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Wednesday, 12 October 1983
Page: 1677

Mr BRAITHWAITE(6.44) —I support the States (Works and Housing) Assistance Bill and the Northern Territory Grant (Special Assistance) Bill but I shall relate my first comments to the States (Works and Housing) Assistance Bill . This Bill has two main purposes. The first purpose is to authorise interest free capital grants amounting to $489,667 to the States as part of the 1983-84 Loan Council programs agreed at this year's Loan Council meeting. The second purpose is to provide for payment to the States and Territories from Loan Council programs additional amounts for public housing as nominated by the States under concessional loan terms. Interest free capital grants are provided in accordance with arrangements agreed at the June 1970 Premiers Conference. The grants are made in lieu of loan raisings, thereby relieving the States of interest charges. These grants represent one-third of the total Loan Council programs for 1983-84. The concessional loans provided for public housing nominated by the States as part of their approved borrowing programs provide an incentive for increased spending on public housing. I believe this has our concurrence.

I note that this provision in the Bill will authorise funds in addition to those already provided under the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement for public housing. Direct funding has already increased by 50 per cent to $500m. The Opposition questions the need for the increase. It could be claimed that the increase is overgenerous and that a combination of the concessional housing loans and the payments under the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement represent a substantial transfer of resources form the private sector to the public sector . This transfer occurs against the background of a removal of the tax rebates provided for home buyers by the Fraser Government. I am led to understand that it was promised by the Government when in Opposition that nothing would be done to those rebates, but that amounts to another broken promise.

The general attack on the Loan Council and the Premiers Conference for being overgenerous to the States is another one of the matters we question. Whilst there has been an overgenerous application to the Sates-I understand that increase overall was about 11.8 per cent, well in excess of the consumer price index figure of 11.2 per cent-the same generosity has not been extended to local government. In fact, in comparison we might say that local government has received very shabby treatment in that its increase, compared with 11.8 per cent , was 8.2 per cent, 3 per cent below real values.

I know that local government feels this loss of general grants quite drastically even though the Minister states that there have been specific grants . The onus is on local government to bear up to 30 per cent-sometimes more, sometimes less-of the cost of some of those projects. Certainly that is the case with the community employment program and the roads program. I question the generosity to the States when local government general purpose grants have been decreased and local government authorities are being called upon to raise additional funds by way of rates or by some other method to fund the 30 per cent of programs initiated by the Commonwealth. In that regard local governments also question the additional oversight placed on them by a centralist government. I believe that the Government is more centralist and that more power is given to Canberra because of the specific nature of some of these grants. I also question what will happen to local government in future years. Perhaps next year this Government will be as generous to local government as it was in the Loan Council . Local governments fear that that decrease in real terms might be continued next year. This is in spite of an undertaking by the Labor Government that the real value of that general purpose grant would be maintained. There is a concern in local government that this undertaking is not being met. Apart from the 30 per cent I mentioned before, local government is also faced with an increase of about 10 per cent in the CPI.

Mr Reeves —It is 7.5 per cent.

Mr BRAITHWAITE —I am glad the honourable member interjected. The figure is 7.5 per cent. It has been artificially reduced by the influence of the Medibank levy . It is 1.5 per cent this year and it will be 1.5 per cent next year; so we will get 10 per cent. It was a helpful interjection because the honourable member, as a member of the Australian Labor Party, might realise that by applying only a 7. 5 per cent increase next year the Government will pay less than the actual real increase in costs that local government will have to bear. I repeat: The real cost of maintaining local government expenditure next year will be closer to 10 per cent than the 7.5 per cent which the honourable member mentioned. Perhaps it could be said that the Government could have been a lot tougher in its approach. It is a matter of restrained rhetoric not matching the outcome. It has been said -this is a fact with which I can agree to a certain extent-that the generosity to the States was caused by the imminence of the Queensland election and the favourable result that might be achieved by appearing to be generous. However, the Government certainly was not generous to local government.

Total non-capital payments to the States will increase by 16.1 per cent in 1983 -84 and there will be a 15.4 per cent increase in the larger, semi-government, non-electricity borrowing program. I repeat the warnings about interest rate pressures arising from the increase in these payments and borrowings. I believe that this is a very slender thread upon which to place the Budget and that, because of these increase in payments and borrowings, containing interest rates to an appropriate level will be very difficult indeed. Of course, if they are not contained, the people who will pay will once again be those who are borrowing in the market place. Local government and the States will be paying interest rates higher than necessarily would have been the case. While not opposing this Bill, the Opposition questions the priority given to public housing and the extent of the increase in State funds authorised by the States ( Works and Housing) Assistance Bill.

I turn to the second area of concern; that is, the Northern Territory Grant ( Special Assistance) Bill 1983. This special grant of $16.9 billion is the result of an arrangement between the Northern Territory and the Commonwealth based on the memorandum of understanding agreed between the two governments in 1978, just one year after self-government in the Territory, and of the Commonwealth Grants Commission's 1983 report on special assistance to the Northern Territory. I refer to Budget Paper No. 7, particularly pages 76 and 77, which sets out the general and specific purpose grants for recurrent and capital purposes made to the Northen Territory. Total payments for the four years up to 1982-83, with the estimate for 1983-84, indicate an increase in Commonwealth grants to the Northern Territory from $439m to $842m, or approximately 92 per cent. For 1983- 84 general purpose capital funds comprise just over 71 per cent of the total payments. I point out that this is actually a decline of approximately 5 per cent on the payment for 1982-83. I believe this is ample evidence that the Labor Party, true to its centralist principles and philosophy, is actually placing greater conditions and restrictions on payments to the Northern Territory. This contrasts with the attitude of the previous Government, the Fraser Government, which was to give more freedom and latitude to the Northern Territory Government to have those funds as general purpose grants and not to have them specifically applied. I believe the Northern Territory responded to that trust and confidence that we gave it when we were in government and has set its mark very soundly in its pioneering, self-government role. I pay tribute to the members of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly for the role they have played in bringing the Territory through this self-government phase in 1977 to where it is now.

By necessity, the Commonwealth is obliged to give assistance to the Northern Territory until such time as the natural resources of the Territory are brought on line. Of course, one must talk of the Territory not only in terms of its natural resources including its great deposits of high grade uranium and other minerals but also in terms of its opportunities for tourism and travel and its primary and secondary industries. These can be developed only by sympathetic assistance and with an appreciation by other citizens of Australia of the Northern Territory's requirements. I have noted, therefore, with interest the remarks by the Labor Government that the Northern Territory is being funded very generously. In that regard I think we need only refer to the mini-Budget. On the night that was brought down the Treasurer (Mr Keating) said:

Commonwealth assistance to the Northern Territory is very generous. In 1982-83, total per capita payments to the Northern Territory will be about $5,600-about five times the average level of per capita payments to the six States.

I find it rather interesting that the attitude that the Treasurer and the Labor Party obviously take is to claim that the Northern Territory is being funded generously by the Commonwealth. Of course, the inference is that the Northern Territory and its people are getting too much, particularly in comparison with the rest of the States. This inference, of course, is taken further. I refer to table 50 on page 78 of Budget Paper No. 7 which shows a comparison of general and specific grants made to the Territory per head of population. I understand that Federal Labor Ministers and members point to this statistic with some horror in that the grants are greater than those made to Tasmania. Furthermore, having glanced through Budget Paper No. 7, I have not actually seen where grants to the six States have been singled out in such a fashion for special mention on a per capita basis. It looks as though it has been done deliberately in respect of the Northern Territory in an attempt to highlight the Commonwealth's generosity to the Northern Territory in previous years.

I believe the real lesson has not sunk into members of the Labor Party: The Northern Territory is the developing region of Australia, having been denied that development for decades under direct administration by the Commonwealth in Canberra. Even the honourable member for the Northern Territory (Mr Reeves) fails to appreciate the growth and development potential of his own electorate. In a speech to the House last week on 6 October he said, among quite a few things, that the waste problem in connection with uranium and other such matters had not been properly addressed. I go further to say that the Labor Government has not really given a lead to the Territory in any sense as far as uranium is concerned because it does not appear to have a uranium policy.

Mr Reeves —That is more than you have.

Mr BRAITHWAITE —We have a very definite policy on uranium; there is no doubt about that at all. Yesterday honourable members opposite addressed the uranium rally outside Parliament House in terms quite contrary to the theme being put across the table. The absence of a policy from the Labor Party means that the potential for uranium mining in the Northern Territory is being torpedoed. I think that could be said with certainty. There appears little doubt that potential major export earners for Australia-Koongarra, Honeymoon, Beverley and other deposits-are at great risk and cannot proceed while impediments are placed in their way by this Government. This is just another way in which the Government makes it seem as though the Northern Territory has been generously treated by the Commonwealth while it will not allow exploitation of resources in the Territory. While the Government bumbles along without a uranium policy the Territory's own member is critical of the attitude of the Northern Territory, calling it selfish and self-indulgent. I think it is the absolute in hypocrisy for the honourable member who professes to represent the Territory to make that type of criticism. In his speech last week he mentioned the generosity of his Government while he criticised the Northern Territory Government for the really splendid Budget brought down by Minister Perron. This was confirmed in the 1983- 84 Budget. We hear carping criticism of the Northern Territory Government from the honourable member who is supposed to repesent the Territory. One might say that he has become an apologist for his Canberra masters in the Territory that he is supposed to represent.

Mr Hunt —Does he want the Darwin-Alice Springs railway?

Mr BRAITHWAITE —I think that is a very important matter. Where has he shown his real concern about the Alice Springs-Darwin railway? He said not a great deal about that, and he must really know what the situation is there.

Mr Reeves —You have never visited the Territory in all the years you have been here.

Mr BRAITHWAITE —I have so. I have been to places in the Territory where the honourable member has not been. He is again an apologist in the chamber for a project that was torpedoed by the Minister for Transport (Mr Peter Morris) who gave an assurance after the election that nothing in that respect would be done by the Labor Government.

Mr Reeves —Your spokesman on transport was in here last week saying we should not spend $5m on it.

Mr BRAITHWAITE —I notice that the honourable member is getting very twitchy about this. It is on record that he is an apologist in his own electorate for the Labor Party. What short- sighted thinking this is. The railway has just been completed from Port Augusta to Alice Springs. The natural consequence and the value of that railway would flow through the full length of the Territory. The fact that the Government has clamped down on this capital expenditure or public works program is short sighted in regard to the opportunities not only for the immediate employment of labour, but also for the labour that could be employed in the declining steel industry throughout Australia. Of course, one must ascertain the long term employment effects that flow from projects such as this. As I say, the Northern Teritorians would be asking questions in connection with this decision. Again, in spite of election promises and commitments made as late as April, the rail link has been torpedoed. In reply to my submission on the review of the railway decision, the Minister said that it was a matter of priorities and sacrifice. Until the Labor Party gets its priorities right and spends in advance of expectations of revenue from natural resources, the Northern Territory will wither. It will be small consolation that the present member for the Northern Territory, who interjects so frequently, as a 'oncer' will lose his seat in the next election, or that the Northern Territory Country Liberal Party Government will be returned, if the proper development of the Northern Territory is frustrated and delayed by this Labor Government in Canberra.

Let us look at the extra costs contained in the mini-Budget with regard to the Territory, particularly in aviation charges, charter aircraft, the extra price for fuel-again, after the promise that it would not be increased in the August Budget-and the lessening relief for high fuel and freight charges in the Northern Territory. All of these are broken promises for which this Labor Government will be called to answer in the next election, particularly in the Territory. Thank goodness the Territory still has the services of Senator Kilgariff, who has fought in and out of government for the Territory's rights for many years. People of the Northern Territory must often look across the border, see the programs and development going on in Queensland and realise that , given the opportunities and incentive, they could do the same; yet they are being frustrated.

Commonwealth assistance offered to the Northern Territory is not news. For instance, the Commonwealth has this year and for many years assisted Papua New Guinea towards achieving full independence. This year it is underwriting by way of the Budget a figure of $303m for 1983-84. Expenditure by the Commonwealth for this assistance this year, which I mentioned earlier, is in the vicinity of $ 700m or $800m. So perhaps the treatment that we extend to Papua New Guinea- bearing in mind that I agree with the principle of helping it achieve full independence-should also be extended to the Northern Territory.

The Commonwealth must realise that financial assistance given by way of this Bill, through open grants, for underwriting power, or for capital constructions of rail, road or powerhouses and airports, means that in time the Teritory will reduce its dependency on the 85 per cent of funds that it receives from the Commonwealth at the moment. Not only should the Commonwealth be maintaining its funding; it should be making clear and definite policies on uranium mining, land rights, development and assistance to get more tourists and commercial flights through the Australian front door of Darwin. It is absolutely essential that the Commonwealth should assist in this way.

I assure the Government that Territorians are not, as one honourable member described the members of the Legislative Assembly, whingers, selfish and self- indulgent. I assure this House that those people have a vision to become independent so that they can provide Australia with the development of its many resources. They have a vision in which Territorians granted statehood will stand in their own right on their own two feet. As I say, the Opposition will not oppose the Northern Territory Grant (Special Assistance) Bill because it is part of the memorandum of agreement which was entered into by the Fraser Government in 1978. We support both of the Bills.