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Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007

CHAIR —Welcome, Mr Elmes, would you like to make a short opening statement?

Mr Elmes —Thank you very much. I know it is the late in the day, but I would like to welcome the committee to Noosa. I hope that during your deliberations today, and having seen some of our local media and talked to some of the people that have come to make presentations, you realise the depth of feeling in our community against forced council amalgamations and, in particular, the amalgamation of the Noosa Shire with Maroochy and Caloundra shires. In my submission, I dealt, in the first part, with a history of what has led up to today, but I also looked at the legal aspects of the legislation, which is now—we have an indication from the government, although they have not yet done it—going to change. I have also brought along with me—and I would like to incorporate it into my evidence—a list of the speeches, questions and statements that I have made in the lead-up to today to concentrate the opinion that I have had and the stand that I have taken during the process.

One of the things that I want to talk about is that this has been a long process for this community. It started well before the last federal election—in fact, when the then Deputy Premier of Queensland, Terry Mackenroth, made a statement at a Property Council meeting in Mooloolaba that he believed it would be a good idea for the three local authorities on the Sunshine Coast to amalgamate. And that, in itself, was enough to spur this community into action.

On the occasion of the last federal election, each polling booth in Noosa that fell within the federal seat was manned by a different community group, and some 18,747 signatures were collected on that day, by this community, opposing the amalgamation of Noosa with any other local authority. That petition was then submitted to the state house. Since then we have gone through the Local Government Reform Commission—you would have heard the figure of 31,000 submissions that were submitted to that. Between 7,000 and 10,000 people marched in Brisbane a few weeks ago, most of whom were from Noosa. And, of course, there have been letters appearing regularly in local newspapers. A new campaign has started today—I am not sure if you have seen today’s Australian Financial Review, but a full-page ad has been placed in it by the Friends of Noosa—and that is a campaign that will gather steam as we go on.

What I am asking, and what this community is asking, is that, as senators and representatives of Queensland and of other states, you take back to the federal government the real hurt that we feel in Noosa, the real desire that we have in Noosa to remain a stand-alone local government authority. We are not coming at this because we are beggars. Our council is financially secure, it was rated in the top 10 councils in Queensland. From the depth of feeling that we have in this state, in this community, we believe and know that the people of Noosa, through their own council, are the best guardians of our future, the best guardians of our environment, the best guardians of our social responsibility. I hope, from the evidence that you have heard today, and from what you will continue to hear in the course of today, that you will take that message back to both the government and the opposition, and hopefully we can have a worthwhile result.

CHAIR —Thank you. We have heard from a number of witnesses today that the SSS review process was underway and ticking along; that it was 18 months along in that process. Premier Beattie, when he announced the forced amalgamations, said words to the effect: ‘I’ve tried, we’ve tried, to bring about voluntary amalgamations, but there comes a point where you’ve got to say enough is enough,’ and threw up his hands in exasperation. How does that comment from Premier Beattie fit with your understanding of how the process was working?

Mr Elmes —It was the first of the comments and statements that he has made that has resulted in what now is a complete lack of confidence in him. The very first move that the state government made when they threw out the SSS system was to change the legislation to take away the right of people to have a vote. The right of people to have a vote was enshrined in Queensland law: if there was a suggestion of amalgamations then people living in those local authorities were given the opportunity to vote yes or no and that vote was binding. That is the fundamental point in all of this. If the state was to give back to the Queensland people the right to vote then I would not have a problem if the Noosa community decided that they wanted to amalgamate with Maroochy and Caloundra, or if similar decisions were made by any of the other shires across Queensland, because they would have expressed their will at the ballot box. That should be the way it is. But Peter Beattie took away that right and he has continued to take away rights. This whole process has been one of policy on the run, and it has not been policy that is well thought through.

CHAIR —We have heard quite a bit today from different councils asking for constitutional recognition of local government in the federal Constitution. Given that it is not the federal government which has threatened local government, it is the state government which has threatened local government, is there an argument and perhaps more reason to seek to have local government recognised in the Queensland state constitution?

Mr Elmes —Absolutely. I do not have a problem with the constitutional arrangements. Let us face it, there has not been anything really wrong with the arrangement as it stood up until this particular point. Whether we recognise local government in the federal Constitution or the state constitution, I am prepared to go along with it. The problem is the process. We did not have a problem before April this year. All of a sudden, the system that has guided Queensland and guided local authorities for the last one hundred or so years has been turned on its head. One of the things that they said during the advertising campaign the state undertook was: ‘We have had the same old horse-and-buggy rules for the last hundred years. Isn’t it time we changed them?’ Well, we were changing it under the SSS proposal. I think it is fair enough to say that that schedule—the size, shape and sustainability schedule—was lagging a little bit slowly. That is a fair enough comment to make. But to change it all in three months when it has been in effect for 100 years is undue haste. I think if we had gone about the process within the existing rules we would not be sitting here talking about whether or not we need to enshrine local government in the state constitution or the federal Constitution because we had a process that worked.

CHAIR —The legislation which is before this committee today has been referred to us for inquiry, to hold public hearings and to get community input, which is a fairly common thing for legislation that is going through the federal parliament. Was the Queensland local government amalgamations legislation referred to the relevant Queensland parliamentary committee for review?

Mr Elmes —No, not as I understand it.

CHAIR —Is it standard that significant legislation gets referred to parliamentary committees?

Mr Elmes —It has all happened very quickly. I am not able to tell you whether it was or it wasn’t. What I am able to tell you is that the haste by which this has taken place has not allowed for the proper processes to take place. I think the fact that this committee is here today and tomorrow in Emerald—which will give you another opportunity to talk to people in other regions of our state who will express similar views to me—is a good thing. But, as I said, if we had allowed time-honoured processes to go their way then there would have been no need for this committee. The fact that the federal government saw fit to create this inquiry has given local authorities and people within those local authorities across the state some hope to continue to highlight what they believe is a great injustice.

CHAIR —Finally, the Queensland government have flagged the intention to introduce iconic protection for Noosa and Port Douglas. What do you think they mean by that? What do you think they intend to legislate?

Mr Elmes —With great respect to the Premier, he does not know. They decide that they will introduce iconic legislation for Noosa and Port Douglas. As someone who has lived in many parts of Queensland I can assure you that there is not a community in Queensland which does not consider that something in their community is also iconic. So why should that not be included in the legislation? When the Premier decided that this legislation should be introduced, he then handed it back to the Noosa shire and the Port Douglas shire and asked them: one, what did the word ‘iconic’—which they could put into the legislation—‘mean?’ and, two, could we have a bit of a hand here, guys, on how to draft the legislation in the first place. It is floating out there; it is not something that will work. If they did have the time to do it, it would take years to do, not a matter of weeks, as the Premier wishes.

CHAIR —It sounds bizarre, indeed.

Senator FORSHAW —Thank you for your appearance. You were asked by Senator Fifield about whether or not the legislation in the state parliament had been referred to a relevant committee, and you were not sure about that. If the legislation is being supported by the two major parties in Queensland—the government and the opposition—and it is fairly straightforward legislation, does it normally get referred to a committee in the broad?

Mr Elmes —No, in many cases legislation is introduced fairly quickly and in many cases legislation has bipartisan support.

Senator FORSHAW —Like this legislation?

Mr Elmes —This legislation does not have bipartisan support.

Senator FORSHAW —It does.

Mr Elmes —Sorry.

Senator FORSHAW —Sorry, the bill that we are looking at, which is the purpose of this inquiry—

Senator MURRAY —I suspect that it has unanimous support.

Senator FORSHAW —I am sure it does.

Senator MURRAY —I cannot speak for the Greens, but I am sure it does.

Mr Elmes —I was going back to the—

Senator FORSHAW —You were thinking of the Queensland one. I was interested in your comments about the state government introducing legislation in haste. I am not complaining, but I am just making the point for the record so that people understand: this legislation was introduced in great haste into the federal parliament. We had a private meeting of the committee, I think before or just shortly thereafter the bill had even hit the deck in the parliament, and we put this program together in great haste. We are dealing with legislation which is supported by all sides of the parliament.

CHAIR —The haste was also supported by the opposition.

Senator FORSHAW —Exactly. But with respect to whether legislation, which has bipartisan support, should go to a committee for inquiry, I could take you through a number of bills where the federal government has declined to have them investigated by a Senate inquiry or where they have had a one-day hearing, such as the recent Northern Territory legislation on the Telstra bill.

CHAIR —Again, the Northern Territory legislation and the speed with which it was dealt were supported by Labor.

Senator FORSHAW —A one-day hearing in Canberra, where a lot of community groups complained that they had no chance at all to come along and address the legislation. There was a lot of community concern about the legislation.

CHAIR —Which Labor supported.

Senator FORSHAW —We were supportive, but we also moved amendments, Chair, and you rejected them. Mr Elmes, we are dealing with this legislation before the federal parliament. It has bipartisan support and it will go through quickly, one would assume. Do you have any idea of what the federal government may do beyond that to change the mind of the state government?

Mr Elmes —No, I do not. I think that in many respects the great hope of my community and others rests on your shoulders and Senator Moore’s shoulders, because the opportunity exists for you to take a message back to your colleagues in caucus and to your leader to exert pressure on the Premier of this state—they are from the same political party—to give people back that right to the vote, which is where I came from. There is a small window of opportunity here, and a great hope for all of us is that both of you will take that message back and judge the depth of feeling. The Leader of the Opposition has talked the talk, but we really do need him to do a bit of leaning on the Premier. With the right to vote, all of this goes away.

Senator FORSHAW —It does not all go away. The legislation provides an opportunity for the constituents, if the council requests to have a plebiscite, to have a vote, and they may vote a certain way. But that is not necessarily the end of the matter.

Mr Elmes —The overall state-wide campaign against forced council amalgamations goes away with the reinstatement of a right to vote.

Senator FORSHAW —So what you are asking those of us on the committee from the Labor Party—and Senator Joyce went to this sort of situation when he was asking questions this morning—is that the Labor Party federally direct the state Premier, because he is a Labor premier, to agree with us and have a consistent view?

Mr Elmes —I think that would be a terrific outcome.

Senator FORSHAW —That is good. But that is something the Prime Minister does not necessarily think is a good idea, does he? He is always telling us that the great danger for Australia is having a Labor leader in Canberra and Labor leaders in the states all agreeing with each other. That is actually undemocratic in many ways, according to Mr Howard, because it is all just ‘follow the leader’.

Mr Elmes —The only thing that I have any expertise in is something that happens in Queensland. We have a federal Labor leader who is a Queenslander. He has the ability—and he certainly knows the phone number of the Premier—to pick up the phone and have a good talk to him.

Senator FORSHAW —You are aware that he has spoken to the Premier privately and that he has made statements publicly? Indeed, he was on the public record back on 17 May calling for the local plebiscites, and that was well before the Prime Minister even entered the debate.

Mr Elmes —I think what the people of Queensland, certainly the people of Noosa, are looking for is an outcome to that rather than just a press release being issued.

Senator MURRAY —Mr Elmes, I got confused when you kept returning to the right to vote. The plebiscite, as you know, gives people the right to express an opinion through a federally administered Electoral Commission process, but it is merely expressing an opinion. When you were talking about the right to vote, were you referring to it in that sense or in the sense of a state vote on these matters?

Mr Elmes —I was talking about the legislation that was removed when—

Senator MURRAY —The state legislation?

Mr Elmes —The state legislation that was removed which allowed for a binding vote when council amalgamations were to be considered.

Senator MURRAY —That makes a great deal of sense. Thank you very much. For the record, you are not against the amalgamation project or concept per se? You think that in specific circumstances it should go ahead and in others it should be rejected; is that right?

Mr Elmes —Absolutely. There are many shires in Queensland where they either welcome amalgamation or, in the case of our southern neighbours Maroochy and Caloundra, there is little or no discussion about it. But there are pockets within Queensland, Noosa being probably the best example of it, where people and the ratepayers really do believe that they have forged a good, sustainable way of seeing their community progress and that they are best able to see that through. To use a bit of an old cliche, to take the ‘local’ out of ‘local government’ and to form a super council comprising Caloundra, Maroochy and Noosa and, in doing so, to create a council in land area about 2.3 times the size of the Gold Coast is not going to deliver good local services.

Senator MURRAY —That is where I wanted to go to with my next question. I was a bit concerned with some answers earlier that Noosa will go ahead with a plebiscite almost certainly but that it was unclear as to whether Maroochy and Caloundra would. I would assume that, if Maroochy and Caloundra also had a plebiscite and were also against amalgamation, the case would be overwhelming, but it would be a bit difficult politically because of the battle still to come if people were claiming that Maroochy and Caloundra were for amalgamation and only Noosa was against it. I just think that, if you are going to have a plebiscite, you need to have it across all those affected areas and also with variants because, as I understand it, there is certainly an acceptance of boundary enlargements and shifts in boundaries and so on. What do you think about that particular problem?

Mr Elmes —I was speaking to a couple of my colleagues today, one of whom is the member for Caloundra. His office has had three calls on amalgamations since this whole process started. Part of my electorate falls into the Maroochy Shire as well. I have yet to see anything from Caloundra City Council and the Maroochy Shire suggesting that they are going to call for a plebiscite. The boundary between the two communities is the Mooloolah River but I doubt if there is anyone who actually lives in Maroochy or Caloundra who has much of an idea that that is where the boundary is. Where one finishes, the other starts. Their building approvals schemes, their housing densities and their ways of doing business are very much the same. To them, it is merely an extension of what has already been the case. That is not the case for Noosa.

Senator MURRAY —Are you suggesting that, even if they do not have a plebiscite, one of the options for the state government is simply to unite those two and leave Noosa out of it?

Mr Elmes —If they were violently opposed to amalgamation, we would be seeing the same agitation going on in those two communities that we are seeing in Noosa. That just has not been the case at all. I think everyone accepts the amalgamation process in Maroochy and Caloundra.

Senator MURRAY —That sounds a very sensible outcome to me. The state still gets much of what it wants, which is an amalgamation, and Noosa will get what it wants.

Mr Elmes —I think we have to go back to one of the meetings that the local government minister attended here during the process. He made the comment that, if there were 156 councils like Noosa in Queensland, there would be no need for local government reform. The minister said that a couple of weeks before the decision was handed down.

Senator MURRAY —The old minister or the new minister?

Mr Elmes —The new minister, Andrew Fraser. As I said right at the beginning, we are not here as some financial basket case or some council that just wants to be left alone for no particular reason. We are financially secure; we have the infrastructure in place in our community, particularly for our people, to see us through very well into the future.

Senator MOORE —The only thing in front of our committee is the 3½-page piece of legislation that looks at plebiscites. That is the only document we have. I am really concerned that there is an expectation that we have an ability beyond that. It is particularly important that that is reinforced all the time. I just want to get that on record.

Your submission talked a lot about amalgamations but not a lot about plebiscites. In terms of process, should this legislation be passed? It will be; you have already heard everybody is supporting it. It is now on the record that there will be a process for the AEC to be involved in driven plebiscites over issues. Have you turned your mind to any other issues that may well be of import to a local area—it does not even say ‘a local government’ in the legislation—or to any other issue that could be covered by such legislation?

Mr Elmes —No, not as such. The area of interest to us is our community. All of us in Noosa welcome the opportunity for a plebiscite. We welcome yet another opportunity for the Noosa people to express their wish at the ballot box. Even though it is not a binding vote it continues to send out the message from this community.

Senator MOORE —Whatever happens in the future process, can you see any path down the track for not including Noosa? I think Noosa has made the case very strongly that there is no rationale for it, but is there any case for forced amalgamations anywhere in Queensland?

Mr Elmes —Not that I am aware of. There are obvious cases for amalgamation. The previous person who was giving evidence referred to what is now the Cooloola Shire. I had a great deal to do with it through business. You have what was then a doughnut council—a very small nuclear city surrounded by a very large shire—and you put them together. It made all sorts of sense and it is something that has worked. There are other examples of that in Queensland. You have to present the people that live in those communities with the reasons for it being a good idea. It comes down to the politicians of the day—in this case the local government leaders—to explain why it should or should not go ahead. People then express their view at the ballot box, and the will of the people should be respected.

Senator MOORE —Have all amalgamations in Queensland history been subject to a vote?

Mr Elmes —No.

Senator MOORE —I got the impression from your previous evidence that this is the very first time that it has not had—

Mr Elmes —No. The provision was put into legislation by the last coalition government in Queensland and it has now been removed.

Senator MOORE —It is not historical?

Mr Elmes —No.

Senator MOORE —From your point of view, is there any confusion in the community as to where the responsibility for these decisions lies?

Mr Elmes —In what?

Senator MOORE —In any community, in terms of the fact that currently, under the Constitution and under law, state government is responsible for local government.

Mr Elmes —Yes, everyone is very much aware that local government is a creature of the state, so there is no confusion in anyone’s mind there.

Senator MOORE —I was concerned about your evidence. You said that constitutional acknowledgement of local government was something that you agreed with, but it would not make much difference—that kind of thing. I am not sure whether that is actually true or whether, if local government had responsibilities and acknowledgement in the Constitution, it would have an impact on the decisions about its future. I am just putting that in for research. I note in your submission you have researched elements of that, and it must be an interest. We have had some submissions to this inquiry about the constitutionality and, from a constitutional point of view, it could be something that could be worthwhile having a look at. The fact that local government is not in the Constitution has made it more vulnerable.

Mr Elmes —The point I was making was not so much about whether or not local government should be in the state or federal constitutions. There was nothing wrong with the process that we already had. The problem with this new process is the undue haste of redrawing the boundaries of 156 local authorities in three months. It cannot be done successfully. If it was done successfully—

Senator MURRAY —Or fairly.

Mr Elmes —Yes. If it was done successfully and fairly, you would not have the problems and the degree of anger that we currently have in the state.

Senator FORSHAW —In your conclusion on page 10 of your submission, you state:

It boggles the mind that an Australian Government would pass legislation that actively restricts peoples’ right to vote.

I might just draw your attention to a decision of the High Court today which dealt with that specific issue. It ruled as unconstitutional and invalid certain provisions of the changes that were made to the Electoral Act last year by the federal government which restricted the right of certain people to have a vote.

CHAIR —Prisoners.

Senator FORSHAW —Yes.

CHAIR —You are not drawing a parallel between the ratepayers of Noosa and prisoners?

Senator FORSHAW —No. Last year, the federal government took away the rights of prisoners to vote. Prior to the changes, a prisoner serving less than three years still had the right to vote. The federal government removed the right entirely and the High Court has said today that that is invalid and unconstitutional.

Mr Elmes —I am not across that.

Senator FORSHAW —I am not asking you to comment on that. We have only just found out.

Mr Elmes —Suffice to say, I have been across my local news today not the national news.

CHAIR —Noosa ratepayers versus prisoners!

Senator MOORE —I think it is really important. It shows the dynamic nature of the system that we can actually make change.

Senator FORSHAW —It shows that governments get it wrong.

Senator MOORE —And your submission particularly was so well researched in terms of the history that we wanted to make sure that that was brought to your attention.

Senator FORSHAW —I did not draw it to your attention as a criticism.

Mr Elmes —I appreciate that.

CHAIR —Mr Elmes, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.

[4.52 pm]