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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 2238

Mr CHRISTENSEN (Dawson) (10:32): It is a pleasure to rise to speak on the final report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government. I do so from a position of having a little bit of experience in these matters, having served on local government for six years. A saying that goes around amongst some councillors—and perhaps the previous speaker, the member for Ryan, is aware of it—is that if you do any more than a decade in local government you are immediately declared criminally insane! So I am sort of glad that I went on to bigger and better pastures—but I am not sure how long the member actually served in local government!

Mrs Prentice: A decade.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: A decade—you may be just under the limit! But, to go on to the report, I am pleased to see that the report has recommended the adoption of financial recognition. It is the minimalist recognition, I think it is fair to say, and it is through the constitutional financial powers that are extended to the Commonwealth government—simply that the words 'local government' be inserted into that financial head of powers. That is, as I said, a minimalist position, but it is a very important one. As many people around this place would know, we had the Pape case in the High Court, which came up with a ruling that direct funding by the Commonwealth government to schools being state controlled was not constitutionally valid. So there is speculation, and I suppose it is well founded in local government circles, that that same ruling could essentially be used to negate some of the federal funding that goes direct to local councils.

One of those programs which have been quite successful was that introduced by the former Liberal-National coalition government and continued under the current government—that is, Roads to Recovery. Roads to Recovery has had immense benefits for local governments all around Australia and in local communities. It is delivered directly from the federal government to local governments to assist them in their road construction budget.

I think that in the Mackay region in particular it has been somewhat of a godsend. I know that roads are the No. 1 issue for nearly all residents in my area; it is certainly in the top 3. I learnt that in the first week of being a local government councillor. I think it was probably three days after I had found out I was elected to then Mackay City Council. At 5.30 am I got a knock on the door—I was actually living in an area which is now in your electorate, Madam Deputy Speaker Livermore—from someone who wanted to complain about a road. I thought, 'Wow, this is a good initiation into local government: 5.30 am knocks on the door by constituents.' His complaint was about a local road, which we got upgraded through the Roads to Recovery program eventually, McColl Street, which is in Walkerston.

There are so many roads that get upgraded through this program. Currently, over the last period of this term of parliament, we have had Roads to Recovery funding going to Casey Avenue in South Mackay; they are doing a bridge upgrade there. We have Connors Road in Paget, Archibald Street in Paget, Grasstree Beach Road—again, down in your electorate, Madam Deputy Speaker. There is also Eversleigh Road in Sarina, Paradise Street in South Mackay, Mount Martin Loop Road—in your electorate, Madam Deputy Speaker—along with Armstrong Beach, Paradise Street in South Mackay, and on and on it goes. If this funding were not there, or if there were a High Court challenge to that funding, it would be to the detriment of all of those residents and motorists who use those roads. I can tell you from the point of view of the ones in my electorate—Connors Road, Archibald Street, Paradise Street—these are very well-used and, up until recently, well-worn roads. So, if we did not have this funding in place or if it were subject to a High Court challenge, that would be to the detriment of not just the local government but to the local communities.

I know that there is an argument that we can direct that through the states. Certainly, through the financial assistance grants, funding does go from the federal government through the states to local government. But the report has given some indication as to why that is not such a good methodology for distributing that funding. They give three reasons. The first is a little bit of a superficial reason but it does say here that that indirect route through the state governments 'lessens the ability of the Commonwealth to implement and to be seen to be implementing its own policies at a local level'. The other two reasons are probably more important. The second reason the indirect route is not good is that 'it fails to recognise local government as a legitimate third tier of government in the Australian system.' It says:

Although this is an issue of status, it is clearly of great significance to local councils throughout Australia.

I am going to come back to that point in a second. The final and probably the most important one is:

… local government and its advocates raised concerns that Commonwealth funding via State governments is inefficient, ineffective, and may result in a reduction of the money flowing to local government by reason of deductions for administrative expenses.

It is always a major concern when you have got double handling or triple handling of finances that you are going to see less of the dollar actually get down on the ground. You are going see less of the money actually going into bitumen, less of the money going into the work crews that actually build these roads. So that is the reason why the financial recognition is extremely important.

The No. 2 point that was raised on the issue of the validity of local government is also a key point. Obviously we had local government amalgamations. I went through that. I was on a bigger council that, most people would have thought, stood to benefit from amalgamations at the time with Mirani Shire Council and Sarina Shire Council. I was opposed to that even though there were some benefits. At that time I represented a rural division in which there were a fair few residents who felt that because they were in rural division they missed out on a lot of the funding that went through Mackay City Council at the time.

The unfortunate reality is these amalgamations were just done by the stroke of a pen really by the then Beattie government. What it saw was reduced representation for residents in Mirani shire and Sarina shire. They had councils that were about seven members strong with their own elected mayor. Now, on the Mackay Regional Council, I do not think there is one representative—if I am not mistaken—from the old Mirani shire, which, as I said, had its own mayor and six councillors; and there is but one representative from the old Sarina shire.

I think that reduced representation is a very sad thing because if you have your own council and your own mayor collecting your own rates, then you are spending all that money back in your own area. You have got people on the ground in these little townships. I know in places like Netherdale, Yongala and Grasstree Beach their say is completely watered down now. So some of the projects, as a fact of life, get overlooked now because there is not that representation there.

I know the report states that there could have been another view in the recognition of local government in the Constitution, a democratic recognition, which may have gone one step better in giving local government a true position and not just making it a creature of the state governments. Unfortunately, it is at the moment. The reality is tomorrow we could see other councils merged. We are currently seeing de-amalgamations across the state and that too can be done at the stroke of a pen although they are giving a vote at this stage. I know it is causing some concern again, particularly in your electorate, Madam Deputy Speaker. Being in your part of the world, I read the newspapers and know that there is some concern about that. The fact is local government now is simply the creature of state government. If I was to vote on a particular option, it would be for a full democratic recognition. However, I accept that that may not be amenable to a lot of people, particularly to state governments. The financial recognition as a minimalist position is probably the best way for us to go.

What a good job all of the local governments in my local area do in trying circumstances as well. Mackay Regional Council is powering ahead under the leadership of Mayor Deidre Comerford. Certainly the council is extremely united. It is getting things done. Local government is always subject to complaints. Some of them are legitimate, but I think that on the whole there is a great deal of respect for the work that Mackay Regional Council is doing.

Mayor Jenny Whitney of the Whitsunday Regional Council is having a very trying time at the moment because of the massive amount of debt that was left by the last administration. She is doing what she can to fix that up. She is powering on and getting results. I know that there is lot of support in the Whitsunday community for her and for what she is trying to do with the council.

Further north, the Burdekin Shire Council under Mayor Bill Lowis is a common-sense council. Bill is a common-sense mayor. A lot of the things that he says are probably outside the square of what a lot of even the council bureaucrats think. But it is very common sense. It relates to a lot of people in the Burdekin. They are going to go great guns over the next few years.

Finally, in Townsville, representing some of those southern areas, is Councillor Jenny Hill, the Mayor of Townsville; and my local councillor, Councillor Les Walker. He is a good councillor by all reports of the local residents. Again, they are doing a good job up in Townsville, I would say. They are dealing with financial issues.

Getting back to the report, I commend it. I am not actually sure whether this year is the right time to be holding a referendum. Perhaps having a referendum outside of an election period may be more beneficial. It would be more costly, I know, but it might be more likely to see the result get up that we on all sides of the House want. Whenever it is, I will be a strong supporter, having been in local government. I know the benefit that the constitutional recognition of local government will have. Thank you very much for letting me address the chamber.