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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 2236

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (10:22): I rise to speak on the final report of the majority finding of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government, the case for financial recognition, the likelihood of success and lessons from the history of constitutional referenda, including the dissenting reports.

The coalition has committed to support the appropriate financial recognition of local government in the Australian Constitution—that is our policy. Back in December 2011, the expert panel produced—and I was very honoured to serve on that expert panel—its recommendation. The final report said, and this was back in December 2011:

The majority of panel members support a referendum in 2013 subject to two conditions: first, that the Commonwealth negotiate with the States to achieve their support for the financial recognition option; and second, that the Commonwealth adopt steps suggested by ALGA—

the Australian Local Government Association—

necessary to achieve informed and positive public engagement with the issue, as set out in the section of this report on the concerns about a failed referendum … Steps include allocating substantial resources to a major public awareness campaign and making changes to the referendum process.

That was December 2011. They were very clear recommendations with a very clear way forward—and what did the government and the minister do with those recommendations? Zip. Absolutely nothing. Once again, they are either setting this up to fail or they are just not interested in this program. They made an election promise to have a referendum on this issue, but they have done nothing to support it in any way.

There are a whole range of thoughts and views out in the public arena. Some people think that this is all an undercover plot to take over state governments; I assure you, it is not. But, unless we run an informed public awareness campaign, those are the sorts of messages that are going to get up in the public arena. That is why the expert panel—and, indeed, this second committee—came up with the same conclusion: we need to talk to the states and we need to run a public awareness campaign.

That was the recommendation in 2011. It is now the recommendation two years later, and the government has done nothing. The minister is reprehensible in his lack of action on this issue. Where is the funding for ALGA? Where is the funding for this campaign? The government was quick to give the Indigenous community $10 million to help them with their public awareness campaign, but to show its lack of interest and lack of support for this particular issue it has given nothing, committed nothing, to the Australian Local Government Association for their public awareness campaign, which was a recommendation that came out of the December 2011 report and again in the report from the committee that we have just had—because if you do not want to do something, form another committee and take the time to do nothing. That is the hallmark of this Labor government.

There is no doubt that we have issues with funding for local government and, indeed, the Pape and Williams cases show that there are issues going forward. But as Professor AJ Brown said in his comments to the hearing that we held in Sydney earlier this year, this constitutional change should not be seen as anything more than a new conduit for funding to local government. It is not about taking away the rights of state governments; it is more about looking at funding more money to local government. His report states:

… this is a mechanism for local government to get a larger agreed share of the total financial pie. That is what local government is legitimately looking for and that is what it should be looking for. State governments are incrementally allowing local government a larger share of responsibility and resources in the federal system as a whole, as is the federal government. When anything major happens, the first thing that both federal and state governments agree on, once they have agreed that they need to do something, is who is going to do it, and more often than not local government plays a huge role.

I think we have all seen that over the years. We have seen the shifting of responsibility from state and federal governments down to local government. Because local government is closer to the people, because it does have that community contact, they are in a place to deliver programs and projects more efficiently, more effectively and, quite frankly, with better financial value than many of the state and federal governments. Dare I say it, if local government had delivered the pink batt scheme, it would have worked; but you are never going to achieve something like that from the federal government level.

So, once again, it is all very well shifting the jobs onto local government, but we need to be able to fund them so that they can do it effectively. Local governments now do everything from running the bus system and the transport system to running libraries and child care. Basically, they pick up the need in the community because they see it, they understand it and they know what their community wants. So we need to be able to fund that effectively.

As Professor Brown went on to say:

So we really need to recognise that this is about increasing, in a planned, sustainable way, the financial flows of resources to local government—growing them, even though that should occur necessarily as a result of both federal government and state government being prepared to share those resources with the third tier of government more effectively. That is what this is about.

The other issue that he highlighted, and which I agree with, is that any change that could possibly pass as a referendum would need to leave the regulatory control over local government with state governments as it is currently. Once again, I highlight that this is not a conspiracy to wipe out state governments. We all agree that regulatory control over local government should be left with the states. This is about providing a more effective and more efficient conduit for financial delivery for the states, as has been successfully challenged recently in the High Court. As I said, the federal government, by not doing anything, is setting up this referendum to fail.

In the first round of hearings, ALGA raised their issues about not being prepared and not being ready without having the funding to run an effective public campaign. However, at the last hearing they said they believed that if they were funded appropriately they could run that campaign. So this is why my colleague Mark Coulton, the member for Parkes, and I made the additional comments that we believe that of all people, ALGA, the Australian Local Government Association, is best positioned to know whether it can or cannot deliver the public awareness campaign in the time frame and is best positioned to know through its members whether this referendum will succeed.

They came to the last hearing and said yes, they are ready to go. But, once again, what has the minister done? Has the minister got any further with his negotiations with the states? We have not heard back. This is something he should have been doing, quite frankly, from before the expert panel started meeting. Why hasn't he raised these issues with the states? This is of vital interest. Why hasn't he reassured the states that this is not about taking power away from them, that this is just a conduit, as Professor Brown said, for more efficient and effective funding methods? But, once again, the minister has done nothing. The minister is not interested in seeing this referendum succeed, and I am very concerned that the funding they allude to—the funding they gave the Indigenous referendum supporters—is not going to be there for ALGA. And, quite frankly, that funding needs to happen today if ALGA is going to be able to effectively run a public awareness campaign for this referendum to succeed.

We all know the importance of local government in the community, because they are there on a day-to-day basis. If ALGA tells us it needs funding to run an effective campaign, then that is what we should be doing. Once again, tragically, we are not getting that support from this federal government. I call on the minister to act immediately to reassure his state ministers that this is a campaign to make funding more efficient, to bypass the problems we have had with our successful challenge in the High Court and to move forward with the campaign for a referendum.

I would also like to place on record my appreciation of the many local government areas and associations and indeed individuals who contributed over 140 submissions to the inquiry, as well as to those who attended the public hearings, which helped with our deliberations. There is a genuine interest in this area, and there is a genuine interest in facilitating the right outcome. But, once again, it is the government that is dragging the chain. It is the government that is setting this up to fail. In February this year, ALGA gave further evidence to the committee that they recommended that we continue with a referendum. But, as I have said, unless the government is genuine, unless the government funds that campaign and unless the government works with the local government associations and bodies, we are not going to see this referendum succeed. And if they go ahead on that flawed basis they are setting it up to fail, which I believe is completely reprehensible.