Dual Roles Debate

(11.19am 3 April 2012, Parliament House Sydney)

The Local Government Amendment (Members of Parliament) Bill 2012 will remove long-held democratic rights from New South Wales voters by banning a person holding both elected positions of local councillor and State member. Voters have had this right to choose the same representative at both State and local government levels since 1856, the beginning of representative government in New South Wales. The Government has no mandate to pursue this change—it did not raise the issue before the 2011 State election. In fact, in the lead-up to the election the Government actively campaigned for candidates who were councillors, leading the community to believe they could choose a representative who held both roles. Concern about dual roles came not from the community but from bullying articles attacking me in the Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Telegraph for being both member for Sydney and Lord Mayor of Sydney. These articles were run after the election and Premier O'Farrell leapt into the fray and promised to legislate. His action goes against the will of the majority of voters who elected me, and my constituents are angry. What we have is government of the people by the shock-jock media for the Liberal and National parties.

The only community involvement was a short departmental discussion paper put on exhibition over Christmas. Submissions have not been released and there has been no official Government response or independent assessment. What arguments has the Government used for this hijacking of democracy? The Premier says that dual roles create a conflict of duties. Yet both my roles are about public service to the Sydney community. What can be a conflict is when a private interest interferes with public duty. So what is the Premier doing about the 60 members of Parliament who have private interests, including investment property ownership, shares in property development companies, private business ownership, and financial membership of clubs?

Several members of Parliament are company directors and lawyers, and there is a medical practitioner. The Premier needs to explain what he is doing about this significant issue if he is generally concerned about conflicts of interest. Another spurious government argument is the claim that dual roles make it difficult to know who to complain to about a council if you cannot complain to your local member. We just heard a really pathetic contribution from the member for Drummoyne. Yet a local member of Parliament can only make a representation to council—the member has no control over council—and is not necessarily the most effective avenue of complaint. Residents can raise concerns about councils with any councillor, with general managers, with duty members of the Legislative Council, with Federal members, with government departments and with independent authorities. Serious complaints about corruption, maladministration or discrimination should go to the Ombudsman or to the Independent Commission Against Corruption. What a pathetic reason that is.

The Government talks about time conflicts. I am expecting a line-up of eager-to-please, dual-role government backbenchers who will claim that it is too hard to do both roles. But the time demands are comparable to members of Parliament who are also Ministers. Yet for a member who is also a councillor there are more synergies—working on the same issues for the same people. In terms of attendance, the major parties have institutionalised absenteeism from Parliament by creating the pairs system on a no-questions-asked basis. The system is not available to Independents and smaller parties. I believe strongly that we are not elected to this place to attend and put up our hands at the right time; we are here to get outcomes for our community. I am happy for my record to be judged against that of any other backbench member. Last year I spoke 53 times—more than all but eight Coalition members. On average, I made one private member's statement every week—the Premier did not make any. I asked 104 written questions, which is more than the number of questions asked by all 69 Coalition members combined. I also introduced three private member's bills—more than any non-Government member—and one is already law.

Another argument the Minister for Local Government puts is that the bill is about bringing New South Wales into line with other States. Will the Government follow the lead of the other States by abolishing the upper House, introducing container deposit legislation, offering public transport concessions to international students or increasing public dental care funding? When have we heard in this House that we must have legislation so we are in accord with all the other States? Never—not in 24 years—have I heard that. Furthermore, this legislation differs fundamentally from dual-roles laws elsewhere. Unlike in other States, under this legislation councillors elected to New South Wales Parliament will be able to see out their term on councils until the next local government election. Their dual roles will continue for almost half their parliamentary term.

But State members elected to local government will not have the same option to see out their parliamentary term and will have to resign prior to the first council meeting. You can bet that by-election will not be paid for by the Coalition. It will be paid for by the taxpayers, who have already elected their member to serve that four-year term. How unfair is that and how politically targeted? All major parties regularly endorse councillors as State candidates and voters regularly endorse dual roles. The 2011 State election results demonstrate the public's support for this, with 29 councillors—including 11 mayors—elected to Parliament. In my case, the Sydney community has endorsed me as its Lord Mayor and member of Parliament in all four elections since March 2004. In the 2008 council elections I was re-elected with a primary vote of more than 56 per cent and a preferred vote of 72 per cent. Similarly, voters have twice re-elected me as their member of Parliament while I have been serving as Lord Mayor, in 2007 and 2011. This is a rigorous endorsement by the people.

I donate my lord mayoral salary to charity—over $1 million has funded projects to help disadvantaged people, promote animal welfare, and community and environmental initiatives over the past eight years. I believe the primary role of a member of Parliament and a councillor is to represent the interests of the community. Serving in both roles encourages more effective representation where a councillor can directly take problems identified at the grassroots level to State decision-makers in Parliament or force votes on important issues. I have served largely the same people at both levels since 2004 and the synergies between the two roles have enabled me to be more effective. There is a large overlap in my constituencies. In Parliament I also represent city communities that are not in my State seat, whether they are Green Square, Erskineville, Glebe or Redfern. Changes to the liquor laws allowing small bars, giving powers to local government to prevent residential streets turning into car saleyards, achieving a liquor licence freeze on inner-city hot spots to reduce violence, calling for integrated transport planning and strata and boarding house reform demonstrate the confluence between my two roles.

The city of Sydney as Australia's only global city benefits from State-city cooperation. This cooperation is critical on issues ranging from urban policy, planning, commerce, development, transport, tourism and culture, and shared social programs. There are substantial benefits for the city and the State from having the Lord Mayor in Parliament. With almost eight years' experience in both roles, I have found that there are many opportunities to work with Ministers for the mutual benefit of the city and the State, with a flow-on to people and communities. It is up to the local communities at the ballot box to decide whether to terminate an individual's service, not the Government's fiat using its majority in the lower House—and, if it goes through, it will receive the support of the Shooters and Fisher's Party and Fred Nile in the upper House.

Despite a massive swing to the Coalition at the State election in 2011, the Sydney electorate again voted me back to represent them in this Parliament. This bill is an attempt to secure an outcome that the Government could not achieve democratically. The most important thing in a democracy is to let the will of the voters prevail. Many people in my constituency are rightly angered by what is happening here today, and have contacted me. I will refer to a few of those messages.

Keith Johnson says:

Electors must be allowed to make up their own minds on who should represent them and politicians, in particular, should not set themselves up as gatekeepers to determine who should be a politician.

Noel said:

In a democracy we have the right to elect whomsoever we choose to represent us, provided they do not have a criminal background. If we think a person who is a local mayor and as well as the local member is the best person to fulfil both those roles, we should have the right to express that at the ballot box and not have this right denied us by government legislation.

Maurice Thibaux said:

In a democracy, it is up to the people to decide who they want to represent them. We cannot afford having second-best by default simply because one party in power cannot beat the best candidate. The voters would not stand for it.

The Government promised openness and accountability and to get on with the urgent State building it was elected to do. What we are getting is secrecy, media-driven policy and political payback. I believe this is outrageous, and I condemn the bill. It is the worst bill I have seen in 24 years.

For the full debate on this Bill, click HERE to visit the NSW Parliament website.