Monday, 24 June 2013
Constitution Alteration (Local Government) 2013; Second Reading
I rise today to make a contribution to the Constitution Alteration (Local Government) 2013. I visited home, as we all do here from time to time, at the weekend. It was just a quick visit. My constituents had, as they always do, a whole range of questions. There were lots of questions about marine protected areas, there was some stuff about turtles in nets and there was lots of stuff about the economy—I tried not to frighten the children with my answers in that regard!—but, surprisingly, nobody asked me, 'What's going on with the change to our founding document in regard to local government?' Not a soul asked me a single question about the local government changes. That is a pretty sad indictment, given that we are now proposing to put to the Australian people an alteration that makes clear the role that local government can play and makes a whole range of clarifications around financial payments. For the benefit of not only Territorians but whoever else is listening, I thought I would put on record a couple of things—the chunky bits, anyway.
The coalition has previously expressed support, certainly in principle, for the financial recognition of local government. Along came two High Court cases—in the past, this was not an issue—that put doubt over the Commonwealth's ability to make direct payments to local government. The Pape case was the first one. I think a lot of people were looking forward to the answers from that. But, sadly, it appeared to provide more questions than it did answers. Certainly the Williams case that followed that put a lot of doubt over the convention that the Commonwealth could make, as it had been making, direct payments for a whole raft of issues.
It is important to reflect on some of the payments, programs and measures that may also be put into question. It is not only about the dollars. People on the streets and in the pubs are not really all that interested in the highfalutin processes of constitutional change, but they are concerned about what may not be available in the future. Local governments are paid around $500 million a year through a number of programs. Of course, one of the iconic programs is the Roads to Recovery program. It is a program that I think has got really good bang for the buck. One of the reasons it has got good bang for the buck is that nobody gives it a touch-up on the way through; it goes straight to local government, and local government then actually spend it on roads. The more people in the camp, obviously, the less efficient the process becomes. The shadow minister responsible for local governments and bridges, Barnaby Joyce, has oft lectured us on the 30,000 bridges that need repairing. He is reluctant to give it to an overseas contractor, who might give it to another state, who might give it to the local government, who then might give it to another contractor—ending up with an alliance, and maybe only two bridges fixed. I share his concerns in that regard.
These are very serious matters in terms of the sorts of programs that are delivered by local government. Over the past five years we have delivered more than 6,000 projects, and each one of those has been funded through a direct payment. We do not have time to go into the number of those, but I have not heard a lot of complaints about how local government has built a giraffe instead of a rhino, so one would assume that these were not only important programs but programs that were efficiently delivered.
It is probably worth looking at why these two cases have raised some doubt. Professor Anne Twomey submitted to the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government:
Is this direct funding at risk of being held constitutionally invalid? Yes, much of it, in my view, is vulnerable to a constitutional challenge … Some might well be supported by a Commonwealth head of legislative power, but much of it, including the Roads to Recovery program, is probably not so supported and therefore invalid.
Many people in this place would know I am stretching my limits a bit in talking about constitutional law—I can hardly spell it!—but, in seeing this, I can understand that, if Roads to Recovery and similar programs, like bridges to recovery and the 6,000 other programs delivered through local government, are all at risk then this is a very important matter for Australians. We are not actually here to debate the benefits—I am not, anyway. I know that Territorians are well grounded individuals; they will get their heads around this eventually. Or, maybe they will not, and this is the point—they will be able to make their minds up in the process of the next election on making a constitutional amendment.
But there are a couple of issues with the process. People in local government have very long faces. They wear a big badge that says 'yes' and it has this sad, non-smiley face on it. I understand, from talking to them quietly, that they are not all that hopeful of this getting up. And this is the third time around. I think most Australians would see that, if you are trying to make a constitutional change, the third time is pretty significant—it will be three strikes and you are out. Sadly, I think the representatives of local government have been duped by this government into allowing them to run a constitutional amendment with what I would consider to be relatively short notice.
What do people think about this? What are their views? There was a poll conducted by the Australian Local Government Association that found that 61 per cent of Australians support recognising local government, and that includes a majority of support in every state. With all polls, you have to be a bit cautious. I am not sure about the question. If you asked the question, 'What do you think about—' they would say, 'I haven't got a clue.' Most of my mates would; they would say they had 'not a clue'. But if the question had been: 'Do you think it is okay to directly fund local government and do you think it is important?' then, quite rightly, some 61 per cent would have said that that was all right. In rural and regional Australia they demonstrated substantially higher support than in urban areas. These results are more broadly supported by recent Nielsen polling, which found that 61 per cent of Australians support recognising local government in the Constitution, including strong majorities in every state.
At some stage, I would expect the government to seek advice. That is what we do in these matters and this is a very important matter of constitutional amendment. The government in its wisdom—and quite properly—said: 'Let's form an expert panel. They can take evidence from other experts about, first of all, the consequences of this, what the issues are and provide the government with some advice about how we can go about that.' The most recent consideration of a constitutional change is in much the same way—recognition of our first Australians in the Constitution.
For that process we also have an expert panel. It has made some recommendations and we are moving along within the framework of those recommendations, as one would—across the board there has been recognition that the reason you ask experts to provide information is to pay some sort of attention to that information and act upon it. The majority of panel members support a referendum in 2013 subject to two conditions. They got that right—it is 2013. We are going to have a constitutional amendment to reflect the financing of local government. They have not gone too far off it. But it is all in the fine print. There are only two conditions, so they are probably significant. The first is:
… that the Commonwealth negotiate with the States to achieve their support for the financial recognition option.
That is pretty clear. I am not sure in government how that is going but, the way I have heard it, all states except for South Australia and Tasmania have said a resounding, 'No, we are not interested at all.' As for the other two states—I do not want to verbal anyone—they have not come out and said, 'Yes,' so they are still to vote on it. I will repeat that first recommendation:
… that the Commonwealth negotiate with the States to achieve their support for the financial recognition option.
That clearly has not been achieved. In fact, in evidence to the joint committee, the department could not even give specific evidence of meetings with local government ministers—and you wonder why they get their noses out of joint. You wonder why the states and territories are saying, 'This is all last minute. You haven't even spoken to us.' No wonder it's all, once again, pouring porridge on your own parade. Everything they touch is the porridge touch. The second condition is:
… that the Commonwealth adopt steps suggested by ALGA necessary to achieve informed and positive public engagement with the issue, as set out in the section of this report on the concerns about a failed referendum.
I can speak with some authority on this, having read the expert report on the recognition of our first Australians. It says, very importantly, that if people are not educated in this process, if people do not understand exactly what they are voting for, they will say no. We know that is the history. It is a very significant history in Australia, where that is exactly the way people behave.
Some 44 referenda have been put to the people of Australia. Only eight have passed, so we are up against it anyway. A specific recommendation, 'Adopt steps necessary to achieve informed, positive public engagement,' is ignored. I do not know about 'informed' or 'positive' but I can certainly say that of my short sojourn to the Territory on the weekend. No one has spoken to me about it. Media hounded me about a whole bunch of stuff they normally hound us about, and that is terrific, but no-one asked me about that. So clearly there has been no engagement whatsoever to date.
We have an election looming, so I am not really sure what we are going to do about that. But in terms of the first two ticks that the panel members recommended, there just seems to be crosses in both boxes—not going to work; not going to work. Those people in local government would be, I suppose, pretty appalled at the circumstances we have now. They have very long faces because they believe in their heart of hearts that, the way it is going, it is not going to get up, despite the importance of it to so many people.
We had a bit of an announcement the other day, on 17 June. Better late than never. 'Better engage the people—let's get out there!' 'How are we going to do that?' 'I don't know. How Labor do everything—spend some money!' 'How much? Albo—come on mate!' 'Come on, Swanny,' says Albo, 'give us a few Oxfords.' '$10 million. That's a lot of money. Gee, that's great. That'll impress local government. All right, there you are.' Someone says, 'Hey, Albo, mate, we're supposed to be funding both sides. It doesn't matter how passionate you are about one thing or another, we've gotta fund both sides, mate.' 'Oh, righto. We'll give them $500,000. No-one will really notice. No-one will notice a bit of an inequity. No-one will see, right from the starting point, from the get-go, you're really getting this wrong.' But sadly, they did. Everyone has noticed.
Nobody can really understand that level of inequity. If you think about it, there are a few precedents in recent history. We all know that John Howard was a pretty keen monarchist. He had an opportunity to say, 'Well, we just won't fund the ones we don't like—that's a big step in democracy.' But that is not what he did. There were 7½ million for the yes vote and 7½ million for the no vote—a democratic process. Sadly, and it beggars belief, that does not seem to be what they are about.
The Australian Electoral Commission went on to tell the expert panel that rushing it would actually jeopardise the AEC preparations. As to the AEC: God bless their socks! I have spent a lot of time with the AEC, because remote polling is a very complex matter, and they are absolutely passionate about making sure everyone gets the chance to exercise their democratic right to vote, in whatever way it happens. So the AEC have provided the advice to government and to parliament that rushing this is going to jeopardise the AEC preparations. They are an independent body, they have looked at the matter and they have warned that we are going about it the wrong way. I have to say that I have been striking around, looking carefully for the government's response to that—it would obviously make a response to an AEC recommendation that the government is rushing—but thus far I have seen nought.
Whilst I have indicated that I certainly support the principle of the recognition of local government, the problem with this is the manner in which it has gone forward. I ask myself: why is it that Labor have gone down this road again? It is quite simple. We knew what we had to do and we knew that starting the process now would really lead to complete failure. If you cared about local government, why would you do this? What was the government's motivation for this? Everything goes to motive—in this place, we should always consider motive. In my view, this campaign is a weapon of mass distraction. They do not want to go into an election thinking that it is simply a referendum, as it should be, on whether the Gillard government should remain on the Treasury bench and continue to destroy any confidence and credibility in this great nation. That is what we should have. I am not sure who had the brilliant idea on the other side, but, quite clearly, if you look at motivation, Labor have again put their interests ahead of the interests of the nation. Labor believe this is a mass distraction. They think this is going to help them out in the election—forget about what local government wants. We know it will be a 'No' vote because we have not given enough time for the process or educated the people. We know it is going to be a 'No' vote due to all of the recommendations given by the expert panel. But the strategists in the Labor Party are very good at putting Labor first. Somebody needs to kick them in the ribs every now and again and say, 'Listen, you're actually here looking after our national interest.' There is a sign that has hung over many workplaces: 'Do it once, do it well'—Mr Acting Deputy President Fawcett, I know you would have seen a few of those in your workplaces over the years.
This issue, as I have said, has been tested by a referendum on two occasions and the answer on the other occasions was a resounding 'No'. The circumstances then were probably not as compelling as now. Particularly given the great work that local councils have done with regard to Roads to Recovery and so many other programs, the occasions that the other referenda were held on this matter were probably not as acute and there was not that body of corporate knowledge or, therefore, the confidence behind them.
If we want to do this, we have to take the time to get it right. I think that this is absolutely going to fail—you could bet London to a brick on it. They have not got it right. They have not met the basic fundamentals. We know that, in a referendum, if you are going to get it right, people need to know exactly what is going on. They need to know exactly what the proposal is. They need to know what the change to the Constitution will really mean. They need to be really confident about that before they will change our founding document. The government have ignored good expert advice, such as the fundamental requirement: get the states onside. The states are not anywhere near being onside. The states have said quite categorically that they are not doing it. Yet, knowing that this will fail, the government still say, 'We're going to stick with it.' They are going to stick with it because they are motivated by self-interest, not the national interest, again. So it does not matter if you question the motivation around why it is being done now.
It is such a mystery to me. So often do I think, 'How many things can you stuff up?' But they do it time and time again. That is what happens when you put the interests of your own party ahead of the national interest. There is only one referendum, and there should only be one referendum, at this next election, and that is the referendum on whether we need to get rid of the single worst government in Australia's history.