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Tuesday, 30 May 2000
Page: 16584

Mr MARTIN (9:01 PM) —It is a great pleasure to speak tonight on the Local Government (Financial Assistance) Amendment Bill 2000 and, in particular, to speak to the raft of provisions in the amendment which the opposition has moved. Although not declining to give the bill a second reading, we have noted five specific issues, and I will touch on some of those on the way through. This legislation is going to fundamentally change the role of state governments in relation to local governments. There is no doubt about that.

I found it interesting to listen to my colleague and friend the member for Fairfax talking about constitutional recognition of local government. I remind him that the last effort of a national government for such constitutional recognition was in 1988, from memory. It was a constitutional amendment proposed by Attorney-General Lionel Bowen, and it did not succeed. It did not succeed not because, as was suggested by the honourable member for Fairfax, the states needed to in some way play a greater role in seeking recognition for local government but purely and simply because the then opposition, now the government—that is, the Liberal Party and the National Party—decided they would oppose it. That is why it did not succeed.

It is generally the fact that, if referenda are put to the people of Australia, sure as eggs they will not succeed if the major political parties are not singing from the same hymn sheet. They will not succeed unless all of the major parties are supportive of those referenda proposals, and that is why most recently we saw the obstructionist and dreadful tactics that the Prime Minister used in the referendum proposal on the change to the Constitution and the debate on the monarchy versus the republic. That is why we saw people on the government side, such as Peter Reith, saying that they were avowed republicans. They went out there and said, `We're not going to get sucked in to this model, but we really are republicans.' Until you get unanimity of purpose from the major political parties, you will not get constitutional change. You can argue the toss on that all you like, and I think the honourable member for Fairfax would recognise that the last attempt to get recognition for local government failed because the then opposition—now the government—said that they would not support what the then government—the Labor Party—were proposing.

This legislation does clarify the fact that the present Liberal federal government have been trying to absolve themselves from the responsibilities of local government funding since they were first elected in 1996. Despite all the breast beating, the platforms and the resolutions that we see during election campaigns from the Liberal and National parties, they saw quite obviously from day one an opportunity to cut funds for local government, to diminish the recognition that they so rightly deserve and to look at absolving themselves and passing the burden on, in a classic buck passing exercise, to state governments.

Nothing demonstrates this more concisely than the way in which this legislation is caught up with the implementation of the GST and how local government might approach that. Mr Deputy Speaker Hollis, I know you for one would be aware of this, because you and I share the city of Wollongong in our constituencies. I know you have had representations from Wollongong City Council, just as I have, about the way in which the GST might be implemented. I have been told by people in their finance department—and what they have said is fairly reflective of local governments in New South Wales and, I suspect, across Australia—that many of those councils are going to adopt a wait and see attitude in the implementation of the GST when it comes to local government services.

There is no doubt that, if there is going to be a diminution in services, there will naturally be a fairly strong outcry at local government level. People in the local government area of the city of Wollongong—and, indeed, in the city of Shellharbour, which you also so ably represent, Mr Deputy Speaker—will recognise that their services are being diminished because of the increased burden that is going to fall on local government in paying for those services. It will be not because they will get increased revenue from the GST but because the compliance costs and the burden that will fall on local government to administer this complex tax are going to make things very unpleasant for my constituents and your constituents. I do not care what the government says about complexity and how this was supposed to substitute a complex tax—that is, the wholesale sales tax—with a less complex tax in the GST. That is not the case. With all the exemptions the Treasurer is racing around making to every influence group that likes to knock on his door, it is more and more complex. The advice, therefore, that local government want to get from the Australian Taxation Office is clearly something that they believe is not based on the relative facts of the circumstances, and there are still a lot of uncertain areas associated with it.

The other issue that I think is rather important and should be remarked upon is the fact that the federal government is giving something like $2.5 million to local governments throughout the entire Australian nation to help with the implementation of the GST. That works out at about $2,000 per council. Wollongong City Council will take the $2,000, I am sure, but they will tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, as they have told me, that it will cost $150,000, if not more, to put the necessary computer equipment in just to handle the most basic elements associated with the application of the GST. So the $2,000 is not going to go too far. The $150,000 plus that they need to implement the GST compliance requirements certainly will not be met by those miserly funds. It is not me saying this; it is coming from local government associations and a whole range of councils right across Australia, and not just councils like Wollongong City Council, which of course is a Labor held council. A range of councils right around Australia are raising concerns about the imposition of the GST on them.

I think it is important to recognise that, whilst we have substantial local government areas, as is the city of Wollongong, we also have small local government areas around this nation. The impact will still be felt by them, and their capacity to respond to compliance and the burden of the GST on them is not going to be matched, as it might be in larger urban areas. I therefore find it quite galling and in fact rather appalling that at last count today the propaganda campaign launched by this government to sell the GST has cost something like $410 million. There will be $410 million worth of Joe Cocker ads on the TV and in the newspapers—everywhere you look—and $2.5 million will be split between every local government area in Australia to help them implement the GST proposal. That $410 million might have been better spent on roads in my electorate or better spent helping with flood mitigation works in my electorate—and indeed your electorate, Mr Deputy Speaker.

When those dreadful storms hit in August two years ago and affected our constituents and caused ruination in many of their lives, this Prime Minister came to Wollongong with a lot of tea and sympathy but not much else. What we have subsequently seen, and what we saw prior to the budgets of the last couple of years as well, is the federal government's contribution to flood mitigation programs around Australia being cut back. So from time to time electorates like mine in Wollongong are faced with major storms, as we had nearly two years ago, but when we seek to get Commonwealth assistance in those flood mitigation works, which I might say the Labor governments used to provide funds for, that assistance has disappeared. As a consequence, there is ruination in the lives of many people.

The expectation then is that, if the Commonwealth government is not going to pick up the assistance programs for that and do all the flood mitigation works, the local government will have to find the money. That expectation falls on councils. It is an unreal expectation, and it is no wonder that councils like Wollongong City Council are saying to their constituents, `We know you pay rates, and we know the GST is coming. We would like to have flood mitigation works carried out in places like Cabbage Tree Creek, Thirroul, Scarborough and those areas that were devastated in those storms of two years ago but, unfortunately, that is not going to happen because we have other things that we have to provide.'

Wouldn't it be terrific if some of the money in that $410 million campaign for Joe Cocker songs and for advertisements was being used on roads? I was watching the national news bulletin tonight on Win Television and, during the ad break between the sport and the weather, in three out of the five ads Joe Cocker was singing at me and chains were being flung around all over the lounge room. Are you going to tell me that is the way a message is being delivered in an information campaign? It is propaganda—nothing less than propaganda. I would not mind a little bit of that $410 million in Wollongong for my local government area, for the city of Wollongong. I would not mind a little bit of that $410 million on some of the road works that are crying out to be done.

Let me give you a few examples. As a matter of fact, Mr Deputy Speaker, I could actually give a few examples from your electorate as well on the way through, since we share that great city of Wollongong. I have here some of the traffic facilities required within the city of Wollongong. First, I go to intersection improvements in Wollongong itself. It will cost an estimated $200,000 to fix the major intersection of Corrimal Street and Campbell Street, which is a black spot; $200,000 for Corrimal Street, Gipps Road and George Place; and $350,000 for Denison Street and Crown Street for traffic signals and some land acquisition.

At Fairy Meadow, the intersection improvement at Carters Lane and Pioneer Road—which is just down the road from my place—will cost $250,000. At Bulli, the intersection of Point Street and Princes Highway is a major trouble spot, as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker. In fact, they have just installed fixed speed cameras down the road from there because it is a major trouble spot. I am sure that, if the intersection improvements of $180,000 could be undertaken by Wollongong City Council, that would add to safety provisions in the city of Wollongong and help to save lives.

At Woonona, an estimated $300,000 is needed for improvements to and possible traffic signals at the intersection of Princes Highway, Campbell Street, Ball Street and Popes Road. Funds of $200,000 are needed at Campbell Street and Thompson Street for intersection improvements, and on it goes. At Thirroul, at the intersection of Lawrence Hargrave Drive and Church Street, bridge widening is needed. The estimated cost at this stage is unknown, but those things do not come cheap, particularly out around Thirroul where the major storms of two years ago had the devastating effect that I have already referred to.

Then we have local area traffic management schemes. It would be nice if $2.3 million could be found for the study at Unanderra, Farmborough Heights and Cordeaux Heights—our joint boundary area, Mr Deputy Speaker. At Figtree, $400,000 is needed for the local area traffic management scheme. Then there are pedestrian facilities at Primbee Public School, Lake Heights Public School—which is in your electorate, Mr Deputy Speaker—Mount Ousley Public School, Illawarra Christian School, Waniora Public School, Austinmer Public School and Hayes Park Public School. The cost of each of those pedestrian facilities ranges from $100,000 down to $25,000. Wouldn't it be nice to know that somebody was going to provide that money for the safety of our kids? I would not mind turning Joe Cocker off for a short time if we could get some of that $410 million into Wollongong to pay for those facilities, to pay for traffic improvements—instead of the propaganda campaign this government has embarked upon in selling the GST.

Then when we get on to public transport. In the Wollongong central business district, $150,000 is needed for improved lighting, shelters, security information and bus stops and $80,000 is needed for public transport information kiosks. The relocation of bus terminuses and so on also need to be done for costs of that ilk. At Unanderra, similarly, intersection improvements there will cost $100,000.

Yes, the list that Wollongong City Council has is expansive. But it is all in the name of public safety, it is all in the name of improvements to traffic flow, it is all in the name of saving kids' lives outside schools. Wouldn't it be lovely—that is a song out of My Fair Lady, I know—wouldn't it be nice to get a little bit of that $410 million worth of the money that has gone into propaganda going to Wollongong to look after those people? But we do not see any of that; we see none of it. We see a measly $2.5 million being given to the whole of Australia, to every local government area—$2,000 per local government area—to implement the GST, while $410 million goes on Joe Cocker. It says something about this government's priorities, without a doubt.

As far as this legislation is concerned, there is no doubt that the opposition has some real concerns. We believe, without a doubt, that the full effects of the GST imposition on local government are yet to be felt. We believe that there is an expectation that local councils will be able to absorb the cost burden and provide services that local communities have come to expect. But I have to say to you, Mr Deputy Speaker: I think that is a coalition fantasy. I think that is possibly something that has been dreamed up in the minds of the Treasurer, the Prime Minister and probably the minister for local government. They probably think that, because the wholesale sales tax will come off things for local government, the GST burden will not be as great; you can spread it out, and people will not mind.

I had always been under the apprehension that from time to time a wholesale sales tax burden did not exist for local government; I thought they had a bit of an exemption in there. The Treasurer will run the line `Oh yes, but then you have to add in transport costs'—and what were some of the great things he was saying in question time today? Financial services, that is right; the financial services duty tax is going to go. That had an effect on a couple of the issues that we were raising in question time today. I would like the Treasurer to come and explain to the people of Wollongong how the elimination of the financial services duty and the taxes associated with that will have an impact on local government and the provision of roads in the city of Wollongong, and how it will give people an opportunity to get flood mitigation works so that they can sleep at night, particularly in heavy rains. I would like him to do that at some stage—but I will not hold my breath.

There is no doubt that the GST will place an enormous burden on local government. When we say `local government', that means to my constituents, to your constituents in Wollongong, Mr Deputy Speaker, to those people who look to local government to provide services, that there will be a GST on things like going to the swimming pools, and a GST on some of the other services that will be provided. We know that the government has come in and said, `Oh no, but in terms of rates, no GST will be applied on rates.' But a range of other things that governments at the local level provide will be subject to it. Also, the cost of acquisition of computer equipment and so on to see that the compliance costs associated with that can be fairly implemented is something which many of the councils, as I said a little earlier, are concerned about.

Perhaps I will conclude by making a plea. I am sure that it will fall on deaf ears. I am sure that the Treasurer is not one bit interested in this, and certainly the Prime Minister is not. The Prime Minister is just blinkered. The Prime Minister has said that his greatest goal in life in his 25-odd years in public office in this country is to see the implementation of the GST. Well, I have to tell you: that is not much of a goal. As a consequence of that, the opposition have moved their amendment. We have pointed out that the financial assistance grants have been cut to local government in real terms ever since the Liberals came to government in this country; that the government has attempted to terminate the 25-year Commonwealth/local government funding partnership by trying to transfer responsibility for local government FAGs funding to the states. The government had promised to exempt local government services from the GST before the 1980 election, only to renege on this commitment within months of regaining office. Through the GST, the government has imposed a regressive and unfair tax on essential services provided by local governments to communities in regional Australia. Lastly, it has hit councils with major GST compliance costs, with inadequate compensation or assistance.

A very interesting poll was conducted in Wollongong in the last short period of time by the Illawarra Regional Information Service about attitudes of people in our great city of Wollongong to the implementation of the GST. About 60 per cent think it will be worse for the economy and worse for them personally; 20 per cent think it will be okay; and the other 20 per cent at this stage are undecided. I can tell you this, Mr Deputy Speaker: with the implementation of the GST and the effect it will have on local government and the services local government will no longer be able to provide, that final 20 per cent will make their minds up quickly and join the 60 percent which will become 80 per cent. When people realise that this government continues to underfund and to non-fund essential services that we would like in Wollongong—like flood mitigation works, local road components that we would like to see fixed up, traffic and pedestrian systems that we would like to see repaired, provision of pedestrian crossings outside schools—when my constituents realise that those things are not being provided because this government is abrogating its responsibility to local government, I know what they will say and I know how they will express themselves next time they get that opportunity at the ballot box.