Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
Estimates hearings, 18 October 2011
Department of Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government
- Senator Nick Sherry, Minister Assisting on Deregulation and Public Sector Superannuation, Minister for Small Business
- Senator Scott Ryan, Liberal Senator for Victoria
- Ms Glenys Beauchamp, Secretary
- Mr Simon Atkinson, Acting Deputy Secretary, Policy and Implementation
- Mr Dan O’Brien, Deputy Secretary, Program and Engagement
- Mr Tony Carmichael, First Assistant Secretary, Regional Engagement Division
Senator RHIANNON: 2010 was the year of women in local government, and I understand that one of the decisions that came out of that was to increase the representation of women to elected positions in local government. I understand that it is still only about 27 per cent, so I was interested to hear what you are doing to follow up on that 2010 year.
Ms Beauchamp: I will ask the relevant officers to come forward, and I acknowledge that this issue was raised at the last estimates in terms of what was done through the area. There have been a number of projects that have been pursued in that, but I will ask the relevant officers to come forward.
Mr Atkinson: There is $250,000 for the three-year 50:50 Vision. There is $100,000 in scholarship funding to enable senior women in local government to participate—
Senator RHIANNON: Sorry, it is hard to hear. Are these projects that have already been undertaken or are they current now?
Mr Atkinson: These are currently underway.
Mr Atkinson: There is $100,000 in scholarship funding to enable senior women in local government to participate in the new executive leadership program being developed by the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government, and some people have already gone through that. There is $100,000 to improve the collection of data and reporting on the status of women in the local government sector, $40,000 to Local Government Managers Australia for the 2010 management challenge involving around 130 councils identifying strategies to promote gender equity in their councils.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. You spoke there about collecting data. I note that the Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, has stated that the government is committed to increasing representation of women on boards, which is obviously very relevant to local councils. Only around five per cent of chief executive officer positions in local government are actually occupied by women. So, apart from the scholarships for women to participate in the first course at the Centre of Excellence for Local Government, is there ongoing funding to ensure increased representation of women in senior local government positions?
Mr Atkinson: I will have to take that on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I would like to move on to the issue about constitutional recognition of local government. How much money has been allocated to the process for constitutional recognition of local government?
Ms Beauchamp: In the last budget statement the government allocated $9.4 million to the department to implement a range of priorities relevant to regional Australia, including progressing the referendum on constitutional recognition.
Senator RHIANNON: Out of that $9.4 million what will end up being spent on the referendum? There is actually a rumour—which is partly why I have asked this—that it will only be about $1 million, when $15 million was spent 12 years ago when we had the republic referendum. I am just trying to pin down the real amount of money that will be spent.
Ms Beauchamp: This does not include the cost of actually running a referendum; this—
Senator RHIANNON: No, I am just talking about the lead-up. Out of that $9.4 million, what has been allocated?
Mr Atkinson: There are around eight departmental staff, four contract staff and there is currently a budget of around $3 million allocated.
Senator RHIANNON: Is that a budget for both wages and for informing the public?
Mr Atkinson: That is a supplied budget for the use of the expert panel. The expert panel process is not the advertising process that works in the lead-up to a referendum: this is the expert panel who have been commissioned to gauge the level of community support and engage on what the potential questions could be.
Senator RHIANNON: The $3 million is to cover this consultation period that is rolling out at the moment?
Ms Beauchamp: Yes, it is to support the operations of the expert panel, including the design of their website, the communications products that they are putting out and some community polling work. They are doing some quite intensive work over the next few months. Part of these costs actually do support that expert panel.
Senator RHIANNON: When you say 'the next few months', I understood that it was only over five weeks that they were doing this work. Is it months or are we talking about five weeks?
Mr Atkinson: No, the expert panel was appointed on 8 August and it is due to report in December.
Senator RHIANNON: Sorry, I meant the consultation period—that is fairly short, isn't it?
Ms Beauchamp: That is available on the website. I think that is a very short period. I think the expert panel has identified the consultation processes and where they are going on their website. I just have not got that information in front of me.
Senator RHIANNON: I did want to ask a little bit about that. The panel on its website says that it is:
... currently touring the states to meet with premiers, opposition leaders, local government representatives, other interested stakeholders and members of the public. Does this mean that they are meeting with local government, premiers and other stakeholders outside the notified public meetings? I am trying to get a sense of the actual process of the consultation. Is it that we have public meetings and then you are also having specialised meetings as well?
Ms Beauchamp: The expert panel and the chair are running the process. Given the time line, it is a combination of both public meetings and meetings with other interested stakeholders.
Mr Atkinson: They are also seeking public submissions.
Senator RHIANNON: How does one seek a stakeholder meeting? That is what I am often asked?
Mr Atkinson: To do that you would contact the constitutional recognition panel.
Senator RHIANNON: Do you understand that there is a willingness respond, considering the shortage of time? Is it all sewn up or is their flexibility here to engage in a real way with people?
Mr Atkinson: I would just make the point that it is an independent panel and it has made the decisions on the consultation and community engagement program. The panel is led by Mr Jim Spigelman. It has determined what its approach to this will be. I cannot speak for the panel but, if somebody were to engage with them and seek a meeting, they would certainly take input.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you; that has been helpful. I want to move on to some legislation that is coming up in New South Wales which would change the legal status of local government from body politic to body corporate. Has the department considered the consequences of this change, particularly relating to federal funding of local government?
Ms Beauchamp: The minister has asked us to look at a range of issues impacting on funding for local government. During the last budget process, for example, the government announced a review of the Financial Assistance Grant Scheme, so we are and will be looking at the impacts of the New South Wales legislation on those issues. Certainly no decisions have been taken by government, but there are a range of issues we need to consider in undertaking that review.
Senator RHIANNON: What is the time line on that review? This legislation is being considered right now. You have spoken of a review that the minister has asked you to do—when will that be finalised, and will you be releasing any of that?
Ms Beauchamp: We are still scoping out the terms of reference for that review and are yet to put to the minister some advice on the process for the review. So it is still in development.
Senator RHIANNON: It sounds like it will be quite a while away.
Ms Beauchamp: It all depends—
Senator RHIANNON: Next year?
Ms Beauchamp: I am sorry; I cannot give a date until I have gone through it with the minister.
Senator RHIANNON: The Productivity Commission in 2008 confirmed:
… a significant number of councils, particularly in rural … and remote … areas would remain dependent on grants from other spheres of government to meet their current expenditure.
Does the government have concerns about the adequate funding of local government by reason of the 2009 High Court decision of Pape v the Commissioner of Taxation?
Ms Beauchamp: Obviously these are the sorts of things that the Attorney-General's Department is looking at in terms of the legal ramifications. As I mentioned, we will be looking at the review of the Financial Assistance Grant Scheme to look at the funding for local government and, in that context, also looking at a range of other funding that is going to local government through a range of discretionary programs and through the states and territories.
Senator RHIANNON: I was specifically interested in the department's response to that High Court case, which was effectively two years ago.
Ms Beauchamp: The government has not made a response as such. It is still in the court processes, as I understand it. I would have to take that on notice. I think we are still waiting for the outcomes of that process.
Senator RHIANNON: If you could take it on notice, both what the process is and if there has been any response that can be—
Ms Beauchamp: As I said earlier, I would probably have to pass those on to the Attorney-General's Department, who are looking at the court proceedings and the legal proceedings.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. What is the status of the review of federal assistance grants? does the government have plans to increase direct funding for local government, in particular for infrastructure maintenance?
Ms Beauchamp: As I said earlier, the government has announced a review of the financial assistance grants—in the order of $2 billion is provided through local governments through that fund—and is also looking at a range of other investments that are made primarily through discretionary grants going into local governments. So there are a number of funding streams that local governments access at the moment.
Senator RHIANNON: I am sure you are aware of the accusations that are often made about cost shifting by Commonwealth and state governments. It has been estimated to have a negative impact on councils of between $500 million and $1.1 billion annually. Has a review of the Inter-governmental Agreement Establishing Principles Guiding Inter-governmental Relations on Local Government Matters commenced?
Ms Beauchamp: I think the review has kicked off, primarily through senior officials. It has yet to be raised with ministers because there was a review of the Council of Australian Governments ministerial arrangements. So, as senior officials, with the other states and territories, we are looking at the requirement to undertake that review and put to a group of local government ministers later in the year.
Senator RHIANNON: When you say that it is yet to be raised with ministers, you mean the state ministers?
Ms Beauchamp: Yes.
Senator RHIANNON: Thanks. I have one question on climate change. National and state local government associations largely have welcomed the $320 million Low Carbon Communities Program, but it has been highlighted that much more funding would be needed for strategic energy efficiency and generation initiatives. Is there other funding and support available to councils to replace inefficient street lighting and to create water recycling projects and water-sensitive urban design initiatives?
Mr Carmichael: I think that question would be better directed to the department of climate change. We have some initiatives where we are working with local councils, particularly around issues to do with their refuse tips. That is an issue that has been raised with us and that is part of our role, to work with them around that particular issue, but most of the other matters have been directly negotiated with the department of climate change and local government.
Senator RHIANNON: No, obviously we are taking it up with them. But I was interested in if there were any projects that your department oversees. It sounds like the answer is no, apart from projects around tips?
Mr Carmichael: Yes.
Mr O'Brien: They would be able to apply to the Regional Development Australia Fund if they had a project that met the eligibility criteria.
Senator RHIANNON: Such projects that I have outlined could have come under that?
Mr O'Brien: Potentially.
Ms Beauchamp: The other thing we have been doing is—there is a range of funding through the Clean Energy Future package—working with the department of climate change—particularly through local government forums, our Regional Development Australia committees—to see how people might best access those funds, for things like renewable energy, as Mr Carmichael has said, for the work that is being done around methane extraction through landfill sites and the like. We have certainly been out there as a portfolio talking about what sorts of good ideas they might bring forward—carbon farming and a range of other things as well.
Senator RHIANNON: Good. Thank you. I have one last question: next year a number of states have local government elections—New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland—does the department have any money for local government elections? I am particularly thinking in the context of alerting people that it is on, that they should vote and participate in the democratic process, because local governments traditionally have the lowest voter turnout. Is there any level of involvement that comes from the federal department and is there any budget?
Ms Beauchamp: There is no budget. All that we do is engage through Regional Development Australia committees and the 565 local governments in terms of making available our websites and other communications. So we provide in-kind support, if that were necessary and if they sought our assistance.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.
Senator RYAN: I have a couple of follow-up questions. Has any consideration yet been given to the timing of a referendum with respect to local government recognition?
Ms Beauchamp: That will depend on the outcomes of the expert panel consultation-and-review process that is underway at the moment.
Senator RYAN: Do the results of that expert panel get fed through to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet? Because there is a concurrent consultation process going on with respect to Indigenous recognition. I think some are a little closer to making recommendations or finalising a paper than this particular process is, if not by much. I think there is some consideration about whether things should be held jointly with elections or otherwise. Which departments would your paper go to for consideration by the government?
Ms Beauchamp: The expert panel is doing its work independently. We are working very closely with the families department, the Attorney-General's Department and Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Proposals will be going forward probably later this year or early in the new year in terms of what options might be considered by government.
Senator RYAN: Do they get carried forward by your department? This is an independent committee—I realise that—I am just wondering who has carriage of it into the government, into the cabinet, for example?
Ms Beauchamp: The normal cabinet process is that agencies work together, and views and options will be put forward in that process.
Senator RYAN: I understand that. I am wondering literally which minister has carriage of this particular issue?
Ms Beauchamp: Minister Crean has carriage of this particular issue. Minister Macklin has carriage of the Indigenous recognition issue. Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Attorney-General play a key role in that too.
Senator RYAN: Thank you.