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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories - 09/04/2015 - Governance in the Indian Ocean Territories

THOMSON, Mr Gordon Sinclair, President, Shire of Christmas Island

MATTHEWS, Mr Kelvin, Chief Executive Officer, Shire of Christmas Island


CHAIR: Welcome. You have 10 minutes in which to address the four key points of our terms of reference and then the committee will have five minutes in which to ask questions.

Mr Thomson : Thanks. I am president of the Shire of Christmas Island and also the general secretary of the Union of Christmas Island Workers. Both the union and the shire have made submissions to this committee over many years, and we are very pleased to see you here. To put your minds at rest, I am responsible for the banner 'the cooked duck flies away'. I found it a very attractive Chinese proverb, and I want to assure the committee members that we do welcome the joint standing committee here. The committee has served our community's interests on many, many occasions, and we welcome you. We are very happy to see you here. The committee's hearings on the island over the years have provided us with a most important opportunity to express our views about how we are governed, about the laws which we are governed by and about the services provided by the government. We thank you for your continuing interest in our community and for the efforts of the committee to effect positive changes in the administration and governance of the territory for the benefit of our community. We value your role very, very much. It is a rare opportunity for us to be heard by government.

We acknowledge, though, that the effect of the work of the committee is limited to the making of recommendations that do not bind the Commonwealth government or determine how it deals with our community. We understand that your recommendations are not determinative of government action. If only the Commonwealth government had implemented the recommendations of your committee's last governance inquiry we would not be here today answering the same questions about governance, about consultative mechanisms, about local government's role in our communities and about our economy. We would have a significantly different Christmas Island. We would have had a referendum on self-government, for instance.

As you were driving around the town today you might have noticed two banners bearing the words 'the cooked duck flies away'. It is in the three languages of our community—English, Mandarin and Malay. The relevance of this Chinese expression to our considerations today is this: the expression literally means that something that was obtainable has been taken away from you. We say the cooked duck was your report of 2006, which we loved. It presented us with a perfectly cooked, plump serving of democracy, which is what we wanted. 'The cooked duck flies away' is a reference to the government response to the very supportive recommendations of the JSC. We got nothing from the last inquiry. It is a humiliation for us, not for you. It is a humiliation for the cooked duck to fly from one's plate, because everyone knows a cooked duck cannot fly. The humiliation is: how did you manage to lose your cooked duck?

Our concern is that this inquiry, along with the last one, might not be able to deliver the cooked duck back on our plate. We hope, working together with you, that that will happen. If you feel offended by that banner, I hope you do not feel offended anymore. That was a poetic expression of how we feel about the past, our respect, absolutely, for the work of the joint standing committee, the access that the joint standing committee gives us to government decisions. It is a powerful committee because it is comprised of members of parliament, and we hope that you have your influence far more than you have in the past with respect to governance.

I want to present to you today. The theme of our presentation—I will present it on a memory stick tomorrow. Is that okay? I do not want you to have to carry away all the paper. We will keep it easy. What you have in front of you is the town planning scheme. I think you might be interested in that. We will provide that electronically. What I want to refer to immediately is the process we go through: that is the shire submission to the 2005 inquiry, that is your report in May 2006, and that thin document is the response of government to your report. It is very thin. It is easy to say 'no'—and that is what has happened. The shire will make a formal written submission—a detailed submission. What I hope to be able to say to you today, if we have time, is this: we request the committee admit certain recommendations contained in the committee's 2006 inquiry report as a starting point for your discussion. They are taken from the May 2006 report titled Current and future governance arrangements for the Indian Ocean Territories.

The first recommendation relates to the economy—that is, that the casino licence should be reissued. That question of banning a casino licence on Christmas Island is crippling. It was a bad decision in the 2004. It is a bad decision to be maintained now. Recommendation 4 of that report recommends the 'government conduct an investigation into the cost of sea freight…'. This relates to the expense of doing business and doing anything on Christmas Island. Recommendation 5 of the 2006 report is:

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government rescind customs and quarantine charges, where they exist, on freight travelling between the Indian Ocean Territories and the Australian mainland.

Recommendation 8 relates to the applied WA law regime:

The Committee recommends that, as a matter of priority, the Australian Government allocate sufficient resources to implement a program for reviewing all Western Australian legislation currently applied as Commonwealth law in the Indian Ocean Territories, with a view to repealing, or amending, all legislation which cannot be practically applied in the Territories.

Recommendation 9:

The Committee recommends that, following a review of existing applied Western Australian legislation, the Australian Government allocate sufficient resources for the ongoing monitoring of new, amended, or proposed Western Australian laws which apply, or will apply, in the Indian Ocean Territories as Commonwealth law.

Recommendation 10:

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government cease its policy of market-testing and outsourcing to third parties services which it currently provides to the Indian Ocean Territories, with a view to promoting the development of community capacity within a framework of enhanced local/regional government.

My friends from the women's association have elaborated their views on that point.

Recommendation 11:

The Committee recommends that Section 8 of both the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Act 1955 and the Christmas Island Act 1958 be amended to include a framework for consultation with the Indian Ocean Territories communities in relation to service delivery arrangements with the State of Western Australia, and in the review of Western Australian legislation which is applied in the territories as Commonwealth law.

Recommendation 12:

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government alter the governance arrangements of the Indian Ocean Territories to provide the Shire of Christmas Island and the Shire of Cocos (Keeling) Islands with an expanded role. The shires should have:

direct representation of the communities with the Minister for Territories; and

a formal advisory capacity with regard to applied laws and service delivery arrangements.

Moreover, the shires should be:

fully funded on the basis of an agreed service delivery framework;

given adequate title to all assets required to carry out their functions; and

able to jointly enter into a regional local government type cooperation agreement.

Recommendation 13 of your committee says:

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government undertake to develop options for future governance for the Indian Ocean Territories in conjunction with the communities on Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, with a view to, where practical, submitting options to a referendum of those communities by the end of June 2009.

Our submission is that it should be by 1 October 2018. Further, it says:

Possible options could include but should not be limited to:

maintaining current governance arrangements with some refinement;

incorporation into the State of Western Australia; and

a form of limited self government.

Those are the recommendations of the committee arising from the last inquiry. We ask that they be recommitted. As we said, we will be making a formal, detailed written submission, and that is a little bit long for today's session.

CHAIR: As you have clearly said, committees make recommendations and government determine how that is to occur and whether they are going to accept those recommendations. As you would also be aware, our last report was about Norfolk Island and the government accepted a lot of those recommendations. In fact, the government elected all of those recommendations. We are very pleased that we have had some success with our inquiries and recommendations so far. Regarding SDAs, we have moved on Cocos about that, and the shire over there has suggested that they would be in a position to deliver on some of those. That is something I would like to explore. What state government functions have you undertaken or are you allowed to undertake? What successes have you had there?

Mr Thomson : There is an issue at the moment about the maintenance of roads which would be maintained in a state—say, the state of Western Australia by the main roads department. The state government would have responsibility for the maintenance of those roads.

CHAIR: Are you saying that there are gazetted main roads here?

Mr Thomson : All of the roads on the island are maintained by the shire. So, yes, if you want to go to the detail of all of the roads, we can provide the map which shows which is which.

CHAIR: No—is there a gazetted main road here?

Mr Thomson : I am addressing the issue of the services. The question was: what services do we deliver? The one that is pertinent at this moment, because of the row about funding, is that the shire maintains all of the roads. A portion of the FAG, which all city and shire councils get, is applied to the town roads, if you like, but other roads are paid for by the state government. We have been recently advised that the money that would normally be allocated to us for the maintenance of the state type roads has to come out of our FAG. We think there is a big mistake and that the minister has been poorly advised—I am sure of that—and that the advice that he has been given, that FAG money should be used to maintain state type functions, is wrong. In the past, the Commonwealth has provided the shire with the funding for the maintenance of those roads, but this year it has not. We say that that is probably because the people advising the minister are poorly informed and do not understand what they have told the minister to do. But he has told us that—to spend our money on state type roads. Given that we have received money from the Commonwealth in the past for the maintenance of those roads, it is a bit hard to understand how they could get that wrong. That is an issue that we have elaborated on in our submission for today, but I have not been able to deliver.

The amount is $660,000 and the CEO is presently engaged in some discussion with the department to deal with that issue, but it is by no means certain that they will reinstate the funding that should not have been taken away. We do provide services; they are funded by the Commonwealth ordinarily, but with this one there is a failure this time. That goes to the issue of who should be making decisions, and that is detailed in my response to the questions. Against the terms of reference that you are addressing, or asking us to address, I have detailed some points about that, but I cannot deliver that now for lack of time.

Senator BACK: Based on my knowledge of Western Australian mainland shires, I think you are probably right, as a matter of fact. I will be interested to pursue that a bit further. Since I have not been here before, I wonder if you would help us. How many ratepayers are there in the shire? What is your funding base and what proportion are ratepayers?

Mr Matthews : I am happy to answer that. There are approximately 650 ratepayers, residential and commercial. There is approximately $1.1 million revenue generated from rates, commercial and residential and in-kind, with the situation with the Commonwealth on the island, out of our operating budget this year of around $12 million.

Senator BACK: So your overall revenue budget is about $12 million.

Mr Matthews : Yes.

Senator BACK: How many people are eligible to vote in your local government elections?

Mr Matthews : The consolidated roll at the last election, in 2013, was 1,012.

Senator BACK: What proportion do vote? It is not compulsory for local government, is it?

Mr Matthews : Sixty four per cent at the last election.

Senator BACK: Are they eligible to vote by post as they are on the mainland?

Mr Matthews : Correct. It is in-person voting, so it is not postal, but they do postal votes if they elect to do so, early votes and, of course, on the day.

Senator BACK: So they can postal vote and pre-poll.

Mr Matthews : Yes.

Senator BACK: And the WA Electoral Commission provides a location for pre-polling?

Mr Matthews : We do.

Senator BACK: Where do people come to?

Mr Thomson : In Perth, the department of local government.

Mr Matthews : Yes, the department of local government, not the Electoral Commission.

Senator BACK: So the department of local government run the elections?

Mr Matthews : No, we run them under the Local Government Act as in-person elections, but the department of local government will allow for postal votes or absentees through their process, either through local government offices in WA or to the department offices in Perth.

Senator BACK: So the postals would go to Perth?

Mr Matthews : No, the postals come to me as the returning officer. When people request to make a vote by post, that gets sent out, it comes to me as the returning officer and it goes in the box. When people do absentee votes, they are with the department of local government in Perth.

Mrs Griggs interjecting

Mr Matthews : As returning officers, the early vote is with the shire and is at the shire offices until the day before the poll.

Senator BACK: It would be interesting to compare with mainland shires what proportions are postal, early votes and votes on the day. If you could provide that to us on notice, I would be appreciative.

Mr Matthews : I can. That was for the 2013 election result?

Senator BACK: Yes.

Mr Matthews : The consolidated roll is a combination of the owners and occupiers roll of residents on the island and the Lingiari roll. Obviously, we do not have the state roll to—

Senator BACK: Tell me again: what proportion of people generally turn out to your local government elections?

Mr Matthews : It was about 64 per cent.

Senator BACK: That is a bit higher than you would expect on the—

Mr Thomson : It is lower than usual. Sometimes it is 70 or—

Mr Matthews : In 2011, which was the previous ordinary, it was 68 per cent.. We had a by-election in 2012, so I cannot—

Senator BACK: Who is eligible? Anybody who is resident on Christmas Island at the time? Do they have to be registered to vote on Christmas Island or in Lingiari?

Mr Matthews : They have to be registered on the owners and occupiers roll, which is exactly what it is: owners and occupiers. Without taking too much of your time, in 2010 and 2011 there was an exhaustive process undertaken on the transitional provisions of the Local Government Act that apply to allow people of permanent residency on Christmas Island to be enrolled on the owners and occupiers roll. That subsequently got consolidated with the Lingiari federal roll.

Senator BACK: There were questions asked and comments made yesterday at Cocos island about the fact that the Indian Ocean islands are administered by the Western Australian government and, yet, all of you on the islands when it comes to federal voting particularly are in a Northern Territory electorate. Is that something that is ever raised on Christmas Island? Geographically you are closer to the electorate of Durack, so why wouldn't you be in a federal electorate in Western Australia rather than a federal electorate in the Northern Territory?

Mr Thomson : I think that is a constitutional issue. The states do not have to absorb any territory into their borders but the Northern Territory is a territory and does not have the status of a state. The legal/constitutional issue is: where do you get representation? The only way they could slot us into any federal electorate was to put us in the Northern Territory.

Senator BACK: So which senators represent you?

Mr Thomson : Firstly we are not part of WA at all. It is a mistake to think that the people of Cocos are part of WA; it is a mistake to think that they are administered by any department in WA. The arrangement is between the Commonwealth government and the state government to provide services through the service delivery arrangements. It is not the department delivering on behalf of the WA government; it is the department in Perth delivering on behalf of the Commonwealth government as if the department were acting for the Commonwealth. The public servants that might provide services on Christmas or Cocos, who are employees of the state government of WA, are doing it under contract on behalf of the minister for territories.

Mr VASTA: Would you try to model the casino on the Macau system so that only locals are employed? Is that what you are looking for? Do you want the casino to have multiple licences or just one?

Mr Thomson : When the casino was operating, from 1993 until it closed in 1998, about two-thirds of employees were local employees and about one-third were from the mainland. They probably would have employed all their staff from Christmas Island if they could have done so, but people had to be brought to the island. The anticipation of the end of phosphate mining was the driver for the whole community to get the casino happening. People expected at that time that the mining would not last much longer. There had to be an alternative engine for the economy for employment for the people, so the expectation was yes. What authority did we have to decide what the resort did in terms of employment? We have no such authority.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your time. We look forward to receiving your written submission as well. Hopefully we will have a bit more time later.