Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download PDFDownload PDF 

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

CHAIR —Welcome. Do you have an opening statement you would like to make?

Mr Trevor —Thank you very much, senators, ladies and gentlemen. I would just like to take you through a small history lesson as a preface to what I would like to say. In 1919 the French government gave the Australian government six short-barrelled Krupp German cannons that had been captured in France. It gave them to the Australian government in recognition of the Australian service men and women who had laid down their lives defending France in World War I.

The Australian government then had to decide which communities it gave those cannons to. My community was given one of those captured cannons, and it has stood outside our shire chambers since 1919 in recognition of the number—one of the highest in Australia at that time—of young men and women we lost from our community.

It stood there proudly as a symbol of democracy and the democratic principles that those young men and women laid down their lives for so that we and our children may be able to live by those principles in freedom. Very much a part of that freedom in a democracy is the right to have a say, the right to be heard and the right to put your point of view forward, whether that view is contrary to the government’s or not.

The process that has been initiated here in Queensland with the local government reform act has threatened the right of communities to have that say. It is only since the pressure has been applied to the Beattie government that they have indicated that they are withdrawing that amendment from the local government reform bill.

No-one in Queensland would deny that there has not been some need for reform of local government across Queensland, and the Local Government Association and the Queensland government agreed on a process under which that would be undertaken. That was a five-year process, of which we had entered into approximately 18 months before the government decided to pull the rug from underneath the process. That process was about allowing communities to look at how they may deliver more efficient services into the future.

Local government reform was not just about amalgamations, although one would wonder, when listening to the Premier bring down the Reform Commission’s findings, when he said that we have been in this process for 18 months and only two councils have agreed to amalgamate. Local government reform was never just about amalgamation; it was about talking and seeing how we could deliver services across boundaries, how communities could work together better and, in some cases, where communities would want to amalgamate to be able to do that—where there were like groups very close together. We always believed that communities and local government would have a fair say in how that process was undertaken. That reform process and the Queensland government’s decision have taken away the right of those communities to have their say. In my community, as in Noosa, it has caused great angst. We are different from the people who we are proposed to be amalgamated with. We are a very small but very strong rural community. That community has been bonded together over a long period of time, through the hardship of droughts, through the rural industries around a sugar mill, which most of the town was for many years, and lately, with people coming to our community because of the like views that they share with the community they want to make their home in.

We are a very consultative community. We stand shoulder to shoulder in times of adversity in our community, most recently in the tragic backpackers fire of 2000, where my community worked tirelessly, side by side, in the international spotlight of the media, to ensure we did what we could for the survivors and the parents, and putting in place a fitting and suitable memorial for those young people who were so horribly murdered within our community.

That sense of being together has been the catalyst which has allowed our community to develop and move forward as one unit in making it a better place to live. We are very much concerned that in a bigger regional city of Bundaberg we will become the forgotten end of Bourbon Street. If you look around Australia, you see that, when those communities, whether they be big or small, are doing well, it often comes down to local leadership within those communities. The groups that you have seen here around the table earlier this morning, working in conjunction with local authorities and other groups within the community, are the very fabric which drives some of those communities. It is not about being ‘big is best’. Under the process that we have been through and that the government has now pulled the rug on here in Queensland, there has been no economic modelling showing any benefits of ‘big is best’. Indeed, at the local government conference in the last couple of days we have heard from international speakers on overseas trends to break down local governments so that the word ‘local’ becomes what it was meant to be—local people working together to solve local problems.

We are very supportive of the right—and the bill that sits before the federal parliament to give us that right—to hold polls or plebiscites within our community. My community is extremely angry about our right to democracy within our community being taken away from us through the local government reform bill. However, they are even angrier at someone threatening their local elected representatives with penalties if they organise a plebiscite or poll.

Ladies and gentlemen, that crosses all political boundaries. It is not just about Labor Party people or National Party people or Liberal Party people; before these people in those small communities are political people, they are more community people. I do my own polling in the streets every Saturday morning week after week, not just on amalgamations but on how my community works. I spend two to three hours every Saturday morning reading the newspaper and conversing with people, and I have never seen so many people so angry about the fact that their elected local representatives, the people they know and trust, are being threatened by the Queensland government with the draconian legislation amendments that were brought in following the local government reform process.

My community demands the right to have a say. Some of the militants in the community have advocated breaking the law to ensure we have that right to a democratic process. One would think that the Queensland government, led by Mr Beattie, would understand that, as many of them marched in the streets in the Jo days demanding their right to have a say in the middle of the street rather than on the footpath as the government of that day demanded. Surely they, above all, should understand the demand by my community, the Noosa community and many other communities across Queensland to also have their say at this time.

I have listened with interest this morning when people have been asking and responding to questions about whether we should have polls or plebiscites for many other issues within our communities. There are degrees on how you consult with your community. This is not about consulting on a planning issue or on a high-rise building; this is about consulting on whether these communities have their local democratic rights at all, whether their local councils will be there to support them.

In my community, many of the organisations that exist would not be there without council support. The local kindergarten has been in place since 1956, supported by council to the tune of $14,000 a year for three years until its numbers grew in order for it to once again be able to provide quality education for the young people in our community. As part of a Bundaberg regional council, that support would not have been there and that kindergarten would have been lost from our community. Council has put over $700,000 into both our schooling system over the last five or six years to ensure a better quality of education for our students and young people, to support literacy programs, to build halls and to upgrade ovals. All of those things have been brought about by the local community talking with their local council representatives to achieve a better way of life.

We support what the federal government’s bill is trying to do—that is, to give our communities the opportunity to put on the public record their distaste for what has happened and for the threats made to their local representatives. Sometimes we ask, ‘What will that achieve because the legislation is already in place?’ My community is saying: ‘We want to ensure that the public record shows that we were not in favour of this. We were not supportive of it and we spoke out against it.’ There may be some opportunities in the future to roll back the legislation. But politicians respect only one thing, and that is people power. If people are prepared to lay down and not have their say then the executive government that we have in Queensland, without the benefit of a second house to look over legislation, becomes all powerful and all dictatorial. As communities, we need to express our distaste for laws that affect our very way of life and the fabric of the communities in which we live. It is no good later on saying, ‘Well, it was a law and I had to obey it.’ If it is a bad law, we should speak out. That is what we are doing at the moment and that is what we intend to keep doing in supporting the people of Noosa and others who have the same problems that we have. We have a very vibrant rural community that is growing at a rate of knots. It is a community that works together. We rely upon one another to deliver the services that are the envy of many others in the big towns.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mayor. I think you identify an interesting trend, and that is that, as we become more global, people are actually feeling a greater sense of localism than there has been in the past. I guess the backpacker tragedy, which you highlighted, is evidence of the capacity to have a global interest in a tragedy yet a strong local response to it. I think that is very much at the heart of what we have been hearing in evidence today. Could you take us through what the Queensland government are actually proposing for the Isis shire. Which local government entities are they proposing that you be merged with?

Mr Trevor —We are being proposed to be merged with Bundaberg City, Burnett Shire, Kolan Shire and Isis Shire into the greater Bundaberg Regional Council, a council of perhaps some 80,000 people.

CHAIR —That is 80,000 people in the proposed entity?

Mr Trevor —That is correct.

CHAIR —What is the population of Isis Shire?

Mr Trevor —We are about 6,800 and growing quite rapidly.

CHAIR —We have heard from you as well about the size, shape and sustainability review which was only partly underway. What stage is that review at in relation to your local government area?

Mr Trevor —We are at the end of stage 1. We were the only council in Queensland that entered the process, withdrew from it and then re-entered it. The process said that when you are in that process you were not to be critical of it. We had some criticisms of the process and suggestions about how it could be done better.

CHAIR —You can take part but you cannot comment.

Mr Trevor —No. We withdrew from that process—

CHAIR —It is an echo of something that is well-known.

Mr Trevor —and we sought a direct audience with the minister to put our concerns. That is the other thing that has really concerned us. The minister looked us in the eye, urged us to re-enter the process that had the full support of the Queensland government, shook our hands and at the same time had printing being done in the back office to pull the rug from underneath us. That really riled us. If he had said, ‘I am not happy with the process and I want to make some changes to it,’ that is fine; that is his right. But to tell us one thing while he was actively doing another we see as treacherous at the best.

The Premier’s comments put it in context when he said that only two councils had agreed to amalgamate. If you look at the reform process, there was no headline saying, ‘You must amalgamate.’ There were shared services, boundary changes—the whole range of things that could have provided better and more efficient local government into the future—but it seems that we have been caught on the big a-word and that was the plan right from the start.

CHAIR —Is your council intending to access the plebiscite option?

Mr Trevor —We have already moved that motion. We moved it before Mr Beattie withdrew his threats, so it was subject to the federal legislation being put in place, but as soon as that is in place we will be notifying the Electoral Council that we wish to continue. Our newspaper did a voluntary poll about having a plebiscite, and 83 per cent of people supported it. It will be higher, much higher, when it comes to the question of: ‘Do you wish to amalgamate with Bundaberg?’ I predict, if I am a good reader of my community, that it will be in the 90s.

CHAIR —This is a question that I have asked other witnesses. Do you think that the Premier would have withdrawn the punitive sanctions against councils who seek to access plebiscites if it were not for the announced intention of this legislation?

Mr Trevor —No, I do not. You have only to look at history. The Queensland Premier has threatened local government representatives previously under the ambulance levy. When we refused to collect it on our rate notices we were threatened with being sacked, and he was going to send us all to jail at one stage. He backed down on that after community pressure. He has only backed down on this after legislative pressure from the federal government. It seems to me that only people-pressure makes the government sit up and take notice.

CHAIR —The psychologists will often tell you that one of the best predictors of future behaviour is past behaviour. You would still see this legislation as necessary even though the Premier has announced his intention to remove those punitive sanctions?

Mr Trevor —I am only a representative of my community. I am the frontman for my community. Sometimes you lead from the front. Sometimes you take on board the comments of your community and then you lead them through the process that they initiate. My community has said, ‘Until we are actually part of Bundaberg we will resist this with everything open to us, because we don’t want to go.’ The community and communities right across Queensland are only just starting to realise what they have to lose in many of these mergers. Here is a simple little example for old people within our community: we provide $225 discount on rates for our pensioners. Bundaberg provides $60. You do not have to be Einstein to work out where it will go. Bundaberg people will not come up to $225; Childers people will go down towards $60, and for pensioners that is a lot of money.

CHAIR —Indeed. Thank you, Mayor.

Senator MOORE —Mayor, have you been at the local government conference at the Gold Coast?

Mr Trevor —Yes.

Senator MOORE —I am sorry; I did not see you there as there were a lot of people. In terms of the process in your area, is it clear that people now understand that the state government has amended the legislation?

Mr Trevor —Yes.

Senator MOORE —In terms of the process of where it goes from here, my understanding is that any process will be stimulated by local council, which you have said you have already done—is that right?

Mr Trevor —Yes.

Senator MOORE —Are you aware of when and how? Have those details been explained to you?

Mr Trevor —My understanding from the local government conference is that the Local Government Association has suggested that around 20 October is a date on which those councils across Queensland wanting a poll could conduct one. My understanding is that it is probably up to the Electoral Council of Australia to decide that date. There are some machineries and mechanisms that need some time to be put in place. My understanding is that we would trigger it, they would make the decision and then we would go through the due process.

Senator MOORE —Is it publicly known—and do you personally know—that at the federal level the Labor Party has been fully supportive of this legislation?

Mr Trevor —I have not heard of any party in the federal scene that has actively opposed it, and I am aware that Kevin Rudd has supported it. I would like to hope that Mr Rudd could do a lot more, because I think he is a key player in this role—the same party. He probably has more to gain from Premier Beattie taking some sense than any other single person in Australia at the moment.

Senator MOORE —I know that there has been great discussion locally but I am very interested constitutionally, because there was a bit of a debate at the LGAQ about a proposal that the Labor Party has put up about constitutional acknowledgement of local government. There was a discussion around that. We have the plebiscite process now in place, and that will go through. In terms of your understanding from your level, do you think there is anything more that any federal government could do at the moment, without any constitutional change, with local government changes?

Mr Trevor —I am not aware of any mechanism from either a legal or a legislative point of view. A Queen’s Counsellor or someone might say that there is a chink somewhere; I am not aware of that personally. I think a lot of it comes down to pressure. Does Peter Beattie want to go down as perhaps the man who stopped Kevin Rudd having a chop at being Prime Minister?

CHAIR —I think he does.

Mr Trevor —Yes, I am aware of their animosity from the Goss government years, but I will take up the comments of one of the gentlemen earlier: six seats in Queensland seems to be reasonable poll; if you look across those seats from Redcliffe to Leichhardt, I am very doubtful as to whether the local government issue has been helpful to the Labor Party.

Senator MOORE —But I am looking purely at the way it would operate constitutionally. In terms of process, would any federal government of any flavour be able to make changes under the current constitution to this process?

Mr Trevor —Only if we could have a referendum to ensure that we are in the Constitution.

Senator MOORE —Certainly we can talk about time frames to help.

Mr Trevor —I do not think we have the time frame for that at the moment.

Senator MOORE —It is really important in terms of the process of how it goes, because—

Mr Trevor —I am not aware of any legal process.

Senator MOORE —So it is now just in terms of continuing your position of people power, which is ongoing and working locally in that process.

Mr Trevor —If anything, I think the mood of communities surrounding us and up and down the Queensland coast has been galvanised even further—not just by the process of saying, ‘You will amalgamate,’ but by the process of trying to hammer us into submission and quickly sweep us under the carpet by saying, ‘We’ll prosecute you,’ or ‘We’ll sack you from office.’ People take great offence to that. They see that as being arrogant; they see that as a government determined to stop them having their democratic say in the process. The one great loser from this whole process is that the communities have had the right taken away from them to have their say at the end of the SSS process.

Senator MOORE —In terms of the process, the plebiscite element will be returned because this legislation has been accepted by all major parties. So, in terms of process, we are going through the committee stage but, in terms of that, the plebiscite will happen.

Mr Trevor —Yes.

Senator MOORE —You mentioned in your opening comment—and I take it on board—the difference between a decision on these boundaries, which is critical to people’s understanding, and any other issue. But I am interested in your part of the world, in particular—in Isis—and whether you think there would be any other issue that would be of such import that such a mechanism could be used. I know you have read the legislation; it is very general. I am interested in that, based on the current legislation. From your point of view, is there anything else that would be this important?

Mr Trevor —I think that, in this whole process, we need to be very careful that it is a black-and-white process. On listening to some of the comments around the table from both sides this morning, I think we have to be very careful that we do not make it a complicated process. To use the analogy of a body: you can live without a couple of fingers, but if someone cuts your throat you have a really big problem. The communities see it from the fact that they are fighting for their very existence as communities, and they want a say on whether we will exist or not. Small boundary changes can already be done under the existing act, prior to local government reform.

Senator MOORE —With agreement.

Mr Trevor —With agreement from both local authorities. I feel very much empathy and sympathy from some of the comments at this table earlier this morning. But I think that, at this stage of the process, we need to keep it black and white and not muddy the water too much; otherwise the whole thing could be lost out the window.

Senator MURRAY —I have no questions. I must say that I very much enjoyed your dissertation.

Senator LUDWIG —I take it that you are in favour of constitutional recognition of local councils?

Mr Trevor —I am, on the basis that it delivers something for us. Taking up Mayor Abbot’s comments earlier: it has been tried before, and I think that local government have gone off in the direction of looking for delivery of some of those things like Roads to Recovery money and one per cent of the taxation system—those sorts of things, which delivered some real things—because we saw the constitutional issue as highly desirable but unachievable in the short term.

Senator LUDWIG —On the broader issue of plebiscites: do you support plebiscites on a range of issues, or is it just narrowly defined—the councils amalgamation issue?

Mr Trevor —In the history of local governments across Queensland, and as heard in some of the comments made here today by Noosa and by us, we consult our communities in many different ways, depending upon those issues. I would grade the issues into a whole range of issues. I do not think it is necessary to have an AEC poll on every minor issue that springs up on one side of the road or the other, but, when you come to the very principles of whether you will exist as a community in the way that you have over the last 100-and-something years or whether you will be chucked into a bag, holus-bolus, with a whole range of other people and told it will be good for you, with no proof, I would highlight that as being far different to some of the minor issues about whether you have a high-rise building or not. It is the very principle of the fact that you do not get a say in your future at all that makes the difference for it being a plebiscite issue.

Senator LUDWIG —So are issues of a nuclear power station in your backyard, a jail, a detention centre by Immigration, a waste dump or a nuclear waste dump—those types of issues—of that order?

Mr Trevor —I think they are issues that we as a community would need to discuss and about which we would need to make those decisions as a community. It is not for me to say that that is an issue for my community or it is not an issue for my community. There would be a need for us to discuss that internally as a community and make those decisions as a community. Bill Trevor does not run Isis Shire by saying, ‘This is what we will do.’ I run Isis Shire by talking to my community, by taking on board their concerns and then endeavouring to make a decision which reflects the majority view of my community. Leadership is all about a range of different things. Sometimes you lead from the front because you know more than your community, and you endeavour to take them down that path by educating them. Sometimes you listen to what they have to say, and then you react to that in a leadership role. So I would say, in answer to your question: they are issues that I would need to discuss further with my community.

Senator LUDWIG —Thank you very much.

Senator JOYCE —You are aware that probably the shadow of this is the New South Wales local government amalgamations. Have you been to New South Wales to see what happened with their local government amalgamations?

Mr Trevor —I am aware that in both New South Wales and Victoria there have been winners and losers in the process. Some communities have nearly died; others have prospered. That is why I make the point, and I make it quite strongly, that the reform process was not just about throwing four or five shires into a bag and saying, ‘You will work together.’ It is about cutting the cloth for the glove differently for many communities. What might suit one community might not suit another down the road. It is about getting it right and leaving that individualism available.

Senator JOYCE —Generally, what happens is—as in New South Wales; I have been through there in the last week—the big towns win and the little towns die.

Mr Trevor —My community is frightened that our street cleaning will go from seven days a week to three days a week, that our toilet cleaning will go from twice a day to once a day, that our rates and charges will go up, that our pensioners will lose out and that everything will be sucked to the middle like a vacuum for 10 to 12 years, then if you are still alive in 10 years time you may receive a little back.

Senator JOYCE —The argument is put that there are greater efficiencies from having a larger council. You may agree that that is the case or you may want to propose a counterargument for why that is not the case.

Mr Trevor —That is not a proven fact anywhere. I am not aware of any economic modelling that is currently available which shows just because you shove four councils together they will be economically more viable. Indeed, take the report of the reform commission that said with respect to North Burnett, where they are putting six councils together there, ‘We put them together, financially we will need support.’ Where are the efficiencies? The other point I make is that this is about people, not just about money. Even if it were shown that a community would be more efficient if it were lumped together with the neighbours down the road, but that community said, ‘We don’t want to do that and we’re prepared to pay five per cent extra each year on our rates to ensure we retain the community of interest which we have,’ what is wrong with that?

Senator JOYCE —In Victoria, 11,000 jobs were lost through council amalgamations. What support have you had from the union movement to protect workers jobs in Queensland?

Mr Trevor —The union movement has been particularly silent on the issue right through this process. I have marched with Senator Ludwig’s father on state parliament on the one per cent guarantee issue where unions and local government stood shoulder to shoulder and took on the Goss government about that issue. In this process, the unions have said nothing. In small rural communities, many of the works depots will be closed. I point out the Telstra issue: we had 19 people working in a depot in our community. It is now more efficient to have that work done in Bundaberg and to send out a Telstra vehicle from Bundaberg every day to fix a fault somewhere. The people in our backyard—our truck drivers, our staff and those sorts of people have a great deal to be worried about. Politically, the Queensland government has said, ‘No-one can be sacked for three years. Therefore, jobs will be all right; don’t worry about them.’ Look at what is happening right now with the uncertainty that is being created within the process. Councils are losing good staff left, right and centre. Private enterprise is not just sitting back and saying, ‘We’ll see what we can pick up.’ They are actively going to our staff and saying, ‘We’ve got a job for you, Joe; we’ll pay you $10,000 more per year but the window is only open for six weeks. Make your mind up.’ We are being crippled by the loss of staff who are worried about their mortgage and all those sorts of things. They are jumping ship now because of the uncertainty. The attrition from local government over the next 12 months will be dramatic.

Senator JOYCE —What research are you aware of which the state government did to convince them to proceed with these forced amalgamations?

Mr Trevor —My personal feeling is that this is nothing but a cynical, political ploy. This is about regionalising councils, making them party political and taking away the right of small communities. Imagine 150 pesky mayors out there talking to you and your departments. You can cut that down to 70, you can politicise the system and make it a party political thing. I have been involved in local government for 23 years and the day it becomes party political in my end of the world, I am out. I believe this crosses political lines in local government. It is about local people serving local communities and working together. I am sceptical about this process, particularly when the premier comes out and says that only two councils have agreed to amalgamate. The reform process was never just about amalgamations.

Senator JOYCE —We talked about people power as being the process to stop it. From where you are sitting right now, what do you see as the most effective mechanism of people power to bring about effect to stop council amalgamations?

Mr Trevor —I think the only thing that politicians take notice of as far as that process is concerned is the six o’clock news and the TV cameras. Unless we can continue to motivate people to stream down the middle of the road, demanding their rights, then it will be the highlight on the six o’clock news for a month and swept under the carpet after that. The thing that currently complicates it is that there is a federal election looming. Pressure is coming mainly because of the swing back in the seats because of the kerfuffle over the local government reform process. Unless we can keep it before the TV cameras, unless we can continue to make those people who are angry with the process come out and be counted then it will be yesterday’s news in a month’s time.

Senator JOYCE —It would be fair to say that the vast number of people in local government areas do not want amalgamations and we hear that, federally, none of the major parties want amalgamations. If someone was to put themselves up as a federal leader of a party talking about cooperative federalism and they could not convince a premier from their own party to change a policy that nobody believes in, do you think that would be a good litmus test of their capacity for dealing with cooperative federalism or would you think they were playing both sides of the fence?

Mr Trevor —I think that in the history Australia there have often been disagreements between parties of all sorts, both at a federal and a state level. That will probably continue under the process that we have for some time into the future. I suppose many people have adopted the rule of thumb in Australia that, if they have a federal government of one colour, they like to have a state government of another colour to put some checks and balances into the system rather than having all one colour governing right across the Australian landscape as a whole. I think that, whether you are in opposition federally or in the prime minister’s suites, you do have enormous power and the opportunity to influence state premiers on a whole range of issues. Whether it is the Prime Minister or Kevin Rudd, I would be urging either of them to point out to Mr Beattie the concern within the communities. When you think about it, people are fighting for their children’s rights. People are fighting for the ability to have themselves governed at a local level rather than being told by someone in a distant town what they will do. Our representation will go down to 0.8 of one elector in the greater Bundaberg regional council. When the budget cake from 10 councillors and a mayor is being carved up around the table, how do you think our representative is going to go in getting some multimillion-dollar project up in Childers? It will not happen.

Senator JOYCE —I agree with you; it will not happen and you will be in a world of trouble.

Senator FORSHAW —I am tempted to ask whether you are aware that Mr Howard, when he was opposition leader, sought to convince Premier Kennett not to go ahead with his forced amalgamations in Victoria?

Mr Trevor —I do not know whether Premier Kennett told him he was going to do it.

Senator FORSHAW —That tells you how much influence federal politicians or leaders sometimes have in the Liberal Party. You made some comments about plebiscites on other issues and you also answered some questions from Senator Ludwig about that. I appreciate the point you make. On a substantial issue such as council amalgamations, which goes to the very structure of local government, that would be of significance. As you know, we certainly support the plebiscites. But, on that issue, we do have an obligation as senators to examine the impact of the legislation. It is not confined to plebiscites. If this bill had in its title and in its clauses that it was applicable to local government amalgamation proposals, it would be much clearer. That is why we need to at least explore those issues.

I also make the point—and I am coming to a question—that, as you would know, once a law comes in, it can run anywhere. Precedents can be established. We have seen that with the Corporations Law. The way the Corporations Law is now interpreted as a result of High Court decisions effectively gives the federal government the power to pretty much regulate anything they like, including issues to do with local government. I am sure you are aware of that. There are two things I want to ask you about. Firstly, you have said that the plebiscites should all be held on the one day. I think there have been indications that that might be where they are heading. I am interested in why that would be a good idea. Why would that be appropriate rather than staggering them across the state, given that one of the objections to the state government’s actions is their trying to do this whole thing in one hit, as it were—forced amalgamations right across the state effective from the same point in time? I am just wondering.

Mr Trevor —My answer to your question, if I understand it correctly, would be this: on 15 March next year we cease to exist and on 16 March a new Bundaberg regional council will come into place. If you stagger those referendums over a long period of time, you are going to shorten the time and ability for us to use the results of those to influence the Beattie government into making a change based on the democratic feelings of the communities across Queensland.

I think that is why, in one respect, you need to have it sooner rather than later. For the mechanics of doing it, it will probably be easier for the Electoral Commission if the federal and state elections are on one day. If you staggered it out, you would lose the importance of those results. By having them all together and being able to say, ‘Fifty communities or 50 councils across Queensland are unhappy about this, and here’s the result,’ it would give us more opportunity to influence the Beattie government.

Senator FORSHAW —I am reminded that it was Gough Whitlam, I think, who very much started the idea of local government being incorporated under the federal Constitution. But one of his other ideas was that elections should all be held on the one day. I am not so sure I agree with that.

Mr Trevor —Ours are. They are normally the last week in March every four years.

Senator FORSHAW —But he meant local, state and federal. You mentioned New South Wales in response to some questions from Senator Joyce. I actually have some pretty good knowledge of the amalgamation process in New South Wales, as I am from that state. Would you be prepared to identify which communities you believe have suffered as a result of the amalgamation process? I concede that not everybody was happy. They never are. It has been staggered in New South Wales. There have been proposals put up that have then been put down.

Mr Trevor —Perhaps I could attack it another way. As I understand it, the process in New South Wales was quite consultative for quite a while, giving people the opportunity in those communities to point out where the one glove should not be cut from the same cloth and applied holus-bolus across the state. I think Gilgandra would stand out as a community who were able to point out the specifics of why they wanted to remain as they were and how they could be successful on their own. I would use them as an example of how, in this process in Queensland, we have missed the opportunity to do that. They have been able to influence the process down there to say that they should stand alone, and my understanding is that they have been allowed to do so quite successfully.

Senator FORSHAW —I understand, also, that it was not just all amalgamations of councils, but it did include shifting of boundaries between councils.

Mr Trevor —Yes. And I would support that in the process here. We thought we were going to in some cases amalgamate, in some cases have boundary changes and in some cases have shared services.

Senator FORSHAW —The final question I wanted to ask you relates to some of your earlier comments. I think this should be kept in mind, particularly for this issue of constitutional recognition. Are you aware that the basis of this legislation is actually the external affairs power?

Mr Trevor —No.

Senator FORSHAW —It is. The government is relying upon its—

Mr Trevor —Do you mean the example of how the federal government is utilising some of the decisions under which act it comes?

Senator FORSHAW —No. It is very simple. Start from the premise that federal government does not have any direct constitutional power over local government—

Mr Trevor —I understand where you are coming from.

Senator FORSHAW —although it has various powers, including corporations and things like that. It is relying very much—it says this in the explanatory memorandum—on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to then pass this legislation to allow a federal authority, the Australian Electoral Commission, to conduct plebiscites. I just ask that question because I think people need to understand, when they are talking about community, local government and the importance of the wishes of the people who live there, that the federal government is having to rely on our signing up to international covenants—which some of our friends from the National Party continually criticise us about—to enact this, which is why the issue of giving power to a federal constitutional head of power over local government would remove that requirement.

Mr Trevor —One of the issues we face as local government is that, while we have been supportive of being mentioned in the Constitution, we want to be recognised as having some real results, rather than just being a name issue only. That is why, as Bob Abbott has mentioned, we went off in other directions when that did not happen, because there were some real issues out there about funding and those types of issues, and the model of how money is returned to local governments has been very important to us.

Senator FORSHAW —The general feeling in the coalition parties has historically been to oppose the use of the international conventions to drill down this far into issues, unless they have political reasons to do so.

Mr Trevor —When we are fighting for our very existence, I would not care if it were an act on the moon—if it helped our cause, we would support it.

Senator FORSHAW —That is true, and we are supporting it. I am just saying that you did not draft this legislation; the government did.

Mr Trevor —I understand that.

Senator MOORE —I forgot to ask you this question earlier, and I do apologise. It is about the LGAQ position. Are you in favour of forced amalgamations under any circumstances? When the SSS process was going through, there were indications in that that some councils would benefit immensely, for a whole range of reasons, from being put together. There were very few at that stage, early as it was, who put their hand up—Rosalie was one, I know—and said, ‘We are prepared to jump in and do it.’ Do you think the extension of the process at any stage would mean that there would be the role for someone outside to say, ‘For all these reasons, blah and blah should be together’?

Mr Trevor —I think that, if you have gone through the due process and the due process has involved identifying what may need to happen in certain areas, if the yes case and the no case have been explained to the community and the community has been given an opportunity to have a say on the issue, and if there are four communities and three out of four agree and one does not, there may be a need at some time for governments to make the final decision. As we are a creature of the 1993 Local Government Act then obviously the state government has that power. What we are trying to do is point out that this process has been flawed, that the rug has been pulled from under the democratic process and that the community have not been given the right to have a say. It is all right to say, ‘Yes, they can make a submission to the commission,’ but most people are too busy taking the kids to touch football, trying to find some money to buy school clothes and doing all those things to sit down and try to type up a 20- or 30-page submission. In local communities they rely on their local representatives to do that representation for them.

Senator MOORE —I just wanted to get it on record, because I know that people have said this.

CHAIR —As there are no further questions, I thank you very much for joining us today. We really do appreciate it.

Proceedings suspended from 1.22 pm to 2.00 pm