Jun 5, 2013

Second Reading – Constitution Alteration (Local Government) Bill 2013

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler—Leader of the House, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and Minister for Regional Development and Local Government) (18:43):  I rise as the local government minister to support the Constitution Alteration (Local Government) 2013. Local governments provide services and facilities which play an invaluable role in the daily lives of all Australians, and yet it is currently not mentioned in the Constitution. Recognising the financial relationship between the Commonwealth and local governments simply recognises an existing reality. Drive around any suburb or town and we will see there is almost certainly a town hall, a sports oval, a new wing to the local library or a rejuvenated main street that was built with Commonwealth help.

In December 2008, I was at the Local Government Constitutional Summit, which was convened by the Australian Local Government Association. The conference resolved:

“to ensure the quality of planning and delivery of services and infrastructure provided to all Australians, and the ongoing sustainability of local government, any constitutional amendment put to the people in a referendum by the Australian Parliament … The power of the Commonwealth to directly fund local government should be explicitly recognised.”

The idea that this referendum has been sprung on anybody is, quite frankly, absurd. That constitutional convention was in 2008. It was attended by me and the relevant shadow minister, who I think was at the time Mr Truss. But it was certainly a bipartisan event, and from that point we provided funding. In June 2010, at the Australian Local Government Association national conference here in Canberra, I made an announcement of seed funding to go out and consult about constitutional recognition of local government with all the local government bodies around the country.

The Attorney-General has gone through and outlined the bill in some detail. The government proposes a modest amendment which would add 17 words to section 96 of the Constitution. This amendment will recognise local government by allowing the Commonwealth parliament to grant financial assistance directly to local government bodies. This reflects the fact that the Commonwealth has partnered with local governments to deliver local roads, sporting fields, libraries, child care, community services and much more. Importantly, the proposed change to the Constitution does not diminish the role of the states with regard to the administration of local government. Recognition in the Constitution does not alter the fact that local governments are created by and accountable to the states. We do not propose to alter those relationships. What we do propose is to recognise the reality that in Australia we have three tiers of government.

In the last five years the Commonwealth has partnered with local government to deliver over 6,000 community projects such as libraries, indoor and outdoor sporting facilities, pools, walking trails, roads and bridges. I take up the point that was made by the member for Hinkler. I give a very practical example which reinforces the view that he holds that there are some circumstances whereby local governments can deliver infrastructure cheaper and more efficiently than state or territory governments.

I give the practical example of the Ironsley River bridge in Far North Queensland. The Ironsley River bridge was an issue that was campaigned for by the member for Kennedy not just for years but, according to the member for Kennedy—and I never doubt him—for decades. At each opportunity, funding was knocked back. The Ironsley River bridge, which went under when there was flooding, meant that communities around Normanton and Karumba in the Gulf Country were isolated and had to have food, supplies and medical assistance choppered in at enormous expense, but no government at any level had made the tough decision to invest and fix the problem permanently at this particular site.

The state government had costed it at $31 million. Through the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program—this grant was criticised by the National Audit Office, by the way—we received a submission from the relevant council that sought, from memory, in the order of $17 million for that project. It was almost half what the state government said it would cost. They built the bridge, fixed the problem and then came back and said: ‘We’ve got money left over. Do you mind if we build another bridge with the money that’s left over?’ And they did that efficiently, employing local labour and making a difference to that local community. There were no political votes in it in a party political sense. It was the right thing to do by those communities that have been isolated when there have been events such as floods.

So I certainly confirm the views of the member for Hinkler that this is particularly important to people in regional Australia. There is no doubt that the relationship between local government and regional communities is absolutely vital. Sometimes it can be the main employer, and it is the link that holds a community together—much more so than in an inner-urban community in a city such as where I live in Sydney. So it is a vital role. I acknowledge the fact that many of the strongest supporters of this referendum are people such as Senator Barnaby Joyce, the Leader of the Nationals, the member for Hinkler and other National Party representatives. They are very strong in their support of this referendum.

The Commonwealth Roads to Recovery program alone has delivered $1.75 billion in funding over the last five years. That is supporting safe and efficient roads right across the country. It is important that the modern reality of governance in Australia be recognised. I have heard a lot of completely false arguments against the commonsense piece of housekeeping that this piece of constitutional change represents. It is surely common sense that the Constitution, our most important legal document, should actually represent the reality of modern Australia, including our governance structures, and that is what this referendum will do.

So I urge all members to campaign in their local communities. Local government will certainly be campaigning itself for a yes vote in this referendum. There will be all sorts of nonsense arguments that come up, I am sure. I have not seen any valid ones yet. I have seen one legal academic, who clearly had not even bothered to read the bill that is before the House and the proposed changes, jumping at something that was a non-issue. Common sense tells you this should be supported, and I ask all Australians to say yes on 14 September.