressures that they were turning inward.

“Just putting food on the table and paying our rental rates or mortgage is becoming an enormous challenge. It’s completely subsuming all other interests,” he says. 

“People are not looking outward in terms of community engagement.

“They haven’t got enough emotional energy to worry about what we call the ‘post-material’ — things that make life better in the community.”

Most of the councils with only one mayoral candidate are in rural and remote parts of Queensland.(ABC News: Lucy Cooper)

Councils vital in rural communities

Councils in Australia are the front line for providing basic community services including the three Rs: roads, rates and rubbish. 

As elected representatives, mayors and councillors are well-remunerated. 

According to the Local Government Remuneration Commission, the lowest-paid councillors in remote regions are paid almost $60,000 a year and mayors get nearly $120,000.

Political commentator Paul Williams says local government is vital, especially in remote areas.(ABC News: Jessica van Vonderen)

On the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Logan and Ipswich, councillors will earn more than $150,000 from July 1 and mayors will receive more than $250,000. 

Dr Williams says local government is vital, especially in rural and remote communities where state and federal MPs rarely visit. 

“The local councillors are probably the only politician you get to talk to,” he says. 

“People in larger population areas are perhaps a little more cynical or just disinterested, and think [council] is only about footpaths and it doesn’t really matter.” 

‘Democracy at work’

When John Wharton complained about the local roads in his outback town, the mayor told him to run for council. So he did. 

That was in 1991. Thirty-three years later, Cr Wharton is Queensland’s longest-serving Mayor and he will be re-elected unopposed next weekend. 

Cr Wharton’s Richmond Shire Council covers 26,000 square kilometres between Mt Isa and Townsville. 

John Wharton says people tend to continue the status quo if they are happy with the council.(Supplied: Flinders Shire Council)

He thinks lower candidate numbers across Queensland shows communities are content. 

“People don’t want to nominate if they’re happy with what’s going on. Why would you nominate?” Cr Wharton says. 

“Change only comes if people aren’t happy.

“If the council hasn’t been doing the right thing or hasn’t been listening to the community, you will get unrest and you will get people nominating.

“That’s democracy at work.”

And Cr Wharton still remembers the valuable lesson from his old mayor after he complained about the roads all those years ago. 

“If you want to change things, you’ve got to be inside the room, not outside,” he says. 

Lack of competition a concern

The decline in council candidates is notable given Queensland’s jump in population, partly due to strong interstate migration. 

A total of 3.65 million people are enrolled to vote next weekend, 11 per cent more than during the 2020 elections. 

Across Queensland’s 77 councils, there are 578 councillor and mayoral positions, with 1,422 candidates nominating for those roles. 

While many of the mayoral candidates without an opponent are in remote councils in central and western Queensland, Dr Williams says it’s “mind-boggling” that Brisbane’s Moreton Bay has only one candidate for such a large region. 

“I think that’s contrary to the democratic interest,” he says. 

“We all need competition to make sure that the best and most appropriate person is elected.” 

‘Bittersweet win’

When Samantha O’Toole discovered she’d retain her mayoral position by default, she felt disappointed. 

Cr O’Toole is Mayor of Balonne Shire Council in south-western Queensland and no one else nominated against her. 

“I’m a pretty competitive person by nature,” she says.

“I feel like I rocked up to my kids’ sports day and got a participation ribbon.

Balonne Shire Mayor Samantha O’Toole says she wished someone else had contested her position. (ABC Southern Queensland: Jon Daly)

“I think debate and contest is a really important part of our democracy, so it’s a bit of a bittersweet win.”

On the Sunshine Coast, councillor Christian Dickson says being elected unopposed feels “really strange”. 

“On one hand you ask yourself, do people want you there?” he says. 

“And on the other hand you think, did people realise that it’s actually a really big job and … perhaps that does concern some people who are looking to run.”

Only weeks after putting up his corflute signs, Cr Dickson promptly pulled them down when he discovered he was the only candidate. 

On the Gold Coast, councillor Shelley Curtis’s position is even more “unique”.

Not only is she the sole nominee in her division, she was never conventionally elected in the first place. 

She was voted in by her fellow councillors last August after Cameron Caldwell resigned to become a federal MP.

“It’s absolutely bizarre, but I’m thrilled I don’t have the stress of [campaigning],” Cr Curtis says.

“It’s a real privilege but I don’t take it for granted either.”

‘Just a glitch’

Dr Williams believes the present decline in council nominees is “just a glitch”.  

“Some commentators have said that this could be the death knell for local government. I don’t think that’s true at all,” he says.

“I think when the economy improves and we start thinking like a community again, we’ll see an uptick in the number of people interested in local government.” 

He cites the example of federal politics 50 years ago when many electorates only had a Coalition and Labor candidate.

“Today, we know that even safe seats might see a Melbourne Cup field of 11 or 12 candidates.

“We’ve got more micro and minor parties than we’ve ever had before. So it’s not a question of people not really being engaged with politics at some level.”