BILL: Ratepayer protection

Today Mark outlined the Greens' support for a Bill to increase protection for ratepayers in terms of transparency and accountability as an alternative to the Marshall Liberal Government's rate capping policy.  


Local Government (Ratepayer Protection and Related Measures) Amendment Bill 2018

The Greens will also be supporting the Local Government (Ratepayer Protection and Related Measures) Amendment Bill. I want to start by acknowledging the efforts of the member for Light in another place, Mr Tony Piccolo, and to put a challenge out to the government—that they could take a leaf from Mr Piccolo's book in relation to how legislation can be drafted and amended and moulded in a multipartisan fashion. The example of this bill shows that it can be done.

I must have been to four, possibly five, meetings with members of the opposition and members of the crossbench where we sat down and went through draft after draft of this legislation to try to get it in the best possible shape. We sat down with representatives of the Local Government Association, a key stakeholder in this area, to see whether they had concerns about it, which bits they were happy with, which bits they thought needed more work, and at the end of the day a piece of legislation has been produced that will have the numbers to pass today—and I am very glad of that—but it is one that is the product of a collaborative effort.

I will also make the point that, whilst this bill does not deal with the issue of rate capping, it is certainly a response to many of the issues the government said they were trying to address with their rate capping response. What I would say is that, if the answer is rate capping then you are asking the wrong questions. When you look at what the government was pointing to as examples of things that had gone wrong in local government, rate capping was not the answer to any of them. It was the wrong solution to the problems that they have identified.

Other members have spoken today already, and we have talked about the behaviour of elected members and council staff, the idea of frivolous and vexatious complaints that cost us ratepayers a fortune in legal fees to resolve; there are issues of transparency, issues of accountability, issues of waste; these are issues that are dealt with in this bill, and they were not dealt with by rate capping. In fact, rate capping only had one guaranteed outcome and that was a reduction in the services and the quality of services that residents would enjoy. It was guaranteed to result in less maintenance. They could have called it the pothole bill or the collapsing footpath bill, because ultimately when you restrict the ability of a level of government to raise the resources that it needs to do the job that people expect of it, you are asking for trouble.

Interestingly, we have just had the local council elections. As we find with every local government election, there are some people who put their hand up whose only claim is, 'Vote for me for lower rates'. I can tell you I had a look at the results across a lot of council areas and I do not think those people did that well—if the best they could offer was lower rates.

Where I live, the mayor was elected on the basis of a whole lot of new initiatives and a whole lot of programs that had been neglected in the past. That is what attracted people's interest and that is what people voted for. Ultimately, the Greens' position on rate capping—whether it is rate capping, tax capping or whatever, at any level of government—is that it is an integral part of the democratic process. People vote for representatives that they entrust with the task of looking after their money, their taxes or whatever it is, and providing the services they want. At the end of the day, that is the discipline that applies at the federal level and the state level, and the Greens' position was that it ought to apply at the local government level as well.

If as a community we think we are being taxed too much, we don't vote for those people, we vote for someone else—that is how it works. Sure, you will have some people—in fact, one senator in New South Wales got elected on almost an anti-government platform, not believing in government at all, but those people are very much in the minority. As a rule, Australians get the balance about right. If your only claim is to say, 'Vote for us and you'll pay less tax, pay less rates,' those people historically do not do that well. Australians prefer people who have vision and people who are looking to make society better, not just make society cheaper.

I will not go through the bill clause by clause because we may or may not do that in committee—that will be up to the government, I think—but I will make what is perhaps an obvious point. I used to say this to my law students many years ago: you cannot legislate for good government, but what you can do in legislation is put in place the frameworks and the principles that make it hard for them to make bad decisions. There were a lot of double negatives in there, but you can make it easier to make good decisions by putting in good frameworks, frameworks that go to financial accountability, which make it clear that the public will know where the money was spent. Provisions like that make it much harder for people to make bad decisions—transparency and accountability, and similarly with waste.

The irony of the rate-capping issue is that simply saying to local councils, 'We're going to force you to raise less money,' did not actually do anything to deal with waste. You can waste a small amount of money or you can waste a big amount of money. I liked the Hon. Justin Hanson's lolly analogy: you give someone less pocket money and they will buy fewer lollies, but if they were wasting their money before they are still going to keep wasting it.

I will make the point that, whilst this legislation, as I have said, was a collaborative and cooperative effort of the opposition and members of the crossbench, the Local Government Association has said probably two things that stand out. The first is that many of these reforms are things that they were going to do anyway or that they would have put to the government as needing doing anyway. They were things that had been on their agenda for a while.

I went to a meeting at the LGA looking at how to deal with behavioural issues with local councillors long before this bill was ever drafted. In fact, I think it was even before the last election. Local government has been alert to some of these issues and they have been keen to deal with them. This bill does deal with many of them. However, there are other issues where I think it is fair to say the Local Government Association is not convinced.

I think that is the challenge for this parliament and the challenge for this government, because when this bill passes shortly, as it will, because it clearly has the numbers in this place, the government has a couple of options open to it. One is, in the lower house, it can just bury it. The government has the numbers down there and it can make sure it never sees the light of day and never gets debated. Or they can put the bill on the desk, pick it apart, make some further amendments or other suggestions and bring it back to us, because ultimately these are reforms that are all worth implementing in some form or another.

I am open to further reform. I am open to further amendments to these, but really the ball is now back in the government's court. The government must resist the temptation to take its bat and ball and go home. The government must resist the temptation to say, 'It's our way or the highway; it's rate capping or nothing.' Here is an alternative that deals with all the major problems at least that were identified over the last 12 months or so.

I look forward to the bill passing today, I look forward to the government giving adequate time to debate the bill in the other place, and I expect or hope that we will see it again, perhaps with some further amendments to consider. But, at the end of the day, I think this approach is a far better approach than rate capping, which, as I have said, would have done little more than reduce services and reduce the quality of life for people living in our local government areas.