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Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007

CHAIR —Welcome. Do you have an opening statement, Mr Cotter?

Mr Cotter —Thank you, Senators, for the opportunity to be here today. It is interesting for an organisation like ours, AgForce, to be in Noosa promoting rural and regional Queensland. However, it is an opportunity that we would not miss, to make the point about what this process means to rural and regional Queensland.

AgForce has about 8,000 members, primary producers, around the state. We probably work and lobby for about 100,000 other producers of agricultural production around this state. Consequently, probably 65 per cent of the landmass is managed by these people. As a flow-on from that, the largest percentage of rates collected by local government comes from our members and those people. So it is a very obvious observation to make that we have enormous vested interest in where our money goes and what councils do with it. That is why we find it so vexing that any government, any democratically elected group of people, would be so draconian as to impose such legislation as they have just done on our people in these rural areas.

AgForce lobbies on behalf of our members and our communities as well. After about three days of this legislation coming forward our members and the communities built around our members came down on us in enormous force and said, ‘What are you going to do?’ As a consequence of that, within a few days we ran a poll of our 8,000 members. As you would be aware, activating rural people to reply promptly is not always possible, but within 24 hours we had over 1,400 replies from people who were absolutely distraught as to the action that this state government had taken on their local community and local governments. Why? The reason I give you that background is that I would like to make you aware that, while we are here in Noosa—and you have heard a lot today about issues about individual areas—just as you have heard about Stanthorpe, we are here talking about the wider implications of a state of enormous size and enormous geographic difference and varied communities.

The other issue is that our people and the mining industry in this state are all in wider geographic areas and have the largest chunk of this state’s production. Unfortunately, we are in a situation in Queensland where this state can be governed from Brisbane City and south-east Queensland, and that is to the huge detriment of the representation of our people in rural areas. While that is the case, I do not believe they have a democratic right to impose on these rural and regional areas a position that does not have any scientific, logical, financial or social background and to give these communities a kick in the guts, to put it bluntly—to do this to them.

I think that today is an opportunity for us to outline to you the reason you are here. The reason these people need to have a say is driven by the fear of what government will do to them—and what this government has already done to them. We want to make it clear to you that the fear that is driving these people, the fear that brought 1,000 or 1,500 people to Barcaldine twice in about six weeks—and I think you heard that the Noosa people had 10,000 people in Brisbane—comes from their lack of trust in the government as to what they will do next. That is why it is absolutely imperative that the legislation you are here to talk about today gives these people a say. From there, I think it is absolutely imperative that we start to work toward how we can change the government’s mind. All senators here from Queensland, as representatives of all Queenslanders, need to know that this is their responsibility.

0Senator Moore interjecting

Mr Cotter —He has gone. It is their responsibility to represent all Queenslanders.

Another issue that has really got rural and regional people focused on the distrust is the fact that about six years ago the Premier of this state stood hand in glove with Paul Bell, the president of the Local Government Association, and Peter Kenny, the president of AgForce, at Charleville and signed what is known as the Blueprint for the Bush, where there was an undertaking, an agreement, by all those parties that they would maintain a range of services into rural communities that would allow those communities to prosper and grow.

To me, that document and that process have just been thrown out, or thrown back in our faces. The Local Government Association have walked away from that agreement. AgForce have not, for the simple reason that we are so determined to hold this government accountable to deliver those services. If we cannot stop this process and we cannot enhance all the people that are coming and talking to you, then after we have elections—which will give a 98 per cent vote against this process, I can assure you—we need to be able to use every opportunity we can to hold this government accountable on the issues that it raised in that blueprint.

I can give you a couple of reasons for why the fear is out there. Sue, my staff policy officer here today, talked to someone in Tambo. For those who do not know it, it is north of Charleville. A house in Tambo a few months ago was worth $130,000, which is probably fairly minimal. That house today is unsaleable because the Tambo council is being amalgamated with Blackall. The staff will no doubt live in Blackall, so who will want a house in Tambo? If you happen to be a senior worker there who has worked on that council for many years, that is your life. If you do not have a job in Tambo and you want to move, what is $130,000 going to buy you, let alone if you cannot sell it? So, if you wonder why there is fear in the communities out there, I can assure you that those are the sorts of things that are highest in people’s minds. They cannot understand why a government would do this to them.

There are other issues that AgForce have been involved with. We took a delegation to the Premier and fortunately—and I ask other people to take heart from this—we believe we got him to give an undertaking to the far western shires to leave them alone. Boulia shire, for example, has 600 ratepayers and residents and an area the size of Tasmania—and they wanted to amalgamate it with another area the size of Tasmania. Let us be realistic about this.

The other people that we worked closely with were the Rural Doctors Association, who represent a whole range of social issues out there for people, including depression with the drought, I can assure you; the CWA, who are everywhere in this country doing good for people; and the Isolated Children’s Parents Association. They are the heart and soul of the social issues of these rural communities. I can assure you that they have never had anything like this imposed on them. The nearest thing that I can remember associated with something like this was back in the early nineties when a former state government, led by Wayne Goss, decided that we did not need courthouses, schools, railway lines or a whole range of other facilities out in these rural communities because they were not viable.

I am sorry, but communities in this country—the third or fourth most wealthy country in the world—have a right to be provided with reasonable services. I do not care what level of government it is; there is a responsibility of government to provide people with these services. Until such time as government realise that, they have no right to stand up after every election and say, ‘We will govern for everyone.’

CHAIR —I think you have highlighted a couple of things which have come out in the presentations of a number of witnesses. The first is the issue of localism—that communities are feeling more of a sense of local identity than before, and that people want local services and want to do things locally, probably more than they ever have before. So localism is a growing trend and not a receding trend. The other issue is trust, and I think you are probably the first person today to use that word. What we are talking about today and what it really boils down to is a breach of trust by a government. I was interested to hear you talk about the Blueprint for the Bush, which is something that, as a Victorian senator, I have not heard of before. Would you mind taking us through the elements of that blueprint?

Mr Cotter —Over the last maybe 10 years there has been an enormous amount of legislation, particularly environmental legislation and things like that, which has impacted enormously on the capacity of the rural sector to produce and be productive. A range of excuses have been used for this and some have been meeting the Kyoto emission trials by stopping land clearing and things like that. Those pieces of legislation were purely imposed, without consultation, without any relevance as to the impact on those communities. Through our organisation and through our previous president, in negotiations with government, we became so frustrated that we said, ‘At least give us some idea of what you want for rural Queensland. How do you perceive it to be for this generation and the next generation?’ That was the birth of it, as a result of Larry Atkin, the president in those days.

From there, it progressed between a range of government departments, including the department of communities, which is a state government department; the department of primary industries; the department of natural resources; the premier’s department; and the state development department to: what is it that you want out here? The state government, in conjunction with those two organisations, developed a set of principles which said that there would not be a diminishing of the rural communities as far as health services and schools—and, again, I guess it was also a flow-on from the closure of government services like courthouses et cetera previously. So that was the birth of it. We thought we had a reasonable understanding that anything like this in the future would be a negotiable process. It was about ensuring that, if you lived in Aramac, you had a doctor, you had a bank and you had sufficient facilities there to carry on a reasonable lifestyle. In these communities we do not expect to have a Noosa lifestyle or a Brisbane city lifestyle, but we think we are entitled to a range of reasonable services that are standard across Australia—and I think we have. That was the basis of the blueprint.

CHAIR —So the size, shape and sustainability review of local government, which was underway, would have very much been in the spirit of the blueprint then?

Mr Cotter —Absolutely. And I happen to live near a council that is listed as distressed. That council provides good services in a community. They may or may not have needed to improve their economic management. However, to me, throwing them in with three other weak councils does not fix the stress problem. They would have been part of the SSS process within the blueprint and, along with a whole range of organisations like ours, the rural doctors et cetera, we would have negotiated our way through how we could have strengthened those councils.

CHAIR —I guess the abandonment of the SSS process, the announcement of the forced amalgamations and the announcement of penalties for councils which seek to access the plebiscites further erodes that trust. We are aware that the Queensland government have announced that they will withdraw those penalties if they have not already done so, which is a step, I guess we would all agree, in the right direction. But just coming back to the issue of trust, what would the Queensland government need to do to restore that trust on this issue?

Mr Cotter —I am not sure they can restore the trust in rural Queensland. Just how many times can you trample on people of all walks of political life and, I might add, very much across the political divide. At the Barcaldine rally, there would have been far more support of people by this government than there would have been by conservative government people, as most of the council workers are. To restore that trust you will need a change of leadership, without doubt. I do not believe this Premier will ever win the trust of rural Queensland again.

In the immediate future, if a number of these plebiscites are held, there needs to be a significant reaction from the government to take into account the people’s word. That just may be a first step. We have abolished 84 councils. If we had 50 plebiscites across the state—which will come back with a 98 per cent vote against the process and the result—if the government were then prepared to say, ‘We’ll put this place on hold; we’ll foreshadow the election being in 2009 for the new councils and we will rework this system,’ that may just be a first step in achieving something. But from the minister’s attendance yesterday at the local government conference I can assure you that they are just not interested.

Senator MOORE —Which council do you live close to?

Mr Cotter —Murgon. I am not in Murgon but I am next door to it.

Senator MOORE —So it is into that Burnett area?

Mr Cotter —Yes.

Senator MOORE —The blueprint for the bush, which I do know, was about services rather than about structures, wasn’t it?

Mr Cotter —It was a combination of community standards, I think.

Senator MOORE —But, in terms of process, my understanding is that the actual numbers and locations of local government were not mentioned at all?

Mr Cotter —No, not at all.

Senator MOORE —I do know that it is a really good document. It talks about people having services in the area. But I just want to make sure that I had not missed something there.

Mr Cotter —Perhaps I can comment on that issue—and that is why we worked with rural doctors and people. At this stage we have the Aramac council building a doctors surgery. No way will anyone ever convince the Aramac people that a council that is run out of Barcaldine is going to build a doctors surgery in Aramac, or any range of those things across Capella or any of those places. What happens in these communities with the executive members of the council staff is that they are the drivers of the intellectual property in those things. If we have a submission to put in to government, to whatever level of government, for the sporting group or for the local community, they are the intellectual strength of that community in an office academic way in driving those submissions. Someone mentioned before the previous round of amalgamations that has been on. One was up here at Gympie, next door, another one was at Warwick and another one was at Cairns.

Senator MOORE —Ipswich as well.

Mr Cotter —And Ipswich—and we can tell some good stories about Ipswich.

Senator MURRAY —We are all ears.

Mr Cotter —The outlying small community support just diminishes because, as we all know, it is like doing business in your local community versus doing business in George Street here, where you can get in the car and drive, versus doing business in Canberra. To do business with Treasury in Canberra versus Treasury in Queensland, versus your local council, for the average community organisation is just out of the ballpark.

Senator MOORE —So in terms of the statements that you make about the relationship between government—and certainly that is there—the process is about service delivery. Is that what you are talking about?

Mr Cotter —The process is about service delivery but also service initiation.

Senator MOORE —Yes, services, so that people across Queensland, no matter where you live, can expect certain levels of service.

Mr Cotter —A certain standard of service and a level of service.

Senator MOORE —In terms of the legislation we have in front of us, which I know you have had a chance to read—3½ pages—we do not have any detail about how it will operate, and that is being talked about. But I am interested in the process, given that the far west ones have been relatively untouched, from what I can see that has come through, but the central west seems to have picked up a few amalgamations. Do you have any idea from working with your people about what would happen if two communities are scheduled to be amalgamated and one says yes and the other says no?

Mr Cotter —I would really struggle to find anyone that will say yes.

Senator MOORE —It is always easier to mount a no case, but just in terms of the process—

Mr Cotter —That has been proven many times.

Senator MOORE —Many, many times.

Mr Cotter —Someone mentioned the doughnut councils before. I know for a fact that with Dalby and Wambo, which are the two councils there, neither one wanted the other. Roma and Booringa were the same. I think Cairns would be one that wants Douglas, which I am sure you will hear about when you meet Mayor Byrne from Cairns. But there would be very few that would have wanted amalgamation in this process. I think on integration and working together, those doughnut ones, if they had been given an electorate cycle in which to get their act together, I am sure they would have arranged it, but certainly not down this track of being driven from a bureaucratic and an upper government area.

Senator MOORE —In the discussion yesterday at the Local Government Association meeting we talked about the proposal from the Labor Party to put local government into the Constitution. Does AgForce have a position on that?

Mr Cotter —We have not discussed it as a major policy, obviously because this has arrived in the last—

Senator MOORE —Before you were AgForce, the last time this came up was in the 1980s and the time before that was the 1970s. Do you know whether your predecessors had a position? I do not know.

Mr Cotter —I would certainly suggest that the position would be very positive, simply because local government now is part and parcel of our day-to-day delivery of services in this country, not as it was in the Constitution 100 years ago when it was left out of the Constitution. I do not see anything but a positive in having that enshrined in local government, which is a process that is never going to go away. There is a reasonable reason now for state governments to go away.

Senator MOORE —It would be a state-wide plebiscite then, Mr Cotter, in terms of the process?

Mr Cotter —I would suggest that our organisation would be very positive, that we would support such an arrangement.

Senator MOORE —I know that AgForce has been involved across many community issues for the period but one of the things I have been asking the mayors who have been coming to our committee is whether they can see an argument at any stage for amalgamations, so that rather than a concept where you have 150-odd shires at the moment, 150-odd councils under Queensland state government, the proposal will bring it back to 70-odd. All those people are not happy and that is real, but there was some discussion that there would have to be some amalgamations to somewhere between the number that is there and the original number. Can AgForce see an argument at any stage for amalgamations which could be forced?

Mr Cotter —The key argument to this whole process is the way it was done, given it was driven by those communities it may be forced in the final issue. If it had gone down the SSS process and there was agreement of a reasonable status on social, economic, environmental or other reasons by which that could have been driven, then that would be fine because it is community driven, driven within that group, but certainly not anything that is driven solely and purely for a political reason out of George Street.

Senator MOORE —Concerning the Blackall-Tambo example—I know those areas pretty well from a previous life—if you are going to have a larger council in that area, what is the understanding of why, if the council was centred in Blackall, you would not need people working in Tambo? I want to get some idea of that argument—which is very indulgent of me, Chair, but I could not let it go past. In a council of that size, if work had to be done in Tambo and the Tamborine area, why would everything have to come out of Blackall?

Mr Cotter —Everything may not go to Blackall but you will never maintain the level of staff that is in those communities at present.

Senator MOORE —So there could be some reduction. When I heard you speak, I got the impression that in the Blackall-Tambo example—there is a big distance between them, although people do drive it. Just as people go from here to Maroochydore they drive Tambo-Blackall. I could not understand why you would necessarily centralise everything, but you are saying that there would be some centralisation and some change of habit. I can accept that.

Mr Cotter —To use another example, in the shire I live in, we have just been amalgamated with Gympie-Cooloola and I live in Kilkivan.

Senator MOORE —So services will go to Gympie rather than Kilkivan.

Mr Cotter —We have two depots in two small communities with 500 people in each. There are probably 50 workers in each of those towns.

Senator MOORE —At the moment?

Mr Cotter —At the moment. There is no way a Gympie regional council will maintain a depot of 50 workers in both of those communities. Therein lies your flow-on to a lack of a bank. The bank has already said it will close in Tambo the moment the council shifts its account out.

Senator MOORE —Which bank is that, Mr Cotter?

Mr Cotter —I am not sure. It is the only one in Tambo.

Ms Dillon —There was an NAB, which closed. I think it might be Bendigo that came into the town purely because Tambo Shire Council said it would leave their account there.

Senator MOORE —And we need to know that.

Mr Cotter —They are the sorts of facilities that flow on and that really undermine the whole process of how this has been done, without being thought out. Going back to your question about whether there is an opportunity for amalgamations, all those things need to be in the mix when those decisions are made.

Senator MOORE —And public.

Mr Cotter —And transparent.

Senator MURRAY —One of the things which interest me about all this is that there are no obvious cost gains to the state, because councils and shires are paid for by the communities that live in them. That leads me to the view that if communities in a particular area want to have a shire or a council remain, even though in theory amalgamating with another one may lower their costs, then they should be entitled. There is no evidence, is there, that the state is going to gain out of all these amalgamations?

Mr Cotter —A range of issues have been put forward. One has been—this is what is really building the anger and the mistrust out there—the fact that we will do away with 300 councillors. These councillors get paid an absolute pittance. It is the toughest game in town, I can assure you, to be involved in local government, because you are so accountable to the people. Every time you move outside your door they are there telling you what is right and what is wrong with your council. One of the most ludicrous statements is that there will be a saving by not paying councillors. That is one of the minimal costs within the running of a council—that is, what you are paid as a mayor or a councillor—in these rural communities particularly.

Ms Dillon —A councillor is paid $1,000 in Tambo Shire.

Mr Cotter —The other argument has been the fact that we will not have as many CEOs.

Senator MURRAY —Just for the record, Ms Dillon, you said $1,000 a month?

Ms Dillon —No, $1,000 per year per councillor in the Tambo Shire. Plus they get a daily allowance. But that is their general allowance, and they will get a daily allowance for meetings, of $200 or $300.

Mr Cotter —The other savings issue was the fact that there would be one CEO instead of two, three or whatever there were, and there would be one engineer.

Senator MURRAY —Are the councillors paid by the state?

Ms Dillon —No.

Mr Cotter —No, they are paid by the ratepayers.

Senator MURRAY —So are the CEOs, aren’t they?

Mr Cotter —Yes.

Senator MURRAY —But that is my point. My point is that it is the local people who are paying for that, and therefore the local people are entitled, if they are paying for it, to have it.

Mr Cotter —Exactly, and that is why I made the point of the fact that—particularly our people—they contribute about 65 per cent of the revenue to these local governments, our own rural producers. It is their money that pays the people you are talking about, yes.

Senator MURRAY —Exactly.

Ms Dillon —But this process has reduced the numbers of councillors significantly, and there is nothing they can do about that.

Senator MURRAY —I understand the consequences. What I have not heard at all, from any witness, is what is in it for the state.

Mr Cotter —There is no financial gain to the state, in our opinion.

Senator MURRAY —That is right. There appear to be no obvious efficiencies that emerge as a result of these council amalgamations, unless you look at particular circumstances where there is an efficiency, because some amalgamations are required. But in general, if you take the whole lot, there does not seem to be any evidence of an automatic efficiency. They are just claims. The claim is that it will run better, it will be cheaper, you will have fewer politicians et cetera.

Mr Cotter —Certainly if we refer back to the amalgamations that went on eight or nine years ago, if you talk to any ratepayer in those shires now, they will tell you there have not been any gains to the ratepayers, much less to the state.

Senator MURRAY —Have there been losses?

Mr Cotter —There has certainly been a change in how the ability to do business with those local governments is focused. It is much harder to do business with these larger local governments.

Senator MURRAY —I do not have a prejudice against very large shires. I have just been in the East Kimberley; the Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley is massive. From the port of Wyndham to Kununurra it is an hour and a half’s drive and it is still in the same shire. I do not have an automatic prejudice, but I have the feeling that if people want to pay for it they are entitled to keep it.

Mr Cotter —I think they are entitled to be involved in the process by which it is arrived. At the very least they should an opportunity to have input into what happens to their shire. That is what has been denied here.

Senator MURRAY —I repeat a question I put to somebody else: there is no process of judicial review of this, is there?

Mr Cotter —No, definitely not—the only form of boundary change where there is not, I understand.

Senator FORSHAW —I have no questions but I wholeheartedly endorse your comment about local councillors getting paid a pittance, certainly in comparison to the amount of work they are required to do. I know because my wife is a councillor. Do state governments set the allowance levels for councillors?

Mr Cotter —They have not up until this point, but our fearful minister I believe has made a statement in the last week or so saying that there will be a Remuneration Tribunal which will set the allowances for the new councillors, which is even more concerning in that a number of our councillors are particularly good businesspeople and they say, ‘I will allocate a certain amount of my time to community service,’ in this case as a councillor. The remuneration is not important; it is about time. However, there is a suggestion that the remuneration will be set with an amount of time that you have to spend. As we all know, busy people are the first people you ask to do something. In this case, if these have to be full-time jobs, many good people will be eliminated from wanting to do that job. It is a real worry that people with the ability to deliver to their communities will be eliminated.

Senator FORSHAW —In New South Wales the government sets the levels. The councils are graded and there is a scale which is payable. Ms Dillon, you said earlier that the annual allowance is $1,000 and then there are other fees. Are you able to indicate—so I can get a perspective—the average total payable to a councillor over a year?

Ms Dillon —They have the $1,000, plus the $200 or $300 sitting fee. They might have monthly council meetings, special meetings, and they might get 12 or 13 times $300, plus $1,000. So you are still looking at under $5,000 per councillor. Some of them are representing up to 8,000 square kilometres.

Senator FORSHAW —Some of that would be taxable too, at least initially, wouldn’t it?

Ms Dillon —Most of it, yes.

Senator FORSHAW —I thought New South Wales was pretty badly off, but that is very low.

Ms Dillon —What they are paid is negligible, compared to what they do for that money.

Mr Cotter —The Blackall council—the shire—will go from 14,000 square kilometres to 30,000, so it will double in geographical area. It will go from having 15 councillors to four. So you have four councillors representing 30,000 square kilometres. They are expected to—

Senator FORSHAW —What is the total revenue of the council? What is their total annual budget?

Ms Dillon —Total operating revenue was about $8 million for Blackall and $5 million for Tambo.

Senator MURRAY —And the total population?

Ms Dillon —For the combined shires there are about 400 electors. I apologise—

Mr Cotter —Sixteen hundred would be the figure for combined electors over 30,000 square kilometres.

Ms Dillon —Sixteen hundred, and a population of 2,000.

Senator FORSHAW —That revenue includes grants?

Ms Dillon —Definitely.

Senator FORSHAW —Mainly grants?

Ms Dillon —The rate base is obviously limited.

CHAIR —As there are no further questions, I thank Ms Dillon and Mr Cotter for their time.

 [4.01 pm]