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Wednesday, 7 June 2000
Page: 14781


Senator GREIG (10:53 AM) —I am pleased to have recently taken on portfolio responsibility on behalf of the Democrats for local government because, as you may know, I have a background in that. I was honoured to have served for four years at the town of Vincent in Western Australia before taking up my Senate seat. It was in fact only roughly this time last year when I was still at the town of Vincent and making decisions for them. That was a great learning curve in terms of working with an identifiable constituency with identifiable borders; it is so much more amorphous when you are trying to represent an entire state. So, as with Senator Calvert—I am not quite sure of Senator Mackay's background—I have enjoyed that local government background.

Yes, I agree with you, Senator Mackay. I was at Murdoch University in my final year in 1988 as a student activist and a member of the student guild. I was very involved in the `Yes, yes, yes, yes' campaign referendum, handing out how-to-vote cards at Cockburn Primary School on the day, only to see the vote come in as `No, no, no' at the end of the night, which was very disappointing, particularly for the potential to officially recognise local government within the Constitution.

My initial interest in local government began when I was living in North Perth some years ago. A decision was taken at the then Perth City Council to oppose a planning application for a daytime drop-in centre for people living with AIDS. That decision came down to the wire in terms of the numbers on Perth City Council and, ultimately, that proposal was defeated by one vote. It was made very clear to me—and there was a lot of media on that at the time—that the decision was a particularly appalling decision because a number of councillors said disgusting and repugnant things, particularly about gay men but also about people living with AIDS. Many councillors were mortified that this decision was defeated in the way that it was. One particular councillor at that time, Mr Peter Nattrass, leaned very heavily on his medical background—he is a gynaecologist—claiming in part and arguing amongst other things—I understand that he had some expertise with the issue of HIV-AIDS—that, if this drop-in centre were to go ahead, the streets would become littered with syringes, and that, if tissues were to blow over the fence into the surrounding neighbourhood, children could become infected with AIDS.

This particular misleading, untruthful and disingenuous argument was taken very seriously by the people who were lodging that particular planning application, People Living With AIDS (WA). They lodged a complaint of discrimination with the Western Australian Equal Opportunity Commission. At about the same time, the then state Minister for Local Government, Mrs Kay Hallahan, overturned that decision and allowed the drop-in centre for people living with AIDS to go ahead. As it happened, the investigation by the Equal Opportunity Commission concluded some months later in the affirmative—that is, the decision of the Equal Opportunity Commission upheld the claim of discrimination by People Living With AIDS. This case could have been heard under Western Australian jurisdiction in terms of grounds of impairment, which is covered under the state Equal Opportunity Act, whereas sexuality is not. I remind the Senate that Western Australia remains the only state where it remains legal to discriminate against gay and lesbian people in employment, housing and the provision of goods and services.

Those people on the council, including Dr Nattrass, who were found to have discriminated wrongly were reprimanded and fined. My recollection is that individual councillors were fined between $4,000 and $8,000. I do not recall whether that was a specific individual fine or a collective fine for those people found guilty of discrimination. Not letting it stand there, those councillors decided that they would not accept that and, quite shockingly I think, they then appealed to the Supreme Court of Western Australia, arguing that that decision was wrong and that the Equal Opportunity Commission was wrong to have found in that manner.

That case took some time, as these cases generally do in the Supreme Court, and my recollection is that ultimately the Supreme Court found in favour of the Equal Opportunity Commission, cementing the original decision that discrimination had occurred. But that was not enough for those councillors, including Dr Nattrass, who then took the matter to the Supreme Court. Of course, during all the time, people living with AIDS, their organisation and their commitment to servicing that community were placed in confusion in terms of their relocation as to where they were supposed to be, as well as the extraordinary time and money consumed in responding to that case. The Supreme Court found in that case on a legal technicality only that the original decision from the Equal Opportunity Commission in WA ought not apply on the basis that a planning decision by a local government authority could not be deemed a good or a service and, as such, the Equal Opportunity Commission had no jurisdiction over that.

That was a spark of unprecedented public anti-gay hysteria, the likes of which we had not seen in Western Australia for some years. Then we come around to May 1995. Acting Deputy President McKiernan, you may recall that that was the time of the inaugural elections for four new councils within Western Australia, including the town of Vincent to which I was elected along with my friend and colleague, now Mayor of Vincent, John Hyde, with whom you would be familiar. Things were going well in the town of Vincent when I woke up one morning to find on the front page of the West Australian newspaper the now Lord Mayor of the City of Perth describing Councillor John Hyde and me as `disgusting poofters who controlled Vincent'. This was a stunning revelation, given that I had never met—or spoken to—Dr Nattrass, and I understand the same is true of my colleague Mayor Hyde.

At that time I was particularly concerned about what that meant in terms of public leadership from the City of Perth and also what that meant in terms of the complete absence in Western Australia of antidiscrimination laws on the grounds of sexuality. We now see that that has evolved into an even greater alarming trend. As it happens, there is now a by-election in the City of Perth where, for the first time ever in WA, as I understand it, an enclosure is going to be inserted into the postal ballot for the electors of the City of Perth asking them whether or not they approve of the Lesbian and Gay Pride parade. This is a parade now in its 11th year which last year attracted between 70,000 and 100,000 citizens from Western Australia into the City of Perth and surrounding Northbridge area. It is a festival which the Northbridge traders argue brings in in excess of $1 million on that particular night. It is a festival that the police service which regulate that particular festival claim is one of the safest and friendliest nights of the year. It brings in an estimated $750,000 in parking fees alone. Yet, when the Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee approached the City of Perth for a humble—I think, quite pathetic—$13,500 in funding, Dr Nattrass not only said no but also gave a speech in the chamber which I would argue verged on vilification. Had he made the very same speech about Aboriginal people or Jewish people, in all likelihood he could have been prosecuted or at least charged under Western Australian incitement to hatred antivilification laws. The summary of all this is that there is a responsibility on those people in public office to be fair and to be reasonable. There is also the obligation to ensure that there is a duty of care in terms of funding through local government.

Senator Mackay was quite right in saying that it was the Democrats who supported Labor and vice versa in terms of ensuring, at the other end of the ANTS package in June of last year, that ultimate funding responsibility for local government authorities remained with the Commonwealth. I think a part of the reasoning for that is that there is in some quarters a sense of mistrust about how state governments allocate particular funding sources to their local government authorities and a genuine fear on the part of some people that there is often political favouritism or political punishment in those kinds of funding applications. As the minister said in his second reading speech in the House of Representatives and to summarise, the core of this amendment bill before us is that, under the revised tax reform package—that is, revised following the intervention of the Democrats—the Commonwealth will retain, quite rightly, I believe, responsibility for providing financial assistance grants to local government. It is therefore necessary to amend the Local Government (Financial Assistance) Act 1995 to remove that connection with the states' financial agreements grants, as those will be abolished from 1 July 2000—just some 20-odd days away—as a result of the intergovernmental agreement on the reform of Commonwealth-state financial relations. Of course, a key feature of that agreement is the payment of all GST revenue to the states. This amendment allows that local government financial assistance grants will be maintained on a real per capita basis. So, in essence, this is a stand-alone provision so that local government grants can escalate on a real per capita basis. Clearly, the urgency to pass the legislation is rooted in the fact that it is now necessary to pass this in order to ensure that the federal government is able to make those payments available to local government authorities after 1 July this year, which as I said is just a matter of days away.

My experience and anecdotal evidence in dealing and maintaining a liaison, as I do, with local government authorities and councillors is that there is a general agreement that the ANTS package is good for local government. I have encountered no valid opposition to that. I find that most local government councillors are looking forward to the new funding arrangement and the opportunities that it provides. The information I received from the department yesterday on the budget estimates for 2000-01 for the local government federal agreement grants is that local governments will receive some $1.32 billion in local government assistance grants in the 2000-01 budget—an increase of four per cent or $50.85 million from an estimated final entitlement of around $1.271 billion in 1999-2000. Of the $1.32 billion, approximately $915.8 million is for general purpose grants and some $406.4 million for local roads grants. The four per cent increase comprises a population increase factor of 1.25 per cent and a CPI factor of 2.75 per cent. The CPI element of the adjustment factor to apply to local government financial assistance grants for 2000-01 excludes the impact of indirect tax reform, including the GST. This approach is similar to that being taken in relation to other specific purpose payments to the states. The adjusted CPI of 5.5 per cent measures prices rises to consumers who cannot claim input tax credits. As local government can claim input tax credits, the increase in funding through the CPI element reflects that.

In summary, the Democrats support this bill. We support the ethos of the particular funding arrangements remaining principally with the Commonwealth. I also made the particular point in my second reading contribution that those of us in public office have a duty of care to administer those funds, when sought by individuals and community groups, on a fair basis—without fear or favour. The vilification we have seen in Western Australia is unreasonable and unacceptable but can continue because of the lack of antidiscrimination laws within that state. Once again, this brings home the very strong argument—that the Democrats have supported since 1995—for the passage of legislation through this chamber and the House of Representatives to ensure national antidiscrimination laws on the grounds of sexuality.