Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Constitutional Recognition of Local Government Committee; Reporting Date
The President has received a message from the House of Representatives informing the Senate of a resolution agreed to by the House extending the time for the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government to present its final report:
That paragraph (13) of the resolution of appointment of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government be amended to read: "the Committee may report from time to time but that it present a preliminary report no later than December 2012 if possible, and a final report no later than March 2013"
I seek leave to make a short statement.
On the issue of the constitutional recognition of local government I think it is very important that we clearly understand that this referendum is vitally important but it does not have a leg to stand on unless Minister Crean starts taking the issue seriously. This issue has to be pursued. We have this faux approval of it at the moment. There is the statement, 'We believe in financial recognition of local government but we are not actually going to put our shoulder to the wheel to make sure that this thing actually happens.'
If we want to be successful in a referendum then there has to be a process and a campaign that has to start now. We honestly do not know when the election will be. We hear that, at the latest, it will be on 14 September but, to be honest, with all of the ructions around here at the moment it could be much earlier than that. There is no point in putting up this issue for a referendum if it is going to get knocked out, and it is going to get knocked out if you do not have the support of the states. From what I have seen of Minister Crean, he is not doing a valiant job of getting around the states to collect support.
I think it is vitally important, in that we know that local governments want this to happen. But even they have started stepping away from it now, saying that they do not believe that this would be successful in the current environment. If they do not believe it is going to be successful, and they are the peak body representing the constituency that you would think would be desirous of financial recognition of local government, then we have a major issue on our hands. I think about eight out of 44 referendums have ever got up, so the homework has to be done diligently.
I know that there is substantial pushback from a number of states. The role of government is that if they have the ministry, they get paid the big dollars to get out and start talking to these people to allay their fears. It is vitally important that we first make the statement that local governments will remain a vessel of the state, that the states can get rid of them. They can make them bigger and they can make them smaller—they can do what they want; they will never be a vessel of the Commonwealth.
But we have had programs in the past, such as Roads to Recovery, which sends money directly to local governments, and these have been placed under question by such actions as the Pape case, which brought a question mark over them, and then the Williams case, which did vastly more than put a question mark over them. It almost explicitly said that these sorts of payments were not legitimate. There are $8.4 billion over forward estimates allocated to local government by grants, predominantly financial assistance grants for the states, for those who are listening to this. We have a dilemma: is the Commonwealth going to be involved with local governments or not?
If we are going to be involved with them then we have to legitimise that involvement. We cannot live in this twilight zone. If we are not going to be involved with them, if they are genuinely going to be an article of just the states, then the question is of course: what is the purpose of a portfolio that calls into question why you should be engaged in that area? I feel this issue is just stumbling along. It is only an erstwhile conviction that Minister Crean has to get the referendum to succeed, and an erstwhile commitment will most definitely be a failure.
If the referendum were to fail it would be off the agenda for a very long period of time. It would definitely see me out of parliament. So, first and foremost, I say to Minister Crean: if you are fair dinkum about this, get on your bike and start doing some serious work. My call to local governments is: do not think this one is in the bag by a long shot, and you had better start doing some hard peddling yourself. For goodness sake, do not peddle to the areas where people already support you; mount the argument and mount your case in the most articulate way to those who have concerns about this referendum. Neither of those issues has been done with much strength. We see continual lobbying of the people who are already on side but we see a hesitancy for local government and from Minister Crean to actively engage with those who are not onside. The art of politics is to get those who are not on side on side.
They run the agenda called COAG; they are the government. What I am very concerned about at this stage is that we are sleepwalking to a failure, and the failure when it comes will not just be a failure for this term; it will be a failure because it will be yet another item that will just fall off the agenda and we will never see it again in this term or the next term of government; it will just be gone.
So I put this as a salutary warning that this issue has just the sort of resonance we saw there: in the dead of night, quiet; here it is; 'we have to tick a box for Mr Windsor that we are discussing the recognition of local government' and that is about as far as it goes. Mr Windsor knows that he can have two views: one is that the Greens-Labor Party-Independents alliance will win the next election, and he is justified to fight for that and believe in that. But the reality is, if you look at currently polling that is probably not going to happen. If he wants to drive this agenda—and I think in this instance he is genuine and genuinely wants to see this thing move forward—then he had better jump on his bike too and start pedalling because he is part of the government; they rely on his number. He had better really start banging on the drum to see this agenda pursued as well.
Question agreed to.