Local Government Amendment ( COVD-19-Elections Special Provisions)Bill 2021

On behalf of the Labor Opposition I am delighted to speak in debate on the Local Government Amendment (COVID-19—Elections Special Provisions) Bill 2021. The Opposition will not oppose the bill. Local government elections in this State are so very important. Particularly during this time of pandemic, it is important to ensure the public safety of voters, volunteers, staff and community. I note that it has taken the Government over 20 months to come up with a plan and adequately fund a framework to have COVID-safe elections, but I am delighted that we are here now to get this done in a manner that ensures public safety and the democratic right of community members to vote without prejudice.

Following the continued pressure of the New South Wales Opposition, members know that the Government proposes to increase funding for the NSW Electoral Commission by $29.1 million to ensure that COVID‑safe local government elections will be held on 4 December 2021. Accordingly, the Government has given an undertaking that councils will incur costs for the elections based only on the projected expense as if the elections proceeded in September 2020. Any additional costs will be shouldered by the Government and rightly so, in light of what I previously stated: The Government has simply left it too long.

The bill proposes to insert additional provisions under new section 747C of the Local Government Act 1993 as follows. First, the regulations may modify provisions of the Act in relation to the election of councillors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Secondly, the regulation is to provide additional mechanisms by which elections may be conducted in response to the public health emergency, which are only to be enlivened in accordance with advice from the Electoral Commissioner to that effect and in line with what is a reasonable response to protect the health, safety and welfare of the community as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thirdly, regulations made under this new section are not limited to the regulation-making power of the Act and may override provisions. However, regulations enacted under this new section must not enable the exclusive use of postal voting or iVoting for the purposes of the local government elections on 4 December.

Such amendments appear necessary to allow flexibility for the Electoral Commissioner to do their job. Should the elections within a local government area be threatened by a COVID-19 outbreak and the implementation of stay-at-home orders, people still deserve to exercise their democratic right to vote for their local representatives in their local government area. The Opposition understands that those provisions are required for the public health and safety of communities but also to ensure that people are simply not put at risk during a unique time. As I stated, the Government has had ample time to do so and has failed, but we are here now.

I acknowledge all of the councils that have played a vital role in their communities during this pandemic, not only providing day-to-day services to their communities but also essential support services such as Meals on Wheels, seniors support programs, disability support programs and domestic violence committees. Sadly during the pandemic we have seen the need for these services increase in each and every community. The effect of COVID-19 has reached local businesses, families and community organisations. I call the Government out for the absence of adequate funding for local councils. Stimulus investment could have gone into local community projects and employment requirements for local workers in our local councils. We know that local councils do it best in local communities. That is why we support adequate funding and economic stimulus for councils to get on with the job that they do best. We know that councils were exempt from JobKeeper. Councils around the State—particularly in the 12 local government areas—are losing up to and beyond $800,000 a month in revenue. which will have an effect on local councils and the services they must provide for their communities. Devastatingly, it will affect many local families during a time of desperate need.

I draw the attention of the House to the 12 local government areas in west and south-west Sydney where the Government took an inconsistent approach to isolate councils and place them under a microscope. A tale of two cities has been spoken about a lot. I draw the attention of the House to the Premier's comments and his track record in western Sydney and south-west Sydney, which is best described as fast. When I say "fast" I am referring to the fact he could not get out of western Sydney and his former electorate quickly enough to travel to the leafy, greener pastures in the northern suburbs of Sydney. I note the new Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Minister for Western Sydney and member for Penrith said the other day, "I can hear this concept of division, the propagating of a tale of two cities. I have not seen that once".

I do not know where he has been, because he and his Government made decisions in his electorate that actually segregated suburbs. It infuriated his local community. It infuriated people in west and south-west Sydney. While we were locked away we watched others on TV enjoying luxuries as an outcome of the Government's inconsistent approach. I want to be very clear: We take nothing away from anyone who would like to have and were having a good time. That is fantastic. All we ask in west and south-west Sydney is that we are treated the same way, but that simply was not the case.

Financial hardship has brought many challenges to local families, businesses and councils, which is reflected in the serious rise of mental health issues that people have been navigating. The elections must go ahead. They have been delayed and the uncertainty has been prolonged because this Government has not provided them with certainty. That is why we find ourselves here today, at the eleventh hour, making these amendments to ensure that the elections go ahead, and that they go ahead safely to ensure that local communities have their say by voting for their local councillors.

I reiterate that the regulation in this bill must not enable an election to be conducted exclusively by means of postal voting, or postal voting and the iVote process. We have sustained a position on this side of the House against mandatory universal postal voting and remain seriously concerned about the integrity of the iVote process. We will continue to pursue those matters. There is an expectation on this side of the House that the provisions proposed today, together with subsequent amendments, will not obstruct volunteers or campaigners, and will not stop people from voting freely. We do not want volunteers to have to stay 100 metres away from the polling booth or any other prohibitions that will reduce the opportunity for people to cast their vote in an informed and democratic way. We do not have any expectation that the Government will use these provisions for that purpose. I have discussed this with the Government and they have stated that is not the case. The Government has stated this is for emergency situations and to put funding in place to ensure that communities can go and vote for their local representatives in a safe manner during a pandemic.

When the Government introduced the first draft of this bill Labor said it would not support it. The Government asked why, in what circumstances would we support it and what are our concerns? We told the Government and they made amendments, which is why Labor does not oppose the bill at this time. I thank everyone who has worked progressively towards this bill. I thank my colleagues for their feedback and their continued strong advocacy for the local government sector. We know that it is only New South Wales Labor that understands the importance of democratic elections for these local councils. It is not just for the 12 local government areas of concern, but for every community across the State. The Labor Opposition does not oppose the bill.

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