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Wednesday, 26 November 1986
Page: 2742

Senator VIGOR(10.18) —I move:

That the Advisory Council Ordinance 1986, as contained in Australian Capital Territory Ordinance No. 62 of 1986 and made under the Seat of Government (Administration) Act 1910, be disallowed.

The Advisory Council Ordinance serves no useful purpose for the people of the Australian Capital Territory. It manages to achieve the singular distinction of not doing this despite the Hawke Government's supposed commitment to self-government for the Australian Capital Territory. In one fell swoop this Ordinance manages to take the clock back to before 1930 when the first Australian Capital Territory Advisory Council had three elected residents amongst its seven members. In fact, this new body does not even have three elected members.

This Ordinance formalises the inability of this Government adequately to consult the people of the Australian Capital Territory. If such a consultation had taken place at the outset of the self-government exercise something reasonable could already have been on the statute book. However, the Cabinet chose to conduct everything it was doing behind closed doors in a most paternalistic manner. Senior Ministers did not want to hand over any effective decision-making to the people of the Australian Capital Territory. The original offer of so-called self-government contained extraordinary powers for the Commonwealth Government to dismiss the Australian Capital Territory Council virtually at its whim. It also gave the Attorney-General remarkable powers to vet and clear all local laws as within the powers of the Council. Such insults would have been avoided if only the Minister for Territories (Mr Scholes) had cared to consult some of the people of the Australian Capital Territory or the bodies that represent them. Similarly, if the Cabinet had not thrown out the 1974 report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Australian Capital Territory and the 1984 report of the Craig Task Force on self-government for the Australian Capital Territory we would have had sensible proposals emerging for self government for the Australian Capital Territory. After all, both the parliamentary committee of which the present Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) was a member and the Craig Task Force conducted extensive public hearings before writing their reports and making their recommendations.

Both bodies were unanimous in their view that the proportional representation method of electing a government for the Australian Capital Territory, which had been used since 1949, was the most suitable electoral system for the Australian Capital Territory. Both bodies recommended a full-throated form of self-government and not the sickly type of squawk that emerged from behind closed doors when eventually the proposed self-government legislation was presented to the Parliament. However, the numbers men were determined to make certain that their local members won government outright on about 40 per cent of the vote.

This is all history. However, it is worth while pointing out that this is the very objection the Australian Labor Party has to the outrageous zonal system which applies in Queensland. It seems very inconsistent that it should be trying to put that type of system in the Australian Capital Territory when it is crying about the zonal system in Queensland, which the Hanlon Labor Government introduced when it was going through a rough patch in the 1940s. All of the opportunities were there for the Government to consult the people of the Australian Capital Territory but Cabinet chose to take the most paternalistic and self-seeking road all on its own.

The Advisory Council Ordinance 1986 is the ultimate evidence of the bad faith with which these manoeuvres have been carried out over the last 18 months. I believe that the regression to the pre-1930 situation starkly contrasts with both the Whitlam and Fraser governments' attitudes towards responsible government within the Northern Territory and is entirely in keeping with the corporatist spirit of this Government-a spirit of allowing to flourish only what the Government and its henchmen can control.

The Ordinance is a far cry from the words put into the Governor-General's Speech at the opening of the Thirty-third Parliament on 21 April 1983. This was a sacred undertaking which this Government made to the people of the Australian Capital Territory. In that speech the Governor-General said:

My Government is committed to bringing self government to the Australian Capital Territory. As a first step, a broad range of local government powers will be transferred to the Australian Capital Territory House of Assembly.

Amongst other things, the Advisory Council Ordinance repeals the existence of that House of Assembly, thus being a step backwards and breaking yet another solemn undertaking in relation to the Australian Capital Territory. No powers of any significance were ever transferred to the Assembly before it was abolished, which abolition is planned to be effected by this Ordinance. Not much notice was taken of that body either. We have a long history of ordinances proposed by that body not being put into effect by the Minister. An opportunity to take a first real step towards responsible government was squandered.

At the time of the report of the task force on implementing self-government in the Australian Capital Territory the then Minister for Territories and Local Government promised a White Paper in the first half of 1985. This was meant to encourage public participation and discussion on the Government's intention. In his statement Mr Uren went to great pains to assure the people of the Australian Capital Territory that they would get fair and equitable financial treatment. The fear of sudden Commonwealth transfer of financial burdens certainly is one of the main reasons why many Australian Capital Territory residents are suspicious of self-government in any form. The previous Minister made these remarks:

Those financial arrangements would be built around a five year transition period involving appropriate financial guarantees and designed to minimise disruption and enable the fullest opportunity for the negotiation of future funding levels.

These things have also failed to occur. The self-government legislation had no financial guarantees. All that we had was the Minister's fairly vague assurances that for the next two years the Government would consider the same funding levels. These have to be weighed alongside the 1982 assurances about the Belconnen Mall, which was eventually sold despite promises to the contrary, and the short-lived Budget attempt this year to tamper with the conditions of mortgages of the people in the Australian Capital Territory who have fixed interest Government loans. All in all the record of this Government and this Minister on this question is very bleak. This Ordinance, which I am seeking to disallow today, is yet another nail in the coffin of the Minister's credibility.

Some broken promises would have been avoided if a strong determined Minister, such as Mr Uren, had remained in charge. We certainly would not have had the insult of this Advisory Council Ordinance. Quite frankly, the Minister and the Cabinet seem to have no idea of what they are doing. They are making one bad decision after another on the run. The desperate nature of some of the Press releases, I believe, brings this out completely. One finds in them the factual errors that have carved out an unfortunate reputation for the Department of Territories and the Minister. For instance, in the Press release of 22 August this year it was stated:

It is now clear that the Senate will not pass the Government's legislation on self-government for the Australian Capital Territory.

It has always been clear that the self-government legislation would get through the Senate; it would get through amended if only time were made available for debate. The Press release continued:

The Senate is not prepared to grant Canberra self-government under conditions that would guarantee the citizens of the Australian Capital Territory the democratic right of direct election and rejection of their representatives.

That is blatantly not true. The most remarkable feature about the Tasmanian Hare-Clark system that was proposed in the amendments that we would have moved-the Government knew we would have moved them-is the degree of influence it would give voters over the elected candidates. It is a way of voters in practice choosing the candidates even within a given party. The Press release continued:

The Government will also now proceed to establish a body to replace the Australian Capital Territory House of Assembly.

I sought the views of more than 30 community and business groups in the Australian Capital Territory on the appropriate form of an advisory body to replace the old Assembly. The clear majority support a small appointed and more flexible body.

Freedom of information documents were obtained-we have them in our possession-and they show the last assertion to be completely false under any normal way of counting. Perhaps the Minister for Territories has developed some type of method to give him the results that he requires. Most people were not in favour of these conditions holding together. They might have been in favour of a smaller body but none appeared to be in favour of an appointed body in particular. Any government committed to effective self-government decision-making would at least have announced a timetable for the devolution of responsibilities. These arrangements were made and updated in the Northern Territory between 1974 and 1978. It should not have been beyond this Government to come up with something similar if it feared that the Senate would seek to give effective self-government to the people of the Australian Capital Territory.

I remind honourable senators that the Australian Democrats put forward a constructive alternative-an immediate election of the House of Assembly and a gradual handover of powers in June to that Assembly. This was after the House of Representatives had risen and there was not even the opportunity to get agreement on the Government's nine pages of amendments. It would have represented a first step toward self-government and given the Government a chance to hold a referendum on the electoral system or to throw some money into yet another self-government inquiry. The Minister rejected this. It seems quite strange that on 30 June, the day on which the previous House of Assembly's term expired, the Minister for Territories said in a Press release:

There will be a period of up to six months before an election for a new body can be held.

That was after that process. He gave the quite spurious reason that electoral arrangements for the House of Assembly ordinance no longer complied with the Commonwealth Electoral Act. On 18 June the Minister was more specific. He wanted a smaller advisory council of perhaps about 13 members elected in late November or early December. The Canberra Times of the following day quotes him on this and says that the election should be from the existing Australian Capital Territory electorates on a multi-member basis. This is exactly what the Democrats would have accepted and there would have been absolutely no problem. Cabinet Ministers certainly did not want an election so we ended up with something much worse than that-a body described by Mr Leedman as worse than a `troupe of performing seals'. I believe that this was a very apt description. The Advisory Council ordinance sets up such a body. The Minister for Territories was to hand pick an advisory council. Future Ministers in fact need not be lumbered with his choice because they can get rid of these people an appoint a new lot.

The confusion actually increased when the Advisory Council ordinance was gazetted and we had a ministerial statement on the matter. Obviously someone forgot to tell the Minister what was in the ordinance and what had been decided upon by Cabinet. The ordinance says that there shall be 13 members and that the function of the Council is to advise the Minister on any matter affecting the Territory that has been referred to it by the Minister. This suggests that the Minister will pick and choose the topics on which he wants advice. However, the ministerial statement of 15 October says:

It is my intention to give the Council a standing instruction to offer advice on an ongoing basis on any issue of concern to the Government and the Australian Capital Territory community.

He in fact hopes that the Australian Capital Territory community will be `more aware of the body's very limited role in advising the Minister'. Once again he claims a clear majority of opinion, after his consultation in writing, supporting the appointment of this smaller, more flexible, less costly body than the former assembly. He continues:

There was a substantial body of opinion supporting the contention that the ACT community ought not to be subjected to the expense and inconvenience of elections to a body which has only a limited range of advisory functions and no democratic or executive responsibilities.

The statement about a limited range of advisory functions is clearly in conflict with the Minister's intention to issue standing instructions to offer advice on an ongoing basis on any issue of concern. The use of the words `clear majority' and `substantial body' does not match the freedom of information material which we obtained despite the leading way in which the Minister wrote to each of these groups. We are shocked further when we take a look at the ordinance itself. There are quorums at meetings; votes are taken on questions; tied votes mean motions fail to pass; and the Advisory Council can set up its own standing orders with the approval of the Minister. It is a type of pseudo government. As Mr Leedman says, it has the trappings for a troupe of performing seals. The Remuneration Tribunal was in fact brought in to determine the perks of office. The President can perform civic duties on the Minister's behalf. No one quite knows the cost of the whole operation and we have not been told about it. In his Press release of 31 October, the Minister said:

The former House of Assembly cost the Australian taxpayer $1.2m annually. I expect the bill for the Advisory Council to be less than half this amount.

Well, it is not less than half. There are no elected people. It would be an absolute scandal if it costs even half as much. If the Minister is thinking of five-figure sums, there are quite a number of far more useful things that could be done with those. For example, we could find $10,000 for the Capital Territory Health Commission to put into the hydatid control campaign. I could go on indefinitely on the number of ways in which we could spend this money in a much better way. The Department of Territories could get more recycling of solid waste under way. We could get draftsmen to draft the legislation for the Australian Capital Territory and revise the antiquated ordinances so that we would have a reasonable body of law under which to operate this Capital Territory. The Government has reneged on this undertaking and is keeping the staff of the Attorney-General's Department occupied with I do not know what. This is quite significant because the Department's latest annual report made it quite clear that the process of law review has completely fallen behind the suggested schedules. We could look at this process in some detail.

I would just like to finish by pointing out that the Canberra Association for Regional Development has protested at the reversion to the situation of the 1930s. That is one of the bodies from which the Minister claimed support. The Australian Capital Territory Council of Social Service has declined to nominate anyone for, and is requesting its members not to participate in, the Advisory Council. Friends of the Earth has said that the proposal is completely inconsistent with the democratic principles on which this country is based. Students at the Canberra College of Advanced Education have attacked the patronage of appointments and claim that members will be unlikely to raise any matters which could potentially embarrass the Minister. The Canberra Program for Peace Committee has called for a gradual handover of powers to an elected body instead of the current charade. In fact, the Minister will have great difficulty in coming up with the 13 people to put into these positions. He will not find people of sufficient public stature. Even his own party has made the statement that anybody who is appointed to this body will be expelled. That is the level we have reached, and that is why I am urging the Senate to reject this pathetic ordinance.

If the Government is indeed genuine about its concern for the people of the Australian Capital Territory and not merely afraid that the Australian Labor Party will not poll anywhere near 50 per cent of the votes, it has a way out. It could indicate a timetable for the gradual handover of powers to a locally elected body, as happened in the Northern Territory in the 1970s. Better still, it could bring its Australian Capital Territory Council Bill into the Senate and see it pass with the improvements that the Opposition and the Democrats would put into it. It certainly should not be heading back 60 years and crawling back into a bunker with only its own people to advise it. I remind the Minister of his own words that accompanied the legislation, which is now at the bottom of the legislative Notice Paper. He said of the Australian Capital Territory:

It stands as the last remaining significant community in the Western world having no form of local or State administration answerable to the people.

The Minister stands condemned in his own words because he wishes to perpetuate that situation. The Minister has received a letter-which has come to me as well-from Justice Roma Mitchell of the Human Rights Commission, which states that the Commission has received a complaint to the effect that the abolition of the Australian Capital Territory House of Assembly is taking civil and political rights away from people, and calls upon the Minister to answer this complaint. I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard that letter to the Minister.

Leave granted.

The letter read as follows-

28th October 1986

The Hon. Gordon Scholes MP,

Minister for Territories,

Parliament House,

Canberra A.C.T. 2600

Dear Minister,

The Commission has received a complaint to the effect that the abolition of the ACT House of Assembly and the absence of an elected replacement is inconsistent with article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The relevant parts of article 25 read:

`Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:

(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

(b) To vote freely and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;'

Article 25 entitles citizens to take part in the conduct of public affairs and to vote at elections guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors. The thrust of the complaint is that residents of the ACT do not enjoy this right to the same extent as most other Australians, who have the benefit of a three tiered system of elected representatives. The Commission understands that there has been some indication that there will be no elections in the ACT until at least 1990. This may represent an intention inconsistent with article 25.

At this stage of its existence, the Commission has neither the time nor the resources to conduct a full scale enquiry into this matter. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate that in the ACT-for which the Federal Government is directly responsible-everything should be done to avoid the suggestion that, by abolishing the single existing form of representative government below the national level, Australia is acting inconsistently with its human rights objectives.

The Commission would be grateful if consideration could be given to obtaining an appropriate form of representative government for the ACT.

Yours sincerely,

Roma Mitchell


Senator VIGOR —I thank the Senate. Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights entitles citizens to take part in the conduct of public affairs and to vote in elections guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors. The Human Rights Commission has tried to put this into effect. The letter that I have incorporated in Hansard explains this in great detail. The Commission said that it would be grateful if consideration could be given to obtaining an appropriate form of representative government in the Australian Capital Territory. It will be a tragic irony if the Advisory Council is the first matter upon which the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission gets to conduct a full scale inquiry. The damage to this country's reputation could be avoided by setting in place a program for the handover of decision-making ability and responsibility to the people of the Australian Capital Territory. This Ordinance, which I urge the Senate to disallow, is indeed such a disgrace and could lead to that type of embarrassment for the Government and for the people of this country. I commend to the Senate that this Ordinance should not be passed. It is basically a very bad ordinance.