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Monday, 19 June 2000
Page: 15053

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government) (12:34 PM) —I must say that, regrettably, I was not taking a lot of notice of what Senator Mackay was saying. I assume it is a rehash of what happened before. But if I can just recapitulate a little, this bill is about ensuring that grants to local authorities can continue to be paid, with the appropriate legislation to look at the escalation clause. The previous escalation clause was no longer relevant because it was aligned to the escalation of payments made by the federal government to state governments when the state governments got their financial assistance grants. Under the GST, which the government has proposed and which the Labor Party now supports, all of the GST goes to the states, so there will not be any need for Commonwealth grants to the states in the future. So we had to get another formula by which local government could get escalations in the payments each year of the financial assistance grants from the federal government to local authorities. This bill before us deals with that issue: how the escalation clause will increase. It also deals with some other minor, fairly technical amendments to the legislation.

In between talking with my leader about much more interesting things, I thought I heard Senator Mackay say she had got some advice from someone about what would go on in this chamber. I am not quite sure where she got the advice. I have not seen it, and I am not quite sure what she is talking about. But even the most elementary understanding of parliamentary processes would provide that consideration of the bill in committee deals with the clauses before the committee, and none of the questions Senator Mackay has asked in any way deals with the clauses of the bill before the committee. So I venture to say that, if Senator Mackay has advice to that effect, I would not think much of the advice. I do not know where she got it from—unfortunately, I did not hear that—but it would seem to be quite clearly wrong. The committee stage deals with the clauses of the bill and matters relevant to it; it is not a general fishing expedition for information that you would get at estimates committees.

As part of her contributions to this debate, in issues not related to the bill before us, Senator Mackay talked about how councils all around Australia have been approaching her because they have particular concerns about the way the financial assistance grants will impact upon them or how the GST will impact upon them. I have to say that if that is correct, then Senator Mackay has not been doing her job because, as I recall, she has not approached me with those questions or concerns. If you have concerns that are genuine rather than just political point scoring issues, you refer them to the government minister, even if you do not happen to like him or indulge in personal political attacks on him all the time in this chamber. If you want an answer, you still go ahead and refer those questions so that councils that have a concern can get appropriate answers from the government of the day that is responsible. When I was in opposition that is what I did. Regrettably, if Senator Mackay does have these concerns, she has raised very few of them with me, if any—perhaps she has raised one or two of them with me at various places—and she certainly has not written to me at length about these alleged concerns.

By contrast, during the last week I drove 500 kilometres west from Townsville out into more remote parts of rural and regional Queensland. In the course of that visit, I spoke with four councils: the Flinders Shire Council, based at Hughenden; the Richmond Shire Council, based at Richmond; the Dalrymple Shire Council in the outskirts of Charters Towers; and the Charters Towers City Council. Would you believe, Madam Chairman, that not one of them raised with me any problems about the financial assistance grants; not one of them raised the question of the GST at all. In Flinders Shire we had a discussion about the GST, but that was because I asked some of the councillors how the GST was impacting. Two of them were local businessmen who explained to me the impact that it may have on them, and by and large they thought it was a very good system. I guess that is why the government proposed it, and I guess that is why the Labor Party is now going to keep it. But it is a good program for Australia, and it has major benefits for areas that export like those western Queensland areas. It is interesting that no-one raised it with me. All these concerns Senator Mackay talks about do not seem to materialise when I am there talking to councils. The question of the financial assistance grants was raised at some of those meetings but, again, it was raised by me, not by the councils. It was raised by me to get some input into the review the Commonwealth Grants Commission is conducting into the financial assistance grants at the present time. I am keen to ensure that all councils are aware of that so that they can get their input into it, and we can look at ways of doing that.

While I was in Richmond, the Richmond Shire Council, who do receive quite substantial grants from the Financial Assistance Grants Scheme, were very keen to tell me how they used those financial assistance grants. Of course, they are interested to see this bill go through so that their grants will continue. The Richmond Shire Council do a lot of very good things. I was very impressed, as I always am, by the leadership of local authorities, particularly in country areas, in the way they promote their communities, the way they lead from the front and the way they do not sit around and say, `We want the government to do it. We want a hand-out for this; we want a hand-out for that.' In fact, in Richmond they are about to embark upon a very exciting new industry, the cotton industry, and they were very proud to show me around the cotton industry in Richmond. All they wanted from government was for governments to get out of their way. They wanted a couple of water licences from the Queensland government, which I believe the Queensland government will provide—certainly if I can help in the area, I would like to. In this area, which until now has been a sheep and cattle pastoral area, they are about to get this tremendously new and exciting cotton industry, which is being done in an environmentally sensitive way. So there will be no problems with endosulphins running into the gulf rivers, and there will not be any of the other questionable side-effects with this new cotton industry. It will be done in such a way as will provide great things for that community. That small town of about 600 people—going into a thousand in the district—expects that, with the increase in this cotton industry, the population will increase within the next few years to between 3,000 and 5,000 people, and that is magnificent. It is these sorts of things that councils do with their financial assistance grants that are of particular interest to me, not these debates that some of my colleagues opposite try to have for petty political point scoring about matters that are not related to this bill.

One of the other things that council has done in leadership is take over from a voluntary group who run what I think—not that I am any expert—is perhaps one of the world's greatest exhibitions of fossils. I speak about this very excitedly because these are real life fossils. They are 100 million years old. They are being picked up in Richmond and in Hughenden, where I had the pleasure of meeting Senator McLucas's parents. They are a delightful couple. The only thing I say about Senator McLucas's parents is that they have failed as parents in that they have not been able to teach their daughter the correct political paths to follow. But they are a delightful couple and obviously very committed westerners—

Senator Lundy —I am sure when they read this they will be sickened by it.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Senator Lundy, did you say I am sickening you with this contribution? I am sorry if telling the chamber that Senator McLucas's parents are delightful people sickens you, but if it does sicken you then bad luck for you, Senator Lundy. You will just have to put up with it. I will continue to say what delightful people Senator McLucas's parents are.

Senator McLucas —Madam Chairman, I rise on a point of order. I would request that Senator Macdonald withdraw that comment about the ability of my parents to parent me. I think that is rather offensive.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I certainly do withdraw that if it does offend Senator McLucas. I said it jokingly. Senator McLucas, I said that they failed to teach you proper political thoughts because you have a different political viewpoint to them. That was all.

The CHAIRMAN —Minister, I think you had better stick to the bill. That would be a good idea.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes, but I certainly did not want to be offensive to either Senator McLucas or her parents, all three of whom are delightful people. I do apologise.

The CHAIRMAN —Return to the bill, thank you, Minister.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am withdrawing with some explanation. I certainly did not intend to—

The CHAIRMAN —I like withdrawals to be unconditional, and I would appreciate your addressing the bill.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is unconditional, and I will explain that I certainly meant no offence. I am sorry if Senator McLucas took it that way. I repeat that both she and her parents are delightful people. I was pleased to be able to meet her parents.

I was talking about fossils and things that this council use their financial assistance grants for. I was delighted to see Kronosaurus Korner, which is from the museum which the Richmond Shire Council has now taken over. It was established by a voluntary group of people, the leader of which actually found a fossil some years ago on his property. Apparently all of that area was an inland sea 100 million years ago and there are a lot of world-class fossils there. It is a delightful experience to see what that community has done. They are matters of relevance to this bill. They are where the councils have used some of their financial assistance grants.

But I do not want to carry on this particular debate today. It is an important bill that we must get through. I am gratified that Senator Mackay has indicated by press release that the opposition will not be holding the bill up, that it will pass through the parliament and that local authorities will be able to get their grants by 30 June. The reason I have taken exception in the past to entering into the debate on questions which Senator Mackay has raised is that all of the questions have been answered. She keeps talking about five questions she has raised and says she has another 46 or something to raise, heaven forbid. If any of them are relevant to the bill, I will be very happy to answer them. Senator Forshaw asked a question in committee that was relevant to the bill, and I was very happy to answer it. Senator Forshaw was obviously satisfied with the response. It answered his query, and he is no longer taking part in the committee stage. If there are questions on the bill, please give them to me and I will answer them.

As for the questions that Senator Mackay raised, the reason I do not want to continue doing this and continue wasting the chamber's time is that all of these questions have previously been answered. In response to those questions, I simply refer the chamber to the Senate estimates Hansard of 3 December 1999, page 197; the Senate Hansard of 25 May 2000, page 434; the Senate Hansard of 8 June 2000, page 14,160; and the Senate estimates Hansard of 25 May, page 429. All of Senator Mackay's questions have been answered previously, and I refuse to waste the time of the Senate reanswering questions that have already been answered.