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Speech: Constitutional Recognition of Local Government

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 19 Jun 2013

Constitution Alteration (Local Government) 2013, Second Reading, Wednesday 19 June 2013

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (11:51): The Greens support this legislation. Local government recognition is long overdue. It is very interesting to hear the debate and also to see the speakers list for today, which is very informative about the tactics that we have seen from the coalition. We have heard from the Leader of the Opposition that, in principle, he supports constitutional recognition. But what does 'in principle' mean when it comes from the opposition leader, Mr Tony Abbott? What is the meaning of 'principle', when it comes to his utterance? It looks like we are about to get a lesson in that. It looks as though we could have the first broken promise from the Leader of the Opposition and he is not even Prime Minister yet! The coalition has been running a campaign of support for constitutional recognition, but there have been disruptive tactics.

Senator Brandis interjecting—

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator RHIANNON: I acknowledge the interjections from Mr Brandis and his colleagues here. They have been running a disruptive campaign. Now it looks as though they will try and further disrupt this very important referendum, which we know needs bipartisan support. We know how critical that is. But let us stay with the issue first: what we should be discussing here is how we can facilitate an urgently needed referendum to give certainty to that level of local government. Section 96 of the Australian Constitution needs to be amended to give legal certainty to the Commonwealth's ability to directly fund local government.

That is what I would like to be talking about in the debate, but we have heard the line from Senator Brandis and we can see where that is going. We have been hearing the comments being made in the media today. There is clearly an attempt to severely damage the chances of this referendum. Having been on the inquiry into local government and having heard from so many representatives of that important tier of government about how much it means to them to gain that recognition and why it is so important for so many of the programs that they run, I find that particularly disappointing. Many of them are colleagues of those who sit on the opposition benches, particularly from the National Party. Many of their colleagues, particularly from Queensland, understood how important this is and talked about the extent of their programs.

But I think we also need to remind ourselves that what we could well see here is history repeating itself, because twice there have been attempts to gain this constitutional recognition and twice the coalition went very hard to defeat it. In the context of what we are about to see play out in the coming hours, it is worth reminding ourselves that we have been down this path before and it looks as though the coalition is about to throw away its apparent commitment to constitutional recognition.

It was in 1974, when the Whitlam government put up a similar referendum to what we have now, that the coalition campaigned rigorously against it and it was defeated. Then we saw the same thing in 1988 with the Hawke government. Again, the coalition went in very hard with very disruptive tactics, which were destructive for many of their own constituencies—particularly for people in rural and regional areas, where this uncertainty really hits home.

What we have before us is very, very wrong, because constitutional recognition—to my mind—actually is about a lot more than financial certainty; it is about doing the right thing. It is as if there is a serious omission within our constitution and, clearly, all levels of government should be recognised. But what we are hearing from the coalition and from many of their supporters are some real scare tactics and so much disinformation, which need to be addressed here. For example, the Institute of Public Affairs have been coming out with their arguments about the issue of constitutional recognition. One of their statements is that state governments will be obsolete—how extreme and how ridiculous—but those are the sort of scare tactics that they are running. The IPA have also stated that it would be a disaster for democracy and lead to less accountability. As we know, we have heard that many of the debates—some of them in here and some of them through the media—are questioning the wording of the question itself.

What we have seen in the past month is a build-up in the disruption to this all-important campaign. It is also worth remembering what has been happening this week in Canberra. There are hundreds and hundreds of local government representatives, elected by their councils, who are in Canberra for the national conference of the Australian Local Government Association. I had the opportunity of going to that meeting, and Senator Christine Milne, leader of the Australian Greens, spoke there. She got a fantastic reception when she spoke in support of the yes case for the referendum. This is something very close to the heart of the Greens. A number of years back, a former leader of the Greens, Bob Brown, told the conference that he would raise the issue with the government of the day. That is something that we did under our agreement with Labor.

While there are many aspects of that agreement that have gone pear-shaped, this is one thing that we were able to advance and advance successfully with the coalition, which looked like they were on side for a period, but now the scare tactics are apparent. These are totally unnecessary and are a totally wrong and disruptive way to engage with the democratic process. Let us come to some of the issues that Senator Brandis has just shared with us. First of all, he said that he was 'shocked'. He said, 'I am hard to shock, but I have been shocked.' I think it would be worth remembering what Senator Brandis also said last night, when he was speaking in the very moving tributes to Senator Trish Crossin. At one point he said how he was shameless; that is what we are seeing, again in this debate. He was shameless in how he presented his argument.

The coalition has had a whole tactic running here of building up the level of disruption to make out that this is dysfunctional and cannot work. It most definitely can work. It is worth going back to how things have played out in the preparation and in the process for this all-important referendum. It is worth looking at the report from the Spigelman expert panel, which sets out very clearly some of the mechanisms for advancing the referendum—steps that we have taken. But Senator Brandis is trying to make out that it is otherwise. So let us go back to the actual report, which states in part:

The majority of panel members support a referendum in 2013 subject to two conditions: first, that the Commonwealth negotiate with the States to achieve their support for the financial recognition option; and second, that the Commonwealth adopt steps suggested by ALGA necessary to achieve informed and positive public engagement with the issue, as set out in the section of this report on the concerns about a failed referendum.

Let us look at ALGA, which launched its campaign for a yes vote this weekend. ALGA notes that the yes/no campaign should be overseen by the parliament, with a panel of members appointed to prepare both the yes and no cases. I understand that is what is proceeding. Again, Senator Brandis is throwing up his hands in horror at the money aspects of this—but it has been worked through. When you look at the situation that I have set out, there is consistency. ALGA proposes that the Commonwealth allocate funds for the yes/no cases for each referendum based on the votes of parliamentarians for and against the bill, and that this funding be equivalent to that provided for elections. We have had a clear process; the process has been followed through. At the 12th hour, all of sudden, Senator Brandis is shocked. It is not shock; it is shameless. Let us remember what he really meant to say. Yesterday he was honest; today it seems to have vacated his ability to remember his real tactics here.

Let us get down to the details. The allocation of funding for the yes/no campaign will reflect the overwhelming support that the referendum has here. We know what that is, and this is where the coalition tactics come undone. Let us remember that, when the vote on the financial bill went through the House of Representatives, the vote was 134 in favour and two against. How did we have two coalition members vote against it? Everybody here knows that it was a decision by the coalition to release two of their members to vote against the bill. They released only two to vote against the bill; 134 voted for it. That is the proportion. That is how we have come to the situation where processes are being worked through—we have heard the advice from Spigelman, and we have heard from ALGA on how to set it out—and the coalition have made their call. Only two MPs in the House of Representatives voted against the bill, and now the decision has been made about that allocation.

Senator Brandis, what have you got to be shocked about? What you should be shocked about is your own crude tactics that are now being played out by an opposition that has gone back to form by running a disruptive campaign at every turn. It is very disappointing, because this legislation is needed. History tells us that it is very tough to get a referendum through if there is not the support for it from all the parties that are active in the parliamentary process.

In concluding, I want to emphasise some of the points made by the many local councils that have come to see me over a number of months to discuss how we can gain support for this measure. I particularly pay credit to the Local Government Association of Queensland. They have worked very effectively, with enormous support from their local councils. Again, I emphasise that many of these councils are from constituencies of the National Party in Queensland—and here we see a desertion from a fundamental position that can make a real difference to people in regional and rural areas.

Some of the issues that the Queensland Local Government Association went through were concerned with a program that we have heard a great deal about—the Roads to Recovery program. The councils emphasised the need for increased funding levels, including for urgent bridge upgrades and also a commitment to indexing funding to reflect increases in road and bridge construction costs. They told me they did not feel that they could gain that certainty if they did not have the recognition, because they did not know if it would be challenged. How could they themselves allocate money if they could not be certain that the money would definitely come through from the Commonwealth? Another argument they put was that a responsive and relevant regional community infrastructure funding program, which has local government as a genuine partner, is urgently needed. What many of these councils spoke to me about—I found it very interesting to understand how they work—was that, more and more, they are picking up a range of programs that were once undertaken by other levels of government. We are seeing governments these days, not just coalition but Labor as well, adopt neo-liberal policies, where they ditch so many of the traditional services that they would have run in the past. Local governments often take on those responsibilities. That is why there was emphasis given to this area.

Another point the Queenslanders raised was the need for an updated system of natural disaster relief and recovery arrangements that locks in existing value for money benchmarks to enable councils to deal with future disaster recovery on a more certain footing. Wouldn't the coalition like to ensure that our colleagues in regional and rural areas could be confident about that? No. It looks like they are all going to follow Senator Brandis. We are going to have 16 speakers from the coalition on this measure, all getting up and telling us how bad this process is, how wrong it is and how they now cannot support it. I will be interested to hear their arguments; but, knowing how it has happened before, it is certainly not a good look for the coalition to be deserting their constituency in such a damaging way.

I again emphasise my concern about the comments made by Senator Brandis. It is worrying that the coalition is about to move away from the cross-party support for this important measure. Whatever the outcome is here, if this is a major break with the policy position by opposition leader Mr Tony Abbott, the Greens will continue to work very hard for a yes outcome for the referendum on constitutional recognition of local government. It is important for the Constitution; it is important for our future.

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