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Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Page: 2715


Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (Minister for Home Affairs) (9:40 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Introduction

The Territories Law Reform Bill 2010 implements significant reforms to improve the governance of Norfolk Island and strengthen the accountability of the Norfolk Island government.

The bill does this by amending the Norfolk Island Act 1979 to reform the electoral system and establish a contemporary financial management framework to assist the Norfolk Island government to meet the expectations of its community and to plan for the future.

The bill also amends administrative law legislation to strengthen the transparency and accountability of the Norfolk Island government and public sector. The amendments will extend the application of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975, the Freedom of Information Act 1982 and the Privacy Act 1988 to Norfolk Island. In addition, amendments to the Ombudsman Act 1976 and the Norfolk Island Act will make the Commonwealth Ombudsman the Ombudsman for Norfolk Island.

Finally, the bill will amend the Christmas Island Act 1958 and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Act 1955 to provide a vesting mechanism for powers and functions under Western Australian laws applied in the territories.

Background to the Norfolk Island Reforms

The Norfolk Island reforms were announced by the Australian government in May 2009. They follow in the wake of a large number of Commonwealth parliamentary and other reports recommending amendments to Norfolk Island’s governance system.

Notably, the reforms implement a number of recommendations from the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories 2003 report which was entitled Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?: inquiry into governance on Norfolk Island.

The report identified key features of good governance which have been adopted through the development of formal mechanisms by the Australian government and other western democracies. These include:

  • ensuring public accountability through finance and performance audits, annual reporting and access to the Ombudsman;
  • regulating accuracy and disclosure of personal information and providing access to public policies and guidelines of public sector agencies; and
  • the availability of merits review of decisions which affect rights and entitlements.

There are already informal mechanisms on Norfolk Island aimed to facilitate good governance. The report concluded, however, that ‘the absence of formal and effective mechanisms of accountability and transparency, seriously undermine the quality of governance on the island’.

The report recommended a wide range of reforms, many of which have been adapted and incorporated into the reforms package implemented by this bill, including:

  • reforms to the Norfolk Island electoral system;
  • incorporation of designations of chief minister and ministers, and additional powers of dismissal;
  • adoption of a comprehensive financial accountability framework, including auditing and reporting requirements; and
  • the extension to Norfolk Island of the benefits of a comprehensive system of administrative law, commensurate to that available to other Australians.

Machinery of Government and Electoral Reforms

Parts 1 and 2 of schedule 1 of the Territories Law Reform Bill make general governance and electoral amendments to the Norfolk Island Act.

The bill proposes key governance reforms including:

  • prescribing a process for selecting and dismissing a chief minister and ministers, as well as determining their roles and responsibilities;
  • establishing a no-confidence motion process for the chief minister;
  • allowing the Norfolk Island administrator to access a greater range of advice when presented with bills for assent under schedule 2 of the Norfolk Island Act; and
  • allowing the Governor-General and the minister responsible for the territories to take a more active role in the introduction and passage of Norfolk Island legislation.

The bill also establishes the framework for the reform of the voting system for the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly. These amendments will allow the Norfolk Island Chief Minister to enter into an arrangement with the Australian Electoral Commission in relation to general elections of members of the legislative assembly and the filling of a casual vacancy in the office of a member of the legislative assembly.

The amendments will also provide Norfolk Island residents with greater transparency in electoral processes and certainty about when elections are held. The bill establishes the foundations for such a process, which will be supplemented by regulations to be developed in consultation with Norfolk Island.

Financial Frameworks

Part 3 of schedule 1 makes further amendments to the Norfolk Island Act to enable the implementation of a contemporary financial management framework.

The bill establishes a customised and proportionate financial framework which provides for the responsible management of public money and public property, preparation of budgets, financial reporting, annual reports and procurement. The framework provided by the bill will be supplemented by subordinate legislation which will ensure that the financial scheme is adapted to the unique requirements of Norfolk Island and can be effectively implemented.

The Commonwealth government is committed to assisting Norfolk Island in implementing this framework effectively and, to this end, the amendments also provide for the appointment by the Commonwealth of a Commonwealth financial officer for Norfolk Island should this be required.

Additionally, the bill amends the Norfolk Island Act to provide for the appointment of the Commonwealth Auditor-General to conduct audits of the Norfolk Island administration’s financial statements.

Administrative law reforms

The last key part of the Norfolk Island reform package implemented by the bill is the application of Commonwealth administrative law accountability and oversight mechanisms to Norfolk Island.

Part 4 of the bill proposes amendments to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act which will confer on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal merits review jurisdiction for specified decisions under Norfolk Island legislation. In essence, the reforms will mean that, where specified under regulations, administrative decisions which are made under Norfolk Island laws can be reviewed by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on request by an affected party.

The amendments in the reform bill will be supplemented by regulations. The regulations will specify which Norfolk Island laws may be subject to Administrative Appeals Tribunal merits review. This will enable a staged implementation of the reforms to be undertaken in consultation with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and Norfolk Island.

Part 5 of the bill proposes amendments to the Freedom of Information Act to apply that act to Norfolk Island. The scope of the application of the act to Norfolk Island will be consistent with its application to Commonwealth government agencies. The amendments will give individuals on Norfolk Island the right to:

  • seek access to documents held by the public sector and to official documents of Norfolk Island government ministers; and
  • to ask for their personal information in such documents to be changed if it is incomplete, incorrect, out of date or misleading.

Part 6 of the bill proposes minor amendments to the Norfolk Island Act and the Ombudsman Act. The amendments will enable the Commonwealth Ombudsman to assume the function of the Norfolk Island Ombudsman under Norfolk Island legislation.

Part 7 of the bill proposes amendments to the Privacy Act to apply that act to the Norfolk Island public sector. The bill will provide that the Norfolk Island public sector will be required to adhere to the Information Privacy Principles in the same manner as Australian government public sector agencies.

It is expected that relevant Australian government agencies will play a significant and ongoing educative role about the rights and obligations established by the administrative law amendments in relation to the community of Norfolk Island and its public sector.

Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands reforms

In addition to the Norfolk Island reforms, the Territories Law Reform Bill amends the Christmas Island Act and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Act. These amendments provide a vesting mechanism for powers and functions under Western Australian laws applied in the territories. Powers and functions are automatically vested in Western Australian officers and authorities where an agreement with the Australian government exists for those officers and authorities to act in the territories.

Conclusion

The Norfolk Island reforms included in the Territories Law Reform Bill are a first step towards ensuring high levels of transparency and accountability in Norfolk Island governance and financial frameworks, and in administrative decision making. This is an important part of providing Norfolk Island with the tools necessary to ensure ongoing stability and to sustain strong and effective self-government under the Norfolk Island Act.

These reforms, together with the amendments to the Christmas Island Act and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Act, represent the government’s ongoing commitment to fulfilling its obligations to provide the legislative frameworks for the future growth and sustainability of Australia’s territories. I commend the bill.

Debate (on motion by Mrs Gash) adjourned.