Tuesday, 11 September 2007
Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007
Debate resumed from 16 August, on motion by Mr Nairn:
That this bill be now read a second time.
Can I commence by associating myself with the remarks of condolence made by the member for Lyons and by you, Mr Deputy Speaker Jenkins, on the passing of Harold Weir. The federal opposition support the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007. I will be moving a second reading amendment somewhat later in this speech. We broadly support the bill because we have been supporting the principle for months that the people of Queensland should be consulted before decisions are made about the amalgamation of local councils. The Leader of the Opposition and other Labor Party members have made it clear that we believe in the importance of communities and the importance of local government in representing communities, and we believe in local voices being heard and local choice being made.
We have consistently argued that local communities should be consulted. The origin of this bill is a very interesting phenomenon and is part of a series of instances of enthusiasm for confrontation with the states which have coincidentally emerged after Crosby Textor gave a research briefing to the government that their best chance of rescuing their electoral fortunes was to do battle with the states. That was on 21 July. Since that time, we have seen a series of confrontations. But well before that—before any Crosby Textor briefing, before any government-proposed legislation, before the Prime Minister or the minister for local government had said anything about these things—the Leader of the Opposition consistently supported local democracy. At a doorstop interview on 17 May—almost four months ago—the Leader of the Opposition said that ‘local voice and local choice is critical when it comes to the future of local government in Queensland and in the rest of Australia’. On 17 May, the Leader of the Opposition, Kevin Rudd, said:
... if there’s any proposal for an amalgamation ... it should be tested by the local people through a referendum.
That was on 17 May. You could not have a clearer commitment than that. It was a demonstration of leadership at that time, something about which the Prime Minister and responsible Howard government ministers were silent. But, three months later, in the hope of finding electoral advantage, they have come forward with this piece of legislation. We indicated from the start that we would be supporting this bill because it reflects the position that we have held for over three months. The government have done a backflip and taken the position which we have held for over three months.
We believe that the local community should be consulted before the whole structure of local government in Queensland is changed. Decisions about the fundamental structure of government are important questions for community participation. We cannot make every public policy decision. We have to have the capacity to make hard decisions in the national interest that in the short term might be unpopular. But the decisions that go to fundamental questions of the structure of government such as local government amalgamation are ones where the facilitation of a local vote is desirable. I do not think we are always in all circumstances going to need it done by the Australian Electoral Commission and, as a result, federal legislation. Nevertheless, it is a thing that ought, as a matter of principle, be adopted if we are to go through with compulsory amalgamations.
When you look at the fundamentals of this question of the role of local government in our Constitution and our federation, the Prime Minister’s approach over the years when he was a senior member of the Liberal Party and a former Leader of the Opposition has reflected the most profound double standards. The interest in local government is belated and opportunistic. When the Leader of the Opposition was out there arguing for a vote for people in Queensland, the Prime Minister was silent. When former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett was proposing amalgamation of councils in Victoria, the Prime Minister—the then Leader of the Opposition and, at some point, senior opposition frontbench member—was silent. The Prime Minister only entered the debate in Queensland after Crosby Textor reported that it was necessary—after Crosby Textor said, ‘Political confrontation with the states is a key to the political survival of the government.’ If the Prime Minister believed in local democracy and the legitimate role of local government in our federation, he would support constitutional recognition for local government. In 1988, the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Howard, campaigned against a referendum put forward by the ALP to recognise local government in the Constitution.
The then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Howard, outlining the no case on local government said, ‘We oppose the third question’—that is, the question for constitutional recognition of local government—‘because it is only right and proper that local government, having been created by the states, be entrenched in and protected by the constitutions of the states and not the Constitution of the Commonwealth.’ He said that his opposition to recognition was based on ‘a strongly held view that it will distort the natural order and constitutional balance of our federal structure’. He asked the audience—and this is very interesting in the light of this legislation: ‘Do you really want a constitutional clause that might allow a massive Canberra meddling in local affairs?’ Golly! And then he went on to say that recognition ‘might allow future federal governments to intervene in local affairs’. Well, wouldn’t that be terrible! What a stunning example of double standards.
We are supporting the bill but we are pointing out the monumental double standards of the Prime Minister—but apparently not of the member for Moreton, who indicated that he had the good wisdom to oppose at that time the then Leader of the Opposition and now Prime Minister. That was a very wise choice. No comment about current circumstances will be entered into. It was a wise choice then, I say to the member for Moreton.
In October last year the Labor Party moved an amendment to a motion in the parliament to call for recognition in the Constitution of local government. The Prime Minister again opposed it and the Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads opposed it. Now we are supposed to believe that the government has an open mind on that question; it has had a closed mind on it for 20 years.
What we are concerned about here is not this piece of legislation, which simply reflects a position that the Labor Party have had for three months. We are concerned about how we can use this belated recognition as a vehicle for advancing the broader interests of local government in our federation. The current Prime Minister does not believe in the significant role of local government; he has campaigned against it in the past. His intervention in this dispute is simply a reflection of the pollster’s advice that his best bet for staying in power is to capitalise on voter discontent with state governments. In matters like this you need a principled, clear, consistent position.
I am very proud to say that my party has had a long history of supporting local government. In 1974 and 1988 federal Labor sought constitutional recognition of local government. On both occasions the now Prime Minister was a candidate at those elections. On both occasions there was a referendum. In 1974 it was in conjunction with an election, and in 1988, when Mr Howard was Leader of the Opposition, there was a separate referendum. On both occasions the coalition refused to provide the bipartisan support necessary, and the referendum on each occasion failed.
Two weeks ago my colleague the shadow minister for local government, Senator Lundy, confirmed that an incoming Rudd Labor government would move to recognise local government in the Constitution. Constitutional recognition will redefine the relationship between Commonwealth, state and local governments and guarantee that communities have an effective local voice in decision making. We followed up on that announcement by indicating, at the Local Government Association of Queensland’s annual conference, that an incoming Labor government if elected would, in its first term of office, establish a council of Australian local governments. The reason for this is to make the voice of local government more effective at COAG.
There is an Australian Local Government Association representative on the Council of Australian Governments. The current one is an effective representative and, as far as I know, his predecessors have been as well. I do not directly have evidence in regard to that, but as far as I know they have been. However, they do not come with the same brief and capacity to act on behalf of the people that they represent as do the state premiers and chief ministers. That cannot be totally overcome—the character of local government is so fundamentally different to the character of state and territory governments. But we hope, through this proposed council of Australian local governments, to move a substantial way in that direction by having the person who represents local government at COAG go forward with clear backing from a representative group of local governments—not just the Local Government Association but also the Council of Capital City Lord Mayors and other similar local government bodies—to take their input into COAG and also to use the proposed council, set parallel to COAG, as a vehicle for getting local government views effectively into the federal government.
Our support for constitutional recognition and for the establishment of a council of Australian local governments shows a fundamental commitment to local government and to the idea of cooperative federalism. The government, by contrast, has been tricky and opportunistic, seeking to exploit the short-term difficulties that local government is facing, after totally ignoring this issue for 11 years. I will be moving a second reading amendment at the conclusion of this speech to deal with this question of the constitutional recognition of local government, as well as another matter.
We support this bill for the reasons that I have outlined. I now would like to talk about some of the practical problems with it that I hope the minister might be able to address in summing up the second reading debate. The bill shows signs of having been drafted in haste and certainly without the consultation that we would usually expect on what is a reasonably substantial measure. This was confirmed at the hearings of a Senate committee in Cairns when officials confirmed that drafting instructions were given to the Department of Finance and Administration only on the Thursday before the bill was introduced to the parliament. Officials were unable to point to any consultation with any state or local government bodies or even with the federal department responsible for local government. Witnesses at the committee hearings in Queensland expressed puzzlement at the mechanics of how plebiscites were to be constructed and put to the people of Queensland. For example, we have not yet heard the minister explain whether plebiscites will cover the existing local government boundaries, the proposed new boundaries or communities with an interest in the outcome of the local government changes.
Some interested members would be aware that, for example, in its submission to the Queensland Local Government Commission the Noosa Shire expressed a preference for remaining independent not on its present boundaries but on the expansion of its boundaries to include adjacent communities like Eumundi, Doonan, Verrierdale, Weyba Downs and Perigian Springs. The commission recommended that Noosa Council be amalgamated with Maroochy and Caloundra councils. We are interested in knowing how plebiscites will be conducted in these circumstances. If the Noosa Council seeks a plebiscite on the question of amalgamation, will the people of Maroochydore and Caloundra also have the opportunity to express a view on the plebiscite or not? What is the structure? Who makes the request? Who votes? It is all terribly unclear. You get the vague feeling it might have been rushed a bit. We need to know how these plebiscites are going to work; that is, if they are ever going to be conducted. There are many outstanding questions. Who will decide that the questions have been framed clearly? In terms of a plebiscite or referendum that goes through this parliament, the law is very clear about how the question is determined and how the ‘yes and no’ case is communicated to potential voters. There is a structure. What is the structure for this?
In evidence to the committee in Cairns last week, witnesses from the Electoral Commission were not able to offer much clarity on these questions or point to a process by which they would be resolved. In addressing the question of how the plebiscites would be conducted, AEC witnesses said, ‘There are all sorts of other issues of confusion: boundary differences, voting differences, different ballot papers, higher informality possibilities,’ in holding an attendance ballot in conjunction with the federal election. The witness pointed out that even the simpler option of postal ballots would require perhaps 2½ million envelopes that the AEC does not currently have. The AEC was able to say, however, that with all the uncertainties to be sorted out any early plebiscite was ‘out of the question’. In a summary of their remarks by the minority report to the Senate committee, arrangements for the conduct of plebiscites on local government amalgamations in Queensland have not been determined by the Australian Electoral Commission. In relation to the timing of the plebiscites the minority report noted evidence from the AEC that:
We would be very reluctant to tie up considerable AEC resources in the next few weeks given that it is quite possible that the Prime Minister may call the election after APEC.
We are not even considering the possibility of having an attendance ballot in conjunction with the federal poll.
With that sort of evidence before us we would be very interested to hear from the minister who, I am sure, must have thought all these things through. He would not bring in a piece of legislation without fully understanding all its implications. What are the answers to those questions? The officials before the Senate committee could not provide the answers. It is not a criticism of the officials. They are diligent public officers giving honest answers to questions put to them before a parliamentary committee. The reason they could not give the answers is that at the moment the information, I assume, does not exist. But the minister must know, and we would be interested to hear the answer.
Neither the minister nor the government seems to have any clear idea about how the bill will work, because they are not seriously in support of the matter; it is simply confection for a short-term political purpose. The government has run out of ideas. It is no longer governing but concocting stunts to try and exploit divisions in the community for short-term electoral advantage. But this particular stunt is one that has, as I say, landed the government in a position in which, since May, we have been consistently calling for people to have a voice on Queensland council amalgamations. So we are supporting this bill because we support local democracy, notwithstanding our reservations about the lack of detail in the bill and the government’s motivation in putting it forward.
I want to go on to the other matter that is reflected in the amendment which I will move. If the Howard government wants to call plebiscites, let us have a plebiscite on another issue that will shape local communities—which is the question of the location of nuclear power plants and nuclear waste facilities that the Howard government wants to impose on the Australian community. The second reading amendment will go to exactly those questions. I also seek the minister’s response to some constitutional concerns that were raised before the committee by Professor Carney and Associate Professor Orr. No advice was given to the committee in response to these concerns. I personally do not believe there is a constitutional problem with this legislation. That is my assessment. But, serious people having raised serious concerns, the parliament is entitled to an answer. I hope the minister, in his response to the second reading debate, will provide it, although my personal view is that there is constitutional power and there is not a constitutional problem. But the House is entitled to have the minister’s response to serious matters that were raised before that Senate committee. The matter was also raised by the Senate committee, and I think the House is entitled to have a serious answer to it.
I refer now to another question about this legislation: the long-term implications of an initiative which, if allowed to run free, might cause us to wind up having plebiscites across a plethora of issues around difficult public policy questions. The House, the government, my side of politics, the parliament overall and the community should reflect soberly on the question of the use of plebiscites to resolve all manner of issues. That is not to say I am against any, but the Leader of the Opposition in his remarks on this has been very careful. I quote one occasion when, in my view, he said it most clearly:
The underlying principle is this: this is a structure of government question. There’s Commonwealth Government, there’s State Government, this goes to the whole structure of local government in Queensland. And my view, pretty basic view, is that local communities should be consulted.
I think we have here a broad question that goes to how we are governed, and it is therefore one on which a plebiscite has more standing. But to take this as a vehicle for advocating a plethora of plebiscites about every issue is, I think, endangering some fundamental strengths of our Westminster system of government. The Leader of the Opposition also said on another occasion:
... when it comes to this particular set of measures in Queensland which go to the structure of government, the structure of government, not the individual policy decisions of a government, but the structure of a government itself, I believe you cross a threshold where local people should be consulted.
He went on to say:
When it comes to the structure of government … and you are seeking to re-engineer the entire structure of government, I think there are more fundamental democratic processes which should be engaged.
I am comfortable with that. That is something I am happy to support and have advocated.
The special circumstances—the one-off, extraordinary circumstances—relating to nuc-lear power stations and nuclear waste raise questions that are not ordinary public policy questions. But let us not move down the path of favouring government by plebiscite. One of the great benefits of the West-minster system is that it gives executive gov-ernment the capacity to take hard decis-ions. There is no capacity to plan long-term and to take hard decisions if other tiers of government are going to pick the eyes out of those hard decisions, as has been the case with the Mersey hospital, or if we are going to wind up with government by plebiscite, where hard decisions are shirked in a ‘not in my backyard’ atmosphere because there might be a short-term political advantage for one side or the other over time. I think both sides of politics and the Australian nation will be poorly served if we go too far down the path of government by plebiscite. But the fundamental questions about the structure of government, such as how we change our Constitution, are matters on which it is appropriate for there to be an individual citizen’s right to vote and express a view.
I want to conclude by saying that, while I support this legislation and I support the right of people to have a say on these fundamental structural issues, we should not back away from the view that we do need to gain some efficiencies in the manner of delivery of government services and, in this in-stance, local government services in Queens-land. But there are ways to get them other than by compulsory amalgamation without giving people the right to vote on the outcome.
This is a bill conceived out of political opportunism and executed in a rushed and un-satisfactory manner. But, as I said, the backflip the government has undertaken on this matter has landed the government where the opposition has been standing all along since May: in support of local voices and local choices. I therefore move a second read-ing amendment:
That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House expresses its support:
- for a referendum to extend constitutional recognition to local government in recognition of the essential role it plays in the governance of Australia; and
- for the Australian Labor Party’s belief that steps should also be taken to allow communities to express a view on the location of 25 nuclear power plants and the nuclear waste facilities that the Government wants to impose on the Australian people”.
Subject to the amendment being agreed to, I indicate the opposition’s support for the bill.
I was listening very closely to the member for Fraser. I do not mind publicly outing myself and saying that I did vote in 1988 to recognise local government. I also know that our Prime Minister has said on many occasions that one aspect of the Whitlam government agenda he agrees with today is that we need to have a strong and vigorous local government sector, supported by a strong, capable, economically sound national government. The problem in Australia today is the delinquency of the state governments. The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007 has been brought into this chamber because of the delinquency of the Beattie-Bligh administration in Queens-land. There has been a failure by that administration to recognise that, as good as the intention might be to achieve greater efficiency by amalgamating local govern-ments through the legislative instruments of state parliament, they are not subject to creation or dissolution at the whim of 15 men and women sitting around a boardroom table in George Street, Brisbane. They should not be subject to a cabinet stamp for change—not without referring the matter to the people.
The timetable that the member for Fraser is complaining about has been set by the Queensland government, who outlawed the seeking of a vote on this. They threatened to sack and dismiss councillors, mayors or shire chairs if they advocated participating in a plebiscite. This legislation is about protecting democracy and ensuring that democracy prevails in Queensland. As the member for Fraser said—and I agree with him—we should never be afraid of hearing local voices on this matter. This is not government by plebiscite; it is giving people an opportunity to speak.
We have at the federal government level reason to support local government like never before. Local governments are our most effective partners when it comes to the creation of roads and infrastructure. I am publicly associating myself with the efforts of the Australian Local Government Association and the Council of Capital City Lord Mayors to achieve better recognition. Frankly, I would be quite happy to move a motion for constitutional recognition of local government, but it has to be at the expense of the state governments, who are failing to pass on to the local government people the financial assistance that we give to them. The state governments hold on to the purse strings. We find that when we give a dollar to local government they do something with it. When we give a dollar to state governments 25 per cent of it is lost in the ether. In the area of vocational education—and I know a little bit about that from my experience in recent years—something like 30c in the dollar is lost. It is not passed on—the creation of a big bureaucracy in a high building in Brisbane is more important than getting results.
There are a lot of excesses in the Queens-land government, and the way in which the Labor Party has permeated all aspects of Queensland life is of grave concern to people. It is right that people are given a chance to speak through the holding of a plebiscite as to whether Premier Beattie or incoming Premier Bligh have actually got it right on these things. People are worried about what is going on. They are worried about level 6 and level 7 water restrictions. Part of the plans includes the seizure of water in people’s water tanks; under level 6 and level 7 water restrictions the state government are going to seize water that has come off the roofs and gone into the tanks, and put it back into general circulation. People are worried that the new Premier in waiting, Anna Bligh, stopped state government schools from being able to participate in the Australian technical colleges program. She said that they would not allow state government students to participate in this federal plan, yet local councils all around Queensland became active partners in the Australian technical colleges program. Be they Redcliffe, Pine Rivers or Caboolture, they were all there. But only one is going to be left standing as a result of what has occurred in Queensland.
People are worried that the Labor Party has even permeated the ranks of the Australian Federal Police in Brisbane. The Australian Federal Police officer in charge of an investigation into three Liberal Party MPs is the estranged wife of a Queensland government cabinet minister, the incoming Deputy Premier, Paul Lucas. His ex-wife is a Labor Party member and she ordered the raids on the offices of the members for Bowman, Bonner and Moreton.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. I ask you to draw the member back to the bill. This has nothing to do with the legislation.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I am absolutely relevant because I am illustrating my point that it is important that people not be manipulated by a Labor Party machine that is trying to drive local government out of business in Queensland and put people like Jim Soorley, Terry Mackenroth and their friends in the development community into a more luxurious and comfortable position. Let us call it for what it is. It is as bad as Sharon Cowden, a superintendent in the AFP, being in charge of that particular inquiry that has been so slow to come to any sort of realisation. I am glad that the member for Bonner and I have been cleared of that matter today. It is as bad as that.
I am illustrating my point that former Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley has been at the heart of this amalgamation, as indeed has former Deputy Premier Terry Mackenroth, the great wheeler and dealer of Queensland. He has got away with it over the years. He has been at the heart of this. They have established a system whereby local government authorities in Queensland being forced into an amalgamation are going to have a collective group of six people: one from each of the two councils involved, one from the state government and three from trade unions, supposedly to look after the rights of the workers. But we know what it is: ‘Sign up to our union or, brother, you will not have a job.’ Jobs are going to be lost. These are the issues that people in Queensland are concerned about, and the member from the Northern Territory can take all the points of order he likes but the fact of the matter is that there is corruption at work in Queensland and it is permeating all aspects of Queensland society. You have a Queensland education minister that will not allow federal members to enter state schools. I cannot go to my old high school, MacGregor State High School, unless I get permission from the Queensland education minister. They are trying to take over the state and turn it into a one-party state. This amalgamation of councils is as much evidence as is needed to prove my point.
As indeed is the way in which outgoing Premier Beattie has wimped it and walked away—walked away from accountability in Queensland. He says that the job is done—’I’m over it’, he says. Well, the people of Queensland are over Peter Beattie. He has decided to sleaze out of office midway through a term and leave it to poor old Anna Bligh, the person who would not allow state government schools in Queensland to be part of the Australian technical colleges program, to fight off the Soorleys, the Mackenroths and the other people who are waiting to inherit the earth once this local government amalgamation goes through.
And why shouldn’t we in this federal parliament say that every day Queenslanders are being badly let down? Why shouldn’t we raise doubts that all wisdom does not preside in Russell Street, South Brisbane or wherever Trades Hall and Labor Party headquarters happen to be today? Why shouldn’t we point out that people are fundamentally disturbed by the fact that these political strings are permeating even through the highest level of law enforcement such as the Australian Federal Police, through the examples I have given today?
This bill is necessary to restore democracy in Queensland. This bill is necessary to ensure that ordinary Queenslanders have a say about who looks after their roads, their rates and their rubbish. Why can’t we in this national parliament stand up for democracy? Why can’t we allow ordinary everyday Queenslanders to have a vote? That is why the amendment to the Australian Electoral Act in this plebiscite bill is just so important.
What does the Labor Party do? It decides to bring on a stunt about nuclear power stations. They are allowed to vary the agenda to suit some cause like that when they know that state governments have the planning authority in this country. All we want in this country is for state governments to do their job. All we want in this country is that, when money is passed through for local governments, state governments actually pass it on and that state governments are actually prepared to allow local governments to do their job. What we do not want is state governments doing as the arrogant Queensland government is doing. I do not care whether it is Peter Beattie or Anna Bligh who is in charge; it is the same set of thieves in the decision-making process. What we do not need is for people to say that Longreach and Aramac should be amalgamated so that one can inherit the other’s debt or that Stanthorpe and Warwick should be amalgamated so that one can inherit the other’s debt. They have no understanding of the fundamental pain that this is causing in those sorts of far-flung rural areas. The member for Maranoa will no doubt outline that far better than I can because he is the local member.
At the end of it all, this is not about greater efficiency for councils; this is more about greater efficiency for those sorts of sleazy deals that the Jim Soorleys and Terry Mackenroths of this world are capable of. They have done them in the past and are capable of doing them again in the future. These are the sorts of things that the Labor Party in Queensland now stand for. This is what the Labor Party in Queensland have now become—a one-party mentality executive government with a massive majority that rides roughshod over the everyday people. They have set up cabinet ministers’ wives to be senior officers in the AFP to try to do over Andrew Laming, Ross Vasta and Gary Hardgrave—the members for Bowman, Bonner and Moreton.
It is right that we should out these things in this place. This place believes in democracy. I reported as a journalist for many years on the Queensland parliament in the dark days, the dying days, of the National Party. I reported on the Queensland parliament in those days and saw where things went wrong when the government got too long in the tooth, too arrogant in their approach and too forgetful of the fact that all of us get our power purely because people vote for us. The only power we have is that which is ceded to us by average Australians. This Queensland government, perhaps partially because of the incompetence of state oppositions, have forgotten that they work for the people, not the other way around.
This bill is about restoring the role of the people in the process; it is about ensuring that those who want to have a say can have a say; it is about ensuring that people are not going to be subjected to the unfair, pro-Labor, partisan, damaging processes such as those the member for Bonner, the member for Bowman and I have been through purely at the whim of some person who happens to be in a position of authority. These sorts of things are happening in Queensland today. The ticket to get ahead in Queensland is the Labor ticket: join the Labor Party and promotion is guaranteed; join the Labor Party and you will become one of those highly paid, high-level bureaucrats who earn an enormous amount of money. Instead of that money going into classrooms, roads and hospitals, it is going to pay for people who produce nothing but have a flash title, a flash car and a flash business card. These are the sorts of things that ordinary Queenslanders are angry about.
The Queensland government have not produced a dam to ensure that we have adequate water; they have not produced a proper road system in south-east Queensland to ensure that we can get around; they have not produced a proper power system in south-east Queensland so that we can be sure the power is there when we want it. Right now they are considering the idea of being able to switch off people’s air conditioners and other appliances in suburban Brisbane when they dare to use them at the height of summer.
The Queensland government want central control of everything. There are only two groups of people in society who are getting in the way of the Queensland government’s plan for total domination of all things in Queensland. One group happens to be the members of the government on this side of the chamber. We have good members of parliament who are standing firm in the corner of the everyday Queenslanders—standing up against the excesses of the state government. In some ways we are a de facto state opposition as well as the government of Australia, because we actually have to stand up to the Queensland government on these issues. And we do stand up to them on these issues. That is why we are sponsoring and supporting the bill before us right now.
The other group getting in the way of the Queensland government’s plan for total domination is the local governments of Queensland—the level of government which, as we all know, is close to where people are. My good, hardworking local councillor Graham Quirk receives calls—heaven forbid!—morning, noon and night. I think his most famous call was at four in the morning, when a bloke on shift work had his water run out. You and I, Mr Deputy Speaker Somlyay, probably would not receive those calls—oh, you have? The member for Fairfax is a very effective local member! I have fixed lots of cracked footpaths, blocked drains, stop signs and other problems as well, so I have a feel for what local government is all about.
But I do say this: the federal government, the Howard government, has sponsored an enormous amount of confidence in local government over the last decade or so by working in partnership on things like Roads to Recovery and the Australian technical colleges program. Local governments have made a difference in various parts of Australia. They have brought the business community together to give the leadership that is wanted. The Australian Labor Party in Queensland is absolutely frightened by the partnership that is enjoyed between the Howard government and local government. The Australian Labor Party in Queensland—whether it is Beattie, Bligh, Lucas or all those other people who want to be Premier—have cut and run. It is not about the title, the flash car and the nice business card. Sorry to rain on their parade, but it is a statement of fact that the people of Queensland are tonight cheesed-off that Peter Beattie has cut and run. They actually want to run a plebiscite on Peter Beattie; that is what they want to do.
We will give them a plebiscite on local government. We will allow everyday Queenslanders to have a determination to work out their own future prospects. We do not need to be told by those in the executive office boardroom in George Street, Brisbane; we want to listen to the people. That is one of the hallmarks of this government: there has been a restoration of a sense of trust. We, as a government, show that we trust people’s judgement. Moreover, we constantly remind ourselves, in the very humbling process that is politics, that our responsibility is to represent and work for the people, not the other way round. I am not in any doubt that the Beattie, Bligh, Lucas government—you name them, they are all there—have got the whole thing back to front. They believe that the people of Queensland work for them. They should be ashamed that it has taken the national parliament to restore a sense of democracy and choice and to actually give voice and protect those who want to sponsor that voice. They should be ashamed that it has come to this.
I do not want to upset the poor old member for Lingiari but he has to understand that people like Sharon Cowden, Paul Lucas, Peter Beattie and others who have been hammering into the member for Bonner, the member for Bowman and I in recent months should be ashamed of themselves—as should the media, who have gone along for the ride. I commend this bill to the House.
I must say that I am absolutely disappointed by that tirade from the member for Moreton. I can take full well his ability, his want and his need to name and attack politicians in this place, including premiers, deputy premiers, ministers, would-be ministers, would-be premiers and would-be deputy premiers—I do not mind that—but when he is under investigation by the Federal Police and uses this place to attack the bona fides of a Federal Police officer and allege political corruption of that officer, he goes beyond the bounds of what is acceptable. He would not walk outside the chamber and make those allegations. Gutless, lily-livered coward!
He made these comments about an individual, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have every right to respond to them in this place and I am. I will be very clear: I invite him to go outside of this chamber and make the allegation of political corruption against this officer. This should not be a coward’s castle. We should not be using this place to impugn the integrity of people when they cannot respond in here. It is not appropriate; it is not fair; it is not reasonable; it is not just. But it is what we have come to expect from some members of this government. I say to the member for Moreton: it is no wonder you are under suspicion. It is no wonder that there are investigations into your behaviour and activities.
I withdraw, Mr Deputy Speaker. I just ask the question: what are the police inquiring into? I think that answers itself.
The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007and I will come to some of the other statements made by the honourable member in a little while—was introduced as a response to provisions in the Queensland Local Government Act 1993 that would provide for the dissolution of a council if it undertook action for the purpose of holding a poll about local government area abolition. The bill seeks to override the act by providing that any law prohibiting the holding of a plebiscite would be invalid and by offering Commonwealth assistance for plebiscites on local council amalgamations. The Special Minister of State pretends to be the saviour of democracy—the member for Moreton clearly thinks that of himself, but he is the opposite—but the Australian Electoral Commission already has the power to conduct plebiscites on behalf of other bodies, which I would have thought would be properly understood by the government and certainly by those people who put this bill together.
The minister, of course, admitted as much in his second reading speech when he said that the AEC presently conducts plebiscites:
… for trade unions and employer organisations … and for other organisations and some foreign countries.
It is worth noting that the Queensland government has introduced amendments in the Queensland parliament to repeal the provisions banning the holding of plebiscites. On that note, the Parliamentary Library’s Bills Digest is quite instructive because it tells us that the Premier, Mr Beattie, said:
He then moved to reverse the decision. I would have thought that was game, set and match. It is very appropriate behaviour by the Premier. He took an action which would have prevented people having a plebiscite. He then turned around and admitted he was wrong and moved to amend the legislation to allow for those plebiscites.
It is very important that we understand the reality of that and recognise the purpose of this legislation, which the opposition supports. After all, as the member for Fraser pointed out, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Rudd, made it very clear in May this year that we supported the idea that people should have a right to express a view about amalgamations of councils. It is in that context that we discuss this legislation. You do not have to be too bright to work out the political context—that is, that the federal government was looking for a diversion. It was looking for a way to create a bit of a wedge within the Queensland body politic to divert attention away from its own inactivity and to garner support over the issue of local government—which, of course, is not a federal government responsibility—to try to take the gloss off support for Labor in Queensland. But what this bill does, and let there be no doubt about it, is highlight the absolute hypocrisy of both this government and its supporters in Queensland and elsewhere in Australia.
I want to particularly advert to the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory and those people in this parliament who represent its interests here and who represent this government in the Northern Territory—that is, the member for Solomon and the CLP senator from the Northern Territory. There is to be local government reform in the Northern Territory. Amalgamations will bring down the number of local government authorities from somewhere in excess of 60 to nine. There has been a great deal of concern expressed in some quarters about these proposals. It should be no surprise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker Somlyay, that, totally consistent with his views expressed in May, the Leader of the Opposition has said that the Labor Party would support the idea of plebiscites for amalgamations in the Northern Territory. In relation to amalgamations in the Northern Territory, I have expressed my concern, especially as a result of discussions I have had across the community, about the impact of the federal government’s intervention in Indigenous communities, what that means for these amalgamations and what it has the potential to do. My view, as expressed publicly, has been to say that they ought to let the whole thing shake out before moving any further on the question of amalgamations.
Nevertheless, it is important that, when people are opposed to an idea, they be able to give expression to that opposition. They should be able to give expression to that opposition, as we know now, through a plebiscite—those plebiscites which this bill purports to support. But as we know, and as was pointed out by the member for Fraser, this is really part of a political exercise rather than a long-term commitment to or support for local government in Queensland or anywhere else in Australia. As the member for Fraser pointed out, the Prime Minister in particular has historically shown his antipathy towards the issue of local government and recognition of it by the federal parliament and in referenda that have been put to the public for decision. The government opposed those proposals in the past.
We have also heard over recent weeks concern from CLP politicians, such as the member for Solomon, that there has been a lack of consultation in relation to local government reform in the Northern Territory. The member for Solomon made the following comments just over a week ago, on 3 September:
I can’t understand why the Martin government thinks it doesn’t have to ask the people how they want their local governments to be reformed.
… … …
The Martin government is acting like a petty dictator on this matter and needs to recognise that people have a right to have a say in local government reform.
This is ‘a slap in the face to local democracy’, said the member for Solomon. Of course, when it comes to interference in the Northern Territory by the federal government, when it comes to the federal government overriding the laws of the Northern Territory, there is no such defence of the rights of Northern Territory citizens to have a vote, a plebiscite, on the overriding of their rights and the rights of their legislative assembly by this parliament. We do not hear the member for Solomon coming to the defence of the Northern Territory community and calling the federal government’s actions ‘a slap in the face to local democracy’. We do not hear him say anything about that. That is clearly where the hypocrisy lies.
An apt demonstration of that is the failure of the CLP to support the idea that there should be plebiscites to determine whether or not people in the Northern Territory would support the imposition of nuclear waste dumps on the Northern Territory, as is proposed by the government here in Canberra. Three sites have been arbitrarily chosen across the Northern Territory: one at Fisher’s Ridge, south of Katherine; one at Harts Range, north-east of Alice Springs; and one at Mount Everard, to the north-west of Alice Springs. These three sites were chosen arbitrarily by the government. The Northern Territory is told, ‘Forget whatever you think; we’re going to choose a site and one of these three will be it, regardless of what you think, regardless of what you say, regardless of what your parliament thinks, regardless of what your citizens think.’ And the member for Solomon talks about ‘a slap in the face to local democracy’! He was quite happy to sit in this chamber and see the federal government introduce laws which override the rights and interests of the parliament of the Northern Territory, the legislative assembly, and the rights and interests of residents of the Northern Territory and which absolutely deny them any capacity for input into this decision.
I also remind the House of a comment which was made by the Prime Minister when referring to the issue of local government in Queensland:
It should be remembered that the Government is not expressing a view as to whether or not an individual merger should occur.
Rather, the Commonwealth believes that people should have the right to express a view on the actions of a government without threat of penalty.
There are two aspects to that. Firstly, there is the penalty. I agree; there should be no threat of a penalty when people want to express a view, but people should have the right to express a view on the actions of a government. I know we do not support citizen initiated referenda in Australia but you cannot, on the one hand, argue that people in the third tier of government—local government—should have the right to determine, make decisions, reflect the views of citizens or have a plebiscite with regard to matters to do with local government and yet, on the other hand, deny people in the second tier of government—states and territories—the right to have a say when the federal government proposes to impose changes upon the way in which the land for which they are responsible is being administered. It is absolutely inconsistent and the hypocrisy should be evident to all of us.
Of course, we are all aware of the schizophrenia that exists on the government benches. They can say one thing one day and an entirely different thing the next day. It does not matter to them; it does not worry them. They can say one thing to one group of people and the opposite thing to another group of people, as they are doing here. It does not worry them. They can say to the Northern Territory community, ‘You have no right to have a say in whether nuclear waste facilities are in your backyard, but we will make sure you have a right to say whether or not there should be local government reform.’ There is an absolute inconsistency there.
I speak up for the people of the Northern Territory, and I know that they argue vociferously that they ought to have the right and the responsibility to have their voice heard. We have a responsibility as parliamentarians to make sure we hear that voice. But there has been no mechanism for them to have their voice heard in relation to these nuclear waste facilities, which have been imposed arbitrarily, simply because the government said it could and it would—and it did, with not so much as a ‘by your leave’. The cant we hear in this place from the member for Moreton about engagement with the local community ought to be seen for what it is.
When we see the member for Solomon get up on his scrapers in this place and try to defend the actions of the federal government in overriding the rights and interests of the people of the Northern Territory in any number of ways over the last few years, we remember one thing: he does not represent their interests and he does not speak on their behalf, because he seeks to deny them the right to have a voice. That is despicable. He has denied them the right to have this voice in relation to nuclear waste facilities, and no doubt, when the time comes, he will take every opportunity to deny them their right to have a say about whether a nuclear power plant is built in the Northern Territory.
I am someone who believes in the fundamentals of democracy. I am someone who believes that, if you are going to change things structurally and people are opposed to it, you should seek their views. I am someone who believes that, if you are going to interfere in the way in which a place is governed, if you are going to override their laws, then as a matter of conscience, a matter of justice, a matter of fairness and a matter of democracy you must talk to them and ask them: what is your view? You must give them the opportunity to express a view either indirectly through their government, as in the case of the Northern Territory government, or directly through a plebiscite. I have to say that, in the Northern Territory, that has just not happened. We will be debating in this place in the next day or so other bills about alcohol. This parliament is seeking to override the capacity of the Northern Territory government to make laws about alcohol. There is no attempt to have a plebiscite of the Northern Territory community to see whether they think this is a good idea—there is no attempt at all.
This is a very serious matter. Whilst I have strong views—in fact, I think the local government reforms in the Northern Territory by and large are good—I know there are people, particularly people who live on the outskirts of Darwin or across the harbour on the Cox Peninsula, who have grave reservations and I say they have a right to have their voice heard if they want to have their voice heard. If they express a desire to have their opinion gauged through a plebiscite then that should happen. It is very important that that does happen.
The member for Moreton in his diatribe about the wickedness of the Beattie government and all that it entails talked about the fact that he was required to get permission from the education department to visit schools in his electorate. Mr Deputy Speaker Somlyay, you are a person of some sophistication and awareness. You know about the Northern Territory and you are aware that there was a CLP administration in the Northern Territory for 24 years. Even when I asked permission they would not give it to me. I was excluded by the CLP government from visiting schools in my electorate in the Northern Territory. I asked permission and often permission was denied. Just recently, whilst I was on Christmas Island, I asked permission to visit the new detention facility there. The minister for immigration denied me the right to visit. (Time expired)
In defending and supporting the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007 today I also support the work of local government authorities around my state of Queensland and in particular in south-east Queensland. I wish to shed some light on the conduct of the Beattie government over the past month and in particular focus on their refusal to consult with ordinary Queenslanders about their intentions to reform local government areas, their intentions to punish those who chose to express a view, particularly councillors themselves—elected members of local councils—and of course their use of a hand-picked team to give them the answers that they had already determined they wanted prior to this reform commission being put together.
I will respond to the two speakers from the other side of the chamber who have preceded me. There were charges laid that this is political opportunism, that there was rushed implementation, that this bill is merely a diversion and that it is in some way hypocritical or inconsistent with the way the federal government deals with states. I want to address those straightaway because they really are not terribly strong reasons for not supporting this bill. They are not consistent whatsoever. We need to remember in the end that there has been support for this bill from the other side. I will go into those reasons later.
The accusation of political opportunism in this bill needs to be looked at in the context that the councils themselves had very little say in this. The opportunism was merely initially the Queensland state government acting very quickly and without consultation and not raising the issue of amalgamation at the last state election. The accusation of rushed implementation by the government is in fact a reaction to the rate of progress by the Beattie government itself. I want to highlight a number of dates. The first is 10 August, when the Local Government Reform Implementation Act 2007 was proposed with section 159ZY, which had 15 penalty points for any council or councillor who chose to speak against the idea of amalgamation. Twelve days later that act was repealed, as has been pointed out by opposition speakers. In that 12-day period there was really only one significant public policy event and that of course was the initiation of this bill on 16 August. So let us not talk about opportunism here or rushed implementation. It was the only way that the Beattie government could be stopped. The time line was set not by this government but by the Beattie government in their allowing, from 1 September, only 30 days of consultation prior to this train being set in motion.
The third criticism, of diversion, is simply spurious. Even before the process began, we knew that there would be no say, apart from submission of forms. There were up to 47,000 submissions made to this group, of which only a handful—a few thousand—were actually considered, because the rest of them were deemed to be form letters. What we do know from phone polls, though, is that 90 per cent of people in Stanthorpe, for instance, wanted the Constitution to protect their right to a referendum and 88 per cent of them said that they opposed amalgamation. They are the figures from one jurisdiction.
I come from the Redland shire. I regard the Redland shire as the luckiest council jurisdiction in Queensland to have escaped merger and amalgamation. They did it for a number of reasons. As I mentioned in my own submission, there were not good geographic connections between neighbouring councils, there was a large green zone and there was a lack of public transport to other local jurisdictions with which we could well have been merged. Redland Shire Council was lucky. With it, there was an enormous amount of community and local relief. It meant that that particular part of Queensland was safe.
There are a large number of other council jurisdic-tions. I do not for a moment say that all of them should have remained as they were. I am not saying that all of them were financially viable or that every single council jurisdiction need necessarily be defended; nor do I say, in response to the member for Lingiari, that amalgamations in other parts of Australia should not be considered. There are times when it is completely appropriate. That is not what this bill and this amendment are about. It is a shame that today we have to amend an electoral act passed back in 1918 as it is the only legislative path we can find to block an appalling piece of public policy conduct by the Beattie government. We have had to go back to a 1918 act and amend it.
Of course, all this is based upon fallacious information. It is based upon the fact that the Beattie government wants us to believe that councils are not viable. How do they do that? The old Labor view, of course, is that big is better in bureaucracy and in management and that the centralisation of power means that fewer, larger councils will be easier to deal with.
My particular view is that they thought: ‘We know where we want the boundaries to be. We will hand-pick a team and call them the Queensland Local Government Reform Commission.’ I wonder and question whether a note of where those lines would be was scribbled on a piece of paper even before they started the process. I know that the member for Kennedy has concerns about that in his part of Queensland.
That notion that bigger is better started with looking at the books of councils. The first thing they did was say, ‘We are going to take away from the analysis all of your water revenue.’ So shires like Redland effectively lost the ability to count their water revenues on their balance sheets. But those same councils had to count all of their sewerage treatment plants. A place like Redland had five of them. That was highly inefficient. There was no way for that council to pull those down, move them and centralise them. But the councils, which are creatures of the state government or, as some describe them, body corporates of the state government, were not actually given a chance to be viable at all.
It is one thing to say that it is too small and it is not viable, but you need to look at the evidence. The public policy research—Sproats in 2001, Allan in 2003, Dollery and Crase in 2004—is clear. You can quote them all. You will not find any of the people making substantial contributions to the public policy debate saying that bigger is always going to be better. Allan said that bigger is not necessarily better at administrative level because efficiency and effectiveness of local councils actually is not a function of size. It is a function of other things, not size. The effectiveness of councils depends a great deal not just on size but on their location, on where their demographic sectors are, on where the utilities are placed, on where they have to get their services and sometimes even on rainfall issues and the need to maintain local roads. All that has an effect on council viability. The greatest one of all, which I know will be brought up by subsequent speakers, is that councils rely on state funding to survive. If the net government revenues of a state like Queensland are increasing faster than those of any jurisdiction in this country—faster than those of the Commonwealth—then where is the money going that should be running councils? We know that Queensland’s GST revenues may well be increasing at nine per cent per annum, but that is not being reflected in their funding to councils; in fact, far from it.
The other notion is that there are grounds to suggest that there are firm benefits from amalgamation—that in some cases there are savings that accrue by joining up councils. This is where I come to my next point, which is a little bit of the history that has not been adequately detailed. We know that there have been two previous failed referenda on this topic, in 1974 and 1988. They were held under very different circumstances and in a very different environment, and naturally a referendum will only succeed if there is a nationwide concern for the survival of councils. Where it happens step by step, state by state, it is unlikely that a referendum will be successful, and that is why local plebiscites are so important.
The member for Lingiari spoke of hypocrisy and said that if the federal government could make certain decisions in the national interest in the Northern Territory then the states should be able to do the same. This sort of pub style argument that if X slaps Y then Y should be able to slap Z simply does not stack up, because the Queensland constitution used to say—in 1993, before Premier Beattie got his hands on it—that there were specific grounds for compulsory and non-compulsory referenda if you wanted to change local government boundaries. Without taking up the valuable time of the chamber, effectively there were compulsory referenda where the state sought to merge and abolish and there were non-compulsory referenda where the state sought simply to move boundaries. They were in the Queensland Local Government Act 1993. They were clearly put in there because people have a right—and it is why we are here debating this bill—to decide how they are represented.
While states do have some control over councils, they should not have the right to eliminate, to amalgamate and to move without consultation. Under the Queensland act of 1993, until it was changed this year, they used to have a say. That quietly, methodically and systematically changed with the Local Government and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2006. It was part of the Beattie process where first of all he tilled the soil to make it easy to do, he removed the ability of people to stop him and then, of course, he made the claim, by using bracket creep, that councils were inefficient. Where just a handful of councils were probably non-viable, he managed to bracket creep to take it from probably 13 to 43. How did he do that? He said: ‘On a range of characteristics of local government evaluative markers, if just one of them is not viable or not fiscally strong, we will call the whole council non-viable. You need only to fail one criteria and we will call you non-viable.’ That is what they did. They simply moved the criteria until they got 43 of Queensland’s councils and then they had their reason to move them.
Then we had the backflipping, where they had gone one step too far in taking away from councils their right to have a plebiscite; all they could conduct were anonymous phone polls. What an appalling situation to get to in a country like Australia. Mr Beattie’s retirement is also very disappointing—while I respect a Premier who has had a long period in public office and their right to leave, to leave knowing that this was not only half done but poorly done, I think, really does let down the people of Queensland.
This is where I want to move to a more subtle point that has not been brought up in this debate—and that has been the view of the other side of this chamber and, in particular, of the member for Griffith, who quietly, when the reforms to Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory were proposed, marched his troops in like a conga line and told them to be mute on that issue, because that is what the polling had told him. When it suited him to get an invite up to Noosa and say that he was against amalgamation, suddenly the bloke down here said to the Premier up there—and normally there is not a bit of paper you can squeeze between them—’Look, I need to come out against you on this amalgamation stuff. Do you know what? Perhaps we can convince Queenslanders, who have a history of voting one way federally and another way in state elections, that our member for Griffith over here is right behind Queenslanders on opposing amalgamation.’ If you out there fall for that, you are a fool, because they are Labor and they have the same spots—and you cannot for a moment tell me that just because someone is elected to a federal seat and not a state seat in that same city, in that same neighbourhood, they hold an utterly different view on their local government.
Make no mistake: there is only one difference between Premier Beattie and the member for Griffith—one of them is elected and one of them wants to be. Infrastructure for roads has just evaporated away in the last year because of the panic to build desalination plants. It is okay for the Premier to wear that one, but you will not see the member for Griffith standing up at all in that regard. When it comes to water infrastructure coming way too late in Queensland, it has nothing to do with the member for Griffith. No; suddenly these two cannot be seen on a football field together. Then there are issues like the Nuwater Recycled Water Project to pump recycled Brisbane water from Luggage Point back inland to Gatton, to the power stations and Toowoomba. It was okay for Labor to bury that one for five years in the hope that the federal government would step in and fund it, but you will not see the member for Griffith standing by the Premier there. When it comes to locking up the bay—a simple issue of Moreton Bay rezoning—you will find all federal Labor members utterly mute on that issue and they will let the Premier do the hard slog.
The soft peddling occurs with the member for Griffith, who floats along in a Hawker Britton miasma of advisers, staying well clear of anything that looks, feels and smells like the Queensland Premier. That is sad for a movement like Labor, but it is what they have to do and it is what they will do to get elected. We will be reminding Queenslanders of that. That is why this bill is so terribly important.
The member for Capricornia was in the chamber. Will she be participating in the debate? I hope so. She represents an area directly affected by this appalling period of Queensland public policy. Will she speak in defence of her local constituents? No. Why is that? Has she been briefed explicitly to stay well away from the most poisonous of issues for 90 per cent of the land area of Queensland? Where are they standing up and defending the views of probably 90 per cent of their constituents? This issue is not one that falls 55/45, where we agonise over polling. This issue is 90/10. This is absolutely appalling. Any jurisdiction would only handle this issue if they knew they could do so without any political implications. That appears to have been the timing of what we have witnessed.
After the Queensland government rolled back on 22 August, I submit that only one public policy event occurred and that was on 16 August, the week before, when this bill was proposed. That is why this bill is very important. The member for Fraser—a very experienced person in public life—has now stepped up and said, ‘Look, I’m concerned about where the voting boundaries would be, what the logistics would be, the cost and the timing, and how difficult this would be.’ That is not what this bill is about. The poor people of Queensland just happen to have a federal election coming up in the following months, but these people are losing their system of local government completely and it would be wrong not to act. The fact that the member for Fraser is actually focusing on the minutiae of this bill just indicates that Labor really have not picked up the big picture—that is, large areas of Queensland are enormously distressed. The only thing that can turn that around is the bill we are debating today.
What we have from Queensland is a refusal to consult—and we are now used to that in Queensland. The notion that they punish Queenslanders who want to have their say is new—and I think that is probably what provoked the federal reaction. I think it has to be put on the record that I did speak on this matter very early—in fact, on 31 May. I signalled then that this would be a problem. That was well before August, when it attracted the attention of the public domain. What I was signalling there was genuine concern about this process.
Where are we at now? I want to defend our local councils, certainly those in the area I come from and all those up in the south-east Queensland area. They are working on optimal service delivery. They are contributing to regional economies. They are running their planning through the integrated planning authority. They are working on better environmental systems and social planning. They have partnered up into supra-council bodies, like SEQROC. They are working in virtual local government areas. They are cooperating with the federal government on a regulation reduction incentive fund of $50 million to help councils work together—and do you know what? This actually has been working very well. I am yet to be convinced that there actually was a problem with our local governments.
I am happy to say that we can go around and run a fine toothcomb through the administrative and financial processes of some of the small and very remote councils and we need to make a case that they are viable—and I know that someone who will speak after me will do that. I do not criticise the process of examination. That is not what this bill is about. It is about the removal of the right of ordinary local—in this case—Queens-landers to have their say. The fact is that they could have had their say from 1993 onwards. It was written in a Queensland act and it was removed earlier this year—maybe surreptitiously; I do not know—to set the soil and the political scenario to allow the Premier to do exactly what he has done.
We have a Queensland government who stopped listening. We have had their refusal to consult, their punishing of those who sought to speak against them and, today, exemplified by the fairly weak resistance from the other side of the chamber and their decision ultimately to support our bill, clear evidence that we have in the member for Griffith ‘do anything, say anything and try anything in order to get elected’. If it means bailing out on a state Premier now, that will happen. We need to ask ourselves a very hard question: where would we be with wall-to-wall Labor, had this whole diabolical process happened and had there not been a coalition government to pull it up? I support the amendment of this act.
Mr Deputy Speaker Somlyay, like me, you have been around politics for a long time and we have seen many people come and go, but it is interesting to see why they went. I said at the time that Mr Beattie launched these amalgamations that, if he were serious and he continued, Peter Beattie would be the most hated name in non-metropolitan Queensland’s history and it would remain the most hated name for a decade or more to come. That is what has emanated.
It is quite extraordinary for me, as a person involved in politics—in parliament for 30 years, but involved in politics for all of my life; Daddy before me, Grandaddy and Great-Grandaddy before that—that I have seldom seen a man that got himself so incredibly, universally hated in such a short period of time. Ironically enough, there was considerable hatred towards the coalition parties in Queensland for being so incredibly weak that a person as unpopular as him was given the opportunity to do such a dreadful job.
I read the Courier-Mail with great interest today. When we are burying somebody we say nice things—there is no point in kicking him while he is down, but there was nothing that they could say. There was not really a single thing that they could say, unless you consider getting people to drink their own sewage as an achievement. I would not have thought that I would be skiting about that as an achievement; I would have thought that was something I would keep very secret. Peter Beattie built a football stadium—as a great follower of rugby league, I appreciate that. I said to someone, ‘Unless you get your name in the history book for building a football stadium,’ and this person wryly observed, ‘Yes, you do,’ meaning if that is all you have done in 10 years then you almost certainly will find your way into the history books.
This man resigned because, sadly for him, he was universally hated whether you were in Brisbane where people have seen their gardens dying, in country Queensland where they have seen their right to have their own councils and many other services taken away from them over the last 10 years, in a place like Gympie where the Traveston dam decision treated the people with absolute contempt or in Innisfail where that brave little council fought their way through Cyclone Larry standing in the streets amongst all the appalling debris and heartbreak. They went in and sacked that council callously for really no reason at all. I think some internal Labor politics was the only explanation.
But as a reminder to all people in this place, when the Liberal Party, and the other party that runs along with them, decided on the IR legislation, I said: ‘You are removed from the people; you are a great distance from the people. If you were close to the people or you had really thought this out, you would have to realise this is a kamikaze act.’ To Mr Beattie I said, ‘If you are serious about proceeding with this, you will do untold damage to your party in the federal election.’ The federal Labor people in Queensland hated it, because he was going to deprive them of an opportunity to get a federal Labor government. Many of them were very worried about the IR laws and they saw death and destruction for them as a result of this man’s intransigence over this issue. He has resigned. Let me say that he did a very good job in Cyclone Larry. We are deeply appreciative and I will try to be positive and remember him for that.
The Beattie government decided that they were going to preach to the councils of Queensland. On those councils you will find the hardest working, most efficient people on the tablelands. At Mareeba, Atherton, Herberton, Ravenshoe and Malanda you will find the most efficient hardworking people. In the last week, I can remember George Kidner at about three functions—he is not getting paid for going to those functions. Joe Paronella presided over two or three functions. Carmel Silvestro worked all day on the mike for the gumboot-throwing contest in Tully. These people work like dogs for their local communities. They are intelligent, capable people. A lot of them are very successful businesspeople. Where would the tourism industry of Far North Queensland be without Mick Borzi? The highway leading to the airport is named after him and this is the way he gets repaid. He asked the Premier, ‘Do we have worries at Mareeba?’ The Premier said to him, ‘No, Mareeba is right, you won’t be amalgamated.’ So he relaxed. It is now very foolish to believe politicians’ promises. Over a long period of time, regardless of party, I have found they are not a very reliable yardstick at all.
The government cannot deliver the water services to south-east Queensland. One of the major reasons was that they closed down Wolffdene; the new supply of water was to come from Wolffdene. If you closed it down and doubled your population, you should have some other option up your sleeve. They closed it down with no other option up their sleeve. It was incredibly stupid and irresponsible.
I represent the richest mineral province on earth—$12,000 to $15,000 million of export earnings were going to Australia but, because all those companies are now foreign owned, the vast bulk goes overseas. All the same, it is the richest mineral province on earth. We cannot process the minerals because there is no development capacity electricity on the northern grid system. There are one million people, five or six per cent of Australians, living up in the area—it is not as though we are small. North Queensland is going to win the grand final in a couple of weeks time.
Some 18 of the 28 doctors, from the midwest gulf to Mount Isa, were migrants. They were not even migrants; they were just in Australia on various visas; they had not even become Australian citizens. When I had my heart attack, most of the 10 or 11 doctors I saw were from overseas. Here is a government that cannot produce doctors who can speak fluent English. It cannot deliver electricity, it cannot deliver water and it cannot deliver doctors. Land prices are spectacularly going through the roof, and the state government is announcing that they will put in footprints to restrict subdivisions. If you want to shoot up the price of land through the roof, then for heaven’s sake restrict subdivisions because that will do it magnificently! Instead of paying $120,000 for a piece of land, you will pay $200,000. Just how incredibly stupid is this government? Yet, when the people of Queensland were asked, they decided that they were better than the other mob. That does not rank the other mob very highly.
Those people decided that they would wipe out all those councils; they were shut down—giants of men like Mick Borzi. They were closing them down because they were incompetent and running inefficient shire councils. I could work out how much the rate increase was in all these shires in North Queensland that they are closing down and how much the tax income of the state government has increased. There is $43,000 million in GST alone and, of that, Queensland, with one-fifth of Australia’s population, would get somewhere in the vicinity of $9,000 million extra, just from GST, which dropped out of the sky for them. So they have had a massive increase in money and there has been a dramatic diminution in services.
This was a concept, but it really goes to the heart of your belief system. The previous speaker, Mr Laming, from the Liberal Party, was right when he said that there is a definite socialist bent in here. They really believe that government will run it all well for you—that is, public servants, centralised bureaucracies and people who have come out of university with great educations. This is the fundamental belief system that is going forward here: ‘Have a big, centralised bureaucracy instead of these drongo farmers, truck drivers and railway workers being on the local Malanda council, Tully council or wherever. No, we will have these great experts out of the universities—young geniuses—coming and helping us run our operations.’ Mr Deputy Speaker Somlyay, you smile, and so you should, because we have seen the corporations in Australia that have been run by them and the absolute disasters that have followed in their trail.
I am one of the few people in Australia who have had to draw up a constitution for local government. There were 28 communities being administered by the state government. I had a decision to make on the best way to deliver services to these communities—the Torres Strait Islands, Pormpuraaw up in the peninsula; very isolated communities. What is the best system that we could devise for the most efficient service delivery? Having given it great thought and deliberation, I decided that the best way was for the people themselves, at Pormpuraaw, Doomadgee, wherever, to do it, even though they have had no education and no experience whatsoever in administration—there are only white fellas administering everything for them. I still thought that it was the most efficient way to do service deliveries. I put that proposition to easily the most efficient government in Australian history. They agreed.
This country is surviving at the present moment on our minerals. We survive on three minerals: coal, aluminium and iron ore, in that order. The coal industry of Australia was created by the Queensland government, under Bjelke-Petersen. The aluminium industry of Australia was principally created by Bjelke-Petersen, and none other than Peter Beattie acknowledged this at the funeral service for Bjelke-Petersen, and yet this most efficient government in Australia decided that the most efficient and effective way to deliver services was to allow these people to deliver the services—people with no education and no administrative background. So Pormpuraaw would be given their own shire council.
A gentleman named Joseph Elu rang me and said he wanted a local authority area for Seisia. Seisia, for those of you who do not know, is the most northern community in Australia, on the mainland. It is right at the tip of Cape York. I said, ‘Seriously, Joseph, what are you ringing up about?’ He said, ‘What I am ringing up about is for Seisia to get a shire council.’ I said, ‘All 12 of you?’ There are 12 people living in Seisia. He said: ‘Don’t you tell lies, Minister. There are 23.’ He was adamant that there were 23 people living in Seisia. So he wanted a shire council for Seisia, with 23 people. This is the best part of the story: I decided, after two months of being driven crazy by Joseph Elu, that I would give Seisia, with 23 people, their own local government. Mr Beattie said that shires are not self-sustaining if there are under 5,000 people, and here was the most efficient government in Australian history—not me; these were all cabinet decisions—deciding that Seisia, with 23 people, should have its own local shire. Seisia now has—and they did not have these before—a beautiful big supermarket, a beautiful motel and a caravan park. Seisia is one of the most successful Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia—so much so that Joseph Elu now heads Indigenous Business Australia. It has been such a wonderful success story.
The honourable minister, Mr Hockey, in this place, has bought—and God bless him for doing so—a beautiful dairy farm up at Malanda, because it is really paradise up there, but so has Joseph Elu and the Seisia community. They are neighbours of the honourable minister, and very good neighbours at that. They have made enough money there to be able to buy a beautiful place where they can get away from the heat of Seisia and have a great holiday above Cairns in what is very much paradise. I am sure the minister would agree with me. So that is a remarkable success story.
On the other side of the coin, we have Mission Beach, one of the most beautiful places on earth for anyone who has been there. Two of our past ministers from this place have retired to Mission Beach. It has thick, verdant jungle right down to a massive, beautiful beach which is probably 100 metres wide, and you can see coral reef at low tide. Mission Beach is just magic, but it does not have a shire council. There are 7,000 people, in one of the most rapidly growing areas in Australia. Half of poor little Mission Beach is in one shire and half is in another shire. People have nowhere to tie up their boats—this is supposed to be one of the great tourist destinations of Australia, and there is nowhere to tie up a boat—and they cannot go for a swim because there is no aquatic centre or swimming pool there. Mission Beach has 7,000 people; Seisia now has 300—not 23 but 300—but Seisia this year is building a swimming pool.
If you are in control of your own destiny and you have the spirit of the people behind you in your local community—a lot of people here come from big cities, but I do not; I come from a small community—there is tremendous community spirit that has an energy that can be harnessed, and it can achieve great things for the local community. If people want to run their own affairs, even though there are only 23 of them in Seisia, for heaven’s sake, let them do it.
There are very good things I could say about the Labor opposition in this place, but there is still the strain of socialism there. The previous speaker was dead right that this decision reeks of that socialist mentality: ‘You people are not really capable of running your own affairs. We are the enlightened people that should be running everything for you.’ So we thank the opposition for coming to the party and opposing Mr Beattie on this. I think that Mr Beattie’s demise, because that is what it is, has been a result of the energies of a lot of people in this place, because they could see that their chances of winning government have been very seriously damaged by him. Unfortunately for the Labor Party, that damage will continue.
We want to sincerely thank the government and the Prime Minister on this issue, because right at the jump the mistake that had been made in Victoria was freely acknowledged, as was the damage that had been done to the people of Victoria. He also pointed out the extreme political damage that was then done to the Liberal government in the forthcoming election because these people will not forgive or forget. The Labor Party have made a very astute political decision in getting rid of the touchstone of the hatred.
We still have a situation out there. If this lady who has taken over or is about to take over Queensland wants to continue down this pathway, then make my day, the government can say, because right from the outset she will take the place of Peter Beattie and she will be the person responsible for this decision. So I say to the ALP: the odium has not gone away. The odium will be there, and if these amalgamations go through then the Labor Party will be punished for the next decade or more as a result of this decision. So we would plead with the Labor Party: do not think about anything else except politics and votes here. Realise that this man was on a huge amount of money; he was the king of Queensland; we saw him on the television every night—and he loved going on the television. Why did he suddenly decide to leave? Because everyone in Queensland was after his head, and particularly the Labor Party was after his head, because he had seriously damaged its chances of winning the next federal election.
I point out to the honourable opposition here that the problem has not gone away. We want a result, and if we do not get a result then there is going to be—do not listen to me; just ask the people of Queensland in any of these areas. I remind the opposition that there are six key seats in Queensland. If I were a Labor Party member—and I most certainly am not, but if I were—I would say that they would be my target seats. The chances of the Labor Party winning them now have been very seriously damaged, and that damage is still out there. So we would plead with the Labor Party to realise the political acumen of the government and follow it, and we thank the government for what they are doing tonight. (Time expired)
Thanks very much, Mr Deputy Speaker Barresi. I am very pleased that you are in the chair. Certainly you have been a great friend to me, Member for Deakin, and I appreciate you having joined me for the past term here. Tonight I rise in support of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007. The Commonwealth electoral amendment bill implements through this House the Prime Minister’s announcement on 7 August this year to allow the Australian Electoral Commission to undertake plebiscites on the amalgamation of any local governing body in any part of Australia.
Since 1992, the Australian Electoral Commission has had the ability to enter into arrangements for the supply of goods and services to bodies under the act; therefore the AEC has the required expertise and skills to undertake these arrangements. This is not giving the AEC any significantly different functions. It already conducts arrangements for organisations such as trade unions and other employer organisations. The urgent need for this bill and its specific provisions arises from a law passed by the Queensland parliament that, unless overridden by the Commonwealth law, would prevent local governments in their state having any involvement with these plebiscites.
This bill shows our government’s commitment to addressing fundamental issues of freedoms and basic democratic rights of the people of Australia. Essentially, the bill ensures that the AEC maintains its independence and allows provisions to override any state law that seeks to prohibit, penalise and discriminate against anyone entering into an arrangement for the supply of goods and services with the AEC.
In expressing my support for this bill, I would like to take some time to reflect, if I may, on my time in the House, as this will be the last time I rise to speak in this House. It is my intention to retire at the next election. When I leave this place it will be bittersweet. I have many friends from across the parliament, people focused on achieving great things, and I will miss having a front row opportunity to influence policy and to stand up for the forgotten and the weak. Incidentally, this is the 450th speech made by me in this chamber—but who is counting?
In 1983 I stood with 15 other candidates for preselection for the safe seat of Northcott, a state seat, in Sydney’s north-west. The Attorney-General, who is here tonight, would remember that occasion, I am sure. I am aware that the members for Stirling and Moncrieff, who are sitting alongside me tonight, were 13 and nine years old respectively and were still attending primary school. When you see these fine young men here alongside me, it probably suggests to you that it is time for me to go. For the preselection, I was unexpectedly supported by both the left and the right, including the member for Mackellar. So, if you want to blame somebody, you can always blame Bronwyn! I put my hand up at that time because I thought I could make a difference.
By winning government in New South Wales in 1988 with Nick Greiner and being appointed as Minister for Transport, and later as deputy leader, I was able to make that difference. The former member for Burrinjuck at that time, Alby Schultz, was one of my colleagues in that place and I was very glad of his support. During my time in state politics we undertook, as Alby would know, some major reforms of state transport, reforms which included slashing the annual operating costs of the State Rail Authority by $450 million a year, building many new freeways and introducing Jetcats to Parramatta and Manly.
Of course, the highlight of my time in New South Wales politics was the winning of the 2000 Olympic Games for Sydney. When Juan Antonio Samaranch announced, ‘And the winner is Sydney,’ it was a great moment. Some people said that he took so long to make the announcement because he had never seen Beijing written that way before! I was very pleased to be part of it. For three years of my life—as my wife, Judith, would know—I was involved in lobbying for it, and it was a very interesting and challenging time. The joy of winning was absolutely indescribable.
There was great satisfaction in seeing what a sterling job Sydney did in hosting the Olympics. The whole city buzzed and danced through the night and was glued to the track or the pool during the day. I was there for Cathy Freeman’s win in the 400-metre event, which was a spine-tingling event and highlighted what the Olympics were all about for Australia.
I left state politics in 1995 and went to the Tourism Council Australia as CEO. Within three years I was back in politics at the federal level. Again, I was honoured that I could contribute in the Australian parliament, drawing on my experience in New South Wales. I became part of a new Liberal government promising the country greater efficiency and economic reform.
I have been lucky enough to play a part in some very significant moments in this country’s history. There are the 11 budget surpluses, our contribution to East Timor, this parliament’s motion of reconciliation with our Indigenous community, and the passage of major tax reform. We have signed free trade agreements with the United States, Singapore and Thailand worth billions of dollars a year and we have a further six agreements currently under negotiation with China, Japan and the Gulf nations. We have implemented major industrial relations changes, first in 1996 then again in 2005—reform that has helped create more than 2.1 million new jobs and higher real wages since its introduction. We have invested significantly in the future, creating the Future Fund and the Higher Education Endowment Fund, and we have eased the burden on working Australians, particularly parents and pensioners, with tax rebates and tax cuts.
I am proud of having been part of a government that has implemented positive change and achieved so much. I am also proud to have spoken out on issues that are important to me. I have not always agreed with my colleagues and I have advocated many causes both in this place and in the party room. I give tribute to my colleagues because it is in this party that such tolerance is given for a divergence of views.
In 1998, when I rose for the first time to address the House, I outlined some of the significant challenges I saw facing this country at that time. Aboriginal reconciliation was clearly one of those challenges. It is encouraging that there have been some improvements in the key indicators of indigenous disadvantage. Death rates from respiratory illness and infectious diseases have more than halved. There has been some progress in reading and writing benchmarks, high school retention rates and employment growth. However, the challenge of entrenched poverty and unemployment remains. Our Indigenous population remains significantly below the wider community in relation to health and education levels, and above in relation to imprisonment levels.
For some time now the focus in Indigenous public policy has been solely on practical, measurable outcomes that bridge the gap between black and white in Australia. I commend Minister Brough for a lot of the changes that he has made and a lot of the policies that he has implemented. It is also important that we do not shy away from any significant symbolic gestures. We need to address some of those important symbolic gestures in the future.
In my maiden speech I mentioned my wish for Australia to become a republic. Despite the outcome of the 1999 referendum, I still believe the Australian public want an Australian head of state sometime in the near future. I think that, as we move further into the 21st century, we should revisit the question of constitutional change and approach any referendum in a way that makes constitutional change possible.
In 1998 I also spoke about the economy. Almost a decade later, I can say that I am extremely proud of this government’s economic achievements. I can see the Treasurer sitting in the chamber and I congratulate him on what he has achieved. He is an outstanding Treasurer, the most outstanding in Australia’s history. In particular, unemployment today is at its lowest level for more than a generation, and more than 2.1 million jobs have been created since 1996. This should be viewed not just as economic progress but as a magnificent social achievement. Having a job is an important step in developing dignity in an individual.
Thanks to ongoing reform and 12 disciplined and responsible budgets, our fiscal position is remarkably strong. Now that we have tackled many of our own economic problems, we are well placed to help those who need it most. That is why I believe Australia must step up its foreign aid program. Thirty-six years ago, Australia agreed to band together with other developed countries and to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on official development assistance to developing countries. Yet today we are spending only 0.3 per cent of GNI on foreign aid, less than half the spending of Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Denmark. I am encouraged that the government has committed to increasing spending to approximately 0.37 per cent of GNI by 2010, which will amount to $4 billion—not a small amount. I hope this level of funding continues to rise.
At a time of almost unprecedented prosperity in this country, we are surely obligated to cast our eyes and minds across the world to Africa, where 4.8 million children die every year of mainly preventable causes. In our own backyard an almost equal number of children—4.7 million—die of preventable causes in the Asia Pacific region. Foreign aid is effective in tackling poverty and disease. Increased foreign aid has helped halve disease and death rates in the Third World over the past 45 years. Third World incomes have increased by more than 20 per cent in the past 12 years and there are 130 million fewer people living in abject poverty than there were in 1990. Life expectancy has increased and child mortality rates have fallen. So without a doubt our foreign aid contribution is saving lives and helping to build some kind of future for children in developing countries. When we think of some of the significant aid grants, the $1 billion to Indonesia was a very significant amount given by this government. My great hope is that in future years the federal government will meet the Millennium Development Goal target of 0.7 per cent of GNI. This is the greatest moral imperative we as legislators face. While foreign aid is an important element in helping underdeveloped countries, it must be remembered that global free trade is the key to ending extreme poverty. The World Bank recently said:
... trade liberalization is generally a positive contributor to poverty alleviation—it allows people to exploit their productive potential, assists economic growth, curtails arbitrary policy interventions and helps to insulate against shocks.
I encourage all those who are supportive of ending severe poverty to support the Doha Round of trade liberalisation talks.
I would also like to speak briefly about multiculturalism—a core Australian value. This wonderful country was built on multiculturalism and our social cohesion is a testament to the multicultural policies of the last 35 years. We welcomed migrants from war torn Europe and those fleeing communism in the 1960s. Later we opened our arms to Vietnamese refugees, many of whom arrived in boats. We have accepted six million migrants since World War II and today 28 per cent of our population was born overseas. The diversity of Australia’s people has enriched, not hindered, our progress. Our country is held up around the world as a successful model of multiculturalism in practice. The hard work of migrants and their offspring cannot be dismissed. They are an intrinsic part of our economic and cultural prosperity today. There have of course been some problems. Some in our community have found it difficult to accept major changes in the cultural fabric of their local communities while others have not put in the required effort to engage with the neighbourhoods they have joined. This is not sufficient reason, however, to disown a winning formula—a formula that has served us well for more than 60 years and has helped make Australia a vibrant and accepting society.
My proudest achievement in public life in this House was securing concessions in the way that the government processes refugees who come to Australia. I would like to thank my colleagues for their support for that bill. The concessions that were legislated were reasonable and fair. They did not open the floodgates. Sensible time limits were implemented so that people would have their case turned around in 90 days. While awaiting the resolution of their cases, women and children were able to remain in community housing. I note that not one family absconded or created difficulties when residing outside the detention centres. I have said before in this place that the measure of a society is the way it treats the weak and vulnerable. Our great challenge today as a nation—with our ‘McMansions’ and plasma TVs in abundance—is not to harden our hearts to those who look to us for help. We must use our power for those who have no power and our influence for those who have no influence. A young man I met in detention had fled Iran after militia had entered his local church and shot up half the congregation. Despite being knocked back by the Refugee Review Tribunal, today he is an Australian citizen thanks to Minister Philip Ruddock. He is at university studying engineering by day while at night he works in a factory to pay for himself. He also spends his weekends as a translator at his church in Blacktown so that his Iranian friends can learn about Christianity in their native tongue. This for me illustrates why a compassionate approach is so important. I would again like to thank my colleagues for their support. It is no secret that some of us have disagreed on this issue. The Liberal Party’s greatest strength will always be its preparedness to accept differences of opinion and allow for expressions of conscience.
Finally, I hope that Australia can play a greater role on the world’s stage in fighting human rights abuses. As Thomas Jefferson said:
... the care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government.
We can apply more pressure to bring out positive changes in the Darfur region of Africa. We can keep leading the fight against the oppression of democracy in Burma. We can do more to advocate the abolition of the death penalty worldwide. The United Nations is still the forum to effect this kind of change and apply this kind of pressure. Australia should play a major part in the much needed renaissance of the UN organisation to prepare it for a remarkably different global power balance in the future.
It has been an honour to represent the electorate of Cook in this place. Cook is a wonderful electorate. It is where Captain Cook first landed in 1770. The southern shire is often called ‘God’s own country’. Cook is literally girt by sea. It is characterised by a distinct surfing culture and love of the ocean. We are home to some of the great Australian swimmers like Ian Thorpe and Susie Maroney. On many mornings I swim at 6.30 at Cronulla beach with the hardy swimmers from the Polar Bears. We have seen countless sunsets and stroked past blue gropers, stingrays and zinc-nosed surfers. As Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Old Man and the Sea, describing a flight of wild ducks across the water, ‘no man is ever alone on the sea’.
One of the most difficult times for us in the shire was in December 2005 with the very public disturbances at Cronulla and the subsequent so-called ‘revenge attacks’ of the day following. I extend my thanks to the Prime Minister for his speedy assistance in setting up a fantastic education program called On the Same Wave. This program has helped to break down the barriers between the local community around Cronulla and the Lebanese community. It has helped to introduce the beach to cultural groups that otherwise shy away from it. It has helped to train lifesavers from diverse backgrounds, and for the first time we now have Lebanese lifesavers, Muslim and Christian, patrolling the beaches at Cronulla. The four surf clubs—Cronulla, North Cronulla, Elouera and Wanda—have all been outstanding, as have leaders in the Lebanese community. They have all embraced this program with open arms. It is a testament to the shire’s determination for a fresh start and their willingness to move forward from December 2005.
Finally, I thank my parliamentary colleagues for their support over the years. I have many colleagues I want to thank, but of course I cannot thank them all. I thank the Prime Minister for his leadership of the party. I particularly thank the Treasurer for his personal friendship and support and congratulate him on his achievements. My thanks also go to the Minister for Education, Science and Training; my good friend the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations; the Attorney-General; the Minister for Ageing and the Minister for Defence. I also thank the other colleagues who I have been close to, particularly in relation to the refugee issue: Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent, Judi Moylan, John Forrest and others who were involved. Thank you all for your support.
I also thank my family, particularly my wife, Judy, and my children, Michael, Julia and Stephen. I would like to thank my staff: Nathan Seidl, Emma Johnson, Joshua Hatten, Andy Nilson, Jo Apthorpe, David Morris and Joe Aston—who did work for me before—and Brendan Lyon. My thanks also go to the Liberal Party branches in the Cook conference. Thank you to the Liberal Party. Without them, of course, I would still be in the PR world in Sydney—I would probably be earning more money but I would be without the great opportunities of this House. I would like to thank the Cook conference president, Michael Douglas. Thank you all for your support and your friendship, from both sides of the House. I thank my colleagues who tolerated me in this House. Finally, in the words of a film: good night and good luck.
Before I go to the substance of this particular bill I would like to congratulate the member for Cook, fellow parliamentarian and fellow republican. It is true to say that he has had a formidable parliamentary career both here and in the New South Wales parliament. He is well regarded across the chamber and I wish him well in his future endeavours.
I now turn to the specific bill at hand, which is the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007. This bill being debated in this place this evening, I would suggest, is not particularly necessary. It is one born of politics and the desperation of the Prime Minister, who wants to play games in Queensland.
The reason that I suggest there is no particular requirement for this bill to be legislated—although, can I say from the outset that I support the bill and indeed the amendment moved by the member for Fraser—is that it is clear now that the Premier of Queensland has agreed that there should indeed be plebiscites, if the locals wish to have them, on the matters going to the municipal restructuring in Queensland. So I think it is fair to say that the Prime Minister acted in haste and acted improperly in requiring this legislation to be enacted given the very frank admission made by the Premier of Queensland when he said only very recently that he got it wrong. It is not easy for a leader of any government to admit that they have made an error in public policy. I think that shows how big a man the Premier of Queensland is. He said, ‘The Prime Minister and Kevin Rudd got it right, and I didn’t.’
As a result, there is now a capacity for locals to express their opposition to or their support for proposed municipal restructuring in Queensland. I think that should be sufficient. Of course instead the government has sought to intrude by passing legislation that I do not think is necessary. Nonetheless, because the Leader of the Opposition as early as May supported an alternative approach to deal with the matter of municipal restructuring, I think it is important that the opposition support the bill. It is consistent with our clear view, a view we held prior to the announcement made by the Prime Minister on this matter, that locals should have a say in the matter. Given that the bill is before the parliament, it is important that Labor make our position very clear. Therefore we support the bill, albeit that in my view the bill is unnecessary. It is not necessary for it to be put and debated in this place because the matter it was attempting to respond to no longer exists.
I also want to stress that we support the amendment moved by the member for Fraser. We seek support for that amendment from both the Special Minister of State and indeed the government. We say in that amendment that if the Prime Minister and the government are genuine about recognising the primacy of local government to at least involve itself in its future then it should support a referendum to extend constitutional recognition to local government in recognition of the essential role it plays in the governance of Australia. That is the first part of the amendment moved by the member for Fraser.
The second part of Labor’s amendment says that, given the government’s intention to consider the construction of 25 nuclear power plants and nuclear waste facilities, there should be a capacity to allow communities to express a view on the location of those proposed nuclear power plants and nuclear waste facilities. We suggest that those two amendments would actually give this bill some relevance because, as I say, the Premier has withdrawn his opposition to the capacity for local communities in Queensland to have a say over the municipal restructuring.
What is now at play, now relevant and should now be debated, given the fact that this bill is proceeding, is whether the government supports in any true sense the constitutional recognition of local government. We know that the coalition and Mr Howard, the member for Bennelong, who was the Leader of the Opposition in 1988, have historically opposed the recognition of local government being placed in the Constitution. We know that in 1988 the then Leader of the Opposition, the member for Bennelong, and the rest of the coalition opposed the referendum that would have provided some level of recognition of local government in the Constitution. We know that that attempt by Labor to allow for that tier of government to be referred to in the Constitution was resisted by the coalition.
We know how difficult it is to change the Constitution of the land when you do not have bipartisan support. I think that is a reasonable thing. I think it is a large step and a big move to make amendments to the Constitution and that, therefore, it should not be easy, but it is also true to say that it is very difficult to change the Constitution without the support of the two major parties. That is the political reality. The government now—the opposition as it was then—resisted and managed to defeat the opportunity for local government to be recognised in the Constitution.
Here is an opportunity this evening for the government, by acceding to the amendment being proposed by the member for Fraser and the Labor Party, to support the view that local government should be recognised in the Constitution by way of referenda. That is to say that, in any future referendum, there would be support from both major parties to recognise local government in the Constitution. We would welcome that. We would also therefore think that the government were not just playing around tactically and playing politics with this particular matter in the shadow of an election. We would believe that the government were serious about the rights and the standing of local government in our nation. They have an opportunity tonight to change the position they have held on preventing any form of recognition of or reference to local government in the Constitution by accepting that amendment.
The other part of the amendment being proposed by the member for Fraser and the Labor Party is our belief that steps should also be taken to allow communities to express a view on the location of 25 nuclear power plants and nuclear waste facilities that the government wants to impose on the Australian people. We do not know whether those plants will be constructed tomorrow and we do not know when they will be built if the government has its way. We do know that the nuclear plants option is under consideration by the Prime Minister and the government. Indeed, if this government were to be re-elected, that option would be clearly on its agenda.
We argue that the people of Australia would be more concerned about the possibility of living in the proximity of a nuclear plant than about whether they were in one municipality or another. I think it is likely that people in this country would be more concerned about living in the vicinity of a nuclear plant than about whether they were on one side of a municipal boundary or not. Given the fact that there is a bipartisan position supporting locals having a say on the actual municipal restructuring in Queensland, allowing for a local plebiscite to express their view, it would seem fitting that on a fundamentally more challenging issue, one that would potentially create more anxiety in the community, the government would consider acceding to Labor’s proposal to allow for a plebiscite on that issue.
I have been informed that the Surf Coast shire in the electorate of Corangamite have it on their books to consider a referendum on this particular matter on Tuesday next week. As I understand it, the council will meet to discuss whether they will propose a referendum. As I understand it, the mayor of that municipality has written to the Prime Minister seeking funding to support a referendum in Surf Coast. I would have thought that, given the comments made by the Prime Minister, he would indeed assist that municipality in having such a plebiscite to consider or at least gauge the views of residents. We will wait and see on that. We will wait and see whether in fact the Prime Minister was fair dinkum when he said he might have such referenda for people concerned about proposed nuclear plants and their locations. I think accepting this amendment tonight in this place is an opportunity for the government to assure municipalities such as the Surf Coast shire, their councillors and, more importantly, the residents of municipalities that they will be able to express their views with the assistance of the Commonwealth. I therefore think it would be apt for the Prime Minister to provide the resources for them to undertake such a plebiscite.
There has been a level of hypocrisy in the way in which the government has dealt with this matter. There has been quite a high level of hypocrisy in the way in which the Prime Minister has chosen to deal with this matter. In fact, on 7 August, at a press conference he held with the Treasurer, the Prime Minister said on this matter:
I think it is a total travesty of democracy to ... refuse to consult people about what you are going to do that is going to affect them ...
That is a big statement coming from a Prime Minister who, on 28 September 2004, announced the government’s industrial relations policy and did not mention Work Choices once. He did not mention one significant element of Work Choices when he announced their industrial relations policy prior to the election. Not only did the Prime Minister not consult with anybody; he did not even notify the voters of this country during the election campaign that he was going to impose Work Choices after the election. It is the height of hypocrisy for the government to think they can make statements like this about the Premier of Queensland when they quite flagrantly abused their position by not announcing in any sense whatsoever the elements of Work Choices prior to the 2004 election.
I think that this government have to consider that they are on very thin ice indeed to lecture others about consulting with people or even notifying them of policy that might affect them. Indeed, it is true to say that, with the abolition of penalty rates, with the removal of unfair dismissal rights for more than five million workers and with the other pernicious provisions of Work Choices, people have been adversely affected. There was no notification, no consultation and no plebiscite at all. That really highlights the fact that this has been a political game exercised by the Prime Minister to intervene in Queensland politics and to intervene on matters to be dealt with between municipal and state governments. The Prime Minister knows that the Premier has now provided the opportunity for locals in Queensland to have a say. They will have a say, and the Leader of the Opposition supports that—
Yes, and he supported it back in May when he suggested an alternative process, well before the announcement by the Prime Minister on this particular matter. I think it is also important to note that gauging the community’s concerns is important, and that is why we put forward the amendment. If the government is fair dinkum on these things, it will accede to our amendment.
We also say that the government should be very clear about the consequences of the legislation. As I understand it, the government is seeking to suggest that, by enacting this bill, it will somehow have a binding influence upon the government of Queensland to not change the boundaries. I do not think that is exactly the case. Indeed, the minister made the point in his second reading speech that the bill is not designed to provide an avenue for citizen initiated referenda. It was important that the minister made that point in his second reading speech because, without that reference in his speech, it would have been very difficult to glean from the text of the bill. As we know, the Acts Interpretation Act 1901 allows a minister’s second reading speech to be an aid to the interpretation of a bill. But, as the minister unequivocally made clear, this is not actually a referendum that would bind the Queensland government. So you have to wonder, really, what assistance the federal government is providing for the local community other than to provide a capacity to express their view.
The Prime Minister was very emphatic in stating that the issues of consultation and participation of local people in political processes were at the centre of his intervention. At his press conference of 19 August, he said:
It should be remembered that the Government is not expressing a view as to whether or not an individual merger should occur. Rather, the Commonwealth believes that people should have the right to express a view on the actions of a government without threat of penalty.
He went on to say:
However, if there is a strong expression of opinion in local government areas that choose to go ahead with the ballots, the Queensland Government may be forced to reconsider those amalgamations.
There is no binding dimension to the bill, as I understand it, and the minister’s second reading speech has made it very clear that, indeed, a plebiscite would not bind the state government; it would allow for the views of the community to be expressed. I think that is important. Any government that fails to listen to the people about any particular public policy matter will rue the day. Equally, and the member for Fraser touched upon this, we have to be very careful about whether we want to have responsible government—the Westminster system—affected unduly by having plebiscites on every particular matter. I think it is a difficult balance.
In the end, Labor support this bill. We suggest that the government accede to the amendment proposed by the member for Fraser and allow for constitutional recognition of local government and allow for expressions of interest about where nuclear plants may be located if the government wins the election. If they are fair dinkum about providing some say, the government will accede to the amendment. We support the bill. (Time expired)
I have a great respect for the member for Gorton; I think he always argues his case quite passionately. I have never seen him more uncomfortable with a subject than this one. I do not think he was, for one minute, convinced of the merit of the argument that he had to present, and I think that is regrettable. It is interesting, too, Mr Deputy Speaker, that if you look at the speakers list—and if you discount the member for Kennedy, who is an Independent—there is not one opposition speaker from Queensland on this list. If, as the Leader of the Opposition says, he is supporting this referendum idea or supporting councils having a say then he has done precious little in this bill to do something about it, and his colleagues in Queensland have done even less. That, too, is regrettable.
The member for Gorton should not make a virtue of the fact that the Leader of the Opposition suddenly had a road-to-Damascus conversion when it came to this matter of forced amalgamations. You will recall that the Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, announced this gutting of local government on 17 April. What followed was very interesting. There were then four weeks of total inaction by the opposition. But, during that time, the Leader of the Opposition managed to dance on television with Kerri-Anne Kennerley, fly to New York and dine with Rupert Murdoch, speak about his toilet habits on radio and quit his weekly television spot because of some fake memorial service. So he could fit all that sort of trivia into the four weeks between the time when Premier Beattie made the announcement and the time when the opposition did something about it. But I live in the area that is most affected by this, and the panic in the ALP machine in Central Queensland was palpable—absolutely palpable.
What happened was this. The federal Labor candidate for Flynn, Chris Trevor, was doing a tour of western Queensland and no-one was turning up to his meetings—or only a handful of people were. I am told that in one shire they could not get the caretaker to open the hall for him. In another, in the coalfields, where you would expect a good roll-up for a Labor candidate of some consequence, 11 turned up. He obviously went back to the Labor hierarchy and said, ‘Gee, we’re in trouble over this amalgamations thing.’
It is significant that the Leader of the Opposition made his statement in the electorate of Flynn, in an area that was in my electorate of Hinkler before electoral redistribution. He made the statement at Auckland Hill, where all the major announcements of any worth are made in Gladstone. Auckland Hill overlooks Gladstone Harbour, where you can see all the industry and everything. When you want to really get punchy, that is where you make your announcement. In fact, I thought he was coming up to usurp an announcement I was making at the same site at the same time the following day. I thought, ‘Oh, damn it; he’s stolen my thunder’ on what was known as Kirkwood Road, where this government has given $13 million to make sure it proceeds. But no—he spent this whole meeting with the media, all bar the last five per cent of it, saying how much he disagreed with this. And it was patently obvious that he disagreed with it because, in that hinterland behind the coastal strip, this is the most unpopular measure since the rise of One Nation and the gun laws. It is more unpopular than the two GST campaigns; it is more unpopular than the sale of Telstra. And he knew it, and he knew that his candidates would be in some trouble. It is surprising, too, that my colleague the member for Capricornia, whom I also respect and a lot of whose shires are affected by this, is not here tonight to debate this issue.
I am not against amalgamations per se, provided that there is a process of consultation; that there is printed material for people to consider on the efficiencies of councils, their costs and their incomes; and that, at the end of the process, there is a vote on whether you want to be wholly or partially within a particular shire or city. That would be fair enough. In fact, there is probably a good argument for some of what are known as ‘doughnut shires’ around cities. Certainly the inner ring of those, the more semi-urbanised part of those, would be better off joining with cities. I have some reservations about the outer rural areas. So I would have gone along with that if the process had been right—but what was the process?
The government set up a thing called the ‘triple S’ process—size, shape and sustainability. I suspect the government did not think that the shires would embrace it, and a few did not; a few were a bit reluctant at first. But 118 out of 125 embraced it and it was becoming obvious that the councils in clusters were making interesting moves, like machinery pools, shared building inspectors and all that sort of thing. They were really going down the track that the government was asking them to. I think it was going to become embarrassing for the state government that there would not be grounds to do a lot of changing of boundaries.
So, all of a sudden—bang!—overnight, on 17 April, the old process was killed and the Queensland government announced an Electoral Reform Commission. Reform? You were given 30 days to get your submissions in—30 days, for something as momentous as that—and then the commissioners were given 60 days to consider 37,000 submissions. If you divide that number of submissions by the number of working days in 60 days, you will see that it was simply an impossible task.
They also had a covenant on them that they were not to split shires unless it was absolutely necessary. That meant that, in not splitting shires, you could not get real reform anyhow. There are some shires in my area, like the Miriam Vale Shire, where there is a fair body of evidence to say that the southern part might have a Bundaberg ambience and the northern part a Gladstone ambience. That needed to be tested, but those sorts of things were never tested.
So we went through this sham process. The commission handed the report to the Queensland government one morning at about 10 o’clock and by about 12.30 the government had ticked off on it. It took 60 days to draw up this report and after two to 2½ hours consideration it was foisted on the people of Queensland. But it did not stop there. Oh no, it did not stop there; it was worse than that. The state government said, ‘If any council defies the government and holds a plebiscite or referendum, we’ll fine them.’ Then they said, ‘We will sack any council that does it.’ That jackboot treatment resonated very poorly across the state, even with Labor voters. They were not going to have a bar of that. So, reluctantly, the humiliated Minister for Local Government, Planning and Sport, Andrew Fraser, was forced to back down. He was like the member for Gorton, who did not seem convinced of his brief. I have never seen someone so disillusioned in appearance as Andrew Fraser was when that decision was made.
The process was a shambles from start to finish. Not only is it a shambles; it is part of a wider malaise in Queensland. This malaise has two strands to it. The first strand is: ‘Let’s kill off the conservative voice in the country.’ You will find in lots of country councils that there are conservatives—Liberals, Nationals, former One Nation people and current Family First people. Those sorts of people, by and large, except in the larger provincial cities, play a significant part in local government. So the idea was that if you could force amalgamations you could get rid of some of them. It was quite blatant. I will give a few examples.
In the Central Highlands district, which is currently in the federal seat of Maranoa but will be in Flynn, the number of councillors will be reduced from 38 to eight. In my own area of Bundaberg it will go from 32 down to 11. North Burnett, where I currently represent five of the six shires, will go from having 41 councillors to seven. That will mean that some shire areas, even if there are wards, even if you go on a population basis, will not get one representative at all. I cite examples like Eidsvold and Mount Perry. They probably will be flat out getting one representative on the new council. At best, most areas might get one councillor. If they are lucky, they might crack the mayor as well.
The current shires, which the new supershires will replace, are quite big areas. They are quite substantial areas with quite substantial problems in development, infrastructure, the delivery of social services and the delivery of civic amenities. All those things are just as important in a country town or a small provincial city as they are in a big provincial city or a capital city. They will be left with perhaps one representative covering a vast area—some of them bigger than the electorate that I seek to represent after the federal election. That is incredible. Who is going to go out and look at the potholes in the roads? Who is going to see whether the dam needs to have a new top put on it or whatever it is? Do we think that the supercouncils, remote from those areas, are going to be all that interested? No, I do not think they will be. I do not think that there is anyone out there who believes it either.
This malaise of making things greater is about a contraction of the voice of country people as much as it is about a call for council efficiency. You can look around Australia at where there have been forced amalgamations. Look around the Canberra area, for one. Look at Victoria some years ago—but I would make the observation about Victoria that at least Jeff Kennett allowed 78 of his councils to continue. For Victoria, which is a very small state in area, he allowed 78 councils. Queensland, a vastly bigger area, will be left with 73. The second biggest state in the Commonwealth will have 73 councils. Imagine the representational problems with that. The same thing happened in Tasmania.
It does not make for more efficiency. I will tell you one of the first things that happens. I am not predicting that this will necessarily happen in Queensland, but this is what has happened over time in other areas. When the new supercouncil gets together, perhaps not in the first year but when it starts to feel the growing pains of difficult administration and centralising a lot of the services to the new capital, for want of a better word, what happens then? Someone moves that they build a $20 million or $30 million civic centre or administration centre. Then you might find councils that have previously been pretty close to borderline with debt control and so on taking on another $15 million or $20 million, for small shires, or perhaps up to $30 million for a reasonably large one, now that they have been amalgamated with other councils.
There is to be a council on the Darling Downs based on Toowoomba, which is simply mind-boggling. I am staggered that you can take Toowoomba and the area north and west of Toowoomba from 69 councillors down to 11. For God’s sake! What sort of a show is that going to be? It is probably fair to say that they will have to build a new administration centre for a show like that.
So that will be one thing: slowly, the machinery that was individual to particular shires will be pooled in one area. Then you will find that it is considered too difficult to give subsidies to the local show or the local art competition or whatever it might be. You will find that the workers will tend to be centralised after a while, and that will mean that the purchasing from what used to be the local council will go to the central pivotal town. That will mean that the shops in the smaller towns will drop one or two employees. You might find after that that, if the pupil numbers drop enough in the school, the school will drop from three teachers to two. The police station will drop from two constables to one. Slowly this spiral will commence. It will not happen overnight—and I am not suggesting it will—but this is part of the centralisation malaise that the Labor Party have caused in Queensland.
It is not the first time that they have tried this. They tried this under the Goss government, and I find it equally bewildering that the Leader of the Opposition, who was a chief of staff and secretary to cabinet in that previous Goss government and who presided over the last round of forced amalgamations in Queensland, is suddenly the champion of letting shires have their say. Come on! Do not look at what they do; look at how they act. Faith without good works is dead. I am sure that, as a Christian democrat, he knows that statement. So that has happened before. This is the second tranche, if you like.
There is another aspect to it. If you want to stand for state parliament in Queensland, at the time you nominate to stand you must resign from the local council. You cannot be stood aside for the length of the campaign or anything like that; you must physically resign. Of course, that runs a lot of councils into by-elections costing anything from $50,000 to $100,000 to pick up that one new councillor. It is totally unnecessary, because about half those councillors get defeated at the state election and could well resume their roles in the local council and save countless thousands of dollars. They tried to impose the same thing on the federal members—if you wanted to stand for federal parliament you could not be on a local authority. But the High Court had something to say about that, and it was dropped.
Regional health councils—the poor things are emasculated anyhow but what is even more sinister is that they have been combined: North Burnett with Bundaberg and South Burnett with Toowoomba, and so on. Then you find too that the port authorities are being combined: Rock-hampton with Gladstone, and Bundaberg, Brisbane. The whole thing is a never-ending focus on centralisation.
In the few minutes remaining to me I would like to say that this amendment about constitutional recognition is about as well thought out as the whole policy of the Beattie government in this matter. If you really wanted to do it properly you would have a constitutional convention along the lines of the republican one. You would perhaps first have a meeting of all the local governments of Australia. They would pick, say, 100 to 150 delegates to it. You would have state and federal government representatives, eminent people from former local government positions and eminent local government administrators. You would define the parameters of local government and not only its autonomy but its authority and whether the boundaries right across Australia needed to be looked at. Then that constitutional convention would make recommendations. After the public had been consulted on the constitutional convention, and after the booklet had gone out with the options, then—and only then—would you have a referendum. I would support that. But just rushing in and saying ‘constitutional recognition’ for a quick fix or to try to embarrass the government, or dragging in the nuclear debate, is just pitiful. There are no Queenslanders in here from the Labor Party to debate this issue. The Leader of the Opposition has been caught out on the whole matter. It is a disgrace. I support the bill; I reject the amendment.
I rise to support the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007 and the amendment moved by my colleague the member for Fraser. I am surprised by the member for Hinkler who, in the chamber just now, said that his opposition to our amendment on constitutional recognition of local government is based on the fact that it is not thought out. This is a proposition that has been put to the Australian public with the support of the Australian Local Government Association and local councils right around the nation. It was opposed by the current Prime Minister and Peter Reith in a cynical exercise which stopped that referendum being carried. Of course, this debate is also a cynical exercise by a government that is out of ideas, out of an agenda for the future and, what is increasingly obvious to all Australians, out of time.
But the member for Hinkler surprised me when he said that there should be a local government meeting—a constitutional gathering similar to what occurred before the republic referendum—and at that meeting we should consider the boundaries of local government. On the one hand we hear this plea about current local government boundaries in Queensland; on the other hand we hear the member for Hinkler proposing in this chamber that the boundaries be taken away not just from the local people in particular local government areas in his electorate in Queensland but from the people of Australia, as decided by a constitutional convention here in Canberra. That is an extraordinary position from the member for Hinkler.
But it is not surprising because time after time the Howard government has refused to acknowledge local government. Indeed, in this chamber on 6 September last year I moved an amendment to a motion about recognising local government. The amendment read:
That paragraph (1) be omitted and the following paragraph substituted:“(1) supports a referendum to extend constitutional recognition to local government in recognition of the essential role it plays in the governance of Australia.”
Of course, the government voted against that amendment, because the government has not been fair dinkum when it comes to properly recognising local government, including recognising it in the Constitution. It is extraordinary that the government is prepared to play politics but is not prepared to take any action, within its responsibility, of substance. But that is typical for a government that now is just dominated by politics in its own interests and not about policy in the long-term national interest.
The second part of the amendment moved by my colleague the member for Fraser supports:
. . . the Australian Labor Party’s belief that steps should also be taken to allow communities to express a view on the location of 25 nuclear power plants and the nuclear waste facilities that the Government wants to impose on the Australian people.
We know that this has been an agenda that people on the conservative side of politics have had in Australia for more than three decades. Nuclear power is old technology. But they are not prepared to look at the future of renewables and clean coal technology. They are obsessed with latching onto the past, just as they are obsessed with turning back industrial relations into a master-servant relationship. And, when it comes to nuclear power, they are obsessed and prepared to impose it on the Australian public. The Prime Minister has said that nuclear power is inevitable. He has said that he would amend legislation to facilitate nuclear power at the Commonwealth level. In announcing his policy, ‘Uranium mining and nuclear energy: a way forward for Australia’, on 28 April 2007, he said:
The Government’s next step will be to repeal Commonwealth legislation prohibiting nuclear activities, including the relevant provisions of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. This will be addressed soon.
We have not seen that legislation before this parliament. We have not seen that legislation because this is a government that always tries to hide its real agenda before an election and then impose it after an election. If it were fair dinkum about empowering local communities, it would, as part of this proposition, empower local communities to have referendums on whether or not they want nuclear reactors or nuclear waste dumps sited in their electorates. But the government goes further than that. The government has also said that it would override state laws which currently ban the construction of nuclear reactors. And it goes even further than that. It says that where nuclear reactors are located is a commercial decision and that it will just impose these 25 nuclear reactors wherever commercially they are seen as being the best sites for these reactors. We know that nuclear reactors would have to be near the electricity grid. We know that they would have to be near populations. We know that, because nuclear reactors use 80 per cent more water than any other energy sources they would have to be near water supplies, so they tend to be on the coast or on rivers. And we know that there is a great history of coalition governments considering sites for nuclear reactors.
In August 1969 the then Liberal government, in its cabinet submission, considered a number of sites: Jervis Bay, part of the ACT, on the coast close to Nowra; the Murrumbidgee River between Williamsdale and Tharwa; Paddys River in the ACT; Bass Point in the electorate of Eden-Monaro; and the Hawkesbury River site at Spencer, which is in the electorate of Robertson. In 1981 the government’s National Energy Advisory Com-mittee considered sites in Perth, Adelaide, Tasmania and Darwin to be suitable for nuclear reactors. In July 1997, in a cabinet submission signed off by the then Minister for Science and Technology, Peter McGauran, now the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the government considered sites in Goulburn, Holsworthy, the Mount Lofty Ranges in the electorate of Mayo in Adelaide, the river and lakes region of South Australia, Olympic Dam in the electorate of Grey in South Australia, Woomera, the electorate of O’Connor in Western Australia, the electorate of Pearce in Western Australia, the electorate of Brand in Western Australia, the electorate of Canning in Western Australia, Broken Hill, Mount Isa and Darwin.
On ABC radio on 5 June 2006, Ian Smith, the head of ANSTO, considered four to five nuclear power plants on the east coast of Australia. The feasibility study by the Uranium Enrichment Group for the Fraser government considered Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia to all have suitable sites. In June 1979 the Court government gazetted Breton Bay, 90 kilometres north of Perth. Townsville in Queensland was identified by the Bjelke-Peterson government. French Island in the electorate of Flinders was nominated in 1968 by Henry Bolte, a former Liberal Premier of Victoria. More recently, on 22 November 2006, the Australian identified Yallourn in the electorate of McMillan in Victoria; Port Stephens in the electorate of Paterson in New South Wales; Callide in the electorate of Hinkler in Queensland; Gladstone, which is now in the electorate of Flynn, in Queensland; and Port Augusta in Grey in South Australia. In May 2006 the Australia Institute identified Western Port Bay in Victoria, Port Stephens in Paterson in New South Wales, the Central Coast of New South Wales, areas south of Wollongong around the electorate of Gilmore, the Sunshine Coast in the electorate of Fairfax in Queensland, Port Phillip Bay in Corangamite in Victoria, and Portland in the electorate of Wannon in Victoria. On 16 October 2006, Clarence Hardy, the Vice President of the Pacific Nuclear Council, identified the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Gladstone, Townsville, Newcastle, Cessnock and Perth.
So they certainly have form when it comes to four decades of advocating nuclear reactors; four decades of being determined to have them imposed on local communities. It is clear that, if the coalition are re-elected later this year, those reactors will be progressed by this government. That is what they say. They say it is inevitable that we will have nuclear power in Australia. But I was surprised—I guess I should not have been surprised—that the member for Hinkler in his remarks about the amendment really did not address that at all even though nuclear reactors have been proposed on a number of occasions as being suitable for his electorate in areas such as Bundaberg and Hervey Bay.
On 20 August I joined with the Labor candidate for Hinkler, Garry Parr, who committed himself to oppose a nuclear reactor in that electorate and who asked for the current member for Hinkler to sign a pledge opposing it, but of course the member was nowhere to be seen. Earlier that same day I joined with Labor’s candidate for Flynn, Chris Trevor, at Spinnaker Park in Gladstone to sign Labor’s antinuclear pledge. Gladstone has been identified as a site for a nuclear reactor but the Nationals’ candidate of course was nowhere to be seen when it came to actually signing that pledge.
The government has attempted to say different things to different communities. The National Party candidate in Richmond is purported to have said ‘it will not happen here’ but of course she was nailed by the member for Page, her National Party colleague who said that he was ‘furious’ at any Nationals candidate who opposes nuclear power and that ‘a new candidate’ would not ‘understand the process’. What a put-down by the member for Page about his colleague the candidate for Richmond. That is why on 30 August 2007, with the Labor candidate for Page, Janelle Saffin, I held a press conference in Ballina to outline and reinforce Labor’s absolute opposition to these nuclear reactors which will be imposed around the coast of Australia.
They say one thing in their electorates and another thing here. They are very brave when it comes to statements in a local paper in their electorate but they come here and they are sheepish. To give one example of that, the member for Corangamite has said in his local paper this week that the Prime Minister has made it clear the government will not be building nuclear power stations. How extraordinary. I joined last week with Darren Cheeseman, the federal Labor candidate for Corangamite, to point out that the Surf Coast Shire in that electorate was the first council to seek a ballot on the location of a nuclear reactor after the Prime Minister’s pledge to allow local ballots. The local Liberals are opposing that of course.
They say they support democracy, they say they support input but they do not actually carry it through when it comes to the crunch. Perhaps there is no more extraordinary statement and no better example of the government’s duplicity in this than that of the member for Gilmore. If you log onto the official website of the member for Gilmore, you can get two contradictory positions: one in which the member for Gilmore is quoted as saying ‘no nuclear power plants for Gilmore’ and another supporting nuclear power plants for Gilmore—an extraordinary proposition. The member for Gilmore knows her party’s position, as all opposite know. Twenty-eight of them have actually ruled out nuclear reactors in their electorates: the members for Braddon, Curtin, Fadden, Fisher, Hume, Kingston, Leichhardt, McMillan, Menzies, Moreton, Bowman, Fairfax, Flinders, Gilmore, Gippsland, Grey, Herbert, Longman, Maranoa, Moncrieff, North Sydney, Petrie and Wentworth. They all say, ‘Not in my electorate.’
It is extraordinary because the member for Bennelong, the current Prime Minister, actually said in parliament, in response to a question about the member for Gilmore’s website, that it would be up to Ryde council to determine whether a nuclear reactor was approved. Around the Lane Cove River is the potential site for a nuclear reactor but we have this duplicity in the government of not being prepared to stand up for its principles when it comes to this. What it comes to is that the government want to have you believe that you can have 25 nuclear reactors but they will not be actually located anywhere. They will not be in anybody’s electorate, they will not impact on anyone and they will not have any nuclear waste associated with them. But we know, because the government have form and have introduced special legislation to this House to impose a nuclear reactor on the Northern Territory, that they are prepared to do that.
That is a low-level waste dump. What we are talking about here is high-level waste. Over the weekend we saw, once again, the government, while they were walking away from it, signing up to the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership being promoted by the Bush administration. That is a partnership that would see Australia become the world’s nuclear waste dump. If the government are fair dinkum about their stance re local democracy, then they will not only vote for this legislation, which Labor is supporting; they will vote for Labor’s amendment and they will come clean before the election about where the 25 nuclear reactors will go and where the associated high-level, toxic nuclear waste dumps will go. The Australian public deserve to know prior to the election, not to have the government tiptoe through and hope that no-one notices how hypocritical they are being on this issue.
I rise this evening in this debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007. It is with great pleasure that I rise to make a contribution to this bill before the House. Firstly, this bill would not have been required had the Queensland state Labor government not acted in the way it did to bring forward legislation to deny the people of Queensland the right to have their say. They were prepared in Queensland, under the premiership—which will soon be the former premiership—of Premier Beattie, to bring forward legislation, and they brought forward legislation, that would see such draconian measures put into place, whereby local councillors and their mayors, if they dared to encourage, bring forward or provide an avenue for the voice of their ratepayers to be heard in relation to the forced amalgamation of local shires in Queensland, would be sacked or fined, and an interim council would be put in place of those elected representatives of those local communities. It is a sad day when the Commonwealth has to bring forward such legislation because of the actions of a Labor government that are totally out of touch with the people that elected them a little over 12 months ago.
When I saw the process that was being supported by local councils across my electorate, in relation to the size, shape and sustainability of those local government areas, I supported it—just as the local government representatives and the Local Government Association of Queensland did. For two years, local governments have been working cooperatively with their local communities and neighbouring shires to look at the size of their local shires, to look at whether they are going to be sustainable in the long term and to ensure that the shape of the shires reflects the road linkages and communities of interest today. Perhaps in some cases those boundaries did not reflect the communities of interest, nor the connections by road that have emerged since those boundaries were drawn 70 or 80 years ago.
What was happening while that process was proceeding in the local government areas was that the Labor government—under the premiership of Peter Beattie and his Labor minister, Minister Fraser—the department of local government in Queensland or somewhere in the bureaucracy that is controlled by the Premier was actually drawing up maps of local government areas before that process of size, shape and sustainability was complete. What we saw then was that the Labor government in Queensland were not prepared to wait for that process to be completed. They brought forward legislation into the state parliament whereby they appointed a so-called independent commission and commissioners to go through submissions from local councils in about a 40-day period. They were then required to report to the government on the size, shape and sustainability of the Queensland local government areas.
Do I have an interest in this bill? I certainly do, because I represent something like 25 per cent of the local government areas in Queensland—rural shires that are proud of their achievements; rural shires that are connected well to their communities; rural shires that represent the aspirations of local people. In some of these local shires they provide services such as Meals on Wheels. In fact, in some of the remote councils in my area they are actually the undertakers as well. Some of these shires are going to be amalgamated, against their will and without the opportunity for the locally elected councillors and the community to have their say, because of the draconian legislation that was put forward by the state Labor government in Queensland.
Australia is one of the oldest democracies in the world and we are the lucky country. Our democracy was formed through the free vote and free will of the people of Australia—one of the few democracies in the world where it did not arise out of a civil war or a war with neighbouring colonies or countries. So we are a very lucky country. The right of people to elect their governments—their local governments and their state government—is a fundamental principle of any successful democracy in the world today, but that was going to be stripped away by the Labor government of Queensland.
That is why this bill to allow local councils in Queensland to conduct a plebiscite of their ratepayers and gauge the opinion of the people of those local shires had to be brought forward in this parliament: because the Premier of Queensland—soon to be the former Premier of Queensland—was not going to allow those councils to conduct the plebiscite. What he put into law in Queensland was the most draconian piece of legislation that I think the nation has ever seen. He was going to sack those councillors who even encouraged, talked about or acted in a way that would provide an avenue for the voice of their local council ratepayers to be heard.
We have heard from the Leader of the Opposition that he is opposed to what the Premier was doing up in Queensland. He thinks that there is a better way. Words are cheap in this place; action is what counts. We know that the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Griffith, was in a former life the chief political adviser to the Premier at the time, Wayne Goss. What did they do with his advice? After all, it is that sort of experience that he claims gives him the ability to be the Prime Minister of this country. What did he do? He gave advice to Premier Goss when Labor was in government in the early nineties that saw the amalgamation of shires in Queensland.
It is one thing to go out in front of a camera, to go on radio or to put an advertisement in a newspaper in Queensland saying: ‘I think there’s a better way. I’ve had a chat with Premier Peter Beattie. We’ve had a cup of tea and I have told him that he should do it a different way.’ But I say to the people of Queensland and to the people of Australia: if the Leader of the Opposition is so weak that he cannot convince the Premier of Queensland not to proceed with draconian legislation which would deny the people of Queensland their democratic right to have a say, the Leader of the Opposition is not fit to be the Prime Minister of this country. He is a weak leader. If he were strong, if he had the ability or even a chance at ever leading this country, he would have been able to convince the Premier of Queensland that what he was proposing was undemocratic and that the draconian legislation that he was bringing forward must not proceed. But the Leader of the Opposition failed there, just as he would fail if he were ever to be elected the Prime Minister of this country.
The Premier of Queensland is going to leave the people of Queensland a little over 12 months after being elected in good faith to lead the state for the next three years. But he has decided that he is over it. He is stepping down; he is out. By Thursday, he will leave the parliament. But what he leaves behind him, apart from this legislation and this process that is going to fail the communities of Queensland, is a litany of failure: failure in the health system, failure to provide water for the people of Queensland and failure to provide sufficient infrastructure to meet the needs of the growing population of the south-east corner of Queensland. He can blame the drought, but every other day we heard the Premier saying, ‘The population of Queensland has risen by another 150 today, and we are going to be the second most populous state in Australia within 20 years,’ or figures like that. He has failed in his premiership to provide the infrastructure necessary for a population that was anticipated by governments as long ago as when the National and the Liberal parties were in coalition in the seventies and eighties. That coalition built the South East Freeway, the Pacific Highway to the Gold Coast, Wivenhoe Dam and Hinze Dam and had plans for further infrastructure development to meet the growing needs of Queensland based on research that showed that it was going to be the fastest-growing state in Australia. He leaves all of that behind him as a failure of his administration.
Of course, these forced amalgamations of local councils will leave behind another legacy. If these are not stopped and these boundaries are not amended, many small rural communities will be left in a situation where people will become landlocked, their assets will be devalued and their small businesses will be devalued because, inevitably, when you centralise control and administration in any sphere of government, the workforce that has been employed in smaller councils will move to the larger centre as part of that amalgamation of shires. There have been no impact statements done in relation to what will happen to some of these smaller rural shires when, under this proposal, they are amalgamated into a supershire. What will happen to the value of that council worker’s house—their little piece of Australia; their pride and joy; their family home—when the population of that small rural shire declines because jobs have inevitably shifted to the larger centre? Those houses will be unsaleable. I already have in my electorate houses that were for sale and for which contracts were signed subject to the outcome of these forced amalgamations that have now been put on hold. Houses in a town like Tambo that might have been worth $120,000 or $130,000 may now be unsaleable and have no value at all.
Under this proposal, we will see the Shire of Tambo amalgamated with the Shire of Blackall. The administrative centre will be in Blackall. The Shire of Tambo and their 60 workers—the administration and the workers—will inevitably move to Blackall. I can repeat that story over and over again with this proposal that has been put forward by the arrogant, out-of-touch state Labor government in Queensland.
What happens to the small business that has just established itself in, say, Aramac—a little corner store, a family running a nice little business because there are workers in town, there is a future in town and the council is supporting the community and encouraging new business into the town? What will happen to the value of that small business when those 60 workers inevitably move to the larger centre where the council will be located? Has there been any study done at all by the Labor government of Queensland as to the impact that these forced amalgamations will have on the value of private assets, be they the family home or the small business? There has not been any study done on that.
It appears that the new Premier of Queensland is going to be Anna Bligh. I respect Anna Bligh. I have got to know her. I do not have to agree with all she does. I call on the Premier, whoever it is, and if it is Anna Bligh, to go back to the drawing board in relation to these forced amalgamations and say: ‘Under my premiership, I want to make sure that, if these proceed as it is proposed that they proceed, there will not be net losers and winners. There will be no net loss, no net disadvantage, to communities or to families.’ In fact, my colleagues in Queensland put forward in the state parliament a private bill—which the Labor Party in Queensland opposed and did not vote for—to ensure that, if these amalgamations proceed on the basis which has been recommended, there is no disadvantage to a community, an individual or a small business. That was opposed by the state Labor government of Queensland.
So I say to the new Premier, if it is Anna Bligh, that she will have a great opportunity now—and she could borrow a phrase from the retiring Premier—to say: ‘Well, I think we got it wrong; I’m sorry. I think we should go back to the original process that local governments were going through voluntarily, looking at the size, shape and sustainability of their local councils.’ I hope that the new Premier of Queensland will take up that offer, because, if it is Anna Bligh, it is her premiership, and it will be her legacy if she fails to change direction in relation to these forced amalgamations.
In relation to the interim committees that are now being formed as a result of this draconian legislation in Queensland: there are two representatives from each of the councils on those interim committees. So, if there are three councils being amalgamated into one council, there will be six councillors from the three representative councils. But imposed on that committee as part of that transition committee will be three unelected union officials—three unelected union representatives. They were not elected by the shire council ratepayers, and I have had it reported to me in one of the western Queensland shires that it is actually now the union officials—unelected people—who are controlling the agenda. Of these union officials out in western Queensland in my electorate, the odd one comes from the community, but in the seat of Flynn, in Barcaldine, which is going to be the centre of two other amalgamated shires, one of them comes from Gladstone—not even a ratepayer in the shire that is proposed to be formed into a supershire. But these are the actions of the Labor Party. If Kevin Rudd, the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Griffith, were a strong leader, he could have ensured that this sort of process would never happen in Australia.
So I say to the new Premier, when she is elected tomorrow: go back to the drawing board. Let democracy prevail in this country. Let us ensure, whatever happens in Queensland in relation to these local government areas, that the local people, the local ratepayers, have a say in the size, the shape and the sustainability of their shires. There is too much at stake to see these council amalgamations that are proposed by the state Labor government forced on com-munities against the will of the people and the agenda taken over by the unions of Queensland.
The other thing I might just conclude on is that there is going to be one net winner if this goes forward. His name is Bill Ludwig. He is the AWU leader in Queensland. He has not said a thing about the job losses that might occur and would occur under the models that have been forced on local governments in Queensland. He is not interested in workers; he is just interested in power. He is interested in union power and imposing that on the good people of Queensland. Let them have their say. This bill would not have been necessary had it not been for the actions of an out-of-touch, arrogant Queensland Labor government. (Time expired)
It is my pleasure to sum up the debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007. I thank the various members who have spoken on this bill, and particularly those members from Queensland directly affected.
On this side of the parliament particularly. I do not think there has been too much defence from Queensland members on the other side of the parliament, or even support—because apparently the Labor Party supports this bill. If anybody thinks for a second that Mr Rudd, if he had been Prime Minister, would have brought forward a bill to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act when Mr Beattie proposed the amalgamations, they have to be joking. There is no way in the world that a federal Labor government would have intervened in the way in which we have intervened. And we have intervened for a very good reason: we want to see democracy stand in this country. But there is no way in the world that a federal Labor government would have bothered at all. After we did intervene, the Labor Party obviously read the polls, or Hawker Britton did some focus groups up there in Queensland and probably said to the Labor Party: ‘You have got a real problem here. This is the biggest issue around in Queensland. If you don’t support this legislation that the Howard government has put forward, you are going to look pretty silly.’ So, after we made the announcement that we would intervene to allow democracy to take place in Queensland, he scurried along and said, ‘Me too, me too.’ He has all these ‘Me too, me too’ policies happening where he thinks it is good politics. So the focus groups said, ‘You have got to support this,’ and so Labor are supposedly supporting it. But they cannot simply support something that the Howard government brings forward; they have to move some sort of amendment. Looking at this amendment, it has two parts. All of a sudden, out of the blue, Labor want a referendum on constitutional recognition for local government. They have been in opposition now for 11½ years. I would have thought that if this were such a driving issue for the Labor Party we would have seen a private member’s bill from them at some stage during those 11½ years.
No, we have not. We have not heard anything said about it. But somewhere else in all of these focus groups something must have been said about, ‘We might win a few brownie points with local government. Here’s a bill; let’s whack in an amend-ment that refers to a referendum on constitutional recognition for local government.’ It is an absolute joke. If Labor were serious about this they would have brought forward a decent policy and they would have brought forward a private member’s bill. There are all sorts of ways in which they could have brought this forward over the past 11½ years. But no, they sneak it in as an amendment to the second reading of a bill that they claim to support. You have got to look a little bit different, so you whack this in as an amendment.
The second part of the opposition’s amendment is ‘to allow communities to express a view on the location of 25 nuclear power plants’—I do not know who and what has decided that there is or will ever be 25 nuclear power plants but all of a sudden they invent 25 nuclear power plants—‘and the nuclear waste facilities that the government wants to impose on the Australian people’. What an insult to the parliament this is because, if that is what you had wanted to do, there is absolutely no need to make any amendment. If at some time in the future somebody decides that there has to be that number of nuclear power plants in Australia and you want to have plebiscites, you can do it under the existing legislation. So it is one of two things: either the member for Fraser, who brought this amendment forward, is totally ignorant of the Electoral Act or it is just a stunt. People can decide which it is.
I would have thought that the member for Fraser would know something about the Electoral Act. In a former life he was a party official, like so many others on the other side. From the role of party official he came into the Senate and then into the House—the usual Labor Party operation. Because of his role in those days as a party official you would think that he would not be ignorant of the Electoral Act because it has not changed a huge amount in that respect since those days. Under section 7A of the Electoral Act, you can do exactly that. You do not need to amend the act to have that sort of vote because section 7A authorises the Australian Electoral Commission to supply goods and services. They can sit down and negotiate with anybody to carry out a vote—any community or any committee. I do not know what these committees are but the Labor Party are pretty good at committees. Most of their announcements leading up to the federal election have all been about creating more committees, so I guess that is where it all came from. So, when they talk of allowing some sort of committee to express a view, any sort of committee can go along to the Australian Electoral Commission right now and organise to have a vote. You do not need an amendment. These amendments are an absolute joke. It is a stunt. I warn people out there, when this bill is passed and the Labor Party put out press releases claiming that the coalition was opposed to plebiscites for communities to decide where at some time in the future there might be a nuclear power plant, to ignore them because it is just a stunt. Under the current Electoral Act all of that can happen. So forget the stunt that will come as a result of tonight’s vote.
That deals with the amendment. I will now sum up the bill. The government firmly believes that it is important for people to have a democratic say in matters that will affect them. This bill will achieve this for all Australians, not just for the people of Queensland. I welcome the support of my fellow members for this important legislation and I welcome the unanimous recommendation by the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration in its report arising from its recent inquiry into this bill—namely, that it should be passed. Getting a unanimous recommendation from a Senate standing committee is no mean feat in itself.
As members are aware, this bill gives effect to the Prime Minister’s announcement on 7 August 2007 to allow the Australian Electoral Commission to undertake any plebiscite on the amalgamation of any local governing body in any part of Australia. This was in response to the Queensland parliament passing a law on 10 August 2007 that would have prevented councillors in that state having any involvement with a plebiscite on local government matters. We welcome the Queensland government’s backdown on its threat to penalise councillors for conducting or taking part in any plebiscites on local government matters. This was in direct response to this government’s sustained pressure to allow Queenslanders to express their views on the amalgamations without penalty. I reiterate this once more: if there were a federal Labor government in place at the moment then there is no way in the world that this legislation would have come forward and therefore you would not have had the Queensland government backing down.
This government did not intend to stand idly by while the Queensland government prevented councillors in that state from having any involvement with a plebiscite on local government matters. This government was and is prepared to have Commonwealth legislation override any draconian laws such as those passed in Queensland. As the Prime Minister has reiterated on a number of occasions, this government is not expressing a view on whether or not an individual amalgamation should occur; rather the Commonwealth believes that the people should have the right to express a view on the actions of the government without the threat of penalty. This bill achieves this outcome. Since 1992 the Australian Electoral Commission has had the ability to enter into arrangements to supply goods and services to a person or body. The Australian Electoral Commission presently conducts elections for trade unions, employer and other organisations, and other foreign countries. This bill does not propose that the Australian Electoral Commission perform different functions; rather what it does is clarify that the use and disclosure of information by the Australian Electoral Commission is authorised for the purpose of conducting an activity such as a plebiscite.
Contrary to some media reports and commentary on this bill, the government is not directing the AEC to undertake any particular plebiscite activity. The AEC retains its independence under this bill. The bill does not contain a power for anyone to direct the AEC to undertake a plebiscite or similar activity. Clarifying that the Australian Electoral Commission has the authority to use and disclose information it holds will ensure that people are able to express their views on proposals that may affect their democratic rights. Because this government is committed to ensuring that people are able to express their views on proposals that may affect their democratic rights, the bill also contains provisions that override state or territory laws if those laws seek to prohibit, penalise or discriminate against anyone entering into or proposing to enter into an arrangement with the Australian Electoral Commission. The timing for any activity such as a plebiscite as part of an arrangement entered into following the passage of this bill will be determined by the Australian Electoral Commission. I commend this bill to the House.
The original question was that this bill be read a second time. To this the honourable member for Fraser has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.
Original question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.