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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 109


Senator SANTORO (8:09 PM) —Tonight I wish to speak about a very serious challenge that faces Australia. It is the challenge of the so-called sea change phenomenon. This is something that is creating tremendous difficulties for local governments in coastal areas—the areas we all like to visit on day trips, spend time in on holidays and some of us look towards as retirement homes.

Late in February, I attended a lunch organised by the Property Council at Mooloolaba in Queensland. The Sunshine Coast in my home state is a typical sea change community. Like other places in Queensland and in other states, it is clearly under very great pressure from the influx of people—visitors and settlers alike. New settlers place tremendous pressure on the infrastructure and services, and of course short-term visitors do not directly pay towards that infrastructure’s maintenance and development. The Gold Coast, another Queensland icon of tourism, faces similar problems, about which I have spoken in this place before and about which I will speak again in the future.

Tonight in the parliamentary precinct are some of the Gold Coast’s leading citizens, and I would like to acknowledge their presence in this place. We welcome scrutiny of the representative democracy in action and I say to the Senate tonight that the Gold Coast deserves your interest and close attention in relation to the sea change challenges which also confront that wonderful part of Queensland.

At the lunch to which I just referred, the speaker was the Mayor of Maroochy Shire, Councillor Joe Natoli, spokesman for the National Sea Change Task Force that has been set up by coastal councils around Australia. Mayor Natoli is an able advocate not only for his own region—his shire is one of a group of three local government areas that is home to 265,800 people—but also for the urgent need to find some way to cope with the sea change issue. Thirty per cent of the Sunshine Coast’s population lives within only one kilometre of the coastline and 60 per cent lives within five kilometres. In the year ending June 2003, population growth was more than 10,160 people—that is 3.8 per cent. Some idea of the pressures on the Sunshine Coast can be seen from the statistics on land supply: 1.2 per cent is considered suitable and potentially available for urban residential development; 1.6 per cent is considered suitable and potentially available for lower density development; 2.2 per cent is already developed; 8.3 per cent is allocated to road casements, railways and watercourses; and 86.7 per cent is considered not suitable and/or not available for residential development. These statistics would be very broadly duplicated in many, if not most, sea change communities.

Last October, Mayor Natoli spoke at a conference in Western Australia that was attended by none other than you, Mr Acting Deputy President Lightfoot, my friend and colleague. Mayor Natoli made an eloquent plea for national action to protect coastal communities, to provide them with adequate funds to meet growing infrastructure needs, and to plan properly on a regional basis for population growth that is sustainable both economically and in terms of the environment. In many ways, confronting this problem and dealing effectively with it is a true test of Australian federalism, both in terms of its capacity to reflect regional realities and meet the separate needs of diverse and widely scattered communities and in terms of its ability to react within the heavily structured three-tiered system of government.

Federalism itself, as an element of how we govern ourselves, is another matter on which I intend to speak out at another time. In relation to the sea change phenomenon, we have got to find an answer. There is a lot of argument in our political system over responsibilities. But there is one clear responsibility in this case, and that is that the states must make and pay for the infrastructure commitments that are vitally needed in sea change communities. The states encourage tourism and population shift and their local economies benefit from this through the GST on consumption spending by tourists—estimated at $60 billion in 2003-04—and by new residents and from land and other state taxes. It is their responsibility to help create workable communities.

The federal Treasurer is absolutely right when he says that the states are not spending their GST funds in a responsible manner. As honourable senators know, this is the very point that I have been making in this chamber ever since I entered the Senate in 2002. The Commonwealth has its own responsibilities aside from that of ensuring the states have access to a growth source of discretionary spending.

In relation to transport infrastructure, it rests in the AusLink program that is spending $11.8 billion—a $3.6 billion increase—on land transport nationally, including a massive upgrade of Australia’s east coast road and rail systems. The Roads to Recovery and Black Spot programs directly fund local government. This year under Roads to Recovery local councils will get $253.1 million to spend on local road priorities alone. In the four years from 2005-06 to 2008-09, a further $1.2 billion will be provided—$800 million directly to local councils for local road priorities and $400 million available to councils on a competitive basis for projects of regional strategic significance. These are projects which will strengthen regional economic and social opportunities but are beyond the boundaries or financial capabilities of individual councils.

The states must pull their weight too instead of just passing the buck to the Commonwealth and undermining their own constitutional validity in the process. Local government should not be the poor cousin, especially when it has to deal with the effects of regional and national population movement. Local governments are subordinate authorities to state governments. That is as it should be. But local governments should have the most powerful voice possible within their states and, as the essential third tier of government, local governments deserve to have direct advocacy access to the Commonwealth.

The Australian Local Government Association is a very able advocate and a powerful voice, and quite correctly it is represented on the Council of Australian Governments. The National Sea Change Task Force has published a paper that makes very interesting reading and also some very good points. These are supported by studies being undertaken by a team at the University of Sydney, which has also produced an interesting paper. I commend both of these documents to honourable senators and I seek leave to table a copy of each of them.

Leave granted.


Senator SANTORO —One of the arguments put forward by the National Sea Change Task Force is that the sea change phenomenon is so important that it really requires special advocacy within government. I agree, and I intend to pursue with colleagues the matter of having a specific reference to sea change within the Commonwealth and state ministerial portfolios covering local government. How we meet the challenge of sea change as a national community is something that I believe requires concentrated effort at all levels of government and in the communities most affected.

Coastal area growth has clear national implications. It impacts on the environment and must be managed with that in mind. That is primarily a Commonwealth responsibility. It impacts on transport infrastructure and in the provision of services that are within the remit of the states. It heavily impacts on local traffic and utility services that are local government responsibilities. We need to address these difficulties with a single agreed outcome in mind. As environmental technology advances, as it inevitably will, we can expect that it will become possible to cope with larger populations in all but the most fragile of our environments. That is, in essence, the whole story of human advance since the Mesopotamians began farming and, despite the efforts of the Greens to argue otherwise, the clock only moves forward. We must work out financial and governmental mechanisms that actually put the money that is needed into the hands of those who actually have to do the job. That may mean that we need to experience a sea change of a different sort: one that will deliver us from the interminable arguments over cost shifting—invariably downwards—and the resulting disputes over political responsibility.

When I attended that Property Council lunch at Mooloolaba last month, I did so, I frankly admit, not fully realising the urgency of dealing with a phenomenon that, when I thought about it afterwards, I had myself experienced over many years of holidaying on the Sunshine Coast. It focused my mind. There is a lot more to be said about sea change communities and how they deal with the problem that the Australian community as a whole has presented them with. There is the issue of effective funding for works that must be done. There is the issue of lifestyle and change—often rendered in shorthand as developers versus greens. There is the urgent issue of funding and implementing a national strategy to protect assets for the future. There is the issue, noted by the tourism lobby, of the fact that local governments are simply not equipped to service visitor numbers. Finally, there is the issue of how all these things should be managed politically and governmentally. These and other matters will benefit from being raised at the ministerial council to be held in June and at a workshop planned by the task force in July on the Sunshine Coast. The National Sea Change Task Force has put a weighty agenda in front of the people of Australia. I would suggest that it deserves our deepest consideration.