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Broader role for local government

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 3 Jul 2012

Adjournemnt speech - 26 June 2012

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (23:47): by leave—There is a view that one hears from time to time that local government should remain the domain of rates, rubbish bins and gutters, and that there is no role for council staff or elected councillors to play in the broader affairs of state and federal government. Yet many councils show their support for a wide range of state and federal issues through very diverse means, and in doing so make a genuine contribution to improving people's wellbeing and enhancing and informing public debate.

One recent example of this is local councils showing their support for refugees. Last week was Refugee Week, with World Refugee Day held on 20 June. I learnt that there are around 75 local government areas across Australia that the Refugee Council of Australia recognises as Refugee Welcome Zones. There are 35 alone in New South Wales. I am proud that many of those councils have an elected Greens councillor who gave their support to the proposition. Rockdale council, in southern Sydney, is one such council. Lesa de Leau, a member of my staff, also serves as a councillor on Rockdale council. Last week Lesa was called on to give the opening address to launch the Refugee Week events jointly hosted by three adjoining councils in the St George district of Sydney—Rockdale, Kogarah and Hurstville councils—who worked collaboratively to commemorate and celebrate their support for refugees living in their communities.

On her way to the event Lesa heard the tragic news break on the radio that a boat carrying asylum seekers had capsized near Christmas Island, resulting in a terrible loss of life. She had to break the news to the waiting crowd, which was extremely upsetting for everyone, as you would imagine. Their shared grief served to strengthen their commitment to the value of coming together to mark Refugee Week.

There is a tremendous level of community goodwill and concern for refugees. It is fantastic that local councils take it upon themselves to reflect that concern and to show leadership to their residents by working in various ways to make refugees feel welcome and to assist them in their daily lives. I understand that Rockdale council works with several government agencies and NGOs to assist with communications, provide advocacy and ensure that refugees receive adequate services. At the moment Rockdale council has an increasing number of refugees from Bangladesh. The council organises a monthly English language circle, encouraging those refugees to come together to practise their English language skills and network with other people from both their first language community and the wider community at large. Their work is just one example of how dozens of councils are making a real difference by improving the lives of refugees and fostering understanding and acceptance.

Another topical issue that brings a federal focus to local government is when councils sign on to become nuclear-free zones. Some people may have thought that nuclear-free zones would become obsolete, but they are as pertinent today as they were when the nuclear disarmament movement was at its peak. There are still many nuclear issues on the environmental front which directly impact on local government and its residents, such as a national repository for radioactive waste, nuclear reprocessing facilities, the expansion of uranium mining and the transport and export of radioactive waste. The Fukushima disaster once again brought home to people across the world that nuclear technology is not, and never was, safe. European countries are closing down their nuclear power plants, along with Canada and the US, as those countries invest in expanding safe and clean renewable energy.

At home, the events at Fukushima have coloured the federal government's unwavering support for uranium mining and federal government plans to build a nuclear waste dump at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory, a plan without the support or consent of the Aboriginal people who are the traditional owners of that land. The New South Wales coalition government will no doubt add its weight to the proposal by agreeing to the transport of nuclear waste from the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in southern Sydney to the Northern Territory. In 2009 the New South Wales government transported nuclear materials from Lucas Heights through Sydney's southern suburbs to the Illawarra's Port Kembla for export in an operation whose details were shielded from the locals, causing community outrage.

New South Wales coalition leader Barry O'Farrell also placed the issue of uranium mining back on the agenda last year when he approved the resumption of granting uranium exploration licences in New South Wales, overturning the state's 26-year uranium ban. That move further invigorated antinuclear sentiment in a state that knows too well from its experience of the burgeoning coal industry that exploration is merely the first stage of full-scale mining.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the anti-nuclear movement in Australia was at its peak, drawing more than 50,000 marchers to demonstrations. I took part in many of those marches and I imagine there were others in this parliament who also did. I still commemorate Hiroshima Day each August. I find it quite extraordinary to reflect on what happened on that day so many years ago. In 1977, the City of Collingwood in Melbourne became the first Australian council area to make a declaration that it would be a nuclear-free zone. This local initiative soon morphed into an Australia-wide and global movement to create nuclear-free zones in local areas. Today, around 90 local government areas across Australia have signed on to the Australian Nuclear Free Zones Secretariat.

There are no easy solutions to Australia's production of radioactive waste and its long-term safe storage, transport and management. We should never have produced it and any solution to manage it must be pursued through a transparent, deliberative, consensual, science based and evidence based approach. The Greens support a decision-making role for councils in the debate over whether nuclear waste should be transported within their local government area. It is another example of the important role that councils can play to influence national issues. There are many more.

Many Greens councillors have gained the support of their councils to endorse national sustainability measures, such as backing federal container deposit legislation. They encourage their councils to switch to using fair trade products in council—to help tackle poverty and create a better future for farmers in developing countries. They introduce climate change adaption measures—from large-scale initiatives, such as Byron Shire's climate change strategy, to more modest measures, such as installing tidal markers in Leichhardt council's harbourside areas.

I congratulate councillors and councils for their hard work and commitment to influencing decisions at all levels of government to get a better deal for their citizens and I congratulate them on the diverse range of their achievements. The Greens have a long history of representation in local government in most states. There have been Greens on councils ever since the first Greens were elected in 1991 to Marrickville Council and to the Newcastle council. There are currently more than 100 Greens councillors in Australia and more than half are women. Greens mayors have led local councils at Byron, Marrickville, Leichhardt, Randwick, Ashfield, Fremantle, Yarra and Maribyrnong.

I always encourage people to participate in local government. The potential for innovative local government actions on behalf of communities is considerable. I am proud of the contribution the more than 100 local Greens councillors across the country are making to raising concerns on refugees, to creating nuclear-free zones and in many other positive and constructive areas.


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