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Joint Select Committee on the Constitutional Recognition of Local Government
Majority finding of the expert panel

DE WIT, Councillor Margaret Anne, President, Local Government Association of Queensland

JOHNSTONE, Mr Craig, Media Executive, Local Government Association of Queensland


CHAIR: Good afternoon. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a formal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. Councillor De Wit, would you like to give a brief overview, and then we will go to questions.

Councillor De Wit : Thank you for the opportunity to appear before this committee to present the case for constitutional recognition on behalf of the councils of Queensland. As the peak representative body for 73 local councils in Queensland, LGAQ can speak for the commitment all councils have the back the Australian Local Government Association's push for an amendment to section 96 and the significance of such a change. As stated in our submission, LGAQ strongly supports the option of financial recognition for local government in the Australian Constitution and is in agreement with the sentiments expressed in the expert panel's discussion paper.

We understand that the viability of holding a referendum is a critical consideration, and in Queensland we have a good story to tell about public support for such a move. The potential problems that councils face because of the current situation are here and now. We support holding the referendum either concurrently with the next federal election, if the prerequisites can be met, or on a date fixed in 2014, as early as possible in the next parliamentary term. We believe it is doable by 2014, and I was encouraged by the advice from the constitutional experts this morning.

Based on extensive and repeated polling which we have undertaken over the last 18 months, the option of financial recognition is most likely to resonate and be supported by voters. We strongly believe that, for the sake of good governance and improved intergovernmental relations, it is in the public interest that the Australian Constitution be altered to include the third sphere of government in the Federation. Constitutional recognition is vital for local government right across Australia. We need to ensure that councils can receive funding directly from Canberra without the threat of legal action being taken to prevent it.

In Queensland the potential for direct funding from the Commonwealth to be jeopardised is very close to home. The Williams case which was successfully mounted in the High Court last year emanated from Toowoomba and, while that did not involve local government, there are other vital funding programs which could be under threat. For example, on the Gold Coast a resident commenced action against federal Treasurer Wayne Swan in a bid to stop the $1.6 billion light rail project. The basis for the action is that the resident alleges that the government funding for the project is unconstitutional and is seeking an injunction to have it frozen. I believe that action has stalled, but that does not take away the risk of further action.

Another good example is a major infrastructure project which is to receive direct funding from the federal government—that is, the Legacy Way Tunnel which is being constructed by Brisbane City Council. The federal government has committed $500 million to this $1½ billion project. But across the state, and indeed across the country, as we have heard today, Roads to Recovery is the most important program directly funded by the government. Ensuring that the Constitution recognises the Commonwealth's ability to directly fund local government where appropriate would put beyond doubt important programs that support the economic and social development and wellbeing of communities across the country. Only that change will guarantee that projects like those mentioned, providing vital community infrastructure such as roads, will be protected from legal challenge.

If we step back in time, the role of councils, as you said this morning, Madam Chair, is different. We live in a different age. We have all heard about the very outdated description of local government as being about four Rs: roads, rates, rats and rubbish. Yes we still all do that, but today's councils have to be so much more. Queensland's 73 councils are responsible for not only maintaining basic services for their communities but also making their regions better places to live through initiatives like arts and cultural programs, recreational facilities, events and festivals, youth development programs and healthy environments. In some of the rural and remote areas in Queensland, councils have had to take on additional roles such as the provision of childcare centres and even hospitals and aged care accommodation to ensure that these facilities continue to operate in their communities. Councils are always looking for better ways to improve their communities and, as the sphere of government closest to the people, they are well placed to achieve meaningful outcomes.

Constitutional recognition of local government has practical benefits for all Australians. It will give local councils a rock-solid financial and legal base on which to plan for the improvement and maintenance of their communities and to provide certainty for the federal government in making its funding decisions.

On the economic front, Queensland councils are also no small players. Our councils spend around $12 billion in capital and recurrent expenditure every year and generate around $9.5 billion in revenue each year. Through economic development initiatives, councils help create jobs in their communities; in fact, the local government sector is one of the largest employers in Queensland, with about 40,000 people employed. All of this means our councils are a significant part of the political landscape and it is appropriate that the Australian Constitution reflects this.

LGAQ supports the majority of members of the expert panel on constitutional recognition who found that financial recognition of local government was a viable option to put at a referendum. Polling undertaken by the panel backed up earlier surveys of the Australian Local Government Association which indicated a substantial level of support for financial recognition in the broader community. The panel believed that there were enough indications that the community may support recognition of local government in the Constitution in a form which addresses a perceived problem like the uncertainty of the funding relationship between the Commonwealth and local councils. It would be a form of recognition which has the clear purpose of improving the effectiveness of local government and the benefits to the community can be clearly demonstrated. It is also important to note that there is bipartisan political support in Queensland for constitutional recognition of local government.

If a referendum were to be held, we believe it is vital to the success of the vote that the public be clearly informed by a publicly-funded education and awareness campaign. It is noted that substantial funding has already been provided for the Indigenous issue. LGAQ believes that a successful referendum would rely heavily on efforts to ensure that the community does make the connection between their local council and the many and varied services it provides long before a vote is held. LGAQ began this process in August 2011, launching its government image campaign in Queensland. The image campaign was underpinned by a 30-second television commercial and a 45-second version for intermittent and strategic use. The commercial first aired in August, September and October 2011 and also in May 2012, along with significant online exposure. It was initiated in response to the consensus that there was a need to improve the profile of local government independent of any messages about constitutional recognition.

The TV commercial reached a state wide audience of more than 2.5 million in 2011 and 2012 and other supporting research has shown it has had an impact on attitudes. Certainly it is fair to say that the campaign has been a success. Market research by Newspoll after the first airing of the campaign in 2011 was commissioned by the independent expert panel on constitutional recognition. It demonstrated that the ongoing investment of member councils in the campaign has helped shift public opinion in favour of local councils in Queensland. The research showed that a majority of Queenslanders would likely support a referendum on recognising local government in the Australian Constitution. In other words, the campaign has succeeded in its goal of prepositioning the local government sector in readiness for the referendum.

The majority of Queensland residents believe that local councils are an essential layer of government that provides vital services every day of the year and that they need more funding from state and federal governments. That said, there is still considerable scope to improve public perceptions. Given that this disconnect can so easily exist when it comes to services that actually play an everyday role in people's lives, LGAQ believes the complex and comparatively remote—that is, in people's minds—issue of constitutional recognition equally requires a concerted campaign.

To recap, LGAQ urges the committee to support a referendum to change Section 96 of the Australian Constitution to ensure the certainty of the Commonwealth's ability to directly fund local government as it sees fit; to consider holding the referendum either concurrently with the next federal election, if prerequisites are met, or on a date fixed in 2014; to conduct a publicly-funded awareness campaign in relation to this important issue which has a direct impact on the delivery of services in our communities and, in support of what Professor Williams said, we believe that we cannot wait too long to put the question. Again, thank you for this opportunity.

Ms LIVERMORE: Margaret, you talked about that effective advertising campaign in Queensland. I think I do remember that one and you are right, it was very well done. You might have said, and I might have missed it—

what was the cost of that advertising campaign?

Mr Johnstone : All up, there were two tranches of $500,000 funded by member councils through a levy.

Ms LIVERMORE: What was the time frame for developing it and producing it?

Councillor De Wit : I am sorry, I cannot answer that directly. I have only been president of LGAQ for a relatively short time and I do not have some of that exact information.

Mr Johnstone : I can answer that. The initial work started in late 2010 with some market research to determine what messages we should include in such a campaign. Production took place over two weeks in July after we employed an advertising agency and again conducted in focus groups to see whether we were on the right track. It aired in August 2011 in its first iteration and then we had another go last year as well.

Ms LIVERMORE: We heard from the ALGA their assessment that an 18-month time line is needed to develop and run a campaign, but you were able to do it, with an admittedly smaller campaign, in a much shorter time frame.

In your submission, you mentioned bipartisan support and you repeated it in your opening remarks. Is that an absolutely unequivocal, unambiguous expression of bipartisan support, not falling back on what other state governments are saying, where it is subject to the wording of the amendments or anything like that?

Councillor De Wit : No. We have bipartisan support. We have had a letter from the Premier that spells it out quite clearly.

Ms LIVERMORE: What do you put that down to? We are hearing from other witnesses, particularly the ALGA, that the big stumbling point is getting that kind of discussion going with other state governments.

Councillor De Wit : I think it is a case of, I suppose, the state government understanding that what local government wants is in no way any threat to any of their powers or responsibilities. We are still creatures of state governments, no matter where they are, and all we are asking for is certainty that what happens now can continue. Times have changed. Twenty years ago, this would not have been an issue, but, having had the Pape and Williams cases, how long before the next one comes along? I mentioned two very major projects and there have to be dozens of examples around the country of projects that are in that category of federal government saying, 'This is a really good project; we want to put money into that,' and deciding that they want to do it that way and not go via the states. All we are asking for is that certainty.

Ms LIVERMORE: What would LGAQ say to the ALGA or to your other state counterparts as to how you have succeeded where others have failed?

Councillor De Wit : I think it comes down to, again, the understanding of our state governments—both this state government and the previous one—who understood what this was really about and that it is not about any threat to any state government or its functioning in any way. It is merely about providing certainty if the federal government believes something should be funded, such as Roads to Recovery, for example. That is just so vital. It is such a big issue for councils right across this country, more so the non-metropolitan than the metropolitan councils. The federal government has to be able to provide that funding and surely a federal government should have the right to determine where its funding goes.

I come back to the fact that we are seeing challenges in the High Court. As I said at the beginning, the problem is here and now and it is not going to go away. We need something to be done now, not in five or 10 years time. As Professor Williams said, the longer it waits the more the urgency may be dissipated, and that is a concern.

Ms LIVERMORE: You have been making that case and the Queensland parties have accepted it. The question for the committee is: why have the other state counterparts not been able to achieve the same outcome?

Councillor De Wit : It is hard to say. With the current state government, we have a Premier who was the Lord Mayor of Brisbane, a minister for local government who was the deputy mayor and a Treasurer who was a councillor. But the previous state government also could see that, so I cannot answer that.

Senator RHIANNON: Could I ask something following on from that? Are you underplaying your own role? Maybe it is just that we have been fortunate with the opposition and the government in Queensland, but was your organisation meeting regularly your campaign? I am wondering if that is the answer.

Councillor De Wit : As I mentioned, I have been president for only a couple of months, but I have had an involvement since 2008. It is an extremely effective organisation. I am talking about not only the political level but the organisational level. It is an organisation that does an extremely good job. It has long had a very good relationship with politicians at the federal level, for example, on both sides of politics. I think that has been part of the success.

Mrs PRENTICE: Can I start by congratulating you on your election, Councillor—not only as the first Brisbane councillor but of course as the first female president of LGAQ. Queensland, as the third largest state by population, is obviously critical to the success of the referendum. What do you assess is the level of support for a yes case, and would you or Craig elaborate on Kirsten's questions about the time frame and the optimum timing? You have got the preparation, you have got the education, you have got the campaign and then the vote.

Councillor De Wit : Certainly from the research that we have done, we believe that there is well and truly majority support for the financial recognition that we need. Could you repeat the second part of the question?

Mrs PRENTICE: I wanted you to elaborate on the timing frameworks.

Councillor De Wit : There are many opinions on the timing framework, as we saw this morning from a couple of the country's best experts. I think a well-run campaign can be executed in a relatively short period of time. But it is about how you run it. As Professor Brown said, it has got to be really clear, it has got to be relating to the people, it has got to be getting the message across in very plain English. We believe that it is quite doable. As I say, if it was considered not appropriate to go with the federal election, we believe a date should be set now that would bring it on early in the next parliamentary term in 2014 so that the campaign could get going. We feel that that is probably the best time to run a campaign.

Mr COULTON: I represent Queensland, which has some of the smallest local government areas by population in Australia. As a member of, I assume, one of the biggest local government councils in Australia, one of the witnesses earlier today felt that one of the downsides of a change towards constitutional recognition, or financial recognition, would be that the smaller councils would get an advantage over the large population areas. Considering the diversity of your state, do you have an opinion on that?

Councillor De Wit : I do not agree with that. I do not think that the change to the Constitution that we are talking about would have any impact whatsoever. The funding decisions would still be made by the federal government, whether or not it was going through to a metropolitan council or a country council, based on their needs, based on the case that they can present for their funding. I do not agree with that.

CHAIR: Thank you, Councillor, and thank you, Mr Johnston, for your attendance here today.

Proceedings suspended from 12 : 59 to 13 : 38