Debate resumed from an earlier hour.
Mr WOODS (Clarence—Minister for Local Government, Minister for Regional Development, and Minister for Rural Affairs) [5.06 p.m.], in reply: I am pleased that honourable members opposite have indicated their support for most of the contents of this bill. I remind honourable members that many of the changes have arisen as a result of the review of the Local Government Act and have been through an extensive process of public consultation. In addition, I have received many submissions from councils and their associations on suggested improvements to the legislation, particularly as a result of experience in implementing it. The amendments to community land matters are a good example of this.
The principal area of concern to the Opposition relates to electoral reform. I remind the House that this Parliament went to great lengths late last year in its consideration and amendment of the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act of 1912to address particular issues of concern that arose in the community over the March 1999 State elections, especially in respect of the Legislative Council where preference deals and political opportunism resulted in tablecloth-size ballot papers. Historically, the elections for local councils have followed the same election processes as those for the upper House. The Local Government Act calls up the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act for the conduct of elections. This is because, like the Legislative Council, local councils have multiple vacancies in electorates, and similar electoral processes have been found to be the most appropriate in regard to fair democratic elections and efficiency.
At no stage has the Opposition pointed to any problems with this process or suggested that local councils should conduct their elections in a different manner. On the responses from the Opposition it is abundantly clear that I need to yet again explain the proposed amendments. This Parliament amended the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act late last year. The nature of the changes were the result of problems which had arisen in the last State elections for the upper House. Similar problems arose in the local council elections conducted in September last year. In particular, two major, related issues were identified as causing problems in both elections.
Firstly, there was a sudden explosion in the number of political parties for the elections, and the arrangement that allowed parties and groups to determine the allocation of preferences where voters chose to vote above the line. Clearly the legislation was being manipulated. Changes were made to the arrangements for the upper House so that preferences determined by groups or parties were limited to within that group or party. Under the changes to the upper House, the voter makes the decision as to the allocation of preferences between groups or parties, not the group or party. Similarly, the requirements for political parties were changed to ensure that bona fide parties were being created to contest elections, rather than provide a false front that could deceive the voter.
These issues were thoroughly examined during the debate last year, particularly in the other place. It may be useful for the Opposition to read the Hansard report of that debate to remind itself of the issues. The comments made in this debate indicate that they have forgotten. The amendments to the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act last year specifically excluded their application to local council elections. This was intentional because some of the changes made would have been inappropriate for local councils. For example, the minimum number for a group in the upper House is 15. That is because the number of vacancies being contested is significantly more than local councils which can have as few as five and as many as 15 vacancies. Similarly, the Parliament decided that the minimum number of non-overlapping members in a political party to contest a State election is 750;again that is considered far too many to be suitable for a party which seeks to contest a local council election.
The Parliament agreed that consideration should be given to arrangements that were suitable for local councils. The bill now addresses those issues. The bill is aimed at addressing particular problems that have been identified in the present arrangements for local council elections. I remind the Opposition that the election procedures for local councils are similar to those for the upper House in this State and for the Senate in the Federal elections. The basic issues in this bill are the same as those in the bill debated in the Legislative Council last year—that is, abuses in the allocation of preferences by groups and parties which could be seen to be inconsistent with the wishes of voters and tighter restrictions on creation of political parties to ensure that they represent genuine community interests rather than schemes to manipulate the outcomes of elections through deception.
Much effort has been made over recent years by Parliaments to provide a simple, clear and democratic electoral system. Those processes have resulted in ballot papers that allow a voter to use a single number to express a formal vote. It also embodies the principles of the preferential voting system so that the highest expression of democratic voting can be fulfilled. The changes proposed in the bill are aimed at building on that experience and capturing the spirit of the changes made to election procedures in respect of political parties for elections in the upper House. That is, it is intended to maintain the same principles of simplicity and to reinforce that the discretion for the allocation of preferences remains with the voter and not with groups or parties who may wish to manipulate the processes for their own advantage.
The Opposition raised quite spurious issues when it suggested that the bill seeks to abolish above-the-line voting, because the Opposition seeks to remove political parties from local government. The Hon. Duncan Gay issued a media release on the bill that clearly demonstrated that he has neither read nor understood the proposed amendments to the electoral procedures. The Opposition appears to have accepted his interpretation without question. Having already briefed the Hon. Duncan Gay I offer, yet again, to provide a further briefing to him and to any other Opposition members on the effects of the bill on electoral procedures. The changes that he foreshadowed will result in serious inconsistencies between elections in councils and the State and Federal election processes and confusion for voters. It will also disenfranchise voters by increasing the complexity in casting a vote.
The abolition of above-the-line voting will not remove political parties from local government, as the Opposition seems to argue. However, it will disenfranchise a significant proportion of the electorate by increasing the proportion of votes that are informal. Many electors know how they wish to vote and above-the-line voting is the most simple and direct way for them to express their vote and preferences. Voters are not obliged to vote above the line, and many do not. As I described in my second reading speech, above-the-line voting does not arise in many rural electorates. The legislation provides this flexibility and the amendments do not affect the freedom of choice by candidates and voters. For example, the bill retains the ability of groups to be shown only below the line, groups with a sufficient number of eligible candidates may choose not to have a group voting square above the line.
In considering this and other legislation that I have brought to the House, I have given careful consideration to the impact on rural communities. I have given my assessment on this in my second reading speech. As I stated previously to the House, the bill seeks to retain the balance so that the simplicity of voting minimises the proportion of informal votes and, at the same time, retains the ability of the voters to give the fullest expression to their preferences. The Opposition has not demonstrated how the amendments failed the test and how the proposed changes will pass the same test. The Opposition has also failed to mention that the Local Government Association supports the changes. The Opposition has been very selective in its choice of advice. The comments of Opposition members show that they need to read the draft legislation before jumping to conclusions.
I thank the honourable member for Manly for his comments in relation to the limitation on the number of terms that a councillor may serve. His amendment would be a fetter on democratic representation. At present there is a turnover rate in councillors of around 40 per cent at each election. Amendments that limit the term of councillors could result in a significantly higher turnover rate and a loss of experience. This would mean that the first two years of a council's term would be spent in learning lessons already learnt by councillors forced to retire rather than providing strategic direction and leadership.
One only needs look at the present election in the United States of America for a demonstration of the consequences. The incumbent President has been forced to retire after serving two terms and the electorate appears to be divided over voting for two second-grade candidates. Therefore, the Government is unable to support the foreshadowed amendment. Despite the concerns expressed by the Opposition to one small part of the bill, I am pleased that it intends to support the bill. I am sure that a little more careful research will allow the Opposition to support the bill.
Motion agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Clauses 1 to 4 agreed to.
Mr BARR (Manly) [5.16 p.m.]: I move my amendment:
Page 3, schedule 1. Insert after line 3:
 Section 277
Omit the section. Insert instead:
277 May the holder of a civic office be re-elected?
(1) Subject to this Act, the holder of a civic office is eligible for re-election.
(2) A person who holds a civic office for 2 consecutive full terms of office is not eligible for re-election to that office, if such re-election would result in the person holding the office for a third consecutive term.
(3) Subsection (2) does not apply to a person seeking re-election for a civic office if, at the relevant election, there are fewer eligible candidates (being candidates not disqualified by subsection (2)) standing for office than positions available to be filled.
(4) For the purposes of this section, a full term of a civic office does not include a term of office that commenced with a by-election to fill a casual vacancy.
The essence of my amendment is that the number of terms be reduced to two—that is, two four-year terms. Subsections (1) and (2) of new section 277 provide for councils to have a regular turnover of new people to represent their local community. I believe that that is healthy. Local politics are becoming ever more active and many more people are interested in participating in their local councils. It is healthy to encourage that turnover. The amendment provides for circumstances in which there are not enough nominees to fill positions. In that circumstance, councillors who have served two terms can nominate for a third term. In an election for a ward, if there are two new nominees and one spot for the remaining councillors they can contest that third spot.
I appreciate and recognise that at times in country areas there are difficulties in getting enough nominations. This has also happened in the metropolitan area. I repeat that local area politics are becoming ever more active and that is healthy. We want to encourage grassroots participation; we want people to become more involved in the local processes of their government. I heard it said tonight that that is not democratic, but the rules apply to everyone. It is like driving on the left-hand side of the road—because that is what the rules provide. We cannot make exceptions. I do not agree that it is undemocratic if it is clear that everyone is in the same position.
Further, the provisions allow for a councillor who has served two terms to return after a break of four years. That does not preclude people from coming back into public office in their local area. In an area where the mayor is popularly elected, a person can seek the office of mayor after serving two terms as a councillor and can then serve two terms as mayor. That means a person could hold local office for 16 years prior to being required to stand down. Reference has been made to the United States of America democracy where the President is limited to serving two terms. The USA is not the only country where presidents are limited to two terms. I do not see that as fundamentally undemocratic; I think it is a good thing.
One could argue that eight years is plenty of time for people to make a contribution to local government. I do not see why people need to hang on forever and a day. Many councillors outstay their welcome. I appreciate that there are many longstanding councillors who have done a terrific job for many years. As I said earlier today, I do not wish to cast aspersions on any of the long-serving councillors. However, I wish to eliminate the potential for people of long service to become entrenched in the system, which may work against the interests of the local community. A turnover is healthy. When we look at grassroots democracy and local council areas we see the importance of our democratic process.
Democracy begins at the local level. It begins in the local town hall and at the public meetings we all attend, and it flows from there. It is an organic thing. The essence of our democratic system is that it begins at the local grassroots level. We need to encourage people to contribute and participate and we must give them an opportunity to have a role in local government. That is why I moved this amendment. I know the Government will not support my amendment, and I suspect the Opposition also will not support it. But it is well worth putting the proposal into the public arena for debate. That is what democracy is all about—putting forward a proposal and debating it. I ask honourable members to seriously consider this amendment and to support it.
Question—That the amendment be agreed to—put.
Division called for. Standing Order 191 applied.
Question resolved in the negative.
Schedule 1 agreed to.
Schedules 2 to 4 agreed to.
Bill reported from Committee without amendment and passed through remaining stages.
Pursuant to resolution business interrupted.