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

CHAIR —Welcome. Councillor Pennisi, I will start by asking if you have a brief statement that you would like to make.

Councillor Pennisi —Yes, very brief. I think Trevor has one more detailed, but I will begin with mine. Thank you, gentlemen, for hearing us today. Both Trevor and I come from Stanthorpe, and we are very concerned with this process. The core of all of this is that we, the councillors of Stanthorpe, could not represent the will of the people for fear of being prosecuted and getting a criminal record as a result, when 88 per cent of our community opposed amalgamation without consultation and 90 per cent of our community wanted a referendum on the matter. How can this happen in Australia? If it costs $1 million to run Stanthorpe today and $2 million to run Warwick today, how can it cost less tomorrow unless there is a reduction in staff or a reduction in services?

When we entered the SSS review, we entered that review in good faith. We just wonder: what is the hidden agenda? We want to stop this process and and return to the SSS review. Why is this process being fast-tracked? Why is Premier Beattie so afraid of consulting with the people of the state? Imagine, ladies and gentlemen, if the Queen said that all of you would end up in the lockup if you conducted your inquiry today. Over the last 100 years, councils have moved with the times.

I will say one last thing before I hand over to Trevor. There are mountains of reports on this issue and, as justification for what the Queensland government are suggesting, they have given us four pages of rationale. It is one of the biggest decisions in the history of Queensland. I would like to answer one of the questions asked of the previous speakers—that is: why is Noosa different? It is different for the same reason that Stanthorpe is different to Warwick. It is our points of difference. We have points of difference that the people in Warwick do not. Noosa has points of difference that the rest of this coastline does not have. It has been said a number of times that comparing Stanthorpe and Warwick is like comparing oil and water.

CHAIR —Just before we hear from Mr Cooper, Councillor Pennisi, are you happy to table that four-page document?

Councillor Pennisi —Yes, I am.

Senator FORSHAW —Could you please explain how the document came to you as a council? Has it been sent to you by the department or the government?

Councillor Pennisi —It is an extract of the findings of the commission. It is in book form, but a photocopy of the section that refers to our amalgamation is being tabled.

Mr Cooper —Stanthorpe is just as beautiful as Noosa, by the way. It is just in a different place. My submission to this inquiry is based on the contention that the whole of this local government reform process was flawed and quite deliberately designed to effect predetermined amalgamations without affording the people their democratic right. When the Stanthorpe Shire Council voluntarily entered the size, shape and sustainability review process in April 2006 I certainly believed, as did my colleagues, that there was a legislative requirement for a referendum to be held before any local government boundaries could be changed and that there would be no amalgamations without some consultation with the people. I also believed that the review had a range of six possible outcomes including no change, resource sharing, joint enterprises, boundary changes, amalgamation and other—which was a catch-all condition—depending on the specific circumstances of the Stanthorpe Shire.

In September 2006 the state elections were held, and I do not remember any mention of local government reform being made. It was a non-issue. The Beattie government was returned, and then immediately after that there was a cabinet reshuffle and the minister, Desley Boyle, was moved from local government to child safety and Andrew Fraser joined the cabinet with the local government portfolio. The Stanthorpe council completed the initial phase of the review expeditiously. It met all its deadlines and did nothing to hold it up. It was completed in November 2006 and it showed Stanthorpe to be well run, well planned, well governed and financially viable.

The next thing we were to undertake was a comprehensive review, in which all of those six options for change that I mentioned earlier were to be analysed and researched and community involvement was to be sought. Up to that time, no community involvement had been sought or included. In fact, we kept the whole thing confidential because there was not really anything to tell the public. The minister for local government approved funding of $163,000 for the comprehensive review stage at the end of March 2007. Then, a couple of weeks after that approval, on 17 April 2007, the Premier scrapped the whole SSS process, claiming—falsely, in my opinion—that councils had done nothing for two years and that many councils were on the point of financial collapse.

In place of the SSS process came the appointment of seven ‘independent’ commissioners who were given, in my mind, the impossible task of comprehensively assessing every Queensland local government area and coming up with recommendations, including new names, by the end of July. And their terms of reference made wholesale amalgamations the only likely outcome, in spite of clear evidence that amalgamations have had quite limited success in other states and overseas, while alternative arrangements, such as the resource sharing, have achieved significant efficiencies.

There was a matter of weeks allowed for submissions, and then midway through August the whole matter was finished, legislated, and 156 councils were reduced to 72. There was no real parliamentary debate and no opportunity for appeal. For Stanthorpe shire, despite an excellent submission clearly pointing out why we should be left alone, the recommendation was made that we would be lumped in with Warwick, totally ignoring the logic of the council’s submission and using the simplistic argument that ‘bigger is better’. How 11,000 is dramatically worse than 33,000 I do not really know, but ‘bigger is better’.

About halfway through July, just before the work of the commission was completed and before the Beattie government legislated to make it a criminal, sackable offence for any council to hold any kind of a survey on the issue of amalgamation, the Stanthorpe Shire Council commissioned a telephone poll that showed that 88 per cent of our people in Stanthorpe did not want amalgamation and that 90 per cent wanted to have their say in a referendum. This was reinforced through petitions and a whole campaign of resistance by the people, leading to the formation of a ‘save our shires’ action group with the mission to reverse the decision of the forced amalgamation of the Stanthorpe and Warwick shires.

From my point of view that poll placed a responsibility on the council to respect the views of that 90 per cent of the community and make sure that a proper referendum was held. Until that piece of infamous legislation was withdrawn, to give the people their say would have exposed the council to the risk of summary dismissal, and the councillors themselves to a criminal charge and hefty fines. I still cannot quite believe that that could happen in Australia. Even Premier Beattie himself admitted he had stuffed up and gone too far in that case.

A little more than a week ago a heated and emotional public meeting in Stanthorpe demanded, through a motion from the floor, that the council hold a referendum. They were sick of waiting. They wanted us to hold a referendum. On the promise of protection from this legislation and the reluctant assurances from Beattie and Fraser that they would not enforce their legislation, Stanthorpe council called a special meeting and voted unanimously to take up the federal government’s offer and hold a referendum through the AEC.

Senator MURRAY —Plebiscite. There is a difference.

Mr Cooper —Plebiscite, yes. I will ask you to define the difference between them but, yes, plebiscite—there is a difference. No ‘yes and no’ case, I think, is the main difference.

Senator MURRAY —It is not binding. That is the difference.

Mr Cooper —Well, was the referendum? Personally I have supported the people’s struggle for democracy by every means I can as a councillor and I will continue to fight the amalgamation process if, as I suspect will happen, the plebiscite shows that a significant majority of the Stanthorpe community is still opposed to that amalgamation. And now there seem to be cracks appearing throughout the whole forced amalgamations facade, revealing a very different and a much broader and more sinister agenda underneath it. From the very beginning of the reform process it has been a travesty, placing administrative convenience before the wellbeing of the people. And the tragedy of it all is that, if we allow this to pass unchallenged, the people will accept that this is the way the government does its business, will become apathetic and cynical about the whole political process and will regard democracy itself as a farce. That is something that we must not allow to happen.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Cooper. Councillor Pennisi, you were talking about the SSS review process which was in place before. I think it has become something of a mystery to us all through the course of the day as to why a process which was up to five years in duration was abandoned after 18 months. Can you shed any light at all as to what might have precipitated the abandonment of that process which held out the prospect of voluntary amalgamations in some cases and sharing services in others?

Councillor Pennisi —I guess if I really knew the answer to that I would not be here. We have absolutely no idea. Obviously it was an agenda by Premier Beattie and his government. From our point of view the SSS review was well placed to go into the consultation phase of the process. All we were waiting for was the nod from the government to continue down that line.

CHAIR —Was your council a full and willing participant in that process?

Councillor Pennisi —Absolutely without a doubt. All councils in that region were at the table and very willing participants. I would like to add that from a personal point of view I have no doubt that amalgamation in some cases is very, very necessary. The perfect example in our region is Goondiwindi-Waggamba, where two councils share the same building. They are called doughnut shires. They duplicate everything. Amalgamation in that particular instance is a very sensible way to go.

CHAIR —But that is where you had a town council and a country council around it?

Councillor Pennisi —That is correct.

CHAIR —Obviously you were taken aback when the compulsory amalgamations were announced. It would be fair to say, though, that when the Premier announced that he was going to legislate the punitive measures—the fines and the sackings for councillors who access those—you felt as though you had a gun to your head?

Councillor Pennisi —From my point of view, it was not so much the sacking; it was the criminal record. I thought that that criminal record part of it was an absolute disgrace. We were put in a position where we could no longer represent the people of our community. It was a choice between whether you were prepared to accept a criminal record or not, and that was just disgraceful.

CHAIR —And you were wanting to give effect to the will of your ratepayers, of your voters, but felt totally constrained?

Councillor Pennisi —Well, it was either being lynched by the ratepayers or the better of two evils, I guess.

CHAIR —Not a pleasant place to be. We have heard from some of my colleagues here that Kevin Rudd supports this legislation. I guess the best way you could describe Labor’s position—state Labor having one position and federal Labor having another position—is that the Labor Party is a bit bipolar when it comes to council amalgamations. What is your view as to whether you think that Premier Beattie would have withdrawn those punitive measures had it not been for the announcement of the government’s intention to introduce this legislation?

Councillor Pennisi —From a personal point of view, no, I do not believe he would have.

CHAIR —Thank you for that.

Senator FORSHAW —I am not sure whether ‘bipolar’ is the appropriate word. Senator Moore and I served on the inquiry into mental health. I think you could find a better word than ‘bipolar’.

CHAIR —I am aware of the arguments, but it is a word in common parlance amongst Australians.

Senator FORSHAW —I do not think it is appropriate. I think you could describe it in other ways. I do not agree with it anyway. Many people might argue that the very fact that a federal leader of the Labor Party and a state Premier of the Labor Party have a difference of opinion is actually a healthy example of democracy working rather than the line that the government tries to run that everybody on our side just follows the one tune. Certainly something that members of the Liberal Party and the National Party often boast about is that they have internal disagreements.

CHAIR —So there is a place for Peter Beattie’s views on this matter?

Senator FORSHAW —I am not answering your questions; I am just responding to your observation that somehow everybody in a national political party must have exactly the same view on every single issue. You know that is nonsense as much as I do. For instance, you may recall the debate about locating a nuclear waste dump in South Australia, where the federal government wanted to put it there and the state Liberal Party did not want it to go there. So in the end they decided not to put it there. They are going to locate it in the Northern Territory, and they did not give the people of the Northern Territory any chance to have a local plebiscite about having to accept that. I go back to the question that I wanted to ask: does your council support the Australian Constitution being amended to recognise local government?

Councillor Pennisi —My initial thought, right this minute, is yes, I believe we would support that. This is my first term in local government. You spend the first three years learning how it works and the next term wondering how you are going to change how it works, if it is possible. My initial thoughts are that I think it would be important for local government to be recognised in the Constitution.

Senator FORSHAW —Thank you. That has been the longstanding position of the Labor Party and I think the Australian Local Government Association has consistently supported that. Are you aware that the basis for this legislation—the head of power, if I could use that term—that the federal government is relying upon is actually the external affairs power?

Councillor Pennisi —Yes, I am aware of that.

Senator FORSHAW —Strictly speaking, there is no direct power for the federal government over local government. There are ways in which they can do that such as the corporations power or other powers but there is no specific power. They are relying upon our signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to give them the authority or the power to enact this legislation.

Mr Cooper —I think the people in local government are quite happy to accept any way that this can be effected. I do not think we are particularly worried at this point whether or not they are external powers,

Senator FORSHAW —The end justifies the means in that respect, doesn’t it.

Mr Cooper —We are grasping at straws here. We are seizing any weapon we can find because we know what a disaster it will be if it is allowed to go through.

Senator FORSHAW —I need to mention it because we as senators have to deal with the legislation that is going through the parliament and it is important for you as elected council representatives to know the basis upon which the federal government can do this. Indeed, this is what started the whole kafuffle, if you like, between the Prime Minister and Mr Beattie. No matter what one’s view is about Mr Beattie’s response—and you have made it very clear what your view is and you might find a lot of sympathy on this side of the table for that—he passed further legislation in response to the decision by the federal government to intervene in local government, which they have never done. If you went through the history of this country, you would never find a situation where they have directly intervened in local government administration.

Mr Cooper —I am really pleased that they did, though.

Senator FORSHAW —That leads me to the question of the consequences of this legislation going through. This legislation does not mention local government amalgamation at all, and it sets up a situation in the future where a federal government could exercise pressure to promote a plebiscite on all sorts of issues. Equally, a local council could seek assistance of the federal government and the Australian Electoral Commission to have plebiscites on a wide variety of issues. Let us say that the federal government decided that it wanted to put up a nuclear power plant on the Sunshine Coast or at Stanthorpe. Do you think there should be a local plebiscite to test the community’s reaction in those circumstances?

Councillor Pennisi —My personal feeling is that we live in a democracy and that people have the right to have a say whether it be on a nuclear waste dump or on council amalgamations. At the end of the day, if, because of this process, there was a science behind the reasoning for the decision, we as councillors would accept it. I do not think it really matters whether it is a nuclear waste dump or a red-light district. We are in a democratic country and where is the will of the people? I believe the Constitution talks about the will of the people. How much importance is place on that in a democratic country, or should we just give it all away?

Senator FORSHAW —None of us would support that, I am sure. You mentioned two councils where you thought amalgamation would be appropriate.

Councillor Pennisi —Goondiwindi and Waggamba.

Senator FORSHAW —Do both those councils and those communities support an amalgamation?

Councillor Pennisi —I believe so.

Senator FORSHAW —The councils do?

Councillor Pennisi —And the people.

Senator FORSHAW —We are not able to question them, but we have not had too many examples of where there is support.

Councillor Pennisi —As a councillor, you get to do quite a number of things. I sit on the Border Rivers Catchment Management Association, which is the grassroots linkage between Border Landcare officers and the QMDC. We are a group of people who set the agenda for Border Landcare. In that role I get to visit those areas to some extent. I cannot say that there are signs out there to prove this, but the people of Goondiwindi and Waggamba are quite accepting of the fact that it would make common sense to amalgamate.

Senator FORSHAW —Thank you. You mentioned it, so I thought I would pursue it. I do not have any reason to challenge what you say. We have not had any reference to that before today.

Mr Cooper —Just to add to that: the government did decide to throw Inglewood—another shire—in for good measure as well. So that spoiled the agreement somewhat.

Councillor Pennisi —During the triple S review, they showed that, but obviously the consultation phase would have extracted the very question that you are asking.

Senator MURRAY —Councillor Pennisi, on the last page of the Stanthorpe submission, under ‘Financial’, the second dot point says:

Because no change seems to be not an option, any amalgamation will only have a detrimental affect [sic] to our strong financial position (based on Warwick having a weak QTC rating and Inglewood Vulnerable).

Do the people of Warwick and Inglewood want to amalgamate with Stanthorpe?

Councillor Pennisi —No, they do not.

Senator MURRAY —So, even though they are weak, they do not want to?

Councillor Pennisi —No. About seven or nine years ago, Warwick went through an amalgamation process. Four shires were amalgamated into Warwick.

Senator MURRAY —So they are already an amalgamated council.

Councillor Pennisi —They were already an amalgamated council. There is quite an amount of unhappiness there. Allora, for example, had 22 staff and they now have zero in that council. There is a lot of unhappiness at the grassroots. The councillors themselves are saying that they are just beginning to get a handle on things after nine years.

Senator MURRAY —Has Inglewood previously been amalgamated?

Councillor Pennisi —No.

Senator MOORE —Thank you for your submissions. I know your part of the world quite well, so I do understand the geography and the different socioeconomic issues in the areas, which you brought out in your submissions. Mr Cooper, you actually looked at Inglewood as an option. Did the final recommendation that they are working on have you amalgamating with Warwick and Stanthorpe, or did they throw Inglewood into the mix as well?

Mr Cooper —No.

Senator MOORE —So Inglewood went with Goondiwindi?

Mr Cooper —Yes.

Senator MOORE —It is just that, in your submission, you explored issues with Inglewood. In many ways, whilst you have actually defined the difference between Warwick and Stanthorpe, there is a kind of middle ground with Inglewood. Is that the kind of thing you put to the commission when they were talking?

Mr Cooper —Certainly. There was a far less definite rejection of the concept of an amalgamation with Inglewood than there was with Warwick, simply because we have some ties and common interests with Inglewood that we do not have with Warwick.

Senator MOORE —Warwick and Stanthorpe are neighbouring communities but that one does seem interesting.

Mr Cooper —There are very distinct differences.

Senator MOORE —It is clear that you do understand that the elements in the legislation around the punishment of councillors has been repealed.

Mr Cooper —Yes.

Senator MOORE —So that element—which I think was very much in both your submission the first element of distaste—has gone. It is now about how you work through the next phase. Do you know whether Warwick has also looked at having a plebiscite?

Mr Cooper —It is funny you should say that; at our last general council meeting we forwarded a recommendation to Warwick that they consider holding a referendum. Anecdotal evidence certainly suggests that it is about a 60-40 split, not nearly as strongly against amalgamation in Warwick. It would be really good to have a plebiscite there and get some firm evidence.

Councillor Pennisi —The Warwick submission to the commissioner clearly indicated that they did not want to amalgamate with us.

Senator MOORE —Because there have been different economic processes going on to those in your area, because you have actually bloomed in the last few years.

Councillor Pennisi —We are really like chalk and cheese. We have small acreage agriculture; we use minute amounts of water. They have broadacre stuff. We are on a different river catchment.

Senator MOORE —Totally different economic bases, plus Victoria’s market is different.

Councillor Pennisi —You can drive a Mack truck through that.

Senator MOORE —In terms of process, all we have got in front of this committee are the 3½ pages of legislation looking at the plebiscite process, and the explanatory memorandum which came out with that. We do not have the detail of how any local government initiated plebiscite will operate. That is still being discussed. I was at the Local Government Association meeting at the Gold Coast and they did not have details either. People were talking about it. One of the things I have been thinking about is, in a situation as in yours where you have two pre-existing councils, if you had plebiscites in both of them and one said yes and one said no, I have no idea what that would do in terms of process. Have you got that far down the track in your mind-set? 

Councillor Pennisi —The question I would like to ask is: if we both say no, what happens then? 

Senator MOORE —We don’t know. Certainly that is another thing. I know, Mr Cooper, in your submission you were very clear with your knowledge of the system and the fact that you are on the ministerial advisory council, which is really important. But in terms of process, it is absolutely clear that constitutionally it is the state, under the current processes that operate, that has the final ownership of what happens.

Mr Cooper —I would like to think it was the people who had the final ownership, actually.

Senator MOORE —Under the constitution, Mr Cooper, the people are involved and they must be—and that is part of this whole process. In terms of ownership, we do not know what will happen and we are very concerned that people would have any expectation that the legislation that we are looking at will have a determining factor in it. I just put on record that I hope that you are very clear and that the Stanthorpe council is very clear about the steps involved.

Mr Cooper —We are clear that any plebiscite result will not reverse the situation. I can say that my concern though is that the people themselves are particularly angry in that district and they are going to continue to fight. How you impose something like this upon a group of unwilling people remains to be seen. It might be an animal of state, it might be an animal of the federal Constitution, but in the end it is an animal of the people. The people will determine their own future.

Senator MOORE —Have you had a chance to feed back to the minister locally as yet?  I know there was a trip around. They have not got to your part of the world yet? 

Mr Cooper —No, not yet.

Senator MOORE —Has that been scheduled? 

Mr Cooper —No, not that I am aware.  I think he has stopped going around any more. He don’t come round here no more!

Senator MOORE —In terms of the ministerial advisory committee, Mr Cooper, are you aware of when the next meeting would be? 

Mr Cooper —September in Highfields; I’ll see you there.

Senator MOORE —You just might! In terms of process I think that would be the major agenda item for that particular process.

Mr Cooper —No, it is not actually. These issues are set long in advance and they are community issues, and that was actually the subject of the of the Goondiwindi forum before the results came out.

Senator MOORE —Right. Was there a public record of that forum?

Mr Cooper —There would be one, yes. It was quite an exciting one. Minister Fraser was there.

Senator MOORE —Highfields is one of the ones caught up in the Toowoomba amalgamation issue, so that should be interesting.

Mr Cooper —It should be an interesting one.

Senator MOORE —Thank you very much.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Mr Cooper, and Councillor Pennisi; we thank you for your time today.

 [3.44 pm]