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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 2241

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (10:47): At the outset, I compliment the member for Dawson on his remarks. He has given a lot to local government in his area. It is one of the reasons why he is now serving his electorate as a federal member. I also acknowledge the presence in the chamber of the member for Greenway, who headed the committee that looked into constitutional recognition of local government. She has done a thorough job—she wants me to say an excellent job, and I will: an excellent job—of compiling this report. I also note that there has been a dissenting report to the final report on 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. That dissenting report was submitted by Senator David Bushby, Senator David Fawcett and the member for Swan, Steve Irons. There are also additional comments from coalition members the member for Parkes, Mark Coulton, and the member for Ryan, Jane Prentice. They also need to be taken on board in this debate.

I represent a large electorate, the Riverina in south-west New South Wales, which takes in 13 local government areas. They are: Bland, based at West Wyalong; Carrathool, based at Hillston; Coolamon; Griffith City; Gundagai; Junee; Leeton; Murrumbidgee, based at Coleambally and Darlington Point; Narrandera; Temora; Tumbarumba; Tumut; and Wagga Wagga City. There are two cities among those 13: Griffith and Wagga Wagga. The other 11 are shire councils. They are all good councils. They are all run by people who want to do the best for their local communities. Local government is grassroots representation at its very best. I am proud to say that all 13 shire or city councils within my electorate are doing an earnest and admirable job.

I would like to draw on some reflections made last night by the member for Makin, who is a former mayor of the City of Salisbury in South Australia. He made some very pertinent points to this particular debate. He indicated that there were propositions in both 1974 and 1988 to change the Australian Constitution in order to give local government the recognition it, as he put it, quite rightly deserves. I certainly agree with him on that point. In 1974 the proposal was to change section 51 of the Constitution, related to the ability of the federal government to borrow money on behalf of local government. At the same time there was a proposition to amend section 96 in very similar terms to what are being proposed currently. This would have enabled the federal government at the time to fund local government directly. As the member for Makin provided us last night, the 1974 proposition failed.

The 1988 proposition was slightly altered. It was about inserting a new section 119A into the Australian Constitution, which effectively gave recognition to local government as a legitimate level of government in Australia; perhaps in a similar way to the state constitutions. And again, as the member for Makin pointed out and as we all know, it also failed.

Only eight of the 44 referenda since Federation have actually succeeded, and that is why this is too important to put to the people and allow it to fail now. The member for Makin also pointed out the court case of Pape v Commissioner of Taxation in 2009. That court case found that the Australian government did not have the authority to fund local government directly. As the member for Makin pointed out, this is not simply about doing what we think is morally right; it is also about ensuring the way this government and this country has operated for decades continues.

He pointed to Roads to Recovery, which is a wonderful program. We all know how important Roads to Recovery is in fixing up those local and regional roads to the state which we should have in this country of ours. Safety is of paramount importance and, unfortunately, we all know from the road toll statistics around our nation that the—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 10 : 52 to 11:07

Mr McCORMACK: For a constitutional question to succeed, as the member for Makin pointed out last night, it not only needs to be passed by a majority of states but also needs to be passed by a majority of voters across the whole of the country. As he said, it is not easy—and indeed it is not easy.

I spoke to four mayors just this morning about this particular piece of legislation, and certainly about constitutional recognition of local government—firstly, the mayor of the largest council in my electorate, that being Wagga Wagga City Council. The mayor there, Rod Kendall, said that it is extremely important that local government be granted funding directly from the Commonwealth. He pointed out that local government is a highly respected level of government. He said that this is such an important issue, certainly when you consider that Wagga Wagga at the moment is negotiating with New South Wales for funding for a levy bank to protect the 63,000 population city from future flooding by the Murrumbidgee River. We experienced an evacuation of the central business district last March when the Murrumbidgee River came within centimetres of flooding the central part of the city. That would have been absolutely disastrous. The devastation in sheer dollar terms, let alone the human cost, would have been extraordinary. It just makes good sense that Wagga Wagga City Council receive the funding it needs to heighten, to lengthen, to strengthen the levy bank that has existed in the city since the early 1960s.

But at the moment it would be difficult for the Commonwealth government, if it did wish to fund that particular piece of infrastructure, to ensure that the full amount of money went straight to that particular project. As most mayors alluded to when I met them this morning, any money that is directed through the states to local government invariably gets creamed off. I also spoke to the general manager of Wagga Wagga City Council, Phil Pinyon. He talked about Roads to Recovery. He talked about the funding that local government receives under the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements, and of course that is always contingent on the states actually saying that there is enough damage for the Commonwealth to fund it.

The then Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, in her capacity as the Minister for Emergency Management, was fantastic last year when it came to funding local government areas within my electorate after there were devastating floods in February and March. She even allocated funding as a special one-off payment—grants of $1,000 per adult and $400 per child under the Centrelink program—to a village called Ungarie, in the Bland shire. The New South Wales government overlooked this particular community because there was not enough widespread damage throughout the Bland shire for it to actually get the state tick-off for Commonwealth assistance. Ms Roxon provided that funding and it was very much appreciated; it was tremendous.

The member for Greenway, the chair of this committee, wanted me to point out that the planning director of the city of Wagga Wagga, Andrew Crakanthorp, believes that there is enough time and enough will—I certainly agree with him there—and that it is way too important for us not to proceed with a referendum. Whether now is the time, whether there is enough time between now and 14 September to be able to do that given the fact that it is now six months to the day to the election—and certainly whether this legislation actually passes—we will see, but we need to be ready to say, 'All systems go,' if indeed it does. I know the member for Greenway thinks there is time enough; I know the government thinks there is time enough. Certainly this has bipartisan support, but whether or not we can convince the public, educate the public, and get the states on board in those six months remains to be seen.

John Dal Broi, Mayor of Griffith City Council, said that it is a big issue for grants to go straight to a local government rather than be filtered through the state. He said that by the time they get the funding from the Commonwealth via the states, it is watered down—and he is quite correct. Ian Chaffey, Mayor of Tumbarumba Shire Council, has been serving in local government, on and off, since 1977. He is a long-time mayor; he is a wonderful advocate for local government and for common sense. He talked about the states raking off money; he said, 'They will always take off a tidy slice, generally through bungling, incompetent bureaucrats.' He said that one of the biggest hurdles—to use his word—to get this through was to convince the public that it is necessary. He said, 'It's not a grab for power, but an opportunity for reform.' He said that local government in New South Wales is a wonderful thing and that his shire is doing its best to be able to use the money that it gets—and certainly there are a lot of road projects within Tumbarumba shire which do need fixing—but that the resistance, through all forms of reform and through all forms of change, is always difficult. He actually quoted Alvin Toffler's Future Shock from the 1970s to say that people just do not like change, they resist change. Certainly the states are resisting change. As I understand it, at the moment we are still talking and trying to work it through, but they are resisting this change because they see it as taking away some of their power.

I spoke to Rick Firman, who is the mayor of Temora Shire Council, and he said that he was quite nervous—'quite nervous' were the words he used—about whether there is sufficient time to be able to convince the public and to be able to get the states on board to get this referendum, if goes ahead on 14 September at the next federal election, passed. All councils have contributed to a campaign fund through their state shire associations and other organisations, overseen by the Australian Local Government Association, to try to get this particular referendum passed. I know there is a project in Temora Shire Council at the moment that they would love to get Commonwealth funding for—that is, a heavy vehicle bypass through that beautiful town of Temora. There was no better demonstration of the fact that a heavy vehicle bypass is needed than when on Friday, 23 November last year, at the opening of the Temora medical centre, some heavy duty, heavy-wheeled stock trucks—semi-trailers—passed through Hoskins Street at the time of the opening. Not only could we not hear ourselves think, but the slosh coming out of those cattle trucks, and the stench that it left, left something to be desired. There are some wonderful little cafes in Temora's main street and alfresco dining. It is difficult to eat a meal after a cattle truck has passed just metres away and you get the odour—

Honourable members interjecting

Mr McCORMACK: You understand where I am coming from! It is difficult. Rick Firman and the general manager, Gary Lavelle, have been working tirelessly on getting environmental impact statements and plans drawn up and doing everything they can to get a heavy vehicle bypass. I have raised this with the Minister for Regional Development and Local Government, Simon Crean. He is interested in the project. Temora is a great town and it needs this to happen. But if it happens under the current arrangements, and New South Wales takes its share, then the money that hopefully the Commonwealth would provide to such a vital piece of infrastructure would, unfortunately, as the Griffith mayor said, be watered down. Temora shire, like many councils in New South Wales, is at the moment facing the prospect of amalgamation. Resource sharing is a good thing and councils certainly do it at the moment. I know that Bland, Temora and Junee shire councils work hand in hand on so many things. But these are big areas and they do not need to be amalgamated. One of the reasons Bland Shire Council did not get funding from the Commonwealth last year is that it was so big, and Ungarie was so small that the devastation caused to it was not big enough for the whole shire to get that tick off.

This is an important piece of legislation. The mayors of my 13 local government areas are very keen to ensure that there is constitutional recognition of local government. However, with regard to whether this is the right time, this is too important a change to the Constitution to get wrong by not having public support and state support. That is why there was a dissenting report by coalition members. However, I do commend the member for Greenway for her report.

Debate adjourned.