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Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007

CHAIR —Welcome. Would you like to make a brief opening statement?

Councillor Rogers —Yes, certainly. Just to give you some outline of where Stanthorpe is—though I imagine most people know—we are about 2½ hours south-west of Brisbane running along the border near the Herries Range and very much at the headwaters of the Border Rivers catchment area. As such, we were part of the SSS group, known as the Southern Downs group, comprising ourselves, Warwick Shire, Inglewood Shire, Waggamba and Goondiwindi town. We worked through that process on a very willing basis because I believed it was our responsibility to look at any ways and means that we could efficiently and effectively improve our service delivery—not that we believed there was anything wrong with what we were doing but you should always look at all options.

We went through that process and were probably one of the very first groups to get up and running. We were certainly achieving things by going through that process. We had finished what they termed ‘phase 1’ and were ready to go into phase 2 and were waiting on the state minister for local government to sign off on that and approve the funding for that process. We were ready to go into that stage when the 17 April announcement came that that process would be stopped and we were to cease any proceedings on the SSS process.

With that, of course, we had to await the results of the local government reform commission’s findings, in which they decided that we should be amalgamated with Warwick to form the new Southern Downs regional council, a process we find very difficult to understand. As far as our council goes, we are a very sound council financially and we certainly provide service delivery and all the various services that our community expects. We have a very competent and experienced staff here for the size of our council and are able to provide good governance and, as I said, service delivery.

Because of that we find it difficult to understand why we should be amalgamated with a shire adjoining us that is so very different in many ways. I guess the only thing you can see that is a positive for it is that it makes a bigger council. Whether bigger is better time will tell, I guess, but certainly there are differences between our two communities—differences between the two councils and certainly differences within the topography, the catchments and the whole range of things that were supposed to have been looked at by the reform commission.

I guess that is about where we are at. We certainly have a process here that our community is extremely disappointed about. We are a very unique shire and a very proud and parochial shire, I guess, if I can call it that, and I believe we could continue to survive and do all the things expected of a regional council very soundly if we were left to continue as we are. I guess that is about all I can add at this point.

CHAIR —Thank you very much indeed, Mayor Rogers. At the time that the Queensland government announced their intention to introduce the punitive measures—the fines and the council sackings—for those local government organisations that sought to access a plebiscite, had your council made any decision in relation to seeking to have a plebiscite?

Councillor Rogers —We certainly had prior to that event. We made the decision that we would not hold a plebiscite, mainly due to the costs and the time involved, because we would have had to do it by postal ballot and by the time the postal ballot was completed we believe that the legislation would have gone through state parliament. With the difficulties involved, which included the cost—it was going to cost us in the order of about $30,000 to conduct one—council made the decision that, to test the feeling of the community, we would get a professionally-run phone poll and do a sample that way. We did that prior to the state government announcing that they would take punitive action against any councils that conducted any referendum or polls or anything of that nature.

CHAIR —So you got in with your phone poll. I do not know whether that would have been illegal under the legislation that was introduced. Is it your intention now to conduct a plebiscite?

Councillor Rogers —It certainly is. Our community believe they want to hold a plebiscite, and that is fine. I believe it is important that they be given that opportunity. Unfortunately, I am not sure what will happen with the result of that plebiscite and what will be achieved at the end of it. So I guess to hold a plebiscite for the fun of it is not necessarily the best thing to do, but if it is going to achieve something at the end then, certainly, I believe the community should have the opportunity to have their say.

CHAIR —What was the result of the phone poll that the council conducted?

Councillor Rogers —Just under 89 per cent were against forced amalgamations, and I think just over 90 per cent wanted a referendum on the issue.

CHAIR —But as a council you would like to have a properly conducted plebiscite to have confidence in the results?

Councillor Rogers —I believe so, if nothing else it will give the community the chance to feel they have had their say on the issue. As I have said, if we have the referendum or the plebiscite my concern is where it goes from there and that something should actually happen at the end of it.

Senator MOORE —Thank you, Mayor. It is good to hear from Stanthorpe again. You have been well represented on this committee so far.

Councillor Rogers —We certainly have.

Senator MOORE —I do not think we are in any doubt about the fact that Stanthorpe is not in favour of amalgamation; I think that is clear. Just to get it really clear, the legislation we are looking at as a committee is the three-and-a-bit-page piece of legislation that looks at plebiscites. I am concerned, after being at the LGAQ conference last week, that there may well still be some confusion that this committee is looking at the issue of local government amalgamations.

Councillor Rogers —I am clear in my mind. Unfortunately, I think that some people in the community are not, but I certainly am.

Senator MOORE —Are you also aware that this piece of legislation has cross-party support? That is not a self-serving statement; it is a statement of fact. The piece of legislation before us has government, Labor Party, Democrat and, in my understanding, Australian Greens support. Is that well known?

Councillor Rogers —I believe that it is by most people in our part of the world.

Senator MOORE —I think there are attempts to play with that as well. The other thing is that when this legislation is passed, when we go back to Canberra next week, it will then be on the books for future reference. One of the things I am asking about is whether any councils have considered using this form of local plebiscite for any other purpose. Certainly, as yet, there are no guidelines around about how these plebiscites will operate, and there will be further discussion between various players about that. But one of the core differences is that the Prime Minister has announced that he will be funding any plebiscites that local governments want to put in place. Has Stanthorpe considered having a plebiscite and asking for AEC support for anything in the past?

Councillor Rogers —We certainly have considered having a referendum. We were calling it a referendum, but call it whatever name. We considered, as I pointed out a little bit earlier, having one prior to the legislation going to state parliament, but time did not permit us to do it and we did not believe the cost was appropriate at the time.

Senator MOORE —Did you have any consideration of how much such an exercise would cost you in Stanthorpe?

Councillor Rogers —We were basing it mostly on what a normal council election would cost us here. The budget figure we have in place for the elections next year is $30,000.

Senator MOORE —Would that be a stand-up ballot?

Councillor Rogers —That would be a postal ballot.

Senator MOORE —Are your normal council elections postal because of your geography?

Councillor Rogers —They have been for the last two elections, I think. Prior to that we had polling booths.

Senator MOORE —So, if you were in the future looking at something that was of such major import to the community that you would want to stimulate an AEC supported election, as this particular piece of legislation would continue to allow you to do, you would be looking to see if there were not outside budget something like $30,000 locally.

Councillor Rogers —That certainly would be the case in the Stanthorpe shire as it exists today.

Senator MOORE —But the one that is being proposed, which is you and Warwick Southern Downs—

Councillor Rogers —Yes.

Senator MOORE —The other submission we had talked about the alternative possible amalgamation with another shire there.

Councillor Rogers —There were a number of alternatives under the SSS process. There was Stanthorpe and Inglewood; there was Stanthorpe, Warwick and Inglewood; and I think one proposal was Stanthorpe, Warwick, Inglewood, Waggamba and Goondiwindi.

Senator MOORE —That is a big one.

Councillor Rogers —Yes, that goes a long way. Nevertheless, they were all just possible options and we were asked to look at every possible option under the SSS process.

Senator MOORE —I do note your previous submission and the one from other interested people from the Stanthorpe area that looked at the considerable work that has already been done in your part of the world in cooperation and so on. That is all on record.

Councillor Rogers —That is correct. I think it is probably worth noting that, whilst we are very close to the New South Wales border, we have quite a lot of cooperation with the Tenterfield Shire Council.

Senator MOORE —We had evidence this morning from the Australian Local Government Association, which did say that in some parts of the world there are cross-border shires. As yet, we do not have Stanthorpe-Tenterfield.

Councillor Rogers —No.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am Ian Macdonald, a Queensland senator based in the north, although I started my schooling in Marsh Street in Stanthorpe. I went to the Stanthorpe state school.

Councillor Rogers —You had a good grounding.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes, indeed. Stanthorpe is a great placed—lovely wine too.

Councillor Rogers —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Senator Moore has just asked you if it was clear that this bill had cross-party support. Can I just ask you whether it is clear, as well, that the Labor Party in Queensland is just one party and that federal members and state members of the Labor Party are one and the same people or from one and the same party? Is that clear, do you think?

Councillor Rogers —I assume it would be. I certainly understand it to be that way and I assume that most other people do.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I wonder whether it is also clear to the public that, if the Labor Party federally was so opposed, why they could not convince their colleagues in Queensland that it was a draconian piece of legislation. I wonder whether that is also clearly thought about.

Councillor Rogers —I think a lot of people are a little confused as to why it cannot happen.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —If the amalgamation goes ahead—and it seems that it might, unless your poll is so overwhelming that not even Mr Beattie could ignore it—what are the arrangements for transition? I understand that there is some sort of a committee that will be put in place to do the transition. Can you tell me what the committee consists of?

Councillor Rogers —Yes, certainly. The committee consists of two elected members from each council and some union reps who come out of either the workforce or the state head office of the union. In effect, our local transition committee will comprise four council reps, three union members representing the various unions and an interim CEO. That appointee will probably be either the Stanthorpe CEO or the Warwick CEO.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You say the union members do not necessarily have to come from Stanthorpe or Warwick; they could come from Brisbane?

Councillor Rogers —They certainly could come from Brisbane, and at this stage I think we have a couple of people from Brisbane or Toowoomba. I am not sure where these people come from, but certainly not out of the Stanthorpe or the Warwick council workforce.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Are you aware of what contribution these three unionists might be able to make to the transition from two councils to one council?

Councillor Rogers —I am not. I am certainly not aware of what contribution they can or cannot make, but my understanding is that they are there to protect the interests of the employees during the transition process. I think we would be irresponsible as council reps to ignore that fact anyway in this whole exercise. It is difficult to understand at this point because I am certainly still not clear in my mind about just how much detail we have to get involved with in the transition between the two councils. Some of this may well be beyond union rep people because of their lack of knowledge of what is happening.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I understand that it is either in the Queensland legislation or Mr Beattie has given an undertaking—which perhaps would not mean much—that no council staff will lose their jobs. Is that your understanding?

Councillor Rogers —It is certainly my understanding that staff are guaranteed their jobs basically for three years, with the exception, I think, of CEOs. Why they have been singled out I am not quite sure, but certainly my understanding of the legislation is that staff have to be employed for three years—or, I guess, if we cannot employ them, they have to be paid out.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I have heard it said that, under the new amalgamated council system, councils will not actually employ staff; they will be employed by some statutory authority. Are you conscious of that?

Councillor Rogers —I have heard claims that that may well happen, but certainly I have seen nothing in black and white to say that that is going to happen. It has certainly been suggested that that could happen.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —In Stanthorpe and Warwick are your employees under an award, under AWAs, or is there a mixture of both?

Councillor Rogers —I am not sure about the Warwick situation—I believe they are the same—but we are certainly all under AWAs up here.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —If there were a statutory authority that was employing the workers in the future, do you have any idea of whether they would be under AWAs?

Councillor Rogers —I would not like to predict what might happen in that situation. I think it is beyond me to make any comment on that one.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You have got your people on AWAs, obviously—I guess this is a self-evident statement—but you have gone to AWAs because that suits the council better; it gives you more flexibility, does it?

Councillor Rogers —It certainly does. I think it improves productivity as well as reimbursement or payment to our staff. It has certainly been a suitable agreement over the number of years that we have gone down that path.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you very much. Congratulations, you have a great little shire—well, you had a great little shire there. Who knows what the future might bring? Well done on what you have done in the past.

Councillor Rogers —Thank you.

Senator FORSHAW —I am from New South Wales. You have just been asked some questions in regard to the views of political parties, state and federal, and members of the same political parties across the country and also about Work Choices. I just want to take those two issues up. Firstly, let us go to Work Choices—and you indicated that your council is on AWAs. Do you recall in the lead-up to the passage of the Work Choices legislation that the Queensland Nationals had a different view to their federal counterparts and to their coalition colleagues in Canberra?

Councillor Rogers —Not really. I would be only very vaguely—

Senator FORSHAW —I can inform you—I am sure Senator Joyce might inform you even more later—

Senator JOYCE —Can you repeat that?

Senator FORSHAW —Can I be allowed to ask a series of questions without being interrupted?

CHAIR —Senator Forshaw has the call.

Senator FORSHAW —Thank you. At the outset, the view of the Queensland Nationals was that they had great concerns about Mr Howard’s federal legislation on Work Choices because it was going to interfere with the operation of state jurisdictions such as the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission. They might have come around in the end. They may have been heavied or browbeaten into it—I do not know—but that is a matter of public record. In any democracy there are always healthy and strongly felt differences of opinion within political parties, state and federal. Could I also ask you: are you aware that the Prime Minister has on many occasions indicated that, in his view, it would be a terrible thing if the Labor Party and Mr Rudd won the federal election, because then you would have wall-to-wall state and federal Labor governments and they would all apparently agree on everything and there would not be any opportunity for difference of opinion and views between state and federal governments. Have you heard Mr Howard put those sorts of views?

Councillor Rogers —Yes, I believe I have.

Senator FORSHAW —So one could assume that it would be healthy and in accordance with Mr Howard’s views to have some differences of opinion, even within a political party at the state level and the federal level, on a very important issue like council amalgamations.

Councillor Rogers —Yes, that is possibly so.

Senator FORSHAW —I would assume that your council appreciates the support that the federal opposition is giving to this legislation in the federal parliament. I would at least assume that it makes you feel more comfortable that the legislation will go through the parliament without any opposition.

Councillor Rogers —Certainly so. Without question, I guess we would expect that all parties in the federal field would support this, because there are two areas where there is a lot of angst over this—that of forced amalgamations, and then perhaps not so much that as the process that has been undertaken to bring them in as well as some of the goings-on within state parliament and some of the legislation that has been introduced.

Senator FORSHAW —You have mentioned the telephone poll that your council had. I compliment you on that. I have long experience of watching local government in New South Wales and I think that it is important that councils take the opportunity to obtain the views of their community, which is one reason why I support this legislation. Can you tell me—and you may want to provide this information to the committee on notice, in writing, if you need to—what questions were asked and what number of people were polled? I do not in any way question the result; I ask just to get an idea of the nature of the poll that you conducted.

Councillor Rogers —I may need to send you that in writing, but certainly off the top of my head from memory the questions were kept very simple. I think they were along the lines of: ‘Are you in favour of forced amalgamation of the Stanthorpe shire?’ and ‘Do you believe there should be a referendum held with regard to council amalgamations?’ That was basically the gist of the two questions asked. We tried to keep them very simple so that we would get a simple yes or no answer. As to the number of people polled, off the top of my head, I believe it was 500.

Senator FORSHAW —Which I would assume, given the number of potential voters within your shire, is a reasonable proportion?

Councillor Rogers —I am not sure what the number of potential voters currently is, but at the last election it was in the order of about 6,500 out of 10,000. So, yes, it is only a small percentage, but it is a sample.

Senator FORSHAW —I would concede that, in a polling exercise, 500 is not an insignificant number at all.

Senator JOYCE —You are probably aware that in the Labor Party, if you cross the floor, you are immediately expelled, such as Senator George Georges, who was the last one who did it in 1987. I suppose Harry Quick was the latest one and he has also been booted out.

Senator FORSHAW —Chair, I rise on a point of order. I understand the standing orders and about debating et cetera, but I think it is incorrect to put to a witness at an inquiry a question based upon a totally false premise. Harry Quick was not expelled for crossing the floor, and it is not the case that a member of the Labor Party who crosses the floor is automatically expelled under the rules of the party.

Senator JOYCE —Who was the last person in the Labor Party to cross the floor in the Senate, Senator Forshaw?

Senator FORSHAW —Senator Devereux, for a start.

CHAIR —That is enough exchange across the table. The chair has shown quite a degree of latitude to all senators, but let us come back to the legislation.

Senator FORSHAW —Chair, I take a point of order. I am happy for—

Senator JOYCE —You are very touchy about this.

Senator FORSHAW —No, I am not touchy at all.

CHAIR —Order! Senator Forshaw.

Senator FORSHAW —I am never touchy about your raising—

CHAIR —Senator Forshaw, do you have a point of order?

Senator FORSHAW —Yes. I would ask you to ask Senator Joyce to direct his questions more to the legislation rather than to the internal rules of the Labor Party. I will have that debate any time, but we are wasting the witness’s time.

CHAIR —Senator Forshaw, I just did so.

Senator JOYCE —They are very touchy about the contrived position of the Labor Party in Queensland. Councillor Rogers, the Labor Party, as you well know, have a very disciplined organisation so, when they have a position where all their federal members are doing one thing and all their state members are doing another thing, do you think some people could see that as a politically expedient position in the light of a forthcoming federal election?

Councillor Rogers —Possibly not; nevertheless, I am not quite sure what this has to do with the Senate inquiry.

Senator JOYCE —The point is that, if you want to put political pressure on changing this issue, what window or what forthcoming event would you foresee where you would get the maximum amount of political pressure to change this event?

CHAIR —Councillor Rogers, Senator Joyce is, I think, essentially making a rhetorical point.

0Senator Forshaw interjecting

Senator JOYCE —Senator Forshaw is very touchy about the contrived position of the Labor Party.

CHAIR —Senator Joyce has the call. Senator Joyce, your question.

0Senator Forshaw interjecting

Senator JOYCE —I can understand by your volume that you have an issue with it.

CHAIR —Your question, Senator Joyce.

Senator JOYCE —You have mentioned Tenterfield as an area. There would be a lot of similarities between Stanthorpe and Tenterfield, wouldn’t there?

Councillor Rogers —There certainly are. If you look at the nature of the Stanthorpe area, you will see that we really are an extension of the New England district of New South Wales—something that you just do not get anywhere else in Queensland.

Senator JOYCE —Yes, I would suggest that, coming from the southern New England area originally myself. In the SSS process, did they ever say that you could look outside your state boundaries and look at having a community of interest that includes what would be the northern part of New England?

Councillor Rogers —Not officially, but we certainly indicated that that is what we were doing. We have done some plant sharing of equipment and personnel on a temporary casual basis and we have done some waste management with Tenterfield shire.

Senator JOYCE —But, once you go south of Wallangarra, nothing dramatic really changes, does it? It is basically the same country, same type of people, same community interests and same industries.

Councillor Rogers —That is correct. Believe it or not, a lot of Tenterfield people in the Liston-Amosfield area utilise Stanthorpe facilities probably more so than they do their own.

Senator JOYCE —So, if people were talking about bringing boundaries up to date, it would make sense to seriously look at bringing state boundaries up to date.

Councillor Rogers —In this particular area, that would be quite pertinent, yes.

Senator JOYCE —In fact, it is sort of having a bet each way, saying, ‘These local government boundaries are out of date, but thou shalt not ever touch or look at state boundaries.’

Councillor Rogers —Yes, that is true. If I can just diverge a little, if you look at that area of New South Wales where these people are feeding into the Stanthorpe shire from, you will see that there is a natural barrier, what you might call an escarpment, some kilometres east of there. That is a natural barrier for those people going east in New South Wales, so they come to the easiest places such as Warwick and Stanthorpe.

Senator JOYCE —Where is this proposed shire going to start—about 150 kilometres west of Goondiwindi?

Councillor Rogers —No. It will basically start at the top of Cunningham’s Gap and run through to—for those who know the area—a few kilometres south-west of Glenlyon Dam and then obviously through to Wallangarra on the border. The border will be a southern boundary to it.

Senator JOYCE —Are you aware that there are other areas in Queensland that have strong community interest that would possibly suggest that they might want another look at the state boundaries, such as North Queensland?

Councillor Rogers —There could well be, yes. I think you made the point that the boundaries have been there for a long time and, if local government boundaries are outdated, maybe state government boundaries are too.

Senator JOYCE —That is interesting. Have you been introduced to the union representatives who are going to be part of the transition committee?

Councillor Rogers —One of them is one of our staff. Another one I have had dealings with in our enterprise bargaining arrangements and the other gentleman I have not met.

Senator JOYCE —Will the other gentleman come from the district?

Councillor Rogers —I believe he comes from Toowoomba. I am not sure whether he is from Toowoomba or Brisbane, but it is one of those two areas.

Senator JOYCE —Is Toowoomba or Brisbane going to be part of your council, your new local government area?

Councillor Rogers —No.

Senator JOYCE —It seems a bit peculiar having someone from outside the local government area determining the future of that local government area, don’t you think?

Councillor Rogers —It certainly does. I would prefer to see local people there rather than people from head office in unions, yes.

Senator FORSHAW —I have one follow-up question on that. I understand that, for the employees and the unions in that transition committee, there are key issues dealing with their working conditions, their future employment and so on. Is that the case?

Councillor Rogers —That is my understanding of what those people are there for. I certainly understand the role that they need to play, because a council does not get its work done by the councillors sitting at the chamber table; it is done by the staff. If you do not have loyal and committed staff who are looked after then you are not going to get the results in the end.

Senator FORSHAW —Does your council seek advice and get advice from the Queensland local government association and the ALGA on these issues?

Councillor Rogers —Certainly, on many issues, yes.

Senator FORSHAW —Just as employees look to their organisations—yet they are in unions—to provide them with expertise and knowledge of things such as industrial law and the application of state and federal laws to their working conditions.

Councillor Rogers —Yes. I can understand where you are coming from.

Senator JOYCE —It has a lot to do with the legislation!

Senator FORSHAW —It may have a lot to do with their redundancy arrangements, which are governed by federal and state—

Senator JOYCE —Your Labor government has brought about those redundancy arrangements.

CHAIR —Senator Forshaw has the call. Senator Forshaw, is that it?

Senator FORSHAW —That is it.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for your time this afternoon; we appreciate it very much.

[12.26 pm]