Tuesday, 16 November 2010
Territories Law Reform Bill 2010
Debate resumed from 15 November, on motion by Mr Crean:
That this bill be now read a second time.
in reply—I thank the House for the opportunity to sum up the debate on the Territories Law Reform Bill 2010 and I would like to thank all members for their contributions to the debate. I had the opportunity to visit Norfolk Island 12 months ago whilst returning from a trade meeting. I met the local people, including some of the Norfolk Island administration. With its unique blend of cultural heritage and its beautiful environment, it really is a special place but it does face significant challenges with its small population—just like many regions in Australia—and that is what this bill is about helping to address.
The reforms proposed in this bill are required for the long-term financial sustainability of Norfolk Island, but they are also important to resolve some of the short-term issues that currently beset the island. Successive governments have considered these issues for some time. Since taking on the portfolio, I have had discussions recently with the Norfolk Island Chief Minister, the Hon. David Buffett, and his Minister for Finance, the Hon. Craig Anderson. I discussed the legislation by telephone with them on 1 November and we have been working cooperatively since to address the short-term issues that they face as well as setting the scene for assessing and approaching the long-term issues. Also, in Canberra next week I am meeting with the Chief Minister, where we will discuss face to face the short-term and the long-term issues.
It is positive that the Norfolk Island government have recognised that reform will be needed to ensure their viability over the short and the long term. The Chief Minister made a statement to the Legislative Assembly of Norfolk Island earlier this month in which he supported the reform measures proposed in this legislation. This statement affirms Norfolk Island’s commitment to reform and cements the fact that the bill should be passed in a timely manner without amendment. The majority of Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly members also supported the motion, including all four of its ministers.
Apart from the direct dealings with the government of Norfolk Island, the reforms contained in this bill also represent our commitment to improving the lives of Australian citizens living in regional and remote locations, and obviously those living on Norfolk Island. Accepting the Territories Law Reform Bill 2010 is an essential step forward in improving accountability and public confidence in the Norfolk Island government, and introducing a financial framework which will increase community confidence in the Norfolk Island government’s management of public money and the long-term sustainability of their economy. The bill does not seek to remove responsibility from the Norfolk Island government, which the shadow minister for territories has indicated is one of his concerns because it was raised previously by the Norfolk Island government. Rather it will increase their responsibility in the areas of governance reform and introduce a contemporary financial framework and administrative law requirements.
These provisions will extend those entitlements that apply here on the mainland to residents living on Norfolk Island. Australian citizens resident on Norfolk Island are entitled to the same level of accountability and transparency from their government that other citizens receive from their state and territory government. The shadow minister’s amendments, however, offer Australian citizens on Norfolk Island less transparency and less accountability, and will not increase public confidence in their administration. Further to this, the Norfolk Island administration has previously said it would legislate for these administrative law reforms but has continuously failed to do so. These reforms will not only give Norfolk Islanders a better understanding of the operation of their government but also improve the ability of Norfolk Islanders to participate in decision making concerning their future.
The need for Norfolk Island governance reform has been stated in numerous parliamentary reports and recommendations. The Australian parliament and the Norfolk Island government have long been aware of the need for the reforms contained in this bill. The reforms were announced by the Australian government in May 2009 and implement a number of recommendations from the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories 2003 report entitled Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?: inquiry into governance on Norfolk Island.
Thank you. I did study law. The report recommended a wide range of reforms, many of which have been adapted and incorporated into the reforms package implemented by this bill, including reforms to the Norfolk Island electoral system; incorporation of the designations of Chief Minister and ministers and additional powers of dismissal; adoption of a comprehensive financial framework, including auditing and reporting requirements; and the extension to Norfolk Island of the benefits of a comprehensive system of administrative law commensurate to that available to other Australians.
I would also like to address some of the issues raised by members opposite. The member for Stirling and the member for Cowan have argued that the approach taken in the administrative law reforms to extend Commonwealth administrative laws to Norfolk Island is too complex and that the Norfolk Island government lacks the capacity to implement such reforms. These concerns, however, are not shared by the Norfolk Island government. As mentioned earlier, the Norfolk Island government recognises the importance of these reforms and supports the passage of the bill through the parliament without amendments. I do not intend to address the previous issues raised by the Norfolk Island government, as outlined by the member for Stirling, as I have discussed this bill with the Norfolk Island Chief Minister and all outstanding concerns have been resolved. I understand the Norfolk Island government has explained this, in fact, to the member for Stirling and I do not see any point on reviving the old issues nor, quite frankly, do I understand why he is persisting with the amendment.
Much has been made of the different approach which has been taken in relation to the reforms associated with the Ombudsman. I agree that these reforms are a positive example of what can be achieved through cooperation between the Commonwealth and Norfolk Island. However, the approach taken to those reforms associated with the Ombudsman should be distinguished from the remaining administrative reforms for a number of key reasons. Firstly, there was existing precedent for this approach, as the Commonwealth Ombudsman already undertakes the role of the ACT ombudsman under the ACT legislation; and, secondly, the Norfolk Island government introduced ombudsman legislation into the Legislative Assembly in 2009.
The need for administrative law reform on Norfolk Island has been the subject of numerous reports, as I have mentioned, going back to 1991. However, to date the Norfolk Island government has failed to initiate any Norfolk Island legislation in the area of FOI or privacy. The approach taken in relation to administrative law mechanisms, including privacy and freedom of information, was in fact endorsed by the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories, who completed an inquiry into the bill earlier this year. The suggestion has been made during this debate that the committee recommended freedom of information and privacy legislation be in Norfolk Island law. This is not the case. The committee agreed that the extension of Commonwealth legislation was an effective and appropriate way of implementing high standards of administrative law.
The approach taken in this bill is specifically designed to take into account the ongoing concerns raised by the Norfolk Island government about resourcing and capacity constraints on the island. The existing Commonwealth legislation is adaptable to Norfolk Island and is currently applied across Commonwealth agencies of varying sizes, including those equivalent in size to the Norfolk Island administration. The extension of Commonwealth administrative law mechanisms will enable the Norfolk Island government and community to access the Commonwealth’s expert knowledge, experience and resources. Funding has already been allocated to Commonwealth agencies to assist with the implementation of these reforms on Norfolk Island. The assistance of these Commonwealth agencies will relieve the perceived additional burden on the Norfolk Island administration. The bill will ensure that the standards of administrative law enjoyed by Australians on the mainland are extended to Norfolk Islanders.
As mentioned earlier, the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories has completed an inquiry. It tabled its report on 11 May. The committee supports the general provisions of the bill and recommends that it be passed by the Senate. The committee made four other recommendations. Firstly, it recommends the continuation of consultation with Norfolk Island in the development of regulations to support the bill. This process is already being undertaken through working groups established for that purpose. Secondly, it recommended that the Commonwealth minimise delays in the scrutiny of Norfolk Island legislation as part of the assent process and that a review be undertaken of items in schedules 2 and 3 of the Norfolk Island Act. The government accepts these recommendations.
The final recommendation of the committee is that the amendments relating to elections be removed from the bill and reintroduced in 2011 following consultation with the Norfolk Island government and community. Changes to Norfolk Island’s electoral system have been recommended in a number of previous reports on Norfolk Island, including by the joint standing committee, and whilst Norfolk Island has a degree of self-government it is also part of Australia and the Australian parliament retains ultimate responsibility for territory electoral matters. The proposed amendments simply recognise Commonwealth responsibility.
Under the commencement provisions of the Territories Law Reform Bill 2010, any electoral regulations will only take effect from the first meeting of the Legislative Assembly following the first general election after the bill receives royal assent, which is anticipated to be sometime in 2013. In other words, the first election to be conducted under any new electoral voting system is expected not to occur until 2016.
The other legislative amendments relating to elections, in part 2 of the bill, provide for a minimum term of three years and a maximum term of four years for the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly and enable the Norfolk Island government to make arrangements with the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct general elections or to fill casual vacancies. Consultations undertaken by the Attorney-General’s Department in addition to submissions received by the committee inquiry indicate a level of support from both the Norfolk Island government and the community to these legislative changes. The Australian government acknowledges the concerns raised by the committee in formulating this recommendation. I believe that these concerns can be addressed through retaining the provisions in the bill.
To address the committee’s concerns I agree with the approach taken by the Minister for Home Affairs, the Hon. Brendan O’Connor, as the minister who was previously responsible for territories. I will undertake not to introduce electoral regulations until after July 2011. This timing will enable consultation with the Norfolk Island government and community and consideration of appropriate voting systems for Norfolk Island. I intend to present to the committee the draft electoral regulations for their review and comment. This will introduce an additional measure of scrutiny to the regulations.
The Norfolk Island reforms included in this bill are an important step in ensuring high levels of transparency and accountability in Norfolk Island governance and financial frameworks and in administrative decision making. The bill allows the Australian government to assist the Norfolk Island government and community to create an equitable and sustainable future. These reforms represent the government’s ongoing commitment and I commend the bill to the House. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.