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STANDING COMMITTEE ON FINANCE AND PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION
30/08/2007
Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007

CHAIR —As technology has defeated us with the Inglewood Shire Council, we will hear from them by teleconference in a day or two’s time. I welcome the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of the Noosa Shire Council. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Councillor Abbot —I want to thank the government for this opportunity. I also thank the government for the individuals they have put on the inquiry panel. I recognise the significant individual capability and political awareness, and I am happy to sit in front of the inquiry panel and put forward whatever I can.

Councillor Pardon —I would like to echo the Mayor’s comments. Basically, we are very thankful for the federal government’s intervention. I know that a number of councillors asked the federal government for help in this matter. We emailed anyone we knew or bumped into in our travellers—senators et cetera. I even emailed the Treasurer, and I was a bit cheeky in my email.

Senator MURRAY —Did he reply?

Councillor Pardon —Yes, we have had replies or phone calls—

Senator MURRAY —Did the Treasurer reply?

Councillor Pardon —No, not to my knowledge.

Senator MURRAY —He does not reply to me, either.

CHAIR —That is not true.

Councillor Pardon —The staff usually do a lot of those replies—but, no, he did not reply personally. We did have phone calls—for example, Senator Brandis rang our CEO from the Northern Territory and said that he would assist, and there were other people. As you understand, we have a bureaucracy, as you do, so we do not get everything direct. But I thank you and I thank you for today.

CHAIR —Something that has perplexed me as I have been reading through the submissions, including your own, is the size, shape and sustainability review. If you will forgive me, I am from Melbourne so I am not as au fait with this review as others here might be. To my understanding, that review was underway. Most of it was only partly undertaken at the time that Premier Beattie announced that he was, in effect, going to suspend local democracy. What stage had your council got to in relation to that review?

Councillor Abbot —Basically we were at the end of the first stage in the review, where we were establishing bon fides. We, as Noosa council, had submitted to the panel our wishes, basically, as far as what we thought the size and shape of the future Noosa council should be. Our recommendation was that we would look at the Noosa shire being extended south in its boundaries to take in areas around Doonan, Verrierdale and Eumundi, with the possibility of Coolum also being considered as part of that option long term.

We saw that the real potential for the Sunshine Coast was to make two good councils out of three. Given the natural boundaries between the northern end of the Maroochy shire and the southern end of Noosa, there were a number of boundary opportunities, one of them being already set boundaries under the Electoral Commission, with divisional boundaries within the shires, and indeed the state seat of Noosa, which created current, drawn boundaries—lines on maps. But also there was a significant natural boundary between the two, with the large areas of open space between them. We are aware that the Eumundi-Doonan-Verrierdale area exists and comes through to the coast. We actually submitted that within days before the chop.

CHAIR —So you were open to having the boundaries of the council changed on the basis of community interest and a sustainable area?

Councillor Abbot —Absolutely. We saw that. We also saw some heading in the direction from the local councils below us, Caloundra and Maroochy—some thought of the amalgamation of those two councils. They were not resisting it by any means, but I do not think they ever got through to putting in a final submission.

CHAIR —As part of the review, the Queensland Treasury Corporation undertook an analysis of the financial sustainability of each local government area. What did that find for your council area?

Councillor Abbot —In the top 10 in Queensland, most definitely. I think financially we are well and truly in the top 10. We do have a couple of issues with regard to longstanding compensation claims on development property, but in a community like ours that is always going to be the case, because we are willing to fight to defend what we have.

CHAIR —So you were not down on your uppers about the collapse?

Councillor Abbot —Absolutely not.

CHAIR —Totally viable.

Councillor Pardon —In fact, I will add that we have virtually put to bed a recent case of compensation which may negate most of those compensations by legal precedent. So we would say that we have improved our situation, quite possibly.

CHAIR —So the Premier’s announcement just came as a bolt from the blue? You were going through the process which the Queensland government has laid out to look at voluntary amalgamations, partial amalgamations, sharing services. You were in the middle of that process and then—boom!

Councillor Abbot —Absolutely, and I made a public statement at the time that, whatever the Queensland government did to stop the leaks, they should patent it and sell it to every other government in the world, because it was absolutely faultless. Nobody knew. There were a couple of leaks, which I am happy to talk about. We had been dealing with state government bureaucrats on the size, shape and sustainability issue and the water issue. We had some very good contacts in there who were helping us through the program. We found, about two to three weeks before that started, that all those gaps started to close. We could not get people to talk to us who would talk to us before, and we were finding more and more difficulty in getting not necessarily information but even assistance from those people because they for some reason had become resistant.

I was told—and unfortunately I cannot remember where because it is so long ago and it just seemed a bit ridiculous at the time, but I did announce at an LGAQ meeting about four days or five days before the chop came that there was significant local government reform being planned and indeed there would be some eight to 10 local authorities left in south-east Queensland and somewhere about 80 left across the whole state. I had been told that somewhere—and I would have to swear on a Bible that I cannot remember where—but I announced that that morning at an LGAQ meeting in quite a fit of anger, in a debate that we were having. I was told: ‘No, that’s definitely not the case. We’ll check it.’ The LGAQ president and the executive checked through all their contacts and they said, ‘No, absolutely not; there’s nothing like that happening,’ including direct comment from the Premier to the president.

On the Monday, there was a cabinet meeting. On Tuesday, down came the hammer. So, from my perspective, there must have been something significantly planned prior to that. There must have been some understanding of what the final state picture would look like, and there must have been significant work already done before the commission started.

Councillor Pardon —I would like to verify that. The mayor, in conversations with me—and probably with other councillors—had said exactly that. He said, ‘There’s  something going on, Frank,’ because people openly talked to Bob—and Bob is well known, as you would know, across the state of Queensland and certainly through his Queensland Local Government Association circles; he is extremely well known and has a chat to many of the government ministers, backbenchers et cetera. He was quite candid about it. He said, ‘There’s something up because people have stopped talking to me.’ So I would like to verify what he said.

CHAIR —Thank you for that. That was very helpful.

Senator MOORE —Good morning, Gentlemen. It is very difficult with this particular process. What is in front of us is the legislation that has been put out for consideration. It is very short. Senator Forshaw is on record as saying we should have another day’s hearing because that would be a day per page of the legislation.

Senator FORSHAW —I am on the record now!

Senator MOORE —I wanted to put that on the record. I had to do that.

Senator FORSHAW —If that were the case the Northern Territory legislation would have gone on for about a year.

CHAIR —Thankfully, Senator Forshaw has given up his career in stand-up.

Senator LUDWIG —And he will not give up his questions.

Senator MOORE —Councillors, in terms of the process you have seen the legislation; it particularly looks at the ability of the AEC to conduct a plebiscite. It does not mention the issue that is so important to the community and has driven the whole process. I am interested in your understanding of the legislation. I am also interested in the way it is written. It will go into law because this particular legislation has been fully supported by the Labor Party at the federal level. You know that our leader, Kevin Rudd, was out early in this process questioning the process of the amalgamations and actually talking about the need for community consultation. You know that; we have spoken about that, so that is where it goes. But in terms of the legislation, it talks about a plebiscite. From your perspective in the community, are there any other issues that this particular form of legislation would be effective in being used on?

Councillor Abbot —Across the nation in the future?

Senator MOORE —Yes.

Councillor Abbot —Absolutely. I realise fully that this opens enormous opportunity for future discussion out in the general community on major issues: obviously, nuclear power and global warming.

Senator MURRAY —And pulp mills.

Councillor Abbot —Pulp mills—topical. To me it is the ultimate form of democracy, and in future those issues are going to have to be covered. I suppose relating it to our own local issue here, the plebiscite—or indeed if you had a referendum, and I do understand the difference between the two—should be focused on the local issue and have a considerable direct focus on what is happening locally. That is where I think the best use of a plebiscite is. A referendum, I understand, being so much different and actually carrying weight in law long term, would more than likely have to take in the interests of the country at large, as against those of the individual area. I think it is a dangerous thing at times for individual areas and local areas to have a referendum that spreads the weight of the whole country and that focuses on one small area, because the locals know what they want locally but the rest of the country probably do not care.

Senator MOORE —The legislation that is in front of us is very short. The way it will operate is not clarified in terms of all the detail—and we will be asking questions of the AEC and also of departments about the details given what often happens in these things. The legislation is 3½ pages and the guidelines around it are so big that I am trying to get an idea specifically on what our task is, which is to look at this legislation to see whether you have any ideas from your knowledge about how it could work.

Councillor Pardon —We certainly understand your role, Senator, to go through and make sure that that legislation fits the way your party sees the world, so you have a role naturally to play in that and I know that you will do that.

Senator MOORE —Councillor, it is wider than that. This particular committee is the finance and public admin committee, so we look across parties at the way the legislation would impact and the way the process would operate. Certainly we bring our party position to it. Our party has been very clear federally—and also the range of local candidates up here have been very clear on their position—on democracy and how people should be involved. You know that the federal Labor caucus has been quite clear on that.

Councillor Abbot —What is significant about this is what the Queensland government tried to do in stopping local communities from having their say. It sets an absolutely extreme precedent, I think, in Australian legislation. It was an atrocious attack on the basic democracy of this country. I am quite happy to say that, had they not done it, I do not think they would have the problem that they have now. It seemed to me to be a knee-jerk reaction, something that was not necessary. It is unfortunate that it happened. What it has done is raise the ire of the rest of the state in particular and, obviously, of the federal government to think that under legislation in this country it is possible for a government to not only stop the information in a report from getting out to the public because they pushed it through cabinet but also put a judicial review ban on the legislation itself so that it cannot be challenged and then, because somebody gets upset and runs 10,000 people down George Street, put in a proposal that says, ‘Well, bugger you, you can’t have a public vote either.’ What is happening to democracy in this country when those things can be put in place, in front of the people of a local community, to stop them from simply having a say. The Premier himself has been quite clear: ‘I don’t care what they say; we’re not going to change anyway.’ But you are not going to get a vote in the first place anyway. We have done a backflip and we are back to day 1, but the precedent that has set for legislation in Australia has to be addressed. I am certainly hoping that your group will give some enormous consideration to how you should fix that precedent.

Senator MOORE —In terms of the drafting of future legislation?

Councillor Abbot —Absolutely.

Councillor Pardon —Following on from what the Mayor has said, if the federal government has gone to such lengths, looking through constitutional law et cetera, to come up with this foreign affairs type legislation so as to get around what a state has done in its legislation, I would say that a hard look might need to be taken at our Constitution. It is really frightening for the common man and for democracy itself in this country when you get right down to that. Let’s face it: it would have access to the finest lawyers in constitutional law in the land so I would say that, if the federal government and its lawyers have struggled to get around that—it is alright to say today that we might have a benevolent state government, but what about a group?

Senator JOYCE —It is alright to say that.

Councillor Pardon —I thought some people might laugh at that one.

Senator FORSHAW —I think they had a state plebiscite about that, Senator Joyce, as to which government they preferred.

Councillor Pardon —If it is that tough, I think they should have a look at the Constitution itself, because there might not always be a benevolent government. If a group of Independents won power and those things were on the statute books, then, my God!

Senator MOORE —I know that Mayor Abbot was at the Local Government Association meeting where we talked about the proposal to put local government into the Constitution. I will not go there but, in the terms of process, your point about the federal government looking at the Constitution is very real when we are talking about the issues that underlie the current debate, not in terms of the legislation that is in front of us, which is about having a plebiscite, but in terms of the wider issue of local government. You have been through this very open and very tolerant debate in the last few months so I am interested in your understanding as to what possible role the federal government could have in intervention. I am interested to hear from your perspective, from the local government aspect—

Councillor Abbot —Intervention in which way?

Senator MOORE —In any way. I know that your staff have been wading through the submissions to see what is in them. I am concerned that there could be some false expectation about what this committee can achieve—which is why I am stressing the legislation that we are looking at—and this attempt, perhaps, to raise hope within the community that the committee and the Senate process will in any way be able to impact on the core issue of local government amalgamation.

Councillor Abbot —Reform?

Senator MOORE —Yes.

Councillor Abbot —Okay.

Senator MOORE —I never use the term ‘reform’. That is one I do not use. In terms of your understanding from the council level, what do you believe is the possibility or probability of any federal government being able to intrude on the issue of local government amalgamations?

Councillor Abbot —I understand that there is no position that the federal government can take with regard to involvement in that, but I think we can expose some of the things that have happened along the way. Maybe something can come out of the wording of the text. Some other inquiry into the process may well happen. There are significant, dastardly deeds being done along the way. It is absolutely amazing to me that the president of the Local Government Association of Queensland said to the premier on Saturday or Sunday ‘We have been told in an executive meeting that this is happening’ and the premier said to the president, ‘No, Paul. There is nothing happening. It is not going on.’ Then on Tuesday the axe dropped with a 72-page document already printed. That is the sort of thing that I think needs to be picked up out of this inquiry and possibly used elsewhere to give us a chance of getting some clarity on how this process was brought about. How did I know three or four days beforehand basically what was going to happen? Who developed all that stuff? Why did the director-general of local government distribute a memo to his staff thanking them for six months hard work some week or so after the hammer came down? Why did that happen? If it was not predetermined, what was going on? Why was there a letter from the minister asking the mayors, not the councils—and giving virtually none of the councils time to hold meetings in their normal process—what they thought was happening with the Size, Shape and Sustainability Program and then a decision in that short time to stop the program, which they supported to the tune of a significant amount of money, to bring down the hammer? What happened in that previous six months that caused all those things to happen? Why the secrecy and why was it done in that way? I think that there is the possibility out of the script that is recorded here today of an opportunity for a future inquiry into the legitimacy of the process.

Senator MOORE —And that is your hope and the expectation that you bring?

Councillor Abbot —My understanding of today was that it was about the referendum issue on the right to vote. My hope is that those things will be delivered to us through the federal government legislation—

Senator MOORE —They will.

Councillor Abbot —and that we will get that opportunity. My dream is that the information that our community provides today causes some consternation for those people in government at the federal level and causes some opportunity to have a look at the process of this thing, even if it means another inquiry.

Councillor Pardon —A separate issue is Traveston Dam, which is north of us. We were looking at a possible judicial review. Do not hang me on law. I was a local fruiterer here, so let us not get too deep into law! We understand that an act of parliament went through such that we could not go through that process. I understand that there was an act with regard to this. It is that correct, Bob? Was there an act put through to stop the judicial review?

Councillor Abbot —On this? Yes, absolutely.

Councillor Pardon —That is my understanding.

Senator JOYCE —I want to go back a bit. So there was a 72-page document presented on a Tuesday and there was also an email that went out talking about six months of hard work before the document was published. When was the discussion with Paul Bell saying that no such plans were proposed?

Councillor Abbot —I understand that it was over the weekend prior.

Senator JOYCE —So, Saturday-Sunday?

Councillor Abbot —Yes.

Senator JOYCE —What is the word for when somebody tells something straight to your face that they know to be a load of rubbish?

Councillor Abbot —I would imagine it would be ‘lie’ in the dictionary.

Senator JOYCE —Senator Moore has talked about our leader Kevin Rudd.

Senator MOORE —I did not include you in that, Senator.

Senator JOYCE —Do you believe that it is peculiar in the extreme to have two people who are from the same party and the same state, who have worked with each other over a long period of time, who have two completely different views on an issue, yet one is the federal leader and apparently they cannot do anything about the other person?

Councillor Abbot —I missed the question.

Senator JOYCE —The question is: do you think that Mr Rudd can put more pressure on Mr Beattie?

Councillor Abbot —Obviously, through the party, I would imagine. That has been the focus of what we have tried to achieved. At the same time, the Premier is the democratically elected leader of the state and he has chosen a certain course of action. I think that is an issue for the Labor Party. It is disappointing for this community, but it is certainly an issue for the Labor Party if they cannot get some consensus across the board with regard to the actions of the party in the country.

Senator JOYCE —Has Mr Rudd contacted you and told you of any further actions that he is taking in trying to convince Mr Beattie to change his mind?

Councillor Abbot —Not personally, no. I have had no direct contact from Mr Rudd at all.

Senator JOYCE —Do you know of any other records that might not have come to your personal attention directly that Mr Rudd might be placing certain extra pressures on Mr Beattie—like disendorse him from the Labor Party?

Councillor Abbot —I have only heard rumour on that. Most of the knowledge that I have on that is second-hand. I could not give you any indication that there has been anything else other than regular phone calls between the federal opposition leader and the Queensland Premier over a period of weeks. That is what I was told by one adviser.

Senator JOYCE —Regular phone calls are not quite doing the trick. It is not quite cooperative federalism when your own people in your own party will not listen to you, is it?

Councillor Abbot —I will let you decide that.

Senator JOYCE —You have strong views on the Traveston Dam.

Councillor Abbot —Absolutely.

Senator JOYCE —Having those strong views could have stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest for you politically, couldn’t it?

Councillor Abbot —It is not the first time I have stirred things up. The bottom line with the Traveston Dam is that, two nights after it was announced, I stood up in Gympie in front of 3,000 people and said that the only thing that can stop this happening is federal government environmental legislation, because of the three endangered species in particular that are affected by the dam. I said that two or three nights after this issue started, and that is where we are now. I think that is what needs to happen with that. Obviously, I caused a lot of waves along the way but I do not really see that that should have any influence on the decision of the state government to amalgamate the three Sunshine Coast councils.

Senator JOYCE —You find it funny that the federal inquiry into the Traveston Dam was immediately proceeding the announcement for the council amalgamations, almost to the day.

Councillor Abbot —I have no control over the timing of the calling of those inquiries. We might say ‘coincidence’.

Senator JOYCE —Do you think ‘coincidence’ could err towards payback?

Councillor Abbot —Payback is a bitch, that is for sure.

Senator JOYCE —Do you believe this plebiscite will help raise the awareness of this council issue? Do you think there is value in having a plebiscite?

Councillor Abbot —I cannot speak for other local authorities but I have said publicly that local authorities should take the opportunity for a plebiscite to genuinely see what their communities are saying. I have asked publicly for the Maroochy and Caloundra councils to do exactly that, because I think it would be worth their while to have a look at what people are saying.

There is no reason for us to have a plebiscite to prove what this community wants. Two years ago there were 18,500 signatures in one day, 31,000 signatures out of 36 submissions to the commission in favour of us standing alone, and there was the submission that the Noosa community put in. There is no reason for it. It is blatantly, bloody well obvious to anybody who wants to look. A plebiscite for us in this community will prove the point to the world that we are together, we are one, we are definitely heading down the track to such a degree that it would be not be an argument for anyone: what is best for us is not necessarily best for everyone else.

Also, we should place on record our feeling and create the opportunity, if there is a conservative government in the state of Queensland in the not too distant future, to accept the offer that Mr Howard Hobbs, shadow minister for local government, made yesterday that we would be the first ones knocking on the door to deamalgamate, if we do not get it done now.

Senator JOYCE —Mr Rudd suggested that, if there is a change of government, he will have referendums to include local government in the federal Constitution at the following election, which would be in 3½ years time. Will that be any use to you in 3½ years time?

Councillor Abbot —In the current debate, no, but for the general benefit of Australian local government and the Australian community—

Senator JOYCE —The ones who are left.

Councillor Abbot —in general, yes. As a director of the Australian Local Government Association, I have worked extremely hard in the last three years to get a number of things happening with regard to local government. To a great degree, the underpinning value in all the work we have been doing is developing new relationships with the federal government, developing partnerships, developing general direction forward so that the federal government can become more involved in what local governments do through funding, through assistance and support and indeed through constitutional recognition for local government. I have always believed that constitutional recognition long term was a nice thing to have. I did not think it was the first thing that needed to be done. I reckoned that all the partnerships and the relationships that we could develop would benefit local government far more and I was willing to put my energy into that rather than into constitutional recognition. I am now sorry for that, not that it would have happened by now, anyway, but I now understand more clearly that constitutional recognition would have given us a better axe to swing in this debate than the one we have.

Senator MURRAY —It would, if John Howard had not opposed it.

Councillor Abbot —I think there is significant history about local government constitutional recognition in this country, and I believe there has been abysmal argument against it in the past. Indeed, there was argument put in the past: do not vote yes for the last question, No. 4, because you might confuse the Australian community. At the time I thought it was an insult and I still do.

Senator JOYCE —If you cannot succeed by changing Mr Beattie’s view with the bleeding obvious, which is what you see in the room here at the moment, and you cannot succeed by changing the Labor Party’s view by having a demonstration in Brisbane and you cannot succeed with the proposal of a plebiscite, do you know of any other political pressure points that you can push that may change the Labor government’s mind on this issue?

Councillor Abbot —As late as yesterday, I had a 20-minute one-way discussion with the Queensland local government minister. I laid down the law fairly clearly—and, obviously, to anybody who was in the room—that what he was doing was totally unfair to this community and that any logic, any understanding and any circumstance at all with respect to their arguments on putting Noosa in with the general run-of-the-mill councils that they have amalgamated is a giant mistake. I pointed out to him that the federal government, through the Department of the Environment and Water Resources and their organisation ARIES, recognises Noosa as Australia’s first sustainable community. I made it blatantly obvious to him. He actually offered a letter of support that we were going to UNESCO in two weeks time to make Noosa the first genuine urban community to receive an international UNESCO biosphere nomination—a first in Australia—and the only one in Australia that is based not on a national park or some sort of conservation issue but on urban values. That did not seem to get through. I pushed as hard as I could on all angles.

What I did say to him quite clearly is that, in the wash-up of all of this, with Noosa Shire Council a previous mayor—with his history in local government in Queensland, being the vice-president and president of the LGAQ—worked tirelessly for over 10 years to try to get the local government in Queensland to lift its game, because he could see what was coming. I have spent the last eight years in the same organisation doing the same thing, leading by example, creating opportunities, showing when it is going wrong and trying to encourage local government in general to change their ways—to do things better and to actually be out there leading. When this came down, most of those councils that we were talking about to try to encourage—and some of them have done a lot of work—were still there, and we are not. I just think that is the most atrocious piece of work I have ever seen, and I have asked the question on a daily basis: why? Why is it that we were singled out for that sort of treatment? I can say that we were singled out. If you go back to the morning of the decision to bring down the report, you see that even the Courier-Mail said, ‘Noosa is still floating.’ The final decision on Noosa was made that morning in cabinet. I said to the minister yesterday and I have said publicly time and time again that it was a political decision that amalgamated Noosa with the rest of the Sunshine Coast. It was a political decision to put us in there; it has to be a political decision to take us out. All they need is the intestinal fortitude.

Senator FORSHAW —I am not sure whether you were here when Senator Joyce put a question to the previous witnesses; I do not have his exact words but I took note of one part of what he said, which was that the government insists upon plebiscites being held under this legislation. What is your understanding of how a plebiscite would be held? 

Councillor Abbot —Under this legislation? 

Senator FORSHAW —Yes.

Councillor Abbot —My understanding is that there would be, across the state, requests coming from individual local government areas to run a plebiscite, under the AEC. My understanding was that, if it were a one-issue plebiscite, the AEC would determine the question and all of those plebiscites would be run in the individual areas on the same day with the same question.

Senator FORSHAW —Where did you get that advice from? 

Councillor Abbot —I think most of it is verbal at the moment. I have not actually read the legislation.

Senator FORSHAW —There is nothing in the legislation about any of that. I am not trying to make any point about that other than there seem to be various views around about what follows from the passage of this legislation. You said ‘plebiscites held at the request of councils across the state’ and I think you are right. If this legislation goes through and there were to be plebiscites held, it would be on the basis that councils requested them, because as I understand it the government has made it clear that it would not insist—and is not in a position to insist—that they be held or force councils to hold them, but rather that councils would request them and that the government would pick up the cost through the AEC. Is that your understanding? 

Councillor Abbot —Yes, that is my understanding, and I get that understanding after four days at the local government conference. That is the word down there and that is the way they feel. I think it is important that the individual plebiscites be run for the individual communities. There is some discussion about an overall plebiscite on the whole of the Sunshine Coast and they are asking, ‘Would you abide by the end result of that?’ I would say yes if it came out the right way but no if it did not.

Senator FORSHAW —Welcome to democracy.

Councillor Abbot —Absolutely.

Senator FORSHAW —But you are a mayor, Mr Abbott—

Councillor Abbot —But I do not believe it is about the general view here; I believe it is about the specific view. That is why I think plebiscites have to be run in that form.

Senator FORSHAW —I wanted to make it very clear on the record. A lot of questions get asked from the table here, which can send out messages that are not correct, including for instance that the federal government is going to insist upon them being held, and a whole range of other things.

CHAIR —Senator Forshaw, I do not think anyone has suggested that.

Senator FORSHAW —You go back and check the Hansard and Senator Joyce’s questions to previous witnesses. We will do that in a few days when the Hansard is available, if it has not been corrected by then.

Senator Moore has made it very clear that the Labor Party, federally—and Mr Rudd has been on the record since 17 May—supports the holding of local plebiscites. You have long experience, Mayor Abbot and, I assume, Councillor Pardon, in local government. When did you first become aware that the federal government would move to bring in this legislation?

Councillor Abbot —When the Prime Minister announced it, I think.

Senator FORSHAW —On the day of the announcement. You had no prior advice or you were not aware of any prior public statements by the Prime Minister or the minister for local government?

Councillor Abbot —No. There was a meeting up here with the Friends of Noosa and Mark Vaile, on the Friday. I did not attend that for obvious reasons. The Prime Minister came out with the announcement some time after that, so that was the first I really knew about it.

Senator FORSHAW —That was well after 17 May. There is a general proposition that the idea of local plebiscites on contentious issues, particularly where there is a huge community concern, is a good one. I am not in any way opposed to that. Are you aware, again from your experience both in Noosa Shire Council but also broadly across the ALGA, of, for instance, your council or other councils holding plebiscites on controversial issues—on issues that local government has to decide, such as planning or very contentious issues? I could point you to a number of them in Sydney where I might say they have not held local plebiscites either, but I would like to know from you, as an elected councillor and mayor, what is the history of local plebiscites being conducted by councils themselves?

Councillor Abbot —I cannot remember one actually happening here. I know there were a number of local authorities in Queensland that jumped at the opportunity to have plebiscites or a referendum, or whatever they wanted to run on the issue of local government reform. A number of them have done so.

Senator FORSHAW —Let’s put politics to one side for a moment if we can. It is a bit hard in this environment, I know. As elected officials you have to make decisions that often may be controversial and will upset sections of the community.

Councillor Abbot —I will come to that. The idea of a referendum or a plebiscite in any community on all issues is ridiculous. A CIR issue is just a waste of time for me.

Senator FORSHAW —The minister has said very clearly in the second reading speech that this is not to lead to a citizen initiated referendum. I am talking about, for example, on a major controversial issue.

Councillor Abbot —We would be the most consulted of community councils in Australia. We have deliberately set up—over a period of 15 to 20 years—

Senator FORSHAW —I applaud you for that but let me say that I know every other council would tell me exactly the same thing. I applaud you for being consultative.

Councillor Abbot —I just want to let you know how we did it. We can prove it.

Senator FORSHAW —I know councils in Sydney that regularly survey and poll their members.

Councillor Abbot —No. This is not about survey.

Senator FORSHAW —Have you had a plebiscite?

Councillor Pardon —It is something you should set up federally actually.

Councillor Abbot —What we have done over a number of years—

Senator FORSHAW —Get the government to support constitutional power for local government and you might find you will get there.

Councillor Pardon —All right.

Councillor Abbot —Over a number of years we have set up a deliberate process of consultation. We set it up initially with our planning schemes, which we do regularly. We actually do extra consultative processes, more than what the government calls for in all of those reviews of the planning policies and so forth. Over the last five years we have been working on what we called a community governance program, and we have set up five sector boards within the shire. Those sector boards deal with tourism, culture and heritage, social issues, environment and economics. We gather people from the community to sit on those sector boards. They are volunteers. They come in and do significant research right across the shire on all of those issues. They run their own surveys—whatever they need to do to bring all the information forward—and they gather generally across the community the knowledge and the understanding of what the community wants and put that together with their research.

Senator FORSHAW —Thank you. So if a federal government or a state government wanted to locate a desalination plant, a nuclear reactor or an airport in your council area, you would—

Councillor Abbot —We would run a plebiscite.

Senator FORSHAW —You would pursue community consultation?

Councillor Abbot —Absolutely.

Senator FORSHAW —And you would try and find out what the community thought?

Councillor Pardon —No, we would not try; we would.

Senator FORSHAW —You would?

Councillor Abbot —We would find out what the community thought about it.

Senator FORSHAW —Very good. Let me tell you that the council where I live, the Sutherland Shire Council, has done just that. There are a whole lot of consultative councils.

Member of the audience interjecting—

CHAIR —Please, no interjections from the gallery.

Senator FORSHAW —I think we have to be careful about reflecting upon other local governments around the country when we deal with this issue. I do not think that is fair to them.

CHAIR —We all know this shire is special, Senator Forshaw.

Senator FORSHAW —It is. And if you want to give us nuclear reactors and airports then we will fight them all the way, mate!

CHAIR —Senator Forshaw, I am conscious of the time and that other senators have questions.

Senator FORSHAW —Just one other question, Chair. Your council is subject to competitive tendering?

Councillor Abbot —Yes, very much so.

Senator FORSHAW —Did your council agree with that when it was brought in through COAG?

Councillor Abbot —Does my council agree with competitive tendering?

Senator FORSHAW —It was imposed upon you, wasn’t it?

Councillor Abbot —No, it was not. We have always done it.

Senator FORSHAW —Under the COAG process it was imposed upon you by the federal government.

Councillor Abbot —That is neither here nor there in terms of what they impose. I suppose if we refused to do it and it was imposed on us and we did it we might have some objection, but we do not.

Senator FORSHAW —I do not know that it is neither here nor there because if you had not accepted competitive tendering you could be fined.

Councillor Abbot —But we do it.

Senator JOYCE —Chair, I have a point of order.

CHAIR —Senator Joyce, on a point of order.

Senator JOYCE —I just want to touch base on something Senator Forshaw said. He said that we, being the government, have proposed nuclear reactors. We have not proposed a nuclear reactor for anywhere.

Senator FORSHAW —You have built one in my electorate. It is called Lucas Heights. Do you want to come and have a look?

Senator JOYCE —It has been there for a while.

Senator FORSHAW —No, the new one.

Senator JOYCE —Anyway, there is no proposed nuclear reactor.

Senator FORSHAW —Point of order overruled and dismissed! I just want to get an answer to my question. The federal government has decided, and we support it, to have a local plebiscite on this issue of council amalgamations—quite rightly. But competitive tendering, which had a huge impact upon local government right across the country, as you know—in some respects good; in many respects not so good—was imposed on the councils, on local government, without any opportunity for local plebiscites. You acknowledge that, don’t you?

Councillor Abbot —Most definitely. I would just like to put our position, though. We have always competitively tendered. It has given this community significant advantage in the past and will continue to do so. It provided us with the opportunity to bring the first BNR sewage treatment plant into the country. We actually went over to Europe and researched it and we brought it back. Australian Water Services is now one of Australia’s greatest water treatment companies. It was developed and put together to build the Noosa treatment plant, and it was done under a design, build and operate concept that we developed ourselves. It will provide competitive tendering to (1) reduce the risk to the Noose shire community with regard to long-term disease and health problems through the sewerage system because it is state of the art, (2) reduce the risk to this community financially because of the failures of the old plants and the way they were going and (3) provide world’s best competitive advantage to the sewerage system and now the water supply system for this particular shire. It is world’s first and world’s best. We could only do it with competitive tendering, which is part of the daily way we do business for the benefit of our community.

Senator FORSHAW —That is good.

Councillor Pardon —It almost matches Sutherland, with respect, Senator—almost!

Senator FORSHAW —Not a problem; they will get back to you on that.

CHAIR —There’s nothing like a Sutherland shire boy, Senator Forshaw! Before I call Senator Ludwig, can I say that while we have been fairly relaxed this morning I would remind the public gallery of my opening comments that the public gallery should be quiet. If any member of the public gallery interjects they will be asked to leave. Senator Ludwig.

Senator LUDWIG —I want to explore a couple of areas. Most of the senators today have asked the relevant questions about the amalgamations but you mentioned earlier the issue of constitutional recognition of local councils and that if you had turned your mind to it perhaps a bit earlier you might not be in the position you are in today. It is interesting to note the federal Labor Party has been supportive of constitutional recognition of councils for some time and this week we have announced that, and I think Senator Joyce took issue with it particularly. But, as I understand it, Senator Joyce has voted against constitutional recognition of local councils. He did that 12 months ago in the Senate when a motion was put up. He seems to have changed his mind since then—maybe politics has a bearing upon that—unlike the Labor Party, which, significantly, has always been in support of it.

—Can you refer to that piece of legislation and have you got—

—We can actually; I am glad you asked.

Senator LUDWIG —If you did need to correct the record, Senator Joyce, at any time, I am only too happy for you to do so.

Senator JOYCE —I am quite happy.

Senator LUDWIG —But it was a question I was asking—

Senator FORSHAW —It was 7 December 2006.

Senator JOYCE —I am sure it was a real bell ringer that day.

Councillor Abbot —Regardless of the problems on the table, I am happy to answer the question.

Senator LUDWIG —Thank you. In those terms, Mayor, you think there is still value in continuing with constitutional recognition of local councils. Is that something you will continue to advocate?

Councillor Abbot —Absolutely. I might just qualify my statement somewhat: I made the statement in the full knowledge that we had tried twice before and had not been able to achieve it. When constitutional recognition came up amongst the raft of things that we were looking at, including the partnership issues through the ALGA board, I thought: ‘We’ve already tried that one twice, so let’s get the real things in place that we need, the actual things that deliver stuff directly on the ground in local government first and then local government constitutional recognition can come after that. We might have a chance then because we might actually have a bipartisan approach to that issue and we might well win it.’

Senator MURRAY —There are four parties here, not two.

Councillor Abbot —All right. Cross-party then—I am just trying to keep up. That is the qualification on it, obviously. I only butt my head against the wall twice and then I try a different direction. The reality is: it has not happened before; it will happen in the future but what we need is the stuff on the ground first, so I put my energy into that.

Senator LUDWIG —The question was really another one that was raised in terms of how you deal with trying to convince Premier Beattie to change his mind through an unusual process, I would have thought. You understand the difference between state and federal government. You understand the difference between local council and constitutional separation. We have a written Constitution which separates federal government and state government, and you understand executive parliamentary processes where you would not expect undue influence to come from outside of those elected. Like councils, you would not expect someone from outside council to be able to influence a decision taken in council deliberations, would you?

Councillor Pardon —They do.

Councillor Abbot —Everybody is always trying to influence councils, but my goal from day one has been to expose as much as possible the issues that have brought us to where we are. Whoever picked up those issues would be heroes in our eyes whether it be you, Barnaby, Kevin Rudd or even Andrew Fraser, if that is possible. That has been our issue from day one. From a council’s perspective, Friends of Noosa have their own agenda and they are driving it hard but the real issue is to expose what has happened to this community to the rest of the world. As I said earlier, even people on the Gold Coast were stopping me on the street in the last four days and saying, ‘This shouldn’t happen to you guys. Keep going.’ Those are Gold Coast people; nothing to do with local government. They are people in the street. The guy driving the monorail got out and patted me on the back as I got off and said, ‘Keep it going, mate. You’ve got to save Noosa.’ I had never seen the man before; I would not know him from a bar of Barilla soap. That is what I got on an hourly basis on the Gold Coast. So this is not just about trying to put pressure on any individual in the federal government; it is about exposing a rort and hoping that goodness and faith in the general democratic process will lead us to a result that we think we deserve.

Senator LUDWIG —I congratulate you on your ability to be able to keep putting that foot forward. Thanks very much.

Senator JOYCE —I acknowledge that. I fully put on the record now that I support that we should have a referendum into—

Senator LUDWIG —Is that a backflip?

Senator JOYCE —It is dealing with the issue of the time. If there is something weak about changing your views, we would not want Mr Beattie to change his views, would we? We would not want a backflip there. But if in light of more circumstance that I should change my views, I will. I support fully that we should have a referendum to include the local government in the constitution and I support that it should happen pronto. No doubt, I will be getting your leader’s support on that.

Senator LUDWIG —You will.

Senator JOYCE —Oh, good. We are getting somewhere.

Senator LUDWIG —If the Howard government does not change its mind in that respect and continues to oppose the constitutional cooperation, will you disendorse yourself?

CHAIR —Senator Murray has the call.

Senator LUDWIG —If the Howard government does not change its mind in respect of this—

Senator MURRAY —I cannot hear myself—

CHAIR —Order! Senator Murray has the call.

Senator MURRAY —Can I request that you throw both of them out, Chair! A good bit of argy-bargy. Mayor Abbot, I opened my remarks to the last set of witnesses by thanking the people of Noosa for initiating a major shift in our political firmament in the last 106 years and that is the introduction of direct democracy. I now want to compliment you for the second major initiative which is of vital importance to Australia—that is, the introduction into federal electoral law at last of elements of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Earlier you remarked on the terrible precedent expressed by the Beattie government trying to prohibit the free expression of the free will of the sovereign people of Queensland. I phrase it like that because of how seriously I view it. The problem with that is to correct that would have necessitated going all the way to the High Court, which is expensive, takes a lot of time and is very aggravating.

What is needed, of course, is that those civil rights agreed to and ratified by Australia in 1948, I think it was, be enshrined in federal law because then Mr Beattie could not have done what he did do. So I want to thank you for that. I want you to recognise the importance of that, but of course it is still a partial change in this legislation. You have seen the reference, but you might not have noticed the importance of it. If I say to you that I am going to put to this committee that they enshrine the full thrust of articles 19 and 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in electoral law so that those rights that protect our inalienable rights as a people are enshrined in law, I hope you will give it your support—you, obviously, cannot give it in substance but you can in principle.

Councillor Abbot —Absolutely. The first thing I said on Stateline after the infamous 24-hour sitting of parliament that brought us to this was that I refuse to do anything that would put me in a position where the Premier could remove this council for looking after its community for at least the next 12 months or whatever. I also attacked immediately the precedent that this legislation that was then in place bought into Australian legislation. I just thought it was the most atrocious thing that I had ever seen. And other than getting trapped by a smart-arsed journalist—excuse the expression—I delivered that message quite clearly. I think the message has been picked up right across the country by many commentators and people like yourself, Senator: if we are to allow this to happen, if we are to allow this sort of precedent to be set for one, and left in place in legislation in Queensland, then we are in big trouble in this country.

I make a comment on the argument between Senator Joyce and Senator Forshaw. The fact that somebody changed his mind in the parliament I think is what basic democracy is all about. If we lose that principle in government, I am out of here—I am going to Papua New Guinea.

Senator MURRAY —By the way, I am a great fan of Senator Joyce’s courage. He stood up against his own party and his own government on matters of principle to him. I think that is to be applauded in any politician from any party.

Councillor Abbot —I agree.

Senator MURRAY —Article 19.2 of the covenant I mentioned earlier refers to freedom of expression and article 25(a) refers to the right of people to take part in the conduct of public affairs directly or through freely chosen representatives. So you understand, the importance of what I am saying is that that should be enshrined in federal law forever to protect freedom of expression, and the question we should ask of the government is whether they will go that far, because nobody ever has from any party.

Councillor Abbot —I think freedom of individual expression is a basic premise of our democracy and our Constitution. Obviously, public expression often can do individual damage. I would not like to see the ability of the average Australian to walk into a ballot box and have a vote in private get mixed up with the rights and privileges of individual journalists in this country to free speech.

Senator MURRAY —My next set of questions comes to mechanics. We have a magnificent electoral act from the mechanical side of things—how things are set up, structured and the way in which things can be asked and done. My question comes back what Senator Moore asked of the previous set of witnesses—that is, the sorts of questions that should be asked in your plebiscite. My own view is that you need a range of questions to cover the various options and those questions should be the same for the councils under threat of amalgamation—in your case, Caloundra, Maroochydore and Noosa. Before you answer that, I want to put my second proposition to you. When we conduct constitutional referenda from the federal perspective, a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ case are put forward which are fair, balanced and even. There is no provision here for that, and I doubt you would have the money to have that done. My own feeling is that this legislation is weak unless it also provides for the facility to provide councils with assistance in presenting fairly and objectively the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ case. There is a ‘yes’ case for amalgamation and there is a ‘no’ case of amalgamation.

CHAIR —I am sure that the Queensland government might be prepared to provide the answers.

Senator MURRAY —Yes. However, have you thought through the mechanics of how you would fairly put both propositions in a fully contextualised set of questions?

Councillor Abbot —Personally, given the speed that this legislation and this inquiry have come forward and the fact that I have just spent five days up to my armpits in floodwaters and four days trying to wrestle my way through the local government conference, no, I have not given a great deal of thought to that.

Senator MURRAY —You know we get a Comcar provision to get here. I had to hire a ‘Comcanoe’!

Councillor Abbot —That would be right. I firmly believe that, on this issue, there is only a need for one question: ‘Do you or do you not agree with this?’ It is yes or no. We can put forward the benefits we have been told we will receive and why we think we should not have it. I think that question should be clear and concise and I do not think we need to confuse it with significant other questions that may mislead things. We have such a situation in the past with national referenda. The fact that four questions were asked stopped the ultimate question for us being answered in the positive. I think one question is enough.

Senator MURRAY —Bear in mind that we are West Australians. I do not know the details at all of any of the amalgamations and I am not going to try and find them out.

Councillor Abbot —Your turn is probably coming.

Senator MURRAY —I voted for amalgamation of my particular council and it has not happened, so my vote did not sway things. As I understand it, the council does think that its boundaries could be enlarged, that it could be a larger geographic area. How does the state government know that that is what the people want unless that question is asked?

Councillor Abbot —I think you have hit on the basic problem we have got. The name of the act is the Local Government Reform Act—sorry Claire—and what it says is: ‘Amalgamate.’ What happened in the middle? Where was the reform? It was just pulled out of our hands. They say they want to reform. Their answer—all over the country—is: amalgamate. There is only Western Australia to go, then it has all been done, so to speak. It has always been the same. At least in Victoria, the Premier there did not spin the local authorities along until he had them in the situation where he could kick them in the guts; he just gave them a ‘Don’t come Monday’. At least he had the decency to do that and not spin them a long, blown-out yarn and say, ‘Just hang around for a while boys until we can find something to string up with’

The bottom line is that it seems to be that they want reform, but the answer to the reform is amalgamation. It is the same question and the same answer now over six states. Where is the bit in the middle where it actually says ‘Reform can mean other things’? They talk about it. They have all the rhetoric, but the final result every time is the axe—straight down: ‘What is good for you is being bigger.’

Senator MURRAY —But if you do not ask the question in your plebiscite when you have the opportunity to do so—namely, ‘Are you happy to have a boundary change which includes Eumundi and these other places’, how you able to put that point to the government to say, ‘Look, we’re not against change’—what was the expression used?—‘we’re not fortress Noosa; we’re willing to reform, but we don’t want your reform’ A yes, no question does not give that message.

Councillor Abbot —A simple reading through—if you can get it out of cabinet solidarity and secrecy now—of 31,000 submissions will give you that. That is a fact. But we cannot get it because it is locked up in the cabinet. I know what ‘cabinet’ means now: it is a box where you shove things and lock the door!

Senator MURRAY —And do you know, when they leave, they shred it all?

Councillor Abbot —Yes.

Senator MURRAY —So we never find out about it.

CHAIR —There was a process underway—the review—which would have led to just that outcome.

Councillor Abbot —Absolutely, but he found a minister who was willing to stop that process and go back to the Kennett method. I think we need to understand that the general question here is: should we amalgamate or should we not? The answer is no.

Senator MURRAY —Give me the answer to my next question. Sorry to push you along, Mayor, but I am conscious of time. What about the yes, no case? Who should fund that? I do not think it is fair to ask for councils to dip in for that sort of thing

Councillor Abbot —There are two questions really: who should fund it and who should write the responses?

Senator MURRAY —Yes.

Councillor Abbot —If the federal government wants to come up with the money to do the plebiscite then they can pay for local governments or whoever—some legal eagle—to write those responses. But you cannot have a generic yes, no argument for individual cases.

Senator MURRAY —Yes, it has got to vary.

Councillor Abbot —The councils would have to write that. Whether they paid for it or not and whether they can—we will, definitely. We would not have a problem.

Senator MURRAY —Let me put it to you this way so that you understand where I am going to, because I have a direction I am after. My own view is that if the AEC is going to pick up the cost of the plebiscite then presenting the yes, no case is part of the plebiscite and, therefore, it should be part of the cost. But unless the federal government is advised that by this committee and accepts that recommendation, that will be left in the air and unresolved. Obviously the writing of the case has to be by people who know what they are doing and the district for yes and for no. That is really what I am after. Do you want this committee to be recommending to the federal government that the yes, no case also be part of the AEC funding? That is what I am asking.

Councillor Abbot —For this community—excuse my expression—I don’t really give a shit; we will write it anyway. I think we will confuse considerably what we are trying to do if we start running down that road. If the federal government wants to pay for it, thank you, we will take the money.

Senator MURRAY —How many voters do you have?

Councillor Pardon —31,000.

Senator MURRAY —You have 31,000. Each piece of mail might cost $1.50 because it would be bulky. The cost of the pamphlet and so on might be a dollar or two. So let’s just round it up and call it $4 times 31,000, and that is $120,000. Do you want that bill?

Councillor Abbot —We have spent probably $5 million in the last 10 years fighting court cases to protect this community. If you think that another $30,000 or $40,000 is going to stop us from doing that, it is definitely not.

Senator MURRAY —So your answer is that you will definitely pay the $120,000.

Councillor Abbot —We are happy to pay whatever we need to pay to make this happen. We would run the bloody plebiscite ourselves if we could. We just need the trigger to make it happen so it is all fair, and we will get on with the business of doing it.

Councillor Pardon —What price democracy?

Councillor Abbot —Absolutely.

Senator MURRAY —I am just asking who pays for it, and you are saying you want to pay for it. I am happy for you to do that.

Councillor Abbot —Call a vote behind me and see if they are happy to pay.

Senator MOORE —Mayor, in your LGAQ hat your position about Noosa is absolutely clear. But you were also involved with all the work that was going on with the triple-s program and also the quite public awareness that there need to be some amalgamations in some parts of this state.

Councillor Abbot —There needs to be some reform.

Senator MOORE —But in terms of process, do you think there is ever a case for anyone to step in and say to councils, ‘You people need to get together’?

Councillor Abbot —Yes, most definitely.

Senator MOORE —How would you do that with a council that said, ‘We don’t want to’?

Councillor Abbot —Size, shape and sustainability was running down a path that gave us some understanding of what was happening in the communities. It gave councils a chance to resolve the issues that people were saying were the problems in local government in Queensland. If those problems can be resolved without amalgamation and the reform is appropriate, then you do not need to amalgamate. You do not have to ask the question. But at times those things are not going to happen. So someone else makes the decision and that is what local, state and federal governments are for: making the hard decisions. So yes, there is an opportunity—but not the lot, in one hit, on one generic argument.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Mayor and Deputy Mayor, and thank you for having us in your shire.

[11.48 am]