Is local MP Don Page the minister for, or against, local government?
That’s the question posed by the peak body representing NSW councils after Mr Page refused to support the inclusion of local government or councils in the Australian Constitution.
It comes in response to the upcoming referendum on the topic, to be included with the September election.
Currently councils are an operational arm of state governments and only two tiers of government are recognised in our constitution. Councils currently receive the majority of their funding from municipal rates and council fees, but also receive grants and subsidies from state and territory governments. There is also direct federal funding via initiatives such as the Roads to Recovery program, the Regional Development Fund and Low Carbon Communities, but the legality of some of these grants has been challenged in the High Court.
The court cases have prompted the referendum in a deal brokered by the Greens/independents and Labor at the last election.
Mr Page told ABC radio last week, ‘You could easily envisage a situation where a couple of marginal seats in a federal election would be benefited by large cash injections from the Commonwealth on the eve of the election to fund a particular piece of infrastructure. So you would have a large amount of money going to a project that was for political reasons but wasn’t actually part of the state plan.’
Those comments prompted an outraged response from Local Government NSW’s joint presidents Cr Ray Donald and Cr Keith Rhoades AFSM, who accused Mr Page of ‘scaremongering and ill-informed information’ that is ‘misleading the people of NSW.’
‘Given the recent TCorp report into NSW council finances,’ Cr Donald said, ‘it’s astounding the NSW coalition government won’t support a practical change to the Constitution securing tens of millions of dollars each year for NSW communities and their infrastructure.’ Cr Rhoades added, ‘It seems a tad contradictory for the NSW coalition government to trumpet criticism of councils’ financial sustainability, then fail to support a referendum which would protect federal grants for the most basic community needs, like local roads.’
But in a letter from NSW premier Barry O’Farrell to then federal minister for local government, Simon Crean, Mr O’Farrell outlines his reasoning for objecting to recognition.
‘The NSW government is of the view that amendments to the Constitution should not be made in the absence of clear evidence that existing funding arrangements are deficient.
‘While the government acknowledged that the High Court’s decision in Pape and Williams may have cast some doubt on the appropriateness of the direct funding of local government by the Commonwealth, it is noted that neither the Expert Panel’s report nor the Joint Select Committee interim report have identified any new significant issues with the financial arrangements that currently exist between all three tiers of government.’
Mr O’Farrell also says the amendment, as proposed in the committee’s interim report, will allow the federal government to grant funds directly to local government, ‘which could result in NSW 2021 and other major state policies being sidetracked or not given due regard…
‘This could also raise expectations that the Commonwealth could intervene in local government administration, thereby creating confusion about all tiers of government and responsibilities… it blurs the line of accountability.’
Instead, Mr O’Farrell says he supports ‘symbolic recognition as a way of enhancing the status of local governments.’
Meanwhile Mr Page hit back at the LGNSW joint presidents, telling The Echo they have known about the letter for months and, with an election for the LGNSW presidency coming up in October, that ‘might explain Keith Rhoads’s behaviour!’
He added local government is already recognised in the NSW Constitution.
Unsurprisingly it’s sparked divided opinions across state and federal parties; however, Victoria, along with NSW, has rejected it so far.
Federal Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce said Thursday that his party will support it, and that a caveat in the amendment to section 96 ensures that authorisation from the state is required for councils to collect money from the federal government.
‘It is the lowest-taxing level of government and rates go straight back into the facilities and services used by that community.’
And Greens MLC and former Byron Shire mayor Jan Barham told The Echo she supports inclusion as it ‘plays a crucial role in the democracy of Australia.’ She says direct transfers from a federal level have been very successful, and that ‘Other funding programs that are directed via the state governments result in a loss of direct funding to councils with the state administration costs of approximately 22 per cent without genuine benefit to the community.’
As for the two amendments, or alterations, it’s just 17 words and can be found at http://regional.gov.au. Section 96’s heading is ‘Financial assistance to states’ and it is proposed to be changed to ‘Financial assistance to states and local government bodies.’ Additionally, section 96 itself would be altered to read, ‘During a period of ten years after the establishment of the Commonwealth and thereafter until the Parliament otherwise provides, the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any state, or to any local government body formed by a law of a state, on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit.’
Claims that the region’s abandoned Casino to Murwillumbah railway line is being maintained to a limited degree by a major building contractor have been questioned.
Byron Shire mayor Simon Richardson has requested details from the NSW transport department on what sort of maintenance the rail contractor is doing.
Cr Richardson’s mayoral minute from last Thursday’s council meeting follows claims to Echonetdaily by the transport department and the minister responsible that the abandoned line is being maintained.
The department, which granted the contract to rail construction giant John Holland, has refused to provide to The Echo any evidence, such as reports, in order to verify that limited maintenance has been undertaken on the railway line since it was last used in 2004. A spokesperson for the department was only prepared to say that John Holland Rail ‘undertakes safety inspections and limited maintenance work including minor vegetation work at selected sites’.
Similarly, the minister for transport, Gladys Berejiklian, played the issue down.
When asked to provide any evidence of what work has been completed in the region, Mrs Berejiklian instead repeated much the same line as her department.
‘I’m advised that maintenance work on the Casino to Murwillumbah line is limited to an inspection of the line each year and includes monitoring and treatment of noxious weeds and any other work required to ensure the safety of the public,’ she said.
And despite four days’ notice on the question, much correspondence and a promise that a response would come from John Holland, the company’s media representative said, at the last minute, that she could not reply in time, due to ‘being under contract with Transport for NSW which needs to approve our media statements’.
But what’s the cost to taxpayers? John Holland claims on its website it’s being paid $1.5 billion over ten years, or $150,000,000 a year to maintain NSW railways.
This includes ‘2,700 kilometres of operational freight and passenger lines and 3,100 kilometres of non-operational lines,’ plus 3,300km of disused line.
At a total of 9,100km, this represents $16,483 per km of track, per year, including ‘27,000 hectares of land, 600 rail under-bridges and 384 road over-bridges’.
As a rough comparison, rail infrastructure construction and maintenance company, the Downer Group, is being paid $10,625 per kilometre of track per annum over 12 years, for a track that is used for interstate freight.
Additionally, the recent $2 million rail study released by the coalition was slammed for its ‘lack of long-term vision’ in NSW Parliament last week by Greens MP and transport spokesperson Cate Faehrmann.
Ms Faehrmann also took aim at its restricted ‘terms of reference’, which were heavily weighted towards a result favouring abandoning rail services in the region.
‘Only 75 of 187 bridges were inspected,’ she said, ‘representing an incomplete picture of the line’s true state of repair, compared with PricewaterhouseCoopers inspecting every bridge in 2004’.
The MLC also said it was a ‘quite frankly unbelievable’ estimated repair bill of $900 million, as, ‘in 2004 PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated it would cost $30 million’.
She says her parliamentary inquiry into rail infrastructure project costing revealed rail projects ‘cost some 15 per cent more in NSW than in the rest of Australia’.
Byron’s ongoing traffic congestion and 1.5 million annual visitor numbers were also mentioned. ‘The growth in tourist visits from southeast Queensland to Byron Bay has meant that road traffic can reach gridlock on any summer’s day,’ Ms Faehrmann said.
‘A ten-minute car journey from the highway into Byron can easily extend to 45 minutes. Buses would be similarly afflicted.’
But oddly, Mrs Berejiklian told The Echo that in regard to the shire’s visitor numbers, ‘the needs and travel patterns of tourists were considered in detail in the development of the study, and it found tourists do not form a large proportion of public transport users’.
While the mayoral minute claims there are omissions in the report over light rail and other issues, Mrs Berejiklian talked light rail down saying it ‘was included in the long list of options considered in the study and it was found to deliver fewer benefits than other modes of transport’.
Cr Richardson also plans to ‘facilitate a meeting with potential user groups to consider Byron Shire options’.
Local Nationals MP Don Page has not commented on the report other than to tell The Echo at the time of its release that ‘the report speaks for itself’.
Along with all north coast Nationals MPs, he ran on a campaign in 2007 of returning rail, but then changed his campaign to a ‘rail study’ for the 2011 election.