The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment
Senator MOORE (Queensland) (10.46 am)-The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007, which is before the chamber today, is straightforward. It is short; it is 3½ pages of text. We consistently made that point throughout the committee process. We had almost more sitting days on this bill than there are pages of the bill for people to understand. That was a point that needed to be made consistently through the three extremely interesting days of hearings that the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration took to consider this bill, which had full cross-party support before we actually went to any process of consideration. Given that process, given it was a decision that was supported when the government decided to have a committee on this process, it would have seemed churlish for people to have rejected that opportunity. We raised the issue that it could well have been not the most effective use of time on a bill that is 3½ pages long. The bill is effectively in two parts. One part is to allow the use of Australian Electoral Commission facilities for plebiscites-not just plebiscites that talk about local government amalgamations. The second component is to overrule decisions that the Queensland state government had made about punitive provisions if local government decisions were taken to have a plebiscite or any form of discussion about this at the local level in Queensland.
Given that we decided as a government to take the process of having a committee inquiry on the 3½ pages of legislation, the important thing in dealing with the wide interest in Queensland in the issue of local government amalgamations was to ensure that the people who gave up their effort, their time, their energy, to come and talk to the committee about the issues that were important to them, and to express their genuine pain about the decisions that were impacting on them and their local government, understood the situation. It was so important for the people who were involved in that process to be absolutely clear with those witnesses and to work with them to ensure that there was absolute understanding about the role of the finance and public administration committee's inquiry and, most particularly, about the impact of the legislation we were discussing. That did not always occur. I do not have the experience in this place that Senator Boswell has, and the depth of understanding that he has of issues around Queensland local government and the way the Senate operates should be respected. I do not have that length of experience in this place, but I do have a clear understanding about the role of a committee when we work with the community on a piece of legislation. We are there to talk about the legislation and how it will operate and what impact it could have on the community. That did not occur through the process of this finance and public administration committee inquiry.
Among some senators who attended-there were senators from the Australian Democrats, the Australian Labor Party, the National Party and the Liberal Party-there seemed to be the misunderstanding that the debate point was the local government amalgamation process in Queensland. That was indeed an overwhelming issue for the people who came to give evidence, and it did trigger the decision to bring forward this piece of legislation about the role of referenda and overturning the punitive elements of the state government ruling. The debate, the concern and the expectation of so many of the people who came to see our committee were about the local government amalgamation process, the impact on their communities, and their hope that we would be able to overturn the state government's decision. That was expressed on a number of occasions.
I encourage people who are interested in this process, and who are interested in particular in the operation of the Senate, to go to the Senate committee page, to look through the Hansard, to see the discussions that occurred and to actually hear people express their hopes that, somehow, the federal government would be able to overturn what the state Labor government had decided to do through their processes. That is not something that is possible under our Constitution. One of my deep concerns about the process in which we have been taking part is that we somehow strayed from the process, through a political decision to raise awareness and exert pressure. While these are goals that are perfectly reasonable, they are not the intent of the Senate committee process and they are not the intent of the legislation that we are considering, which is quite simply titled the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007. In terms of what we have heard so far in contributions and in this place, and in terms of what I expect to hear more of throughout the rest of this debate, we will continue to have this range of confusing issues in people's views about the role of the Queensland state government and about the various actions that were taken. All that is worthy of discussion and debate but it is not the point of this legislation. I think that needs to be put clearly on the record.
Throughout the process we had what I consider the most unedifying process of senators working with witnesses and trying to make political statements. I quote from the hearing that we had in Emerald when Senator Joyce was talking with one of the local mayors and these words were said:
How do you solve a political problem?
Then came an ongoing question that Senator Joyce asked witnesses throughout the process of the committee:
Can you see any pressure points coming up on the horizon that may be exerted that may encourage people to be a bit more active in trying to support your cause, and where might-
where do you suppose-
those political pressure points-
The sad part is we had coming to our inquiry witnesses who had genuine concerns about local government amalgamations-and we share those concerns and we respect those concerns. But you had senior members of the community being somehow perplexed by the line of questioning and saying: 'What do you want me to say, Senator? What is the response that you're seeking me to make?' To me that certainly lowered the impact of the process in which we were involved. We know that we are involved in a political process. We know that we will use opportunities to advance particular causes. But I believe that when we clearly use people's pain so as to exert political pressure over an issue, an issue over which the committee has no ability to make change, that is a misuse of the process. That disappoints me and it makes me angry because I think that we have a responsibility to the people who seek to have their political representatives support them.
I think my favourite moments of the three days of hearings was when Senator Joyce-and I am not trying to single out Senator Joyce in this process, but he actually attracted my attention by the way he was asking these questions-was asking my particular favourite series of questions of a number of witnesses. He was asking them if they knew who made up the Queensland Labor government: 'Do you know who makes up the Queensland government and what party they belong to? Do you know who they are?' Leading on from these he came to his second point, which was to ask the political question: 'Do you know who is the Leader of the Opposition at the federal level?' I am not making this up, Mr Acting Deputy President, and I refer you to the Hansard of these hearings. My point is that we had been able to come to a consensus across the members who attended these hearings. We agreed that allowing a plebiscite process which would be able to be triggered where necessary would be a useful way for people to express their opinion. We actually shared the view through the committee process that we thought that the role of the Queensland state government on this issue should have been questioned. We felt that it was of a 'punitive' nature-and we used that adjective, and I think 'punitive' was used several hundred times over the three days of this process-and we shared the view that any attempt to punish local government elected officials for trying to find out what their people felt at the local level was wrong and that we should be exerting pressure to ensure that that was overturned. One of the people who were asked the questions was the opposition spokesperson on local government and I am happy to report that Mr Hobbs did know who was in the Queensland government. I think it was a great relief to all of us in the committee that he was able to respond to that question. However, that reflects the way the process degenerated over the three days. What we can do as a Senate is express the views of people at the local level. We can express concern and we can try to ensure that we expose things that we think are wrong. However, on the issue of state government and its role as to local government under the Constitution, at this stage we cannot intrude. No government-and it does not matter what flavour they are-can direct a state government about what it can do on decisions about local government. When we led into discussion in the committee about the role of local government, which is a really important issue, one which has been discussed previously in this place and we trust will be so again, we were talking about looking at constitutional recognition of local government. That was discussed quite openly by people. Then there was an attempt by some members of our committee to ask the question as to whether that would be of any use in the current debate-again, an attempt to misuse the process and to confuse people. I do not think that is our job. I think our job is to listen. I think it is our job to see where we can develop better policy and it is very much our job to see where we can work effectively to develop good legislation.
The legislation in front of us will serve a purpose. How many times it will be used we don't know. There has certainly been an impact at the Queensland state level where the second elements to which Senator Boswell referred have been removed. The aspects of punishment for local government officials who would be looking at running any form of survey or local plebiscite about this issue have been removed. That is a good result. I think that trying to continue to question whether or not that has occurred misuses the process and continues to confuse.
As to the use of the AEC element, one of the points in the process in which I was interested was to look at the whole constitutional debate about how we impact as a federal government in making decisions about what can be done at the local government level, how we can do that and what is the best way of doing that, particularly as at the moment there is no status for local government in the Constitution as to just how it works. There was a very useful discussion. I think one of the more useful elements of the whole three days was the discussion with AEC representatives while looking at exactly how it could operate, finding out from them how they felt about their role, because there had been questions raised earlier in the hearings about whether it was the best use of the AEC. So I think it was useful to have that discussion. It would have been very useful to have been able to see the legal advice on which the federal government relied when it pursued this choice of going down the legislative process. We were assured by the public servant who travelled with us and was able to provide professional support to our process that the government had taken legal advice when it determined the drafting of this very short piece of legislation. We know it would have. It would have been particularly useful for us on the committee to have seen that legal advice, particularly when we had had evidence from a couple of very senior constitutional experts questioning whether in fact this particular legislation was effective under the current Constitution. Where you have people who have a genuine interest in and knowledge of our Constitution raising points, expressing concerns and attempting to work towards a clear result, I think it would be very useful if then, through the committee process, you would be able to see the legal advice, look at it and see exactly how it responded to the various points.
Again, that was not made available. That was certainly not the decision of a public servant; it was a government decision that the legal advice would not be made available. I think that is disappointing. I think that there was goodwill in this committee towards the process at times. We started out those three days mostly in agreement about the legislation. It would have been useful when we walked away at the end of the three days if we could have had all our questions answered, particularly those on the legal aspects. I raise that for further consideration.
This is a particularly complex area of constitutional law. Senator Boswell expressed some concern about what a federal government-he was actually referring to a possible federal Labor government-could do in this situation. I think it is really important that we understand exactly what any federal government of any political persuasion could do when we are looking at decisions being made by state government on local government. That has been an ongoing question that is still in front of us at the end of this process. I think there was some value in having the process because it gave people in Queensland local governments the opportunity to express their concerns. I never think that is a wasted process. What I continue to be concerned about is raising any false hope about our ability at the federal level to change decisions that are being made on the local government area. I thank the representatives from local government and also the people from local communities who came to the meetings in Noosa, Emerald and also Cairns and handed in submissions about their views on the way the local government decision would affect everything they are doing. However, I do not think that very many of those people who came before us fully gave information about the three-page legislation in front of us. That information was able to be drawn out during the process. I express some worry about what will happen next, because one of the things that has occurred because of the time frame in which we are operating is that there has been a great degree of expectation created around the fact that plebiscites will be able to take place as a result of this legislation. In fact, plebiscites probably could have taken place anyway except that now we have it made clear by the legislation that the AEC will be able to use the electoral roll for that and also the Prime Minister has made it clear that there will be no cost to local government. There are no details on this in the legislation in front of us. There is no detail about how a plebiscite would operate or how much it would cost. I think Senator Murray raised the point very clearly that when you say, 'We'll have a plebiscite', people have very different views about what exactly that means. It certainly means that people will have an opportunity to respond to a question, but I do not think the very significant details about how that question will be phrased, what the process will be and on what date the plebiscite will take place are any clearer at the end of the committee process than they were at the start. There is an understanding that plebiscites may take place, but how they will act was not made clear. I think one of the things that we did find out from information from the AEC on the last day was that the hope that had been fanned in the media that there would be imminent plebiscites in the next couple of weeks or months is something that the AEC is not prepared for at this stage. We are not sure whether anyone could be directed to do that, but the AEC's evidence-which, again, is in Hansard for people to consider-indicates that at the moment they are clearly focused on working through the very significant processes around a federal election across the whole country. They are mechanically and in a budget sense not able to look at running plebiscites in the next few weeks. Because of the political nature of the way this committee was formed and also the very rapid way in which the legislation was put before us, the media was running around in Queensland-I am not sure whether it got coverage outside our state-throwing dates around, throwing questions around and raising that sense of false hope. I think that has been said a few times. I think our role must continue to be to explore what we are able to achieve rather than to create hope, for whatever purpose-and it could be for a very strong purpose. One of the clear issues that were raised in the three days by some of the contributions we heard, which are in the Hansard, was the role of unions. We heard evidence from one of the unions about what they see as their role in the process, which is to look after the conditions, jobs and futures of their members and employees in local government. That is where they see their role. I was interested to hear some of the people from the Liberal Party and Nationals on our committee calling for more activism from the union movement in Queensland. I was excited by that call and I think it was interesting in many ways, but I wonder whether it was actually the role of the committee in this process. Once again, I refer anyone who is interested in these points to the Hansard. I think they will find the contributions of the local government people who came to us particularly confronting because they do have concerns about the future of their communities. We should see what we can do to support them through that. We support the legislation. There has never been any question about whether Labor support the legislation or not. We do not support the process that surrounded some of the questioning in the committee process.