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Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Page: 2083

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (18:36): I rise tonight to speak on the preliminary report on the majority finding of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government: the proposal, timing and likely success of a referendum to amend Section 96 of the Australian Constitution to effect financial recognition of local government. This is a very important debate. The committee was headed by the member for Greenway.

I note the presence in the chamber of the member for Makin who has been a fine mayor of the City of Salisbury in South Australia. I know that some of the members on this particular committee have had local government experience, including the member for Parkes, Mark Coulton, who was a previous mayor of Gwydir shire, as well as the member for Ryan, Jane Prentice, who was a councillor on the Brisbane City Council. They are two of five members of the committee who have put in a dissenting report, the others being the member for Swan, Steve Irons, and Senators David Fawcett and David Bushby.

The first recommendation of the preliminary report says:

The Committee recommends that a referendum on financial recognition of local government be held in 2013.

It further states that:

Given the importance of securing state and territory support, the Committee further recommends that in addition to the efforts of the local government sector, Commonwealth Government Ministers, particularly the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government, the Attorney-General and the Special Minister for State, immediately commence negotiations with state and territory governments to secure their support for the referendum proposal.

I know this report came out in January 2013 and the Prime Minister has set the date for the next federal election as 14 September this year. Now that it is already 13 March one has to wonder whether in fact there will be time to secure those important yes votes to ensure that this gains the necessary majority to become a change to the Constitution. In Australian history there have been some 44 referenda and only eight of these have met the requirements of a double majority and passed. The first was in 1906 and the last, interestingly enough, was to do with the retirement of judges which was passed on 21 May 1977, providing for a retirement age of 70 for all federal judges. Eight out of 44 is not a great success rate. This is too important to put to the people of Australia and not to have it passed.

I have 13 local government areas within the electorate of Riverina. There are two city councils, Wagga Wagga and Griffith, and 11 shire councils. The mayors of those local government jurisdictions know, and have told me, how important it is to get constitutional recognition, certainly for financial aspects, to allow them to get funding directly from the Commonwealth, for important infrastructure projects such as roads and for all manner of requirements.

The Tumut Shire Council is in the process of building a new pool at Adelong. The original pool at Adelong—one of the first pools in country New South Wales—was erected in 1930 in the creek which runs through that town and was washed away in the floods of late 2010. Tumut Shire Council General Manager Bob Stewart discovered within the legislation a betterment clause. He fiercely, passionately and diligently followed that through. Only the other day was the first sod turned on the site for that pool, which comes under betterment funding. Mick Veitch, the Labor member of the Legislative Council in New South Wales, was there. He fought vigorously for this. This is really relevant. Mick Veitch lived in Adelong and now lives at Young. He fought passionately through his channels in the New South Wales parliament. I also fought passionately. I had many meetings with the then Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon. She understood the importance of the project. Through Bob Stewart's fierce determination it was made possible.

Unfortunately, that loophole has now been shut. I think governments of all persuasions feared that they would get a run on these projects. Certainly with the natural disasters that we have had in recent years that could well be the case. But that case proved the point that, with a whole-of-government approach, with local, state and Commonwealth governments all working together, such projects are possible. Sometimes middle management, the state government, through bureaucratic means holds up necessary funding projects. It sometimes does not permit the Commonwealth to directly fund local projects of significance. The Adelong pool funding is of extreme importance to that tiny community. I commend the work of Mick Veitch. I commend Nicola Roxon for making this pool project possible. I am sure that next summer the people of Adelong and the Tumut shire will be very thankful for the work that those two politicians did. They might even thank me for the work that I did in making that possible, but certainly the General Manager of Tumut Shire Council, Bob Stewart, who worked stridently to ensure that the funding was made possible, will be thanked. I look forward to attending the opening of that pool next summer.

There was a dissenting report from the coalition members of the committee. They made the very real point that there is no sense in putting a referendum question to the people of Australia if it is not going to succeed. In the dissenting report, they say:

Australia is a Federation of states and, as the evidence attests, the support of State governments can make or break referenda.

That is certainly the case. They continue:

If State governments are largely opposed to change, history proves it is very difficult for referenda to pass.

In the view of Coalition members, the recommendation by the Expert Panel that the Government negotiate to achieve the States' support for financial recognition, is an essential precursor to the committee being able to make a recommendation on the likelihood of the referendum being supported by the Australian people. This view was reinforced by a number of witnesses that for the referendum to be successful, States either had to actively support the measure or at least "run dead" on the issue.

State governments are probably going to be a little bit, and in some cases very, reluctant to support this referendum because it takes away some of the power that they have, it takes away their ability to negotiate in funding allocations and enables the Commonwealth government to directly fund local government projects. This is absolutely necessary, as the pool project at Adelong showed. This is absolutely necessary, as it is in so many other essential projects where the Commonwealth needs to be able to fund local government and at the moment is not able to.

Another project within the Tumut shire that is also related to this debate is Gocup Road. Gocup Road joins the Visy mill, the pulp and paper mill, to the busy Hume Highway. It is a two-lane road that is used by very heavy B-double trucks carrying loads of timber, and quite often that road is also traversed by buses. Buses and heavy haul log trucks are not a good combination on a narrow, winding and hilly road. That particular stretch of road had to be a state criteria road for it to get Commonwealth funding. That, to me, is overburdening local government. I know that the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government, Simon Crean, is very interested in this particular project—he has been to my electorate a number of times—and I know he is also overseeing this entire report, but I am sure that he, like so many others, would like to see the Commonwealth be able to directly fund this road straight to Tumut shire. As I said, it is now a state classified road—it had to be to meet the criteria of road funding—but, if that could have been skirted around in some way in the past, I think this particular stretch of dangerous road could have been funded by the Commonwealth to ensure that there is not some sort of future tragedy.

I have lobbied hard on this. Certainly it was coalition policy at the last election to fund this road through the state, and certainly, while speaking of policy and coalition policy, at the Nationals' last federal council, local government constitutional recognition was a motion which was debated and carried. The motion read:

That this Federal Council of The Nationals supports the constitutional recognition of local government so as to ensure that the Federal Government can continue to make direct payments to local governments through programs such as Roads to Recovery.

And Roads to Recovery, as the member for Parkes often attests, has been one of the great things that the Commonwealth has been able to do—that is, funding local government directly to ensure that dangerous roads and roads in disrepair in rural and remote and regional areas receive the kinds of funding they need.

The expert panel's final report has stated that a majority of panel members support a referendum in 2013, but it really needs to ensure that it is going to be passed by the people. There is no point putting the question to Australians without the benefit of a full public education campaign on the issues. It is now March; the election is going to be held in September. Does that give us enough time to get the states on board? Does that give us enough time to educate the Australian public? The Australian public are not fools; the Australian public are very knowledgeable. The Australian public are au fait with a lot of issues. They are very switched on; the amount of media that is beamed into their homes and onto their iPads and mobile phones makes them very aware of all sorts of current issues. But does this particular issue, the constitutional recognition of local government, have the necessary support and have the necessary will of the people to be passed in a referendum? I do not know whether the time that we have left would allow that question, and I will be interested in the remarks that are going to be made in a few moments by the member for Makin on that particular theme.

Certainly in the period that we have left, if there is indeed time enough to get the support for the majority that is needed to pass this referendum, then well and good, so be it, and that will be wonderful. But we cannot put this question to the people if it is going to fail, and I think that is one of the reasons why the question of Aboriginal recognition in the Constitution is also very much overdue. I am sure most, if not all, of the members of this House, including, I am sure, the member for Throsby, would agree with me there: it is overdue. That question has been delayed and it is now going to more reviews and committees, and that is probably a desirable thing because when the question gets put to the people it also has to pass for the betterment of not just Indigenous Australians but us as a nation as a whole.

Certainly, this question of the constitutional recognition of local government must also not fail, because to put it up and have it fail would mean that it would be many, many years, if not decades, before it was put again, if at all. There is no point putting a referendum question on a matter so important to grassroots politics and to the good ratepayers and citizens of this nation if it is going to fail. That is why members of the coalition wrote a dissenting report. It needs to be looked at very seriously and, as I say, I will be interested to hear the remarks of the member for Makin. This is an absolutely crucial matter. Local government needs recognition, but we must be able to ensure that it gets passed by the people.