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Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007

CHAIR —Welcome. Do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Berardo —Yes. The Friends of Noosa thanks the committee very much for the opportunity to discuss this imperative legislation, which begins to restore democracy in Queensland. Through this legislation, Noosa residents will be given the opportunity to once again make their unstinting position very clear: no amalgamation for Noosa.

While the plebiscites will not carry the same force as referenda, with the oversight of the Australian Electoral Commission the Beattie government will not be able to politicise or spin the results to their benefit, as in the case of previous polls and submissions, where our 31,000 submissions were referred to as ‘10 submissions from a small interest group in Noosa’. The wording of the plebiscite will be crucial to a fair and objective outcome as well as to what happens after the results are obtained.

The legislation will also provide protection from the Beattie government and specifically the minister for local government, Andrew Fraser, who dogmatically threatened to fire or fine councillors who objected. Although the Beattie government backflipped on the issue this past week, a simple ‘I was wrong’ does not cover up their intention to bully this legislation through at any cost. Since they announced the repeal of the section of the local government reform act—and both Mr Fraser and Mr Beattie have said repeatedly that the results of the plebiscite will mean nothing to them, again demonstrating their contempt for the people of Queensland and their continued dogmatic, undemocratic behaviour—it is very clear to any thinking Queenslander that they repealed the law because they were forced to by the federal government. While the legislation is imperative and critical to restoring democracy in Queensland, we are still only halfway there. We have the right to speak, thanks to the proposed legislation, but unfortunately we do not have the right to be heard. The Friends of Noosa and, I am sure, the majority of Queenslanders are looking to you, the federal government, to restore a full democracy in Queensland and not half of one, which we have. Please help to make our vote count when the outcomes of the plebiscites are finalised.

Although the Australian Constitution does not address issues of local government, we are certain that our forefathers never intended for its people to have a half democracy. The will of the people must be heard and a fair go must be returned to Queensland. This is an issue with far-reaching implications for all of Australia, not just Queensland. We look forward to discussing with you the issues we have raised in our submission.

CHAIR —Thank you. Dr Taylor, do you have an opening statement?

Dr Taylor —Yes, I do. The first thing I would like to say is that I agree with every word that Jim Berardo has just said. I will say a few words about what the ratepayers association does and then move to the main points of our submission.

The ratepayers association has two objectives: firstly, to keep rates as low as possible, consistent with a reasonable level of services; secondly, to protect the Noosa lifestyle. We have played a major role in campaigns against forced amalgamation over the last few years. In 2004, the property council pushed for amalgamation of Noosa, openly admitting that the purpose was to breach Noosa’s population cap—I will be happy to talk to you later about what is meant by the ‘population cap’—and to reduce infrastructure charges. Noosa’s rates are relatively low, and the council’s finances are strong, because developers have been required to pay their fair share. The association led the organisation of a petition against amalgamation in 2004, which was signed by an astonishing 80 per cent of the voting age population. Surely this is very tangible evidence of Noosa’s community spirit.

Turning to our submission, the immediate wish of the Noosa community is to have an opportunity to express its views on forced amalgamation via an official plebiscite. Why is the community so keen to express its views? Because the local government reform process was deeply flawed. It was undertaken with indecent haste and smelled strongly of a done deal, and the reform commission’s report was hopelessly inadequate. In a word, the whole process was undemocratic.

Making a case for amalgamation of Noosa was always going to be difficult. The council’s balance sheet is strong, and even the Premier regards Noosa as iconic. Regrettably, the reform commission made no serious attempt to make that case. It dealt with an average of two communities per day—imagine dealing with the entire topic of amalgamating Noosa in half a day—and it produced no evidence whatsoever of economic benefits. Instead, the commission’s report consists of unsupported assertions. For example, the reform commission totally failed to address its first term of reference: to consider the grouping of like communities of interest to maintain the social fabric and character of communities. Noosa is not better than Maroochydore or Caloundra, just different. The Premier has offered Noosa so-called ‘iconic legislation’, but this would be virtually impossible to draft, especially in the 30 days he has given us to make an input. We now have until 14 September. Noosa is a combination of natural beauty, a sympathetic built environment and tremendous community involvement, not the tax act.

In summary, the Noosa Shire Residents and Ratepayers Association asks the Senate to pass the plebiscites bill. But restoring the democratic right of communities to express their views on forced amalgamation is not the end of the story. We hope that the Premier will heed the voices of people at last and proceed only with voluntary amalgamations. It is not too late.

CHAIR —Thank you. You mentioned that the Premier has offered Noosa legislation which would protect the iconic status of Noosa. What is intended by that?

Dr Taylor —That is a good question. It is easy to say the word ‘iconic’, and the Premier initially put out something saying that there is going to be no high-rise on Hastings Street, but we all realise that there is far more to Noosa than Hastings Street. There are, of course, the beaches and so on, but we always have to remember the hinterland too. The intention is to provide some form of protection, but our view is basically that legislation is a totally inappropriate way to approach this. Noosa did not really start until about 1930, but over the last 40 years the efforts of a wide range of community organisations and councils—and, I think, that tremendous community spirit—have made Noosa what it is. It is a bit like trying to legislate for Beethoven’s ninth symphony or something like that—you can write down those words in a piece of legislation but trying to make what you see around you is extremely difficult.

Just briefly, on behalf of the ratepayers I attended a workshop on Monday run by the council. Their representatives may talk about it further. That basically indicated how difficult it was. We have to put in things like values, which cover pages in themselves, and not only the entire Noosa planning scheme, which is about four inches thick, but also many other plans. And, finally, what mechanism would we have? How would we be guaranteed democracy in that? If the Premier or the minister simply appointed some commissioners to run the iconic Noosa legislation, what faith could we have in that? So that is our position.

CHAIR —Mr Berardo, you mentioned in your opening comments the fact that the Premier has since indicated that he will withdraw, or may have already withdrawn, the provisions of his legislation which would fine or sack a council for seeking to access the plebiscite. In light of that, could I put to you a comment from a local newspaper and get your view? The quote, from the Australian Financial Review of 28 August, says:

‘The inquiry—

being this inquiry—

serves no purpose, given the Queensland government will not take any action against councils holding referenda. It’s been exposed for what it is—a taxpayer-funded touring circus for Howard government mouthpieces to peddle false hope,’ Queensland Local Government Minister Andrew Fraser said yesterday.

Do you think that this committee is serving a useful purpose and that that this legislation is still necessary?

Mr Berardo —As I said in my opening comment, I think it is not only crucial but also absolutely imperative. I know that I speak for the residents of Noosa—all 50,000 of us—in saying that we have not been given a fair go. I come from a background where you dazzle people with brilliance or you baffle them with BS. I think when you cannot dazzle with brilliance you baffle with BS and, unfortunately, I have to refer to that as BS—it is absolutely silly. We must have this legislation to take the next step forward for democracy.

Senator FORSHAW —On 17 May, over three months ago, the Leader of the Opposition, Kevin Rudd, stated that he believed there should be local referendums or local plebiscites regarding the proposed amalgamations. Are you aware of that?

Mr Berardo —Yes, I am aware of that statement and his position.

Senator FORSHAW —So you accept that and support that? Are you here today to support the position that there should be local plebiscites?

Mr Berardo —We support the position; we would like him to support that in the Labor Party with Mr Beattie, who is not supporting that.

Senator FORSHAW —This is federal legislation. Let me make it very clear at the outset that the Labor Party opposition supports this legislation. Mr Rudd was on the record before Mr Howard in terms of calling for local plebiscites with regard to amalgamations. That is a matter of fact. What do you want this committee to do? We have three days of hearings—today, tomorrow and Monday. We are due to report on Tuesday. That will be an interim report, I imagine, with a final report fairly soon thereafter.

Mr Berardo —We are asking this committee to take back the message to their respective parties. We applaud that Mr Rudd believes that and feels that way, but he needs to now act because Mr Beattie is not acting in that manner.

Senator FORSHAW —What do you mean by ‘act’? I see the signs outside asking Mr Rudd to act. What are you saying Mr Rudd should do? The statement has been made that the Labor Party supports this legislation and that has been made very clear in the parliament. What else are you asking Mr Rudd to do relevant to this legislation, which is what this inquiry is about?

Mr Berardo —As I said in the opening statement, it is one thing to have the freedom of speech—and I think this legislation will give us the freedom of speech; the plebiscite, as I understand it, does not have the same clout or force that a referenda has. Therefore, we want Mr Rudd to give us the ability to be heard, so once we vote—as we have voted in Noosa, essentially, three times—and say we do not want an amalgamation, we expect to be heard not forced.

Senator FORSHAW —Can I take it that you would support having the Constitution altered to include specific reference to local government so that there would be greater power under the Constitution for a federal government to regulate to involve itself in local government matters, including potentially to seek to enforce the result of a plebiscite?

Mr Berardo —If there was a mechanism to absolutely protect our democracy and if it could be done before we are forced to amalgamate with other shires then by all means.

Senator FORSHAW —Are you aware that the coalition parties have consistently opposed alterations to expand the Constitution, and referenda to that effect, to include the specific coverage of local government? They ran a substantial campaign against that when the Labor government were in power.

Dr Taylor —That was 20 years ago, as I understand it. There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then, especially in Noosa.

Senator FORSHAW —Do you know what the current federal government’s position is on constitutional change to include reference to local government? Are you aware that in the federal parliament in recent times they have voted against resolutions to that effect?

Mr Berardo —No.

Dr Taylor —I am not.

Mr Ansett —I want to add something to a question you asked initially but, before doing that, I will respond. One would hope that the experience that we are going through in Queensland at the present time would muster the support of all parties to ensure that constitutionally the local government is recognised in the Constitution. To your question—

—I would share your enthusiasm, but you might direct that at other members of the parliament, not us.

Mr Ansett —We will. Your question was: what do we expect out of this inquiry? Primarily, that the bill gets passed. It can be argued that Peter Beattie has said that he is going to drop that draconian provision that was in his legislation that forced mergers that would end up sacking any council that had the audacity to run a public vote and fine counsellors. It is almost unprecedented legislation. The second aspect of it is what needs to be taken into account even though he said he will drop it is that his behaviour throughout this whole process is such that it would not give us confidence that if the Senate did not pass this bill that Beattie would not reintroduce or reinforce it if he has not dropped it from the legislation. So we see it as essential that this bill be passed and we would hope that it can go beyond that. Obviously, there is some great apprehension by the state Labor government that the community of Queensland is going to express itself in such a dynamic fashion in opposition to these forced merged councils that it is going to cause the government to have to look at it again. While you may say that we can vote till we are blue in the face and it is not going to make any difference to him, it just does not function that way in a democracy.

Senator FORSHAW —I appreciate all that, Mr Ansett, but the point I was getting at is that first of all we are supporting this bill. This legislation will pass, so your request—

Mr Ansett —That is good news; great news.

Senator FORSHAW —to the committee is already—

Mr Ansett —Thank you.

Senator FORSHAW —taken care of. I was seeking to explore what more you saw in this specific inquiry for this specific legislation, which I might add does not actually mention the words ‘local government amalgamation,’ and could have more far-reaching effects, but I do not need you to respond. I have one other question. You said earlier that in a local plebiscite the questions need to be framed correctly or appropriately—I am paraphrasing. Do you believe a referendum should be held—in other words, should it be run in the same way as a referendum or do you have a different view as to how a plebiscite should be run?

Mr Berardo —Yes. We are forming that view daily because one of the things that we want to avoid is what was done recently by the Beattie government. They asked a very leading question in a poll: would you like a stronger government? There is not a person in this room who would answer no. But, unfortunately—

Senator FORSHAW —It is a bit like: do you want to be relaxed and comfortable?

Mr Berardo —Exactly. Thirty per cent of the people—and I will let you know where they reside—said, ‘No, we wouldn’t like a stronger government.’ We have got to be very careful that we do not get the Hawthorne effect and lead people on to the answer that everybody wants. We want fair, objective and open questions, and I am not sure if one yes-or-no question is going to do it. There are a couple of issues at play, one of which is again the right to speak and the other is the right to be heard.

Senator FORSHAW —Thank you.

Senator JOYCE —Do you believe it is slightly peculiar that you have one person leading a state Labor government who strongly believes in amalgamations—in fact, who cannot do anything about it—yet you have another person from the same state and from the same party who does not believe in amalgamations but these two people seem to coexist in the same party and in the same state?

Mr Ansett —Yes, I find it extraordinary. I would have thought that one of those persons is in a position of influence within that party to exercise that influence on the other leader of the Labor Party in the state government. I would have thought that the rules of the Labor Party are such—and I am not an expert on this by any means—that the federal leader of the Labor Party would be able to exercise some influence on the behaviour and adherence to the rules of the party of a state leader.

Senator JOYCE —In other organisations it could be suggested that there is almost duplicity when you have two people saying completely different things for different political purposes.

Mr Ansett —I would not want to analyse it to that extent but it certainly raises the eyebrows, I suppose.

Senator JOYCE —I think the inclusion of local government in the Constitution is a great idea. I am all for that. Would that be of any use to you whatsoever if we did it not at this election but at the next election in three years time?

Mr Ansett —As I said earlier, I think we have reached a point where this experience that we have been through over the last 12 months draws a focus on local government. It draws a focus to the point where I would have thought it goes beyond that. Maybe we are reaching a stage where state governments are going to be increasingly irrelevant and where local government is going to be the secondary government in this country. That is taking it on into the future. Our primary concern, though, is what happens to Noosa. That is what we are about. We want to ensure that every step we take along the journey is focused on the immediacy of this situation.

Senator JOYCE —If someone were to suggest that there be a plebiscite for the inclusion of local government in the federal Constitution not at this election but at the next election, that is really and truly offering false hope because by then it is all done and dusted, it is all over.

Mr Berardo —Absolutely. It is far too late in three years time. The damage will have been done. Noosa and all of those other shires that the proposed legislation takes the heart and lungs out of will absolutely be destroyed in three years time. There will be no turning back. The damage will be done and we will not be able to undo what we took 40 years to painstakingly sort out together in our own committees. The so-called things that the Beattie government is asking us to do now, we have done. We have worked carefully amongst the top 10 councils. When Mr Fraser himself came into this town in July 2007 he said, ‘We would not have to amalgamate if everyone was like Noosa.’

Senator JOYCE —Mr Rudd has offered you a plebiscite in three years time. That is completely and utterly useless.

Mr Berardo —Absolutely.

Senator JOYCE —Do you believe that it is an infringement of a state’s rights to have a plebiscite or that a plebiscite is really fleshing out what the state actually believes? Some have suggested that it is an infringement on a state’s rights for the federal government to insist on local governments having a plebiscite. Do you believe that argument is countenanced or do you believe that it is really—

Dr Taylor —I think it is regrettable but essential perhaps. We all know from the newspapers that there is a large debate about Commonwealth and state relations, and I think in this case this intervention is completely justified.

Senator JOYCE —Are you against a change in the boundary in any form? Are there certain changes that you would accept?

Dr Taylor —No. The council’s submission and our submission proposed that, as Noosa is already coming up to about 60,000 in the next few years, we incorporate a couple of areas—Eumundi, Doonan, Verrierdale and Peregian Springs—to bring us up to about 75,000 people. If you get into the economic literature on this, there is very little evidence for economies of scale above that number.

In fact, as I have mentioned before the commission provided not one skerrick of quantitative evidence that there would be any savings at all from this amalgamation. There were purely assertions. One of the assertions was in fact that if our representation drops from 10 to two, which it will, that does not reduce the level of democracy. That is the equivalent of saying that the Senate would be equally democratic with 15 senators instead of 76. That is the quality of the report that we are talking about.

Senator JOYCE —But you do not have an upper house in Queensland, do you?

Dr Taylor —No. That was reduced to zero.

Senator MURRAY —Thanks to the Nationals.

Senator JOYCE —I notice that Michael, Jim and Robert all have accents. Would that be a fair assertion?

Dr Taylor —We all have an accent. If I can respond to that—and perhaps the others want to as well—this is one of the characteristics of Noosa. The word ‘unique’ is much overused, but many people in Noosa have come here relatively recently and we have all grown to love it. I do not come from the Australian bush, as is obvious, but we have the sort of spirit that you find in the Australian bush, but this has been developed by people, who have come here from all over the world and all over Australia because it is such a unique place.

Senator JOYCE —So it is fair to say that not only is it unique in Queensland and in Australia but it is unique in the world.

Dr Taylor —I would say so, yes.

Mr Reddaway —If I can get a bit of Ockeresque accent in here, the prospect of Noosa being amalgamated into the southern shires is sad beyond belief. This is a process of mediocrity; this is a process of dumbing things down. Noosa runs far and away the best shire in this state, and arguably in the country. For it to be absorbed into its southern neighbours is a travesty. They ought to be looking at Noosa and saying, ‘This is a shining beacon; this is the place that we can look to for leadership across the world in how to develop sustainable communities.’ They ought not be looking to throw it together with two shires which have totally disparate philosophies. They look to do different things with their towns. We are not criticising them; we are just saying, ‘Leave us alone to do our thing.’ There are millions of people across the world who come here on a regular basis because Noosa represents to them many things which they cannot find elsewhere in the world. To insist on us being aggregated with other shires with such different reasons for being is ridiculous beyond belief.

Senator JOYCE —My final question is this: if Mr Beattie and Mr Fraser do not listen to the views of Noosa, do not listen to the views of a demonstration of 10,000 people—which, I read in your submission, went to Brisbane—and do not listen to the views expressed in a plebiscite that is held in the Noosa shire, do you know of any other pressure points on the Australian Labor Party that you can use to try to get them to listen?

Mr Berardo —We began that process today. If you look at the Australian, the Friends of Noosa took out a full-page ad sending a clear and unequivocal message to Mr Rudd that he does not have a chance of going any further in this state. The momentum is huge. Last night, I must have had about 40 emails from like-minded people—people from all over this state who had read the Friends of Noosa site—asking: ‘How can we help? How can we join?’ The momentum is just beginning. It is far from over. It is not, as Mr Fraser and Mr Beattie are saying, going to go away or not affect the election. It is going to affect the election. We will continue this. We are not going to accept amalgamation for Noosa in any shape or form. We will not.

Senator JOYCE —Thank you very much.

Senator MOORE —It is a very short piece of legislation that we have in front of us. Have you all read it?

Dr Taylor —Yes.

Senator MOORE —You can see that here is no mention of local government; it is purely about the AEC having the ability to run referenda. In terms of process, are there any other issues that you think may be of importance? This legislation is as close as possible to guaranteed—and it is always dangerous to say that. We have all major parties supporting this legislation. Have you given thought to any other ways in which it could be used in the future? Once it is there, it is there for use, so I am interested to see whether you have thought through that.

Mr Berardo —The question was raised earlier about whether we think it is appropriate for federal government to intervene in state issues. Politics and, hopefully, government are about balancing, being fair and objective. Circumstances change. Twenty years ago you had the Liberal Party, as you said, taking a different position. Government is all about checks and balances, regardless of the party. One of the things you have to use is good judgement. So if that vehicle is there and the circumstance is there, by all means it should be used for those things.

Senator MOORE —For anything? That is what I am trying to find out. The issue before us as a committee is not the local government issue, which is really important, but it is not what the legislation is about. What I am trying to find out from people who have chosen to give evidence is whether they have thought about other ways that this legislation can be used. If not, that is fine, but I am trying to find out because that is what we are looking at.

Mr Taylor —Basically, we are all groups of volunteers. Our focus is on Noosa and Queensland local government more broadly. I do not wish to give the impression that we think this is only Noosa; it is very far from it. I worked in Canberra for 25 years, so as to looking at the precise way in which the bill is drafted, in the very limited time available we had to focus on the local government issues in general and Noosa issues in particular.

Senator MOORE —Following up on your first comments about the process with local government—I was thinking I would not go this way because I want to stick to the bill, but it is a bit difficult—the way the Constitution is now written with the process and responsibilities that are given, the local government issues in terms of structure are clearly with state government. That is the way it operates. I know, Mr Taylor, in your submission you talk about hoping that you can get federal intervention later, but how would that work? My understanding—and I am happy for you to tell me I am wrong—is that it cannot work, that with the way it operates now, no federal minister would be able to intervene to enforce changes to boundaries.

Mr Taylor —I suppose there are two things we are looking for to rise from the plebiscite: one, which is almost a given, is that there is an enormous groundswell of feeling across Queensland against forced amalgamation and the first best option would be for Mr Beattie to actually listen to us for once and say, ‘I’ve made a mistake; forced amalgamations are a bad idea.’ He has already taken one step back; let’s hope he can do a twostep. His stepping back from that is our first best hope.

The other issue, getting into the sorts of things Senator Forshaw was talking about, is that we are then into the politics in Canberra. It is quite clear that we are trying to put pressure on Mr Rudd. We hear rumours that there is going to be a federal election soon! That is not a legislative mechanism; we are talking about politics here and that is another way that it could happen. Mr Rudd might get on the phone to Mr Beattie and persuade him to take a step back—I am speculating on that. All I can say is that I am a lifelong Labor voter and I will never vote Labor again.

Mr Ansett —To add to what the federal government can do in exercising the right to hear the voice of the people and to act on it: one of the areas, speaking specifically from the position of Noosa, is that Noosa shire has been recognised by Macquarie University as being a national model for sustainability. There has been a nomination to UNESCO—you would be aware of that.

Senator MOORE —I am aware of that.

Mr Ansett —This matter will be decided in the next couple of weeks. There is an indication that it is possible that we may not succeed with that nomination if Noosa is merged into a supercouncil. There are examples of intervention by federal government in the past when icons of this country were put at risk—I am thinking of the Franklin River and the Daintree. What is special about the nomination of Noosa is that the majority of these biosphere reserves are waterways and national parks. To my knowledge, this is the first time a community has been recognised worldwide as a model for sustainability. So perhaps in the case of Noosa there is some justification, and to some degree Peter Beattie has recognised with his proposed iconic legislation that there may be an avenue open for federal government to intervene on that basis. I do not know, but I put that forward.

Senator MOORE —It is referred to obliquely in the legislation, in your submission, but not fleshed out like that so I appreciate the greater detail. If you have some more information on that particular point, Mr Ansett, I am interested. It has not been covered very much. I am aware of it because of discussions with other people in Noosa, but my understanding is that at this stage there has not been anything from UNESCO which says particularly that a change in focus would damage the claim that you already have in, but if it is an aspect, we would like to get that information as well.

Mr Ansett —Yes.

Mr Taylor —I am on the international recognition working group related to the biosphere. I am also a former international civil servant. I worked for the OECD in Paris and I would have to say that my experience of international bureaucracies is that they play the rules pretty hard. I think this will upset their applecart somewhat. My feeling is that it makes achieving the biosphere significantly more difficult because the biosphere talks about cause. It is sponsored by the Noosa council—there are states involved as well. It requires you to define specific areas. If that area ceases to exist, I think that is going to cause the people in UNESCO a problem.

Senator MOORE —Thank you.

Senator MURRAY —I want to begin by thanking you four and the people of Noosa on initiating one of the major breakthroughs in the last 100 years in Australia—that is, the introduction of a direct democracy mechanism. You will probably feature in the history books far more than you imagine. My question to you starts on the broad principle you have now broken through on. Democracy divides essentially into two bits: democratic expressions initiated by governments such as elections and those initiated by the people. Canada, Italy, New Zealand, Switzerland, 27 states of the United States, Venezuela and Poland are among the countries that have direct democracy. Do you believe that this expression by the people should be encouraged in all instances where there is high drama—for instance, pulp mills, nuclear facilities, council amalgamations? You cannot just view this narrowly. The point has been made to you that this legislation does not specifically talk about amalgamations. I want to know from leaders of a community campaign whether you recognise and accept the broader principle that you have fought for.

Mr Ansett —Having grown up in the United States, perhaps I could answer first. Very much am I supportive of it. The issues that you raised are of sufficient significance to justify plebiscites or referendums on those issues. I think the federal government has made a comment, particularly on the nuclear issues, that local communities should have a say if it is suggested that there is going to be a facility located in a certain local community—obviously, the community should have a say about it. There are a lot of things that are life-affecting. To relate it back to the Noosa issues, I chose to live in Noosa because I had an appreciation of the incredible community values, which I have not seen anywhere else in the world where I have lived or visited. At the stroke of a pen, without any consultation, the government has said, ‘No longer can you have this life experience,’ which I and thousands of others in Noosa have chosen to be part of. The principle applies to issues of great community concern and I support it completely.

Senator MURRAY —I have heard already during this discussion and in much of the media commentary a mix-up in understanding between plebiscites and referenda. Broadly, it is easiest to define this way: plebiscites are non-binding; referenda are binding. People should not confuse the two. That is the important question that arises from this bill. This bill is about plebiscites, which are an expression of opinion; it does not have any binding consequence. Would you have preferred the Commonwealth to try to introduce a referendum mechanism so that, in a large enough area, it would have a binding effect? I am not sure whether that would be constitutional, but I am testing the principle with you.

Dr Taylor —I think the simple answer is yes, absolutely.

Mr Berardo —Without a doubt, yes.

Senator MURRAY —I ask everyone in future to never use the word ‘referenda’ interchangeably with ‘plebiscites’. This is about plebiscites. If it is in the expression of opinion that you hope to get political impact, do you have any expectation that Caloundra and Maroochy, if the question is put to their people, will also oppose amalgamation?

Dr Taylor —According to the Caloundra submission to the Local Government Reform Commission, Caloundra was against amalgamation. I think it is only Maroochy that is in favour. The big player usually likes to take over, doesn’t it?

Senator MURRAY —My question is important because, if you are considering this in a regional sense, if a majority of the region—namely, Caloundra and Noosa combined versus Maroochy—were to oppose this then I would have thought it a reasonable proposition for the Beattie government to say, ‘Fair enough; the amalgamation won’t go on in this region.’

Dr Taylor —As far as I am aware, the Beattie government has no mandate to introduce regional government. I do not recall their last election platform talking about forced amalgamation at all. In the previous Beattie government, after our amalgamation, there was a response saying, ‘There will be no forced amalgamations during the life of this government.’ I do not recall them running on a platform—and I voted for them—saying, ‘There will be forced amalgamations,’ so it was an unpleasant surprise to all of us when they brought that in.

Mr Reddaway —Further to that, they instituted a thing called the ‘Triple S’: size, shape and sustainability. They instituted all councils talking to their neighbours about coming together, and that process was some two years in when they called an abrupt halt to it and unilaterally brought together this so-called independent committee to look at all of the shires. We were given a short period of time to write to them and give our opinions and so forth, and some 31,000 Noosa people, out of I think 38,000 submissions overall, went to them saying, ‘We did not want to be amalgamated.’ They contemptuously looked at those 31,000 and said that they represented a very small number because they were sent on postcards.

Senator MURRAY —The important point I am making to you, which I am sure you understand—I might be a ‘big D’ Democrat but everyone in this room is a ‘small D’ democrat—is that, essentially, when you get the expression of a large number of people then the validity increases. That is why the opinion of the people of Maroochy and Caloundra is as important as the opinion of the people of Noosa. You accept that, don’t you?

Mr Berardo —Absolutely.

Senator MURRAY —The converse of that is that if Noosa voted against and the other two voted for then your case would be weaker. You accept that, don’t you?

Mr Ansett —I accept that for the fact that there may well be a justifiable reason for those two communities—Caloundra and Maroochydore—to merge to have a more powerful council. Peter Beattie has said over and over again that the primary issue driving this forced amalgamation is the massive growth of population in south-east Queensland.

Senator MURRAY —The question I am going to put to you comes back to Senator Moore’s questions about what questions you were put. I think the questions have to be multifaceted because I think people need a choice. You might find that Caloundra and Maroochy want to amalgamate and not be much concerned about Noosa, so I think people have to be given options.

My last question will be quick. I have to move quickly because I do not have much time in my segment. I am going to put the coalition to the test because I am going to recommend to the committee, and I will want it in the report, that we recommend that local government be recognised in the Constitution and that a referendum, not a plebiscite, be held in due course in that respect. Would you support that?

Mr Ansett —Yes.

Mr Berardo —Yes.

Dr Taylor —Yes.

Mr Berardo —As long as that could be done immediately and not—

Senator MURRAY —It cannot be done immediately. This is a permanent change to the Constitution which will affect all local government. I merely want to know whether you would support that.

Mr Ansett —Yes.

Senator MURRAY —Thank you.

Senator LUDWIG —Given the time, I will be as brief as I can. Have you inquired of the federal government as to why they cannot assist in this process? Do you accept that the weight of the national federal government is neutered in this process and that they have to sit idly by or do you say that they have a role to play and have you sought for them to play a role?

Mr Ansett —We made a submission to the federal government about this biosphere reserve and they are looking at it now. We used the Franklin and the Daintree as examples of ways in which they could intervene once again. It is what the government are considering at the moment.

Senator LUDWIG —Have they provided a response to you about that?

Mr Ansett —Just that it is being examined.

Senator MOORE —Can we have a copy of the information you have sent to the government? That would be useful.

Mr Ansett —Yes.

Senator LUDWIG —That would be helpful. Have you made representations to the Commonwealth government about the amalgamation?

Mr Berardo —The issue for us early on in the continuing discussions with the federal government has been the legality of the whole process. One of the things we have noted, and you would have hopefully read about, is that Friends of Noosa filed an affidavit for an injunction against the act. It was debated very heartily in Brisbane. The debate went from 5 o’clock until 10.30 at night. For the first three hours we were arguing about whether or not we had the right to even make the application. I found it absolutely astonishing that you are not even allowed to go to your Supreme Court and challenge a law that is being made. The judge acted in our favour and said that, yes, we did have the right. We were challenging clauses 78 and 77 on the regional change of government and also the timely notice of that. We had one day’s notice of this act. It was distributed on Tuesday and then it went to parliament for discussion on Wednesday and then ultimately it was passed on Friday. That was hardly enough time. The issue is that, because local government is not addressed or considered in the Constitution, the federal government cannot do a lot of work. We have obviously been seeking their assistance and we applauded them when they came back to us and, through this process, came up with the next best thing, which was the plebiscite. We will continue to applaud anything that can be done for Noosa on this issue.

Senator LUDWIG —In general terms, do you accept that they have no influence on this other than to provide a platform for a plebiscite?

Mr Berardo —No, I do not.

Mr Ansett —Other than the biosphere?

Senator LUDWIG —Yes.

Dr Taylor —I presume that would involve something like the external affairs power of the Constitution. We are getting into legal areas, which—

Senator LUDWIG —I was not really trying to get into legal areas. I was looking at influence more broadly. Do you accept that the federal government has no influence in this area?

Mr Berardo —Personally, I would never accept that. I think the travesty that we are living with now with this forced amalgamation is a democracy issue. We will never accept that the federal government cannot do anything about it.

Senator LUDWIG —What are you doing to try to influence the federal government to do something about it?

Mr Berardo —Hopefully, we are influencing you today by being in this room and you will take that back.

Mr Ansett —We met with the Deputy Prime Minister who came to Noosa and understands the issues that are affecting us. He has given us an undertaking that (1) they will look at interventions through this proposed legislation to deal with plebiscites and (2) they will look at what other areas are open to them if there is an expression in those plebiscites of total support against the forced amalgamations of councils.

Mr Berardo —We are asking for help on this issue. We are not saying that Mr Beattie’s ideas on the amalgamations are all wrong. For some shires it is absolutely the right thing to do. We have never refuted that. It is the process by which he has gone about it. It has been premeditated. In April of this past year he came through and rewrote legislation when he created the commission and took away the ability for anybody to have a say in the process, including the Supreme Court of this state. If that is not premeditated—‘We’re coming down the road to do what we want, and we don’t care about what you, the people, think’—I do not know what is. We are just asking for a simple thing. This is not right; the process is flawed. We need to find any way we can. Please help us. That is what we are asking you to do today.

Senator FORSHAW —In other submissions—I do not think it is mentioned in yours—it is put that Coolum should be included in Noosa Shire Council area, and Eumundi as well. Do you support that?

Mr Berardo —Absolutely; wholeheartedly.

Dr Taylor —The point is that it is voluntary.

Mr Berardo —We understand that our colleagues from Coolum, Peregian, Verrierdale, Eumundi and Doonan will be presenting to you later.

Senator FORSHAW —So your position is not, ‘Leave things as they are.’

Mr Berardo —No, absolutely not. Include them. We have natural boundaries around all of us.

Dr Taylor —It is not fortress Noosa; it is about communities of interest. That was the first term of reference of the reform commission.

CHAIR —Thank you to the Friends of Noosa and the Noosa Shire Residents and Ratepayers Association for coming this morning.

Proceedings suspended from 9.57 am to 10.36 am