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Tuesday, 30 May 2000
Page: 16599

Mr KERR (10:13 PM) —The Local Government (Financial Assistance) Amendment Bill 2000 provides an opportunity to reflect on two things: firstly, the way in which local government is being reduced in status and effectiveness by the changes that the government is implementing through its GST measures; and, secondly, the way in which we as a community ought to address some larger trends that are emerging in relation to the growing division between affluence and poverty within our society and between this country and other countries. I will address the first issue—that of the goods and services tax—initially because that is the thrust of this legislation and will be the focus, I am certain, of the bulk of this debate.

We have a government that, firstly, should be held to account for a fundamental breach of a commitment that it made—that local government funding would be exempt from the goods and services tax. Good local government and its activities were promised that exemption and that has been breached. It has been breached in a way which will damage the interests of every ratepayer in every municipality in this country.

The second point I make is that there have been very grave deficiencies in the implementation of the funding arrangements. The $15 million taken as a reduction in financial assistance grants funding for 1997-98 has not been replaced, there has been no commitment to provide for real growth in financial support for local government and local government has not been provided with effective and timely advice for the wide range of community based services that will attract the goods and services tax.

That said, I want to turn to a few specifics. Increasingly, local governments are being confronted with some of the consequences of a government that is shifting responsibility from the public sector to the private sector and we are starting to see a corrosion of the public sector. One of the things that I want to focus on tonight is the idea growing in this community that we can tolerate `gated communities'. These are an abomination which should not be facilitated by forward thinking local government. Gated communities are a phenomenon that grew up in the United States, where large land developers started to put together groups of housing, surrounded them with fences to hold out the rest of the community and secured those gated environments with private security guards. That kind of accommodation is now widespread not just in some parts of the United States but also in large parts of South America, in some parts of Africa and in other societies where great gulfs exist between wealth and poverty. The problem is that it exacerbates what we are starting to see in the unravelling of the social compact that holds us together as members of a single community. What holds us together as members of a single community is that which we hold in common: the public domain. Increasingly, that which we used to take for granted as part of the public domain is being reduced.

Private provision is becoming the preferred mode of provision, and the public is becoming the residual provision provided to those who cannot afford access to privately funded services. We have almost become immune to debate about these things. We see it most obviously in the provision of public health, where this government has moved away from a fundamental first order commitment to funding the public hospital sector and public health to a support for private insurance and private initiatives on the spurious argument that in some way that represents a commitment to the best interests of the public health sector. It is a little like someone who advocates drinking Pepsi Cola saying it would be a good thing for those marketing Pepsi Cola if everyone drinks Coca-Cola. Why would we argue the case that it is in the best interests of a good public health system for everybody to transfer to the private system? Logically, it is an absurd proposition once you examine it with any degree of rigour.

Moving away from the health system, we see the same kind of shift from traditional public provision to private provision in education. Over time, what used to be a very strong system of state provided education where the vast majority of Australian parents were proud that you could have a good education for your child in a public school—that is, a state provided school—is slowly shifting. Many parents who would ordinarily have wished to place their child in the state provided education sector are now saying, `That system is inadequately funded. The only way I can provide proper educational opportunities for my child is in the private sector.' Of course, this federal government has exacerbated the shift of incentives towards the private sector so that, again, the residual sector is the public sector—available for those who cannot afford the privilege of sending their child through a private institution.

Whilst those two trends are alarming—and we need to draw a line in the sand to make certain that the public sector, both in health and in education, is defended; and only a Labor government will do that—we have to be aware of further encroachments. One area where we are starting to see further encroachments is in the area of essentially `privatising out' the provision of security. One of the most fundamental things in a democratic and equal society is to share common responsibility for the provision of our own security. That is why there is provision of police from public funds. That is why, when prosecution of crime is undertaken, it is undertaken by the Crown in the name of the state rather than by individuals, in the main, although individuals still have a residual right to bring private informations in the court. Nonetheless, the majority of law enforcement, quite properly, is seen as the responsibility of the state. So, too, do we see it as our responsibility—a communal responsibility—to make certain that security for all our citizens is adequate. We do not see it as appropriate to have a two-tier society where the provision of security is a residual responsibility of the state for the poor and where the rich can essentially buy their way out of those responsibilities. That is what we are starting to see with gated communities. As part of their environment they employ private security and provide permission-only entrance through gates—circumstances whereby the hoi-polloi, the ordinary community, are kept out. There are a number of reasons why there may be larger community concerns. There are concerns for those who provide emergency services—fire, ambulance and the like. Access to those services is difficult under some circumstances—if emergencies arise and the private and public interface do not work properly.

But that is not my main concern. My main concern is that we are starting to have a further rift in our society, a rift between those for whom the state is an essential component of their support and those who essentially can buy themselves out of that system. Once you start to have a two-tier system—a residual system for those who are least well-off and a normal system which is acquired and purchased through private expenditure—once that becomes the norm, the interest in keeping up the residual system to a reasonable standard to allow it to be generally accessible to most citizens slides and increasingly it simply becomes a bandaid, last resort, poorly funded, little supported residual system which exists only for those who are in desperate need. That is not the kind of Australia that I want to live in.

I want to say to local government authorities and to state governments, who now have a larger responsibility in terms of their capacity to direct local government, that we ought to be thinking as a country about whether we want to go down the path of allowing gated communities. Do we want to have a system where those with wealth can exclude themselves from the rest of their community, build walls around the fortresses where they live, have the poor excluded, not provide ordinary policing services and not provide any of the normal community support? If that became the norm, we would rapidly find that the case for putting money into those services would be reduced. Just as in education and just as in health, when you find services like police no longer required by the affluent then the political will to continue to provide them at an adequate level will be reduced. You will also find what Disraeli pointed out a long time ago when he looked at British society as it started to unravel in terms of its coherence and as it faced great change in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. You find a situation where within one country you evolve two societies.

I think we can look at what one writer, Sigmund Bauman, refers to as `two nations mark two'. One nation consists of an affluent population strata who are constantly being seduced into the market by ever increased pressure to consume, and the other is the repressed, marginalised population who are being pushed into becoming a human residue, whose aspirations are being repressed and who are essentially the subject of law enforcement, surveillance by welfare authorities and increasing loss of privacy. That two-tier outcome is going to be working through in a whole series of areas. We have seen it in education. We have seen it in health. We can notice it in public transport. We can see it in the labour market, as instead of seeing work and support for the unemployed, we start to see the language of work fare coming through. We are beginning to see it now in the provision of housing in the willingness of our planning authorities to accept the quite odious and un-Australian forms of community living which are these gated communities.

I saw in the Age newspaper the other day a substantial article about residents of one community who were up in arms about the presence in their community of one of these gated environments. It really does not fit with the Australian ethic. It is not the way in which we see ourselves as a society. We would not want to see that we are actually willing to have amongst ourselves people who so fear their fellow citizen that they want to build walls around where they live and ensure that those who enter whole suburbs do so only with passes, through gates and through security guards. That is really not the kind of Australia we want. We certainly do not want to end up like Rio de Janeiro and a whole range of South American cities, where, amongst great affluence, surrounded by walls and armed guards, we find great poverty and the affluent living in isolated enclaves in a community where they are separated not just by their wealth but by walls, bars, guards and the whole visible apparatus of a divided world, a divided society, a divided country.

Australia does not need to become a divided country. We have a long tradition of asserting egalitarianism. We ought to follow that tradition through in the social policies which we carry out. I do not believe that Australia is such a dangerous country that it is necessary for the wellbeing of those who live in South Yarra, on the north shore of Sydney or in any suburb in any of our cities to surround their whole suburb by walls, to privatise the provision of security, to not give trust to the public provision of policing and to move the enforcement of law and order from what was traditionally the Crown or the state to private provision and individuals. I believe that our local government institutions should be watchful and not facilitate the further development of planning policies that would allow that.

Debate (on motion by Mr Ronaldson) adjourned.