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Wednesday, 26 November 1986
Page: 2747

Senator GRIMES (Minister for Community Services)(10.41) —The Government opposes Senator Vigor's motion to disallow the Advisory Council Ordinance. We should look at the speech that we have just heard here today, which went for about 25 minutes and which told us why we should disallow what Senator Vigor says is a bad, nasty ordinance. In fact, most of that speech was spent rehashing the debate on the nature of self-government that Senator Vigor would like to see in the Australian Capital Territory. We heard a lot of words. We heard a lot of accusations about the motives of Cabinet Ministers, the motives of what he calls the numbers men in the Australian Labor Party, the motives of the Minister for Territories (Mr Scholes) and the incompetence of the Minister.

What do all these words cover and what is it all about? We should just briefly think about that. The Australian Democrats have let Senator Vigor have his head on the matter of the Australian Capital Territory. He went running, and he went running hard. Therefore, we all have to have some sympathy for a senator in his position, who runs as hard as he has, who gets a high profile on this matter and then finds at the end of it that he picks up the Canberra Times and sees his photograph, underneath which he is described as the butcher of self-government, and reads articles in that newspaper in which he is again described as the butcher of self-government. In the last few days the President of the Australian Democrats in the Australian Capital Territory has resigned from that position in protest against Senator Vigor's handling of this very issue. I have considerable sympathy for that. But that also explains why here this morning we have had this torrent of words about the disallowance of this Ordinance.

The simple fact is that we would have self-government and a democratic representation in the Australian Capital Territory if Senator Vigor had not been so rigid and if he had been able to compromise and to negotiate. We could have had a form of self-government. We could still have Mr Gordon Walsh as President of the Australian Capital Territory Branch of the Australian Democrats. But, as Senator Vigor says, what we have here is the last remaining state in the Western world without self-government. If the choice is self-government or government by the Minister, I believe that the Minister has done a sensible thing. He is putting in an advisory council, which is quite obviously and plainly an advisory council to him. When he goes out, it goes out and a new Minister appoints a new advisory council. There is no pretence that it is anything else.

What Senator Vigor has done has demonstrated his incompetence as a negotiator in this area. He took his Party not only to the brink, but right over the brink. The Opposition was very happy to go over with him because it thought both he and the Government would be embarrassed. Let us cut through all the words and nonsense and realise that that is the situation we are in now. The Government made proposals for self-government in the Australian Capital Territory. We had a substantial package of compromise amendments to the self-government legislation. We had a significant compromise on the electoral provisions which were tabled in both Houses of the Parliament on 3 June this year. The Government was prepared to negotiate. It attempted to negotiate. It was prepared to compromise. It did compromise. Senator Vigor decided that he would not compromise. The other Opposition parties decided that that was a good political thing to do so they went along with him. It is that group, but particularly Senator Vigor, which is responsible for the failure of the legislation to proceed.

Senator Vigor complained that the Government wanted to force on the Australian Capital Territory what he described as a rigid and unfair form of self-government. In passing, he suggested that we wanted to ensure that the Australian Capital Territory branch of the Australian Labor Party was in control of self-government in the Australian Capital Territory forever. I can assure him that that is not necessarily greeted by members of the Labor Party in this Parliament with a great deal of enthusiasm. Senator Vigor wanted to say: `I know what is best for the people of the Australian Capital Territory. The Government does not know, the Minister does not know. You do what I say or it is not a fair system'. That is not compromise; it is not even a decent exercise of democracy.

Senator Vigor —It is the majority of the Parliament.

Senator GRIMES —For heaven's sake, it is not the majority of the Parliament. Does Senator Vigor want a joint sitting to see who will have the majority in these circumstances? If he wants to have a joint sitting, then we will see what the majority of the Parliament is. During the debate on self-government we made it clear, as everybody in the Territory realises, that the Australian Capital Territory House of Assembly, with its formal, quasi-parliamentary mode of operation and its high operating costs has outlived its usefulness. When the Assembly's term of office expired on 30 June and when we realised that we were not going to get self-government legislation through the Parliament-not only through the Senate; there is no reason why the Senate should dictate to the Parliament-the Minister wrote to a substantial number of Australian Capital Territory community and business groups, all political representatives of the Territory, seeking their views on the most appropriate body to advise him on Australian Capital Territory matters. There was a clear majority in favour of the appointment of a smaller, more flexible and less costly body than the former House of Assembly. A substantial body of opinion supported the contention that the Australian Capital Territory community should not be subjected to the expense and inconvenience of electing a body with only a limited range of advisory functions and executive responsibilities. Therefore, we have the Australian Capital Territory Advisory Council Ordinance.

Following discussion with the Opposition, the Government again agreed by letter-I am sure that Senator Reid or other honourable senators will mention it later-to delete the reference to a specific number of councillors in the Ordinance and to remove section 10 (3) of the Ordinance which deals with the question of a quorum. That part of the Ordinance dealing with remuneration and allowances has also been clarified and an amending ordinance will be made as soon as practicable.

The role of the Advisory Council, as set out in the Ordinance, is to advise the Minister for Territories on matters he refers to it. It is also his 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. Senator Vigor apparently thinks it improper that the Minister should give such a standing instruction, or perhaps he thinks it is beyond the Minister's powers to do so. He made a great song and dance about it. I think that if we are going to have an advisory council there is nothing wrong with the Minister giving such an instruction. Why should he not give such an instruction? It is a sensible thing to do.

Without the trappings and the quasi-parliamentary nonsense that used to go on with the Assembly we will have an advisory council which will be aware of its limited role-and there is no argument that it has a limited role. It will require fewer support staff. The cost of operations will be considerably less than the cost of operations of the former House of Assembly. As I said earlier, the Minister has decided-the Government agrees with him-to tie the term of office of the advisory council directly to the term of office of the Minister. Again, that is a sensible provision. Future Ministers will not be lumbered with advisory councils they may not be able to work with or may not want to take their advice from.

It is not a satisfactory situation. The Government wanted self-government in the Australian Capital Territory. A considerable number of people in the Australian Capital Territory wanted self-government. As Mr Gordon Walsh has said, the sensible thing would have been to negotiate with the Government, have an evolving situation and work out a program so that we could have established self-government in the Territory and have that self-government evolve as self-government has evolved in every other democratic country. But Senator Vigor would not cop it. He decided that this was the big issue he was going to make his reputation on. His reputation now is as the butcher of self-government in the Australian Capital Territory. His reputation is not very high with the Australian Democrats in the Australian Capital Territory. The President has resigned because of his rigidity.

This Ordinance is an effort by the Minister to provide some degree of input from the people of the Australian Capital Territory into the government of the Australian Capital Territory. I hope that in the near future we will again be able to introduce proper representative government in the Australian Capital Territory, once the feelings of suspicion and the controversy which have existed in the last couple of years about this issue have passed. We have had an attempt by a government to introduce self-government. That attempt has been frustrated, on the one hand by someone who was too rigid and who wanted to stamp his rigid views on self-government, assisted on the other hand by Opposition parties which were trying to make the best of the situation, for which I suppose I cannot blame them. This Ordinance is a sensible approach to a difficult problem. To disallow it, to throw the whole thing out and leave everything in the hands of the Minister, would be unsatisfactory. Therefore, I urge honourable senators to oppose the motion for disallowance.