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Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007

CHAIR —Welcome. Do you have a short opening statement on behalf of Tourism Noosa? Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Williams —I am a director of Tourism Sunshine Coast. Thank you very much for having us here today and hearing what we have to say. We have a prepared statement because we did not want to miss out anything. Tourism Noosa is a proprietary limited company with a volunteer board made up of industry, community representatives and a council appointee. They are elected positions, basically. Tourism Noosa evolved out of the Noosa Community Tourism Board, NCTB, and we represent approximately 500 members in Noosa. The NCTB was the product of Noosa Council’s community governance initiatives and the formation of community sector boards. We were originally a sector board. Noosa Council’s community governance model is held up as a benchmark local government model for building sustainable communities—I know you heard that this morning. The NCTB formulated a sustainable tourism strategy embodying the aspirations of the community in relation to tourism. Tourism of course is the mainstay of Noosa’s economy.

The values underpinning the sector board outcomes were and still are environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social sustainability—people, place and purpose channelled in one direction seeking, finding and fulfilling a sustainable lifestyle outcome. That is what drives us. It is that high-quality lifestyle component of Noosa that is the cornerstone of Noosa’s marketing focus and it is the driver of Noosa’s success and recognition as an iconic tourism destination.

The Noosa lifestyle only exists because of the community governance practices of the Noosa Council and that involvement of the community on an impressively wide scale, such that the will of the people is the true driver of local government decision making. The will of the people is known. Noosa’s success is a direct result and reflection of the will of the people. To remove Noosa Council from the equation will destroy the unique community governance model and, with it, the tourism icon status. It will destroy Noosa’s economy and the quality of life that this community enjoys.

Tourism Noosa made it quite clear in its submission to the Local Government Reform Commission that the tourism practised in Noosa is an expression of the will of the community. If the members of the LGRC were ignorant of these facts before they met, they certainly would have been fully aware of them by the time they had read the submission. Of course, with the task of reading the submissions and making such important life-affecting decisions at a rate of two to 2.2 local government areas per day, it is difficult to see how due diligence could have been exercised. In fact, one wonders if, when the timetable was set, there was ever any intention to give due diligence to the whole process or to take any regard of the will of the people. We seek the opportunity for the will of the people to be once again expressed and loudly heard. We can only hope that the will of the people will then be honoured. That is what brings us here today.

Mr Butt —Thank you, senators and committee members, for allowing us to be here today. The Hastings Street Association is a group of small business people and property owners, unit owners, in the Hastings Street and Main Beach precinct of Noosa Heads. Most of our members rely on tourism for their existence. The viability of our tourism industry is measured to be $900 million in income, which goes, in a trickle-down effect, to probably every corner of our shire. There are a number of workers that provide services and goods to that industry.

We are stunned by the lack of consultation surrounding the decision and the lack of democratic process that has taken place. We value our tourism industry and we believe that it is at risk. We believe that the mixture of Noosa with the greater Sunshine Coast is a bit like trying to mix water and oil. I do not say that from a silvertail point of view. I came to Noosa from Sydney in 1978. A lot of passion has been used to carve out our tourism industry. A lot of people have put many, many years of blood, sweat and tears into it. That has created the brand that Noosa is. It is a recognised brand throughout the world. That is one of the main things that I think is at risk in this amalgamation.

The guidelines that were given to the amalgamation review committee led us to believe that we might have been outside those guidelines. We were quite surprised about that. If sustainability was a requirement, our recognised model of local government—that Boyd Williams has alluded to—with our sector boards, sort of led us to believe that we would have been exempted from the amalgamations and left alone. There were 31,000 submissions to the review committee, and a street march of approximately 10,000 community members, many of whom had never been involved in a street march before. They have all been ignored. I guess they have also probably attracted threats from the government against members of the council being involved in any kind of referendum or plebiscite. That has really surprised everybody.

We view this as really unbalanced attack on democracy in the state of Queensland. It is a very unhealthy element in our state government that we would probably be more likely to see in Zimbabwe. We see the legislation being put forward and passed as a bit like a black cloud over the Sunshine State. We are at a bit of a loss, and we would like to see it gone regardless of whether it is used.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Butt. We will proceed to questions.

Senator JOYCE —I am going to ask a deliberately provocative question.

Senator MURRAY —That is a surprise to us!

Senator JOYCE —Why shouldn’t we just let the market work in a bigger council? Why shouldn’t we just let you deal with the market forces of having 20-storey buildings on Hastings Street? Why should Noosa be left as an enclave? Why can’t it just deal with the Maroochydore type of psyche? Why should we have Byron Bay, Noosa and Port Douglas all thinking they are something special?

Mr Butt —I think there are a number of answers to that. Why is UNESCO looking at making Noosa a biosphere? I think Noosa is more recognised anywhere else in the world than the Sunshine Coast. I have just been to a property expo in London. Most of the people there came up to me and said, ‘Noosa!’ yet they didn’t even know where Brisbane was.

Senator MURRAY —An insult to Brisbane!

Mr Butt —That is a simplistic answer to your question, Senator Joyce. We do survive. I guess this industry has been carved out of many years of benchmarking our product. It is like this: why do people pay X amount of dollars for wagyu beef? Are we going to throw away the feedlots? It is a matter of benchmarking our product and marketing our product over many years. People love to come here simply because there are no skyscrapers. They can enjoy our environment. Sure, people may still come here but I think it will be diminished and as the income of Noosa takes a hit then everyone from the shores to the hinterland is going to feel the impact of that in wages, costs and jobs.

Senator JOYCE —Obviously, I do believe that there is something special about Hastings Street and there is something special about Noosa. That is probably why we are here. How long do you think it would take for the destruction of the whole ambience that has created that niche in the marketplace before Noosa became just another spot on the coast?

Mr Butt —It is more that it is going to be a slow erosion; that is what it is going to be. I think you, Boyd, should answer the next bit, the bit about Tourism Noosa and how our marketing is going to be down.

Mr Williams —Sure. It takes as long as it takes to get one application through for a 20-storey building on Hastings Street, because once that has gone through then the process begins. As to how long the actual process takes, who is to say? How rapidly, how much development runs rampant and how quickly—they are all issues that we cannot answer. But we would say that if we homogenise the product of the greater Sunshine Coast, for example, then we are weakening ourselves and we are increasing the risk for all of our tourism businesses up and down this coast because we need to be diversified. Noosa represents a very diverse product and a great market segment, one that, even from a greater Sunshine Coast point of view, you would not want to take away.

Senator JOYCE —A little Los Angeles that starts north of Byron Bay and ends at Noosa has got something going for it!

Mr Williams —It could be good for gun sales!

Senator JOYCE —That is what you will have in about 50 years time.

Senator FORSHAW —Can I make it clear—as I am sure you should be aware or are aware—that this legislation will be passed—there is no doubt about that—because the Labor Party have indicated that we will support the legislation. In fact, Kevin Rudd has been on the record from 17 May publicly supporting the concept of holding local plebiscites. That was well before this bill was introduced.

I am interested in this argument you have put about tourism for Noosa. I have to confess that I am not that familiar with the area—I have been here once or twice, but more for flying visits. So I do not argue with anything you say—I am not able to do that. But it seems that there is a flavour in your submission and in other submissions that there really is a sort of—I do not want to use the word ‘hostility’, but a real divide between Noosa and other parts of the Sunshine Coast. I find that interesting. It may be because you are opposing this amalgamation and so that is going to be highlighted. But in other parts of the country—the state where I come from, New South Wales, to follow on from Senator Joyce—tourism can be marketed and is marketed on a much broader and regional basis as well as on the unique features of places within that. I can talk to you about the mid-North Coast, where you have got places like Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour, but then you have got lovely little places in between. The Illawarra is another classic example: Wollongong, Kiama and then further down. So I am a bit bemused that we are having put to us that there is this real divide, whereas I would have thought that your tourism approach would be to promote the whole of the Sunshine Coast—as Queensland likes to promote the state—but at the same time you can promote Noosa in that.

Mr Williams —I would like to answer that, if that is okay.

Senator FORSHAW —That is not to say that if you promote the whole of the Sunshine Coast—and let us be frank, where I come from, that is what people talk about: they talk about Noosa, Caloundra and Coolum. They also talk about the Sunshine Coast. That is not to say that they should be amalgamated into one council, but it is interesting to hear this as an argument against an amalgamation.

Mr Williams —I sit on the board of Tourism Sunshine Coast. Noosa has been represented on the Sunshine Coast board since its new inception, because it is now a new organisation over the last, I think, three or four years. We work very closely with Tourism Sunshine Coast, and we will work with them under any umbrella—

Senator FORSHAW —That is what I am hoping to hear, because the impression being created—for those of us who are novices—is that it might be a bit different.

Mr Williams —Where we are coming from is that we want to protect our brand. Noosa is a Mercedes. It is okay to market us along with the Volkswagen, but we still need to maintain our individuality, because we are the premium end of the product range. It makes a nice diverse product along the Sunshine Coast region to have Noosa as a distinctly upper-level brand. Hey, that is our fight, but what we do believe is that, if the councils are amalgamated, we lose our community governance model and we get the development all wrong along this coast, we will not have that Mercedes any more.

Senator FORSHAW —So the view is that if you amalgamate into a larger council you will be run over by prodevelopment forces on another councils. Is that the thrust of the argument?

Mr Williams —That is part of it. The physical aspects of Noosa, which is the lifestyle, if you like, that people aspire to and that we sell to the marketplace—this is an aspirational destination—is gone if we do not have that the community governance model under control. It is as simple as that. We have a balance between the physical, natural and the built-in environment which supports our product—supports our niche.

Senator FORSHAW —Okay. Thank you.

Senator MOORE —I had a rule that I was only going to ask questions about the legislation in front of us, but I will break it straightaway, because I want to follow up on the point Senator Forshaw raised. I do know the area well. It is part of the beauty that people come for. What would be the attraction of anyone trying to destroy that? In terms of Noosa and the value to what would be a greater Sunshine Coast council, whatever is in there—what would be the incentive in changing that?

Mr Williams —Greed.

Senator MOORE —But you lose the overall value. I do not want to get into the Mercedes, Volkswagen thingy. You think that the immediacy of greed would overcome the long-term impact on the area. Is that fair?

Mr Williams —Yes. I believe that greed would take over.

Senator MOORE —Going back to the legislation: it is very short; it is only a couple of pages. Looking particularly at an initiated plebiscite, it does not mention local government. The legislation is about the process. I am interested to hear from people whether there are any other issues that you would think this kind of legislation could be used for, because our role is to look at this 3½-page piece of legislation that has come before the Senate. It is there to look at the AEC being involved in a proposal of a plebiscite. From your perspective as community leaders, once the legislation is there, is there any other process that you think such legislation could be used to consider?

Mr Williams —I can understand that, when this legislation goes through, there will be a need to somehow define and contain when it is used. I do not propose to know what the answer to that is.

Senator MOORE —You have not turned your mind to that?

Mr Williams —No. We have focused on our particular problem, but I can see that that is an issue.

Mr Butt —Merely the fact that it is there is a bit of a dark cloud. We do not know what it can be used for.

Senator MOORE —Are you talking about the Queensland legislation?

Mr Butt —Yes.

Senator MOORE —I am talking about the piece of legislation that we are looking at, which is the AEC plebiscite legislation.

Mr Butt —Yes.

Senator MOORE —The Queensland based legislation which you have talked about is a very big piece of legislation. There are a whole bunch of things in that—there was the action of amalgamation—but I take it that the dark cloud element is the part that looks at the punitive nature of—

Mr Butt —Yes, the punitive nature of sacking people and fining them.

Senator MOORE —Do you know that has been repealed?

Mr Butt —Has it? No, sorry.

CHAIR —In response to this legislation.

Senator MOORE —It is just important that the community knows that the punitive element, which I took to be the element in your opening statement about the dark cloud—which was about punishing people, and councillors in particular, who wanted to have a citizen plebiscite on those issues—has been repealed.

Mr Butt —I understood that it was still there but not going to be used.

Senator MOORE —The Premier has made it clear that that part of it has been repealed. We have that here in writing. It is important that, when we are talking, we are all talking on the same process. I have a general question that I am asking most people. It is about the acknowledgement of local government in the Constitution. This process has focused people’s attention again on that issue. As community leaders in this area, have you turned your minds to the status of local government in our Constitution?

Mr Williams —I can say that I have been stimulated to think about it. I did not realise until this legislation and these punitive measures were written into the local legislation that our freedom and rights were at such risk in Australia. I took the opportunity to go on the internet and read something to do with bills of rights and the need for those. I think, like most Australians, I was blissfully unaware that these rights could be trampled on by a state government—from either political scene, though it did take the Beattie Labor government to actually stimulate that part of the process. I think that there needs to be some protection somewhere.

Senator FORSHAW —Think of Joh’s street marches. The laws probably had a little bit to do with it, but—

Senator MOORE —But your immediate concern is with this, Mr Williams.

Mr Williams —My immediate concern was that. I think that it should be recognised somewhere federally and given some protection.

Senator MOORE —What has come out of this could well be that people will be thinking more about a whole range of things about rights, but in particular local government rights.

Mr Cooper —I certainly support what Mr Williams just said. I guess it goes to the point of demonstrating the fragility of the environment that we are in, where rights can seemingly be trampled upon and—as to your point—repealed within a 24-hour period. It all seems a little bit knee-jerk to me. But to Boyd’s point: it has certainly stimulated our thoughts and made us very much aware of that.

Senator FORSHAW —I think the Premier said that, in hindsight—or words to that effect—he had overreacted and was backing off.

CHAIR —Just following up on that particular point and Senator Moore’s point that the Premier has repealed those punitive sections of his legislation: I guess it is worth bearing in mind that the legislation we are talking about here today is insurance against Premier Beattie getting another rush of blood to the head. I just make that observation.

Senator MOORE —Chair, I think it is important for everyone to know that the process is dynamic so that we can look at different changes for any level of government.

CHAIR —Thank you, Senator Moore. I remember as a kid growing up that it was always ‘Noosa Heads’. Since we are talking of branding, when did ‘Noosa Heads’ become ‘Noosa’?

Mr Butt —I think when Gympie Terrace and Noosaville became part of the greater tourism body.

Senator MURRAY —Mr Beattie has provoked you, Mr Williams, to worry about rights. There are lots more that are being trampled on federally and in the states, and people should be aware of that. People like the Democrats do not yell just to have themselves heard; they yell because there is a problem. Leaving that aside for the moment, one of the things which concern me about all the local witnesses, if I can put it that way, as opposed to outsiders who have spoken to us, is really that what they have illustrated is a failure of process. The issue of whether you amalgamate councils or shires should be evidence based—in other words, the evidence should be produced which shows that it will result in the better good: more efficiencies, more money, lower costs or something. Yet every witness has said that that has never been illustrated with respect to this particular amalgamation. Therefore, if it is not evidence based, you are entitled to say it should not go ahead. The purpose of that introduction is to ask you the question—and answer it as honestly as you are able—is there any evidence put up by the state government that amalgamating Noosa with Caloundra and Maroochy will in fact be to the betterment of all three and in what respects?

Mr Williams —We have not seen any.

Mr Butt —We have not seen any evidence at all.

Mr Cooper —In compiling our very exhaustive submission through this process we consulted with the industry broadly, even to the extent of the minister for tourism in Queensland, Margaret Keech. That was one of the questions we explored: what benefits are there for Noosa in this amalgamation? And I dare say that she could not identify a benefit.

Senator MURRAY —The reverse side of the question obviously is: if there is no evidence of betterment, is there evidence of failure? Typically we politicians will talk about market failure, structural failure and so on. My reading is, and bear in mind I am a Western Australian, that Noosa is financially viable, operating efficiently, effectively and productively. Is that accurate?

Mr Butt —Yes, that is accurate.

Senator MURRAY —So there is no failure. So we then have to examine whether there is ideology at play. Once again we come across these phases in politics where ideology counts—outsourcing, selling off your assets or whatever becomes the rage. One of the witnesses said and another may have said that they thought this amalgamation was driven by a political desire for a more manageable structure—I am paraphrasing my understanding of them—namely, if you reduce the number, you reduce the number of pesky mayors and you can politicise the process a bit more; it becomes easier to deal with from head office down in Brisbane. Is that your sense of things? What is driving this? That is what I cannot understand.

Mr Butt —We are totally puzzled. The community is totally puzzled to see any benefit whatsoever out of amalgamating the Sunshine Coast.

Senator MURRAY —Is it obvious to you what is driving it?

Mr Butt —No.

Mr Williams —It is not obvious to me what is driving it. In fact, if I were heading up that process and I were Mr Beattie—heaven forbid—there are probably three or four councils I would not have amalgamated. I would have picked the ones that were going to make the most noise, not amalgamated them, and it would have all slipped quietly by. I do not understand the process at all.

Senator MURRAY —I am a person who is always interested in long-term policy resolutions. Whenever a process goes wrong, you want a process of review or some way in which it can be picked apart. Typically, under our federal law you would go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal or you would have a judicial review of some sort. Has there been no mechanism of that sort in Queensland whereby, once the amalgamation was announced, you could take it to review?

Mr Butt —No.

Senator MURRAY —So you lack that process as well?

Mr Butt —Yes.

Senator MURRAY —By the way, the other thing you should have here is an upper house; it might help with it. Again, from over in the west, like many Australians, I have a kind of referred pride about lots of Australia. When people come and visit, they ask where they should go and what they should see. You pick out the places—the Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland—and of course Noosa is something I am proud of, oddly, being a Western Australian. Yet I have heard in a lot of the language of politics engaged about this issue an attack on Noosa for being classy, silvertailed, special and wealthy; a kind of sneering, envying, class based attack. Am I right in sensing that?

Mr Butt —Yes, there has been a little bit of that over the years. Noosa has always been referred to as a silvertail destination; therefore the people of Noosa must be silvertails. But we are just ordinary small business people that face the same problems as people across Australia.

Senator MURRAY —And they should have 20-storey buildings like everybody else!

Mr Williams —Perhaps we are like a community with a disability. We are a little bit different, so people do not know how to handle us and they start labelling us. But, at the end of the day, we have a process that involves the community very deeply in everything that affects that community, and we want to express that every now and again—as you would. People do not quite understand that. People in some localities pay their rates and complain about what is being built alongside them. In Noosa we pay our rates, we talk to our council and they talk to us, and we know what is being built beside us. It is a different way of doing things, and it is not right or wrong. As far as we are concerned, we are just doing it a little bit differently. My son is in year 12, and I was explaining this to him the other day. I said, ‘Noosa would be a bit like you, son, if you did six units this year and you got very high achievement in all of them, and then at the end of the year they said you couldn’t go to university because your grades weren’t high enough.’ That is basically what Mr Beattie has said to us. We have passed the test and we have knocked off all the good reasons why we are a great community and do not need amalgamation. Yet, somehow or other, our exam papers came out and, in his view, we failed and we are going to be amalgamated because we have not done a good job.

CHAIR —We might end on that note. Thank you very much to both organisations.

[3.13 pm]