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Wednesday, 19 June 2013
Page: 3474

Senator BERNARDI (South Australia) (18:20): Following Senator Cormann, I am reminded that in politics adherence to principle is just about everything in public life. You can respect someone you disagree with if they have a principled position. It enables those who have strong views to frame the answers to very difficult questions, making them actually easier to resolve and satisfy.

I am one who will not compromise principles that I brought to this place, and that I believe are at the very heart of my political life—my political commitment—and my political party. They include a commitment to faith, stronger families, free enterprise, general freedom, our flag, our Federation and our Constitution. This bill, and I believe, the referendum and the question that is going to be put, undermines our Constitution. I think it undermines the principle of federalism. It is worth reflecting on the words of a Mr Holder from the 1898 debate at the Australasian Federal Convention:

… we have harmonized the interests of several states where they differed, and we have provided a Constitution sufficient to provide for the fullest and the most self-reliant government of a free people. We have created an instrument of partnership between us which, I believe, secures the independence of the several states, will provide for the joint control of certain matters, at the same time as it also leaves free and complete self-government on all matters not committed to the central authority.

There are those—some of my colleagues for whom I have tremendous respect—who have a view that times have changed since 1898, and indeed they have. But the principle that was applied at the formation of our Constitution to create a Commonwealth of Australia built upon the independence and success of the states was very, very clear, and I do not believe it should be undermined. I do not believe we should be centralising more power in Canberra, because, quite frankly, I think that political organisations that are closer to the people, like state governments and local councils, are often better connected about the needs and wants of a local community than a Canberra based politician or bureaucrat, or even the politicians here who assiduously stay in touch with their communities. They work together hand in hand, and each has a distinct and unique role.

I would also like to reflect on a submission to the Senate Select Committee on the Reform of the Australian Federation from the Council for the Australian Federation. They said:

Australia’s federal structure provides for a number of significant benefits that in fact outweigh [the] perceived costs:

The customisation of policies to meet local needs

Incentives to innovate and experiment in policy and service delivery

Supporting choice and diversity

Competition and comparison that supports continuous improvement

Greater scrutiny of national policies as a result of the need to achieve cooperation

Protection for the individual by checking the concentration of power.

They went on:

Importantly, the benefits of federalism do not preclude the development of national approaches to common problems. In addition, the federal structure allows for new ideas to be pioneered by one jurisdiction and, if successful, to be adopted by others.

As I mentioned before, I am opposed to the centralisation of power in Canberra. The writers of our Constitution recognised, during a critical time in the founding of our country, that the division and separation of powers was needed to help prevent the centralisation of power in any one place. This referendum seeks to change that system of checks and balances. It undermines the principles of federation. It undermines the principle of states' rights. The states, quite frankly, need to be accountable for how they conduct themselves in accordance with our constitutional road map, and they need to stop passing the buck to Canberra. But what concerns me about this constitutional amendment is that Canberra will now be dealing, supposedly, directly with local councils. That gives another arm of our government authorities around the country an opportunity not so much to be held to account but to pass the buck to Canberra.

I say to the Australian people that if you think Canberra can resolve all of your problems then you are not asking the right question, because more limited government is in our national interest. More trust in local authorities and communities to determine their own direction and self-direction and more responsibility and accountability from state governments will result in the better governance of your state. I simply have not bought the idea that a bureaucrat or an idea formulated in Canberra is somehow better than one formulated in your local community, because the Commonwealth does not know more about what is necessary in local council areas than local councils themselves.

I raise the issue because, with funding from any government—they are not benevolent institutions, let me tell you—there are always conditions. Conditions that the Commonwealth could impose could indeed override aspects of a council's self-determination. We have already have complaints in parts of South Australia that the state government is overriding or insisting upon changes to planning laws or regulations in some local council areas as a condition of funding. Let me tell you that the Commonwealth could intervene and interfere in issues such as that to a much greater and more substantive extent. Any number of strings could be attached to direct federal government funding to local councils, and this has all sorts of implications for local government decisions. Decision making can then be taken out of the hands of locals and passed up the line to someone sitting behind a desk in Canberra. That means Canberra's priorities will come first, rather than the local communities'.

As I said, there is a potential for even more buck passing between the three tiers of government. Of course, increased funding and promised efficiencies often do not appear. Extra funding agreements often mean extra regulations. The regulations increase costs and red tape. If there is one thing that this country needs less of it is red tape, quite frankly. The question is, who is ultimately going to end up footing the bill for higher costs and more bureaucracy? It is going to be the taxpayers and the ratepayers of Australia.

The other aspect of this referendum is that the current system actually works. It is not broken. There is nothing that stops the federal government from funding local councils through the traditional means that have always been available to it since the 1920s, and that is through the states. In fact, about 80 per cent of federal funding to local governments is provided through the states in this manner. In the last financial year, about $2 billion dollars was provided to local government by the Commonwealth using section 96 of the Constitution. There was also additional, direct funding to local government that bypassed the states but, nonetheless, that is not necessary to achieve outcomes. And why would we risk—or deliberately want to remove—the checks and balances that are inbuilt in our current system simply for political convenience and for an ideological agenda that is driven essentially by the left of the political spectrum, which seeks to impose its decisions and dominate the power-sharing arrangements, because it has not always used that system appropriately.

Mr Deputy President, let me make this point: if you want a more egregious example of the misuse and abuse of the power of the Commonwealth, then the bill before us today and the announcement by Mr Albanese about the inequitable funding for the yes/no case demonstrate the point entirely. There has been a consultation about a change to the Constitution, and yet what is being put by this government—and the wording—has changed significantly and substantively from what has been discussed, what has been researched, what has been workshopped and what we have had expert advice on. Constitutional experts have indicated that that has widespread implications for our constitution that have not been robustly tested. But—on a more base note—if we are trusting in the altruism of our Commonwealth and in the benevolence of acting the national interest, there are many examples I could give you where that has not been the case. But in every previous referendum where public funding has been provided, there has been equal funding for the yes case and the no case. You do not have to be on one side of the fence to think that that gives the Australian people a reasonable and fair shot at making the right decision. Let the advocates for either side put their case into the public arena on an equal footing and allow the Australian people to decide. Yet, somehow, fairness, equity, convention, tradition and decency have escaped this Labor government.

After a vote was taken in the House of Representatives, and after an agreement had been reached where the facilitation of this bill would go through and there would be registered but limited objection to it, simply so that the AEC, the Australian Electoral Commission, could prepare a case—a no case—Mr Albanese unilaterally announced that $10 million would be given to the no campaign. This is on top of other publicly funded propaganda, and funds that have been provided to external organisations to continue to prosecute the no case. Mr Albanese, in his benevolence, in his equity and in his compassion, gave $500,000—one-twentieth of the amount—to the people who are trying to protect and defend our constitution from those who seek to centralise power in Canberra and take it away from local communities. He said that this was based on the result of the vote. Well, Mr Albanese has ignored another fundamental principle of this place—that is, that the Senate is a very important part of our parliament. It is the states house. We should be sticking up for states' rights here, not undermining them. Yes, we have allegiance to our political parties; yes, we have allegiance to the national interest—but we are here because of the constituents in our states. For Mr Albanese to ignore the vote that is going to take place up here—to virtually say it does not matter—gives you an example of how those who have a flagrant disregard for the checks and balances built into our system, and those who have no respect for convention, for the traditions or for the institutions that have made this such a great country, will behave, should you give them virtually unfettered powers. No decent Australian can concede that there is somehow equity in a decision to fund a no case that benefits the government and, essentially, a decision not to fund to any substantive measure the counter-case, in dealing with our constitutional roadmap—our founding document. This is a document where the checks and balances were established because our forefathers knew exactly what could happen, should we allow power to concentrate in any one place.

I make the point for those who are on the yes side that there is no proof that local government would actually be any better off if this referendum passes. There is no proof whatsoever. There is no guarantee that they are going to receive any sort of special status or receive any more funding. According to the Constitutional Reform Unit at the Sydney Law School, overall, local government receives about 84 per cent of its funding from its own revenue sources—rates, service fees, investments and so on; about eight per cent is provided by the federal government; and a further eight per cent or thereabouts by the states. Yes, there are variations among different local councils; some are more reliant on the Commonwealth and state grants than others. However, councils that rely significantly on grants for more than 58 per cent of their revenue represent about 0.4 per cent of the population.

The other aspect of this, which I will touch on briefly in the time that I have left, is to reflect on the history of this particular issue in Australia. The Labor party have had a focused, consistent and diligent approach to trying to take power out of local communities and reinstate it in Canberra—they have been doing this since Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister. They have had two previous referendums on this very issue. The first was in 1974: it failed, with just 46 per cent of the vote, and only New South Wales voted in favour. The second referendum, in 1988, failed: it got just one-third of the vote and no states voted in favour of it. It seems as though now is to be 'third time lucky', except that the deck is stacked. The deck is stacked by the ideologues who are insistent upon grasping more power from local communities because they want to be able to tell them what is actually good for them. There has been no history of success of concentrating power in any country around the world.

We live in one of the best—if not the best—democracies anywhere in the world. That is because our Constitution has delivered strength and stability through the separation of powers. Whether that is by some quirk of fate, by grand design or by some inherent wisdom in our forefathers I cannot tell you.

Labor wants to overturn that. It thinks that the vessel of knowledge in the country resides somehow in this building. It does not. It resides in our communities; it resides in our local councils; it resides in our state governments; and it resides in every individual and family. They elect us to represent their interests. This is not in my community's interest and it is not in my state's interest. We cannot allow it to go through unchallenged. I am on the record as being opposed to this. If you were in any doubt, Mr Deputy President, I am opposed to this referendum. I accept that the question is going to be put. I feel deeply uncomfortable with the injustice that is being put upon the Australian people by the inequity of the decisions of Mr Albanese and the Labor Party.

I regret the haphazard, hasty and disingenuous manner in which this referendum question has been hustled through the parliament. As Senator Cormann said, the Australian people are not interested in rendering a verdict on giving more power to the people in here. They are interested in rendering a verdict on how the people in here have used, misused and abused the powers they already have. That is what we should be debating, discussing and advocating between now and 14 September. But, alas, a magnificent distraction to the tune of $10 million of public funding—plus many millions more—has been engineered.

I ask the Australian people to reflect upon their own interests. Are they happy with the way that our country has been governed over the last year, two years, three years, five years or six years? Ask yourself that question. Would it have been any different or any better if Canberra could make decisions about who was allowed to build a house in your community or in your street? Would it have been any better if, when you went to see your local councillor and asked them for advice or to get something done in your street, they had to refer it up the line to some bureaucrat in Canberra? Let me tell you: I do not think that it would be. I think the Australian people will emphatically reject this attempt to abuse and radically change our system of government in this country. I will be voting against it.