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Wednesday, 5 June 2013
Page: 5416

Mr WINDSOR (New England) (18:16): I would like to speak briefly to the bill before the House, the Constitution Amendment (Local Government) 2013. As most people would know, it was part of the agreement in the formation of a minority government that a referendum be held on the financial recognition of local government in the Constitution, so I am personally very pleased that the government is proceeding with this. I am pleased to a certain extent about the bipartisan support that exists in this chamber and in the other place, but I am a little bit disappointed in the sort of dual attitudes that the coalition seems to have in relation to this—almost expressing the view that they hope it fails even though they are supportive of it, or they say they are supportive of it.

There is an argument out there that there needed to be more time. The quite simple amendment I think embraces nine words in the Constitution. It is a very simple phrase that is going to be placed in the Constitution. It is being put there because of various High Court challenges and legal advice that local government, if it is not recognised, will not, in certain circumstances, be able to receive direct funding from the Commonwealth government.

This is not about eroding the powers of the states; it is about ensuring the viability of very good programs. The coalition should be right on this and full of enthusiasm and not just leaving it to local government to promote itself. All of us in this building should be promoting this. The coalition's original program of Roads to Recovery is an excellent program. It is very fair, it gives local government areas the capacity to determine where the money is spent, everybody knows how the formula works and everybody gets a fair share. That is direct funding from the federal government to local government. That is under threat—with the High Court challenges and the legal opinion that is out there, the capacity of the Commonwealth government to fund Roads to Recovery, for instance, and many other programs, would be under threat.

The financial recognition is solely about that. It is solely about allowing what we have taken for granted in the past to occur in the future, because there is very real legal opinion that a challenge could be upheld if we do not in fact change the Constitution. I was on both the committees—the Jim Spigelman committee and the parliamentary committee—that looked at this particular issue. I have never been involved in local government, but I think it is a very, very important aspect of governance in this country, particularly in country areas. The member for Riverina talked about the 13 councils in his area. He is quite right to say that in my electorate all the councils are very, very supportive.

There is another reason for the support of the financial recognition of local government. I am not sure whether others in the debate have actually addressed this. If you think back to the Rudd years and the global financial crisis, there will be varying opinion in this building as to the response to that crisis. Personally I think one of the great things that did happen was in relation to the stimulus payments. The decision was made to stimulate the economy financially, and do it quickly and with some degree of largesse. I think most economists would agree with that process. Other countries in the world did it quickly and were able to come through the global financial crisis reasonably well, but none of them as well as Australia did. How do you apply stimulus payments to an economy to actually get the money to flow through the economy and have all the economic impacts when the private sector is stalling? People may remember that the mining boom was in fact stalling. There is a rumour running around the parliament that we got through the global financial crisis because of the mining industry. That is not correct. There was a gap there that needed stimulus payments and the government, the parliament, actually acted upon those payments.

The reason I mention that is that one of the most successful avenues for stimulating the economy was local government. There were massive payments made. Local government spent that money fairly quickly. It had an impact on the regional economies. It had an impact on the capacity of local government to update itself in terms of some its infrastructure et cetera. But the money was spent right across the nation so there was a successful injection of funds. I do not think anybody from any political persuasion would argue that the money was wasted in any shape or form. It was part of a legitimate process between the Commonwealth government of the day and local government.

The reason I raise that is that there are strategic reasons why we need to recognise local government in a financial sense in the Constitution. If we ever had the need to stimulate the economy again and state governments were of varying political persuasions, the argument some people would put up is, 'Look, you can do all this through the state governments anyway; if there is a need to do something you can do it through the state governments.' If you want to run Roads to Recovery after it has been challenged successfully in the High Court, you can do it through state governments, besides the political implications that would engender in terms of fairness et cetera.

I think there is a very simple reason for it: if you need the Commonwealth government to stimulate the economy, or the federal government of the day has to have a direct input into local government in a non-political sense, if you go through the states and the states have different political persuasions, you run the risk of all of the politics that we see between state and Commonwealth governments coming into play. So there are very strategic reasons why that needs to be done.

If, in fact, the arrangements that we fear in terms of the legal challenges had been in place when the global financial crisis occurred, the Rudd government may well not have been able to stimulate the economy through local government. It may have been blocked and played with in terms of various state political persuasions. The success of those stimulus payments was that a decision was made quickly and an injection of funds occurred. We were one of the few countries in the world that were able to get through without a recession.

Many people in here will still argue that there was too much, too little, too this or too that. The fact is that it worked and one of the reasons it did work it was that the federal government of the day had the capacity to have a direct and quick relationship with local government. That is a strategic reason that we need to look very closely at. I think all of us, irrespective of who is going to be the federal governments of the future, need to be part of that particular process.

I would like to thank a lot of the people who participated in the various committee processes that did take place and Jim Spigelman, in particular. I think he did an extraordinary job. I thank ministers Crean and Albanese for the way in which they have conducted the processes. Once you start thanking people obviously you leave people out, but I thank the member for Parkes who has been involved in this process as well. From a country perspective, he has been a sounding board and judge because of his local government background. He has been a judge of the need for this to happen.

I encourage all political parties, particularly the coalition who say they are on side—but are sort of hedging their bets as, if it fails, it will be because of the Labor government and because we did not have time to explain what nine words meant. I have a little more faith in the capacity of the voter to actually understand more than one line. I know we have had the politics of bumper stickers run in this place—stop this, stop that, no to something else. But I think the average voter really does understand, particularly in country areas where they have seen the benefits of some of the direct relationships between Commonwealth governments and local government. Hopefully all of us of various political persuasions will get out there and actually say this is not something to be afraid of—this is putting in place what you have expected and what you thought was there. It is to make sure that a legal challenge cannot take away what we all believe to be the status quo.

Rather than looking at arguments such as, 'I wish we had more time', I think there is plenty of time to develop these arguments and get them into the community. The Australian Local Government Association and the state based organisations have money that has been put away for over a year that is ready to go in terms of promoting the yes campaign. So I would encourage all of us to get behind this program.

Finally, I thank the Prime Minister, who was a signatory to the arrangement that a referendum on this issue would occur. She signed that document with the member for Lyne and myself. I thank her for adhering to the agreement, as she has done very diligently on many of the other programs that were within the agreement.