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Thursday, 25 August 1983
Page: 342


Mr GRIFFITHS(9.47) —Mr Deputy Speaker, I take this opportunity to offer to you my somewhat belated congratulations on your election to the office of Deputy Speaker. I would be pleased if you would convey my congratulations to Mr Speaker on his election to that high office. At the outset I make a brief comment in terms of the attitude of some honourable members opposite to the conventions of this House. They have been reminded on a number of occasions this evening that when a maiden speech is being made it is most improper, in terms of those conventions, to interject. I can safely say that so far there have been continuous interjections during the previous two maiden speeches. I hope they have a higher regard for convention during my time in this place, than they have shown for many years.

History was made when during this Parliament and for the first time since Federation a woman presided over this House. Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask you to pass on my congratulations to our colleague the honourable member for Henty (Mrs Child) for setting a fine example not only to the women of Australia but to the people of Australia. On behalf of my Party, the Australian Labor Party, and the electors of Maribyrnong I also pay tribute to my predecessor in this House, the former member for Maribyrnong, Dr Moss Cass. As the member from 1969 to 1983 Dr Cass served in the Whitlam Government as Minister for the Environment and Conservation, Minister for the Environment when his ministry was restructured and, subsequently, as Minister for the Media. Dr Cass is held in high esteem for his sense of compassion. I certainly wish him well in his future endeavours. I record my personal appreciation to my family and certainly to my friends in the Australian Labor Party and the trade union movement, of which I have been a long time member and a very strong supporter. I thank them for giving me the opportunity to hold this position of trust, if I may put it that way. The obligation is mine to further our shared objectives in the future.

I must take this opportunity to pay tribute also to two very well known Australians who, perhaps more than any other contemporary Australians, provided me with the motivation and inspiration that eventually brought me to this House. Those people are the New South Wales Premier, the Hon. N. K. Wran, and the former Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon. E. G. Whitlam. First, let me place on record my appreciation of the person whom history will regard as the single most important catalyst for the post-1975 renaissance of the Australian Labor Party. I speak, of course, of the Premier of New South Wales, Neville Wran. He is a man of great personal, probity and exceptional ability, with whom I have had the very high honour of working. I thank him for the opportunities he has extended to me in the past.

Secondly, and somewhat circuitously, I place on record my gratitude to another giant of the Australian Labor Party, E. G. Whitlam and, through him, to the Labor Government of 1972-75. The former honourable member for Werriwa came into this House shortly after I was born in late 1952. No doubt my fate concerned him little at that time but he was certainly soon to have a significant impact on my life. To the best of my recollection, it was the requirement to register for national service in 1971 that began the politicisation of the current member for Maribyrnong. Rather than canvass the merits of that particular issue, Mr Deputy Speaker, let me assert that there would be very few people indeed who would not now concede the moral bankruptcy and the strategic futility of our involvement in that war. The Labor Party, to its very great credit, acted swiftly to end that sorry involvement. Vietnam was of itself a necessary, although not sufficient, catalyst to my involvement in the political process. The major factor was my response to the sacking of the Whitlam Labor Government on 11 November 1975.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Whitlam changed very much the nature of the Australian Labor Party. However, he still inherited leadership of a fairly demoralised party, a party that had long since forgotten the taste of political power. His greatest contribution to the Australian people was his part in the long haul to bring his party to the position where it offered a credible and preferred alternative to a tired conservative coalition. Having achieved office, Whitlam's approach was a political program based upon the central tenet of equality of opportunity. His great initiatives in housing, education, social welfare, transport and urban and regional development, law reform and so on were all predicated on the great underlying objective of giving all Australians what might colloquially be referred to as a 'fair go'. It was a vision that invited and, indeed, received, the full force of a backlash from the privileged and powerful in our society.

Mr Deputy Speaker, like most Australians, I benefited from Whitlam's vision in the areas that I have outlined. However, I particularly benefited from his policies in terms of education. Family circumstances did not avail me the opportunity of more than a very basic secondary education and certainly tertiary education was simply not a realistic goal. Whitlam's initiatives in abolishing tertiary fees and implementing the tertiary education assistance scheme, combined with the initiative of educators at Monash University in establishing a special entry scheme for those who had not completed formal secondary education, allowed me a much appreciated opportunity of further education. It was an opportunity that for me, as for so many others, lifted the veil of frustration that so often accompanies a degree of educational or social disadvantage. It was an opportunity for which I will forever be indebted to Whitlam and the Labor Government from 1972-75-a government, I am bound to say, the sabotage and dismissal of which still fills me with a sense of some outrage.

The major issues of nuclear disarmament, the economic crisis with its resulting unemployment and consequent misery, the continuing failure of our economic system to provide adequate food and shelter for many Australians and a range of other issues have been addressed by the many maiden speakers on this side of the House who have preceded me. One issue that has not so far been addressed and upon which I wish to comment is the failure of taxation policy as a redistributive tool at the revenue, rather than the expenditure, end. The Treasurer (Mr Keating) in his Budget Speech on Tuesday, indicated that certain measures announced represented a start to, rather than a fulfillment of, the Government's tax reform objectives. There has been much debate about our taxation system. It is often said that Australia is a high tax country. It is worth noting in this context that Australia has a relatively low level of overall taxation by comparison with other countries within the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development. In terms of total tax revenue as a percentage of gross domestic product, Australia went to 16 among the 23 OECD countries during 1981. Of similar importance to the overall quantum of taxation revenues is the redistributive impact of particular taxation measures in terms of both vertical and horizontal equity considerations; that is, how the money is collected can be as important a consideration as how it is spent.

As a redistributive mechanism, our current taxation system has failed the lower income earners in our society. The progressive aspects of personal income tax have largely been cancelled by the increasing use of regressive indirect taxes. Since World War II, the Commonwealth has dominated revenue raising in this country. Today it raises approximately 80 per cent of the total tax revenue. When one compares the revenue raised with gross domestic product, the importance of taxation in terms of its potential for redistribution becomes apparent. Recent studies have shown that total taxation at all levels of government increased from some 23 per cent of GDP in 1964 to approximately 30 per cent of GDP in 1979. This dramatic increase is largely attributable to a steady increase in the relative importance of personal income taxation as a component of revenue . The relative contribution of company tax has declined steadily, as has the incidence of indirect taxation although, regrettably, the latter is once again finding favour with policy-makers.

A number of studies have confirmed the regressive impact of the total taxation system upon lower income earners whilst enabling a steady improvement in the relative position of higher income earners. The end result has been that a potentially useful tool for the redistribution of resources in our society has become almost totally ineffective for that purpose. In my view, we should not rely almost totally, as we now do, on the allocation of resources to bring about redistribution in our society. A whole range of reforms to our taxation system may be suggested to assist in the redistribution process from the revenue end. For example, lower single income earning families may be assisted by the provision of family income supplements; but, if policy-makers were of the view that the problem should be addressed in terms of taxation policy, the end result might well be achieved by providing for income splitting arrangements. Before any fundamental reappraisal of our taxation system can be made, it is, of course , important to have sufficient data upon which to base one's judgment. To this extent, and notwithstanding the conceptual and methodological difficulties involved, I believe it will be necessary to complete a comprehensive inquiry into wealth in Australia before any significant restructuring of our taxation system can be achieved.

The electorate of Maribyrnong comprises part of the western region of Melbourne . Whilst it certainly has its own character, many of the problems confronting the electorate are shared by other parts of the western region. In this context, many of its problems are best addressed on a regional rather than a more parochial basis. Like its sister region in Sydney, the western region of Melbourne cannot claim to have been accorded very high priority by past Federal governments. An exception to this rule was the period between 1972 and 1975 when , under a Labor Administration, the region benefited from an unprecedented level of Federal Government involvement. Programs such as the area improvement plan and the Australian assistance plan have had a lasting impact on the area. Whilst many physical changes are evident from this period a more important result of the Whitlam Government's initiatives has been their effect as a catalyst for a changed self-perception of residents within that region. The Labor programs encouraged and nurtured a philosophy of greater involvement by individuals and community organisations in the decision-making process. A decade later the region can boast a rich diversity of community organisations actively pursuing a better quality of life for its residents.

There is now a strong feeling of confidence in the great potential of this unique area of Australia. However, some residual cynicism remains about the desire of government to provide the west with a fair share of available resources. A report prepared as a result of the western suburbs planning and environment action program, an inintiative of the Victorian Cain Labor Government, found:

There is an essential pride, loyalty and commitment within the resident community, but little expectation exists that governments (Federal, State or local) can or will do anything to help improve its living conditions. In some cases there is considerable cynicism about the role and performance of government and its agencies.

I would submit that this cynicism is well placed. Our political process has acted as a positive disincentive to an equitable allocation of resources to the region. It is self-evident that the region has been relatively disadvantaged in terms of the disbursement of Federal and State government resources relative to other more politically sensitive areas. The socioeconomic profile of the region has led to the Labor Party dominating its political representation. Governments have deemed it unlikely that there would be any political return on the investment of resources pursuant to the politics of the pork barrel. An obvious temper to this highly political allocation of resources would be to legislate for multi-member electorates. However, I agree that the disadvantages of multi- member electorates can outweigh their one great advantage of creating marginal political seats across all regions. In the absence of multi-member electorates, the temptation by government to allocate resources on political rather than equity considerations will continue; nor is this temptation confined to conservative administrations.

If the region is to achieve its potential it is essential that the relatively unfettered role of political decision making be tempered by some form of independent assessment in the allocation of government resources. The Victorian Grants Commission may provide some useful ideas in terms of how this objective may be addressed. Of course, the Commission is responsible for the allocation of general revenue grants received by Victoria from the Federal Government under the income tax sharing legislation. In determining its allocations to particular municipalities, the Commission has regard to a set of principles encompassing criteria such as a general 'as of right' entitlement and, where necessary, further funding based upon fiscal equalisation criteria taking into account revenue raising needs and expenditure needs and disabilities. Accordingly, in coming to its determinations, the Commission uses needs or equity criteria as an important determinant when allocating resources. It would be interesting to imagine how these funds might have been allocated had the previous State Government had carriage of that responsibility. In my view it is more than likely that a more highly political allocation may have resulted. Certainly that would have been to the detriment of the western region municipalities.

The concept of an independent statutory body, analysing the disbursement of Federal and State government monies on a regional basis may provide an institutionalised disincentive to governments making allocations purely on the basis of political rather than equity considerations. For example, were such a body charged with the responsibility of analysing the equity or otherwise of particular patterns of disbursement and providing an annual report, governments would certainly take into account the political damage that might be occasioned by an adverse finding. Whilst I strongly hold the view that the western region will be offered a far better deal under Labor administrations, I believe that some such mechanism should be established so that the Government and the community can properly assess the desirability or otherwise of patterns of funding. I shall be recommending to the Government that such a body be established to carry out the role I have suggested.

I conclude by expressing my thanks to the constituents of Maribyrnong for giving me the honour of becoming the fifth member since Federation to represent Maribyrnong in this House. I thank the House for its indulgence.