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Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Page: 84


Mr CREAN (Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government and Minister for the Arts) (9:38 AM) —Mr Speaker, this is the first opportunity I have had to congratulate you on your appointment. I look forward to working with you and I know that you will do a fantastic job in the chamber. I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Introduction

The Territories Law Reform Bill 2010 will implement reforms to strengthen Norfolk Island’s governance arrangements.

The bill will improve transparency and accountability in Norfolk Island’s governance and financial management, and will facilitate access to administrative law processes on Norfolk Island.

This is important for the future sustainability of Norfolk Island.

It is part of our commitment to improving the lives of Australians living in regional and remote locations.

It is important to note that the administrative arrangements of Norfolk Island have been subject to numerous parliamentary inquiries, including the most recent Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories.

All of these reports have overwhelmingly recommended the need for reforms to Norfolk Island’s administration, law, governance, and electoral and financial structures.

We are now taking the leadership to ensure the people of Norfolk Island can start an effective program of economic and financial reform.

The bill was passed by the House of Representatives in June 2010 but lapsed when the election was called.

I am aware that the Norfolk Island government has concerns with this bill, and I will address these concerns today.

It is important to note that this bill does not remove responsibilities for the Norfolk Island government but provides increased community confidence in Norfolk Island’s governance and enables the community to better scrutinise the actions of the Norfolk Island government.

Extended legislative authority is intended to be used as a last resort if the Norfolk Island government does not undertake action.

The bill will strengthen the accountability and transparency in these key areas.

The bill will amend the Norfolk Island Act to:

  • reform the voting system for the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly and provide more certainty about when elections are held,
  • introduce a range of reforms to ensure higher levels of accountability and transparency in the procedures and practices of the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly, and
  • allow the Governor-General and the Commonwealth minister responsible for territories to take a more active role in the introduction and passage of Norfolk Island legislation.

The bill will also amend the Norfolk Island Act to implement a contemporary financial management framework that will assist that government to meet the expectations of its community and to plan for the future.

The bill will also improve the accountability and transparency of the Norfolk Island government and administration by implementing an administrative law regime equivalent to that available to residents on the mainland.

The Commonwealth has made a commitment to continue to work with the Norfolk Island government and administration to implement these reforms on Norfolk Island.

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.

Background to the Norfolk Island reforms

The bill will implement the reforms announced by the Australian government in May 2009. The Australian parliament and the Norfolk Island government have long been aware of the need for the reforms contained in this bill.

The reforms implement a number of recommendations from the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories 2003 report: 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, access to an Ombudsman, protecting the disclosure of personal information to public agencies and the availability of merits review of decisions which affect rights and entitlements.

The Norfolk Island government and administration have implemented some informal mechanisms to facilitate good governance. However, the report concluded 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.

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; and
  • allowing the Governor-General and the minister responsible for 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. This is critical if we are to empower the residents of Norfolk Island and ensure their voices are heard.

The bill establishes the foundations for such a process, which will be supplemented by regulations to be developed in consultation with Norfolk Island.

The amendments will extend the Australian government’s oversight of Norfolk Island legislation to include schedule 2 matters, as well as enable the Commonwealth minister and Governor-General to introduce legislation into the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly.

The proposed amendments do not restrict the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly’s almost unlimited power to ‘make laws for the peace, order and good government of the territory’.

The right of the Australian government to intervene in Norfolk Island legislation is an existing part of the island’s governance system.

The need for this amendment can be linked to the number of additional matters transferred to the Norfolk Island government’s authority under schedule 2 since 1979.

In the absence of this legislation, none of these reforms will be possible as the current legislation is inadequate.

The bill will enable the Australian government to carry out the checks and balances necessary to ensure that Norfolk Island legislation complies with Australian government policy objectives and Australia’s national obligations under international law.

Amendments allowing the minister to appoint the Deputy Administrator of Norfolk Island are consistent with the power already provided to me as the responsible Commonwealth minister to appoint the Deputy Administrator of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

The amendments allow for flexible and timely appointments to be made in the event that the Administrator is unable to perform one or all of the functions of the office. The position of Deputy Administrator is not intended to be a position involving remuneration.

Amendments in the bill that provide for the Administrator to exercise certain powers in the event of the dissolution of the Legislative Assembly provide a practical and effective arrangement to ensure the continuity of business of government including the provision of services to the Norfolk Island community. The Administrator would be required to exercise these powers in accordance with any direction given by the Governor-General.

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.

The Commonwealth Financial Officer does not have any specific powers under the amendments proposed in the bill. The Commonwealth Financial Officer’s functions are required to be flexible and adaptable, to enable the best possible assistance to be provided to the Norfolk Island government and administration in implementing the bill.

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.

The Australian government has agreed to fund the Commonwealth Auditor-General to provide financial statement audits for three years. Any further funding after this period will be subject to budget considerations. I note that other territories including the ACT and the Northern Territory have established their own Auditor-General and do not receive funding for these positions.

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

Much has been made of the different approach which has been taken in relation to the ombudsman reforms. I agree that these reforms are a positive example of what can be achieved through cooperation between the Commonwealth and Norfolk Island.

However, the approach taken in the ombudsman reforms should be distinguished from the remaining administrative reforms for a number of key reasons. Firstly, there was existing precedent for this approach as the Commonwealth Ombudsman already undertakes the role of ACT Ombudsman under ACT legislation and, secondly, the Norfolk Island government introduced ombudsman legislation into the legislative assembly in 2009.

The need for administrative law reform on Norfolk Island has been the subject of numerous reports and recommendations since 1991. However, to date, the Norfolk Island government has failed to initiate Norfolk Island legislation in the area of freedom of information or privacy.

The approach taken in the bill is specifically designed to take into account the ongoing concerns raised by the Norfolk Island government about resourcing and capacity constraints on island.

The existing Commonwealth legislation is adaptable to Norfolk Island, and is currently applied across Commonwealth agencies of varying sizes, including those equivalent in size to the Norfolk Island administration.

The extension of Commonwealth administrative law mechanisms will enable the Norfolk Island government and community to access the Commonwealth’s expert knowledge, experience and resources. Funding has already been allocated to Commonwealth agencies to assist in the implementation of these reforms on Norfolk Island.

The bill will ensure that the standards of administrative law enjoyed by Australians on the mainland are extended to Norfolk Islanders.

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.

The automatic vesting mechanism will reduce administrative burden and improve efficiency under the service delivery agreements by enabling Western Australian officers to have faster access to newly created powers.

Conclusion

The Norfolk Island reforms included in this bill are a first step towards improving transparency and accountability in Norfolk Island governance and financial frameworks, and in administrative decision making.

These reforms will increase community confidence and allow the community to better scrutinise the actions of the Norfolk Island government and its administration. They will better empower the local community of Norfolk Island and give them a say in how their community is being governed.

It will extend to the people of Norfolk Island access to the Ombudsman, and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. These are not special privileges but basic protections that provide citizens with greater transparency of government decisions.

This bill will provide Norfolk Island with the tools necessary to ensure ongoing stability and to sustain strong and effective self-government under the Norfolk Island Act.

I have advocated for a better regional development framework which empowers local communities and gives them a greater say on how their local challenges can be met.

I also say that this is a two-way street and local communities must also find ways to develop their strategic local plans.

We have to work in partnership to ensure that we get the governance right and support the most effective solutions.

The Norfolk Island reforms, together with those related to the Indian Ocean Territories, are positive changes which reflect the Australian government’s responsibility to ensure an equitable and sustainable future for Australia’s regional communities, including our external territories.

I commend the bill.

Debate (on motion by Ms Gambaro) adjourned.