I wish to speak on the report of the Joint Select Committee on the Constitutional Recognition of Local Government. I will say from the outset that I agree with the proposal and the words being proposed for a possible referendum, but I have been disappointed and somewhat frustrated at the way this has been handled. It is nearly 12 months since the expert panel, set up by the government to look at the constitutional recognition of local government, presented its report and we are still in the position that we are in today.
I was alarmed to read in the national press on Monday of this week that the minister is going to spend another six weeks negotiating with the states before a final decision is to be made. One of the witnesses to the inquiry in Sydney in January, the Australian Electoral Commission, indicated that, to run a referendum efficiently, you need approximately six months. Of course, we are past that point and we are getting into a narrow margin of time.
It is well known that some states are in favour of this referendum and some are opposed, but the states that are opposed made their position clear long before the words of this referendum question were made known and long before they realised what this proposal actually meant. As someone who comes from a local government background, to an extent I do not believe that this referendum goes far enough. On the other side of that, what is being proposed is basically to close up a loophole. It is to enable the federal government to directly fund local government in some programs. It is not a major overhaul of the federal-state relationship; it is not going to undermine the states’ relations with local government. The programs that the federal government-sometimes on an ongoing basis, but sometimes on a temporary basis-fund for local government are very important to the people in those local government areas. The obvious one, the one that is discussed a lot, is the Roads to Recovery program. This program is seen, particularly in the bush, as the signature program. It is the ongoing legacy of John Anderson, the former member for Gwydir, that the program has been put in place. It has already had one challenge in the High Court. I believe that if the program were lost then most of the 17 local government areas in my electorate would be not viable.
The other program, if you cast your mind back to 2008, is the stimulus program implemented by the Rudd government. Many of those programs turned out to be a debacle-the insulation program and the BER program in many cases turned out to be a poor use of money.
Government members interjecting-
I am going to give you a pat on the back in a minute, so settle down. I guarantee that the money that went to local government through those local infrastructure programs was used to good value. The money given to every local government area I am aware of that got funding directly from the federal government during that stimulus program was money well spent. Other dollars were leveraged so that the dollars that came from federal government to local government were magnified several times over. If the Rudd government at the time had given more money to local government and less to ill-thought-out and ill-conceived green programs like the pink batts program, the Australian economy would be a lot better off.
So where are we now? The government says that it wants a referendum, and there is a bit more negotiation to go through. The coalition has said that it supports the concept of recognition of local government, but there are some reservations as to the timing and the preparedness. I personally believe that, if the minister gets his skates on and gets around the states to explain to them that this is not an affront to their sovereignty but merely housekeeping to close a loophole, this is possible. I had some frustration at the Australian Local Government Association’s initial input into the hearing in January, but I was somewhat relieved to see them come to a firmer position in the later hearing. Right across Australia local government bodies are prepared to come into action to fight to see this referendum succeed.
I do not know whether the reluctance of the minister to commit to doing more on this is to do with a lack of finance for the case. It is interesting that the referendum to recognise the Aboriginal people in the Constitution has now been delayed. It was given a considerable amount of funds to present the case for and against, yet at this stage there has been no promise of any funding to move on this local government referendum.
In closing, there is still time. I have told the minister that if he goes ahead with this I will do my level best to make sure that this referendum is a success. The Australian local government bodies rely on this, particularly in regional Australia. In regional Australia the local government bodies rely on direct funding, so the minister needs to bring the states into line and get this referendum underway. If he does not do that pretty well immediately then I feel that the success of the referendum would not be great. The real tragedy would be to put this referendum up in a half-baked way. It needs to happen in a way that is going to be successful.