Sep 6, 2006

Local Government

Local Government

6 September 2006

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (4.39 p.m.)—Labor supports this parliamentary motion on local government. This motion is a step in the right direction towards recognition for the important role that local government plays in the delivery of services at the local level. However, at the end of this speech I will be moving an amendment to this motion because I do not believe that it goes far enough in recognising local government.

Mr Speaker, you will recall as the chair of the committee that produced the report that has been referred to by the minister that I was a member of the committee as well. At that time I argued very strongly that we needed to have constitutional recognition for local government in Australia. It is true that it has been put to a referendum twice. It is true that it has been defeated twice—the last time due to a dishonest campaign run by the coalition, including the then leader, the member for Bennelong, John Howard, in his first time as Leader of the Opposition.

I believe very strongly that it is now appropriate that we have bipartisan support for constitutional recognition for local government. After all, the Constitution is the document that defines us as a nation. With that bipartisan support, Labor is pledging through this amendment here in the House of Representatives and also through an amendment that we will move in the Senate through the shadow minister for local government, Senator Kim Carr, that it would be successful whenever it was put before the people of Australia.

It is time that local government was recognised in the Australian Constitution, given the particularly important role that local government plays. Local government is of course the level of government that is closest to the people. It is able to respond directly to people’s needs. It allows for democratic participation, which enriches the democratic life of the nation.

As federal members of parliament we would attend more activities and functions organised by local government wherever we represent around the nation than we would events organised by state or federal government. That is certainly overwhelmingly the case in my electorate of Grayndler, where we now have magnificent festivals, including the Marrickville Festival, which is a multicultural celebration, and the Norton Street Festival, which pays particular attention to the contribution of the Italian community in Leichhardt. Canterbury Council holds a festival which is very much Korean based. We also had this year a return of the Cooks River Festival in my electorate, emphasising important environmental values, with an emphasis on protecting our river system and also on improving sustainability in housing and in water.

I want to particularly commend through this motion paragraph 6, which pays tribute to local government elected officials. People who are elected to this House are well remunerated for the work that we do. Many local government officials would work almost as hard as federal members of parliament and yet they receive by and large very small monetary compensation. Indeed, I believe there is a fair case to say that it costs many of them money because the time they spend in an effectively voluntary capacity doing building inspections, going to functions and speaking to constituents in their particular council area is time they are not spending earning an income for themselves and their families. It is important that we pay tribute, and I commend the minister for doing so in this motion before the parliament today.

This motion is largely a symbolic statement, but symbols are important and it is important that we give that recognition. However, in my amendment I am arguing that, while symbols are important, we need to go that step further than symbolism and have a practical impact, which enshrining local government in the Constitution would do. Were we the founding fathers of the nation—which is largely what they were, rather than fathers and mothers—we might have structured government here in Australia in a different way. There is certainly an argument in my view for two tiers of government: the Commonwealth government and regional government, in the form of an expanded local government. I think that larger councils are able to provide better services, and in my area I have argued for council amalgamations in some areas, which is not necessarily a popular step, but to do it in a way which is voluntary and brings the community along rather than it being imposed by another level of government.

Labor is united in its support for local government. The same cannot always be said for government members. The Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads has been fulsome in his stated support for local government, including his words in the chamber today. But the Minister for Transport and Regional Services takes a very different view. In March 2006 the Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads rejected an Audit Office audit of the Roads to Recovery program. The local government minister stated that only a handful of councils had failed to comply with program rules, including the maintenance of council funding for local roads. The Minister for Transport and Regional Services has taken a very different view. Following the National Local Roads and Transport Congress in July 2006, the minister’s office issued talking points to government members, senators and staff, which said:

Local government is not keeping up the task of funding its infrastructure, including roads.

The talking points go on to ridicule local government capacity to substantiate funding demands, saying:

Local government has no reliable data available on the road maintenance task.

And this:

Local government has no comparable data on its expenditure on roads, road condition or road usage—all the key information items needed to assess road funding needs.

Either you support local government or you do not. Clearly, this memo from the Minister for Transport and Regional Services indicates a lack of support for local government and an undermining of it.

I note that this motion is the result of a key recommendation of the 2003 report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration, chaired by the Speaker, which was known therefore as the Hawker report. I sat on that inquiry, and we had substantial public hearings in preparation for that report. I note that it was a unanimous report, and one of the key points made in many submissions to the inquiry was the need for constitutional recognition, hence I am moving the amendment today.

The last referendum was in 1998, and my friend and mentor Tom Uren was the Minister for Local Government and Administrative Services in the Hawke government. I worked for him at that time and well recall campaigning very strongly for a yes vote. Those on the other side, including the current Prime Minister and Peter Reith, pushed a no vote and ensured that we did not get that progress. It should not be forgotten that it was the current Prime Minister who delivered the kick in the teeth to local government. If government members are serious about recognising the role of local government—

Mr Lloyd interjecting—

Mr ALBANESE—The minister for local government asks, ‘What would constitutional recognition of local government achieve?’ He undermines his previous speech in support of local government by putting that forward and shows contempt for the overwhelming majority of local governments around this nation, which argue for constitutional referendum.

Mr Lloyd—I have made it very clear that I do not support it.

Mr ALBANESE—The minister is making it clear that he does not support it. He is moving a motion in recognition of how important it is, but it is not important enough to go in the Constitution. That is very disappointing and contradicts the evidence that we received during that inquiry, at which there were not people making submissions saying, ‘We don’t want constitutional recognition.’

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to talk briefly about the important role local government plays in tackling climate change. Around the nation, the Australian Local Government Association is playing an important part in raising awareness about climate change and about the potential impacts that it will have. It is also playing an important role in raising awareness about the opportunities that arise from efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I was very pleased to hear that the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives has been chosen as a partner and collaborator with the Clinton Climate Initiative to tackle climate change.

I was particularly pleased to hear that Melbourne has joined 21 cities from around the world in taking action to avoid dangerous climate change. Foundation cities in the partnership include London, New York, Los Angeles, Seoul, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Caracas, Chicago, Delhi, Dhaka, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Madrid, Mexico City, Melbourne, Paris, Philadelphia, Rome, Sao Paulo, Toronto and Warsaw. I very much welcome that. What we are seeing here is local government getting together to pool their purchasing power, lower the price of energy-saving products and adopt energy efficiency programs. With regard to Melbourne City Council, I certainly encourage anyone to visit the Szencorp Building in Port Melbourne to see what can be done with the support of local government in terms of having buildings that not only are energy efficient but, when fully functional, can contribute energy back to the grid and thereby make revenue for their owners. The environment minister made an interesting observation when he said on 8 November 2005:

Australian local governments lead the world when it comes to taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions …

That is right, because there is not much happening from the federal government in terms of initiative. I congratulate local government for taking a leadership role and I certainly look forward, in a year’s time, to joining with them to provide some national leadership because of the action that the federal government is failing to take and in support of the action that local government is taking.

With regard to the greatest challenge facing the global community, the action being taken by local government gives us a reminder of how broad the role and impact of local government can be and of the vital role that it plays. I commend to the House the amendment I will now move to the motion. I ask the government to reconsider its position, adopt Labor’s amendment and have a bipartisan approach to giving local government the recognition that it truly deserves. I move:

That paragraph (1) be omitted and the following paragraph substituted;

 

 

“(1) supports a referendum to extend constitutional recognition to local government in recognition of the essential role it plays in the governance of Australia.”.

The SPEAKER—Is the amendment seconded?

Mr McClelland—I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

Debate (on motion by Ms Gambaro) adjourned.