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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23720


Mrs GASH (11:16 AM) —Rates and taxes: a fair share for responsible local government is one of those reports that genuinely attempt to get to the root causes of bureaucratic inefficiency which arises, by and large, from our structure of government. There are many Australians who believe we are overgoverned in this country with three levels of elected representation supplemented by two mechanisms for legislative review in my state of New South Wales. This is a view that I share and which I have been very vocal about. It is a view born out of experience including five years as a local councillor with Wingecarribee Shire Council and then 7½ years as the member for Gilmore.

Some may argue that the last 7½ years of the New South Wales government doing just about anything they can to frustrate the development of Gilmore is unusual and peculiar to the way Bob Carr plays politics and therefore to this moment in time. Even if it were the case that we do live in interesting times in terms of federal-state relations, there is only my experience on which to base my judgment, and comments from my constituents. Given that the terms of reference for the report assumed the current broad structure of the three levels of government and that the inquiry was to be budget neutral, there is no explicit recommendation to dispense with the states, but surely that has to be a logical conclusion. Of course, this is easier said than done. It is hard enough to bring the constitutional change necessary to make Commonwealth government effective let alone to gain the cooperation to remove one level of government. Although there is nothing to stop the Australian government acting on the principle, I believe that we need to enhance local government and bypass the states. The point needs to be emphasised: I believe—like many other Australians—that we are overgoverned for our level of population.

The report names the major difficulties from the local government perspective. While councils are made to take on extra responsibilities to replace other services when funding runs out or even if they choose to provide a service that the community needs or demands, their funding from the state or federal government does not necessarily adjust to take account of the increased costs. Whether councils are given extra responsibility, increased standards of service or just choose to expand their service provision, there is no mechanism for their revenue to keep pace and hence I put the case for the federal government to directly fund local government to fulfil a range of services. I wish to outline a range of examples to illustrate this point. Main Road 92 was declared by this government to be a road of national importance in my electorate. My constituents have constantly voted at the last three elections to build this road. Shoalhaven City Council has committed funding and has taken the plunge in commencing construction for the first few kilometres. Every survey of voters in Gilmore returns the result: please build that road. The people want it, the council wants it and even the federal government wants it but the state of New South Wales continues to take a huge amount of time to get its act together. Indeed, there seems to be one bureaucratic blockage after another which I fear is designed purely to frustrate the electorate of Gilmore regardless of their voting so emphatically for it.

By way of contrast, the Roads to Recovery program is an example of what can be done by the federal government directly funding local government. In a fraction of the time that was spent arguing over Main Road 92 with the state government, I have seen many Roads to Recovery projects completed by the Shoalhaven City Council, Kiama Council and the Wingecarribee Shire Council, with each of them complimenting the federal government on this extra funding and the ease with which it was administered. Local government, by its very nature, tends to be close to its people. This means that it is more directly accountable for acting for its people. All councillors are in the community day by day, listening to the needs of their constituents.

Over time there has been a tendency to centralise services at a state level rather than localise them. Bushfire control was once the responsibility of local councils. People with local knowledge and local responsibility staffed it. Now bushfire control is a state responsibility, yet using the same volunteers and workers who once made their own decisions. At some time it may have been obvious that the training, equipment and management of fire disasters was lacking at various points on a local level. However, in centralising the firefighting effort and providing it with better funding, the local knowledge and expertise have been subverted in many cases. There was a time when the ambulance service was run locally. Drivers knew where all the addresses on their turf were; they knew whom to watch out for since they lived in the same community as the people they served. Then the states took it over, only to hear of deaths and complications due to ambulance drivers not knowing where to go and ambulances not being available. Good luck to you if you live in a place that has the same name as place in another state, such as Culburra, Coolangatta and Robertson, just to name a few in my electorate.

Most local councils have their own community service section that usually has some role in the coordination of HACC services. These are funded by federal and state governments, with state administration involved. But it is local government that is best placed to manage this, with both the knowledge and the resources, so why not fund it directly? Child-care funding is another example. It is delivered through the state government and administered by it, even though it is often local government that is delivering the service and, therefore, is best placed to know the best approach for service delivery. Again, why not give it directly to those who administer the service?

The establishment of aged care facilities requires developers and operators to observe regulations from every level of government. The result is that the provision of such important facilities for our ageing population is more expensive than it needs to be with a supply that sometimes cannot be guaranteed. Even the local hospitals once had boards of management that included community representatives, which ensured that institutional relationships with community groups and residents were well managed. Now they are run by state health services, on which the local community may have only one or two representatives—if they are lucky. And then they need to be of the same political colour as the state government.

Local councils are identifying a need to contract security guards due to a lack of local police. Again, it is a reaction to the lack of flexibility and responsiveness of service delivery by a state agency that is fundamentally centrally managed. When it comes to small business, they have three levels of bureaucracy to deal with and needlessly incur costs in dealing with each level. And don't we know just what a nightmare that is? Small business people are forced to cope with often inconsistent demands of councils and state and federal governments when all they want to do is employ people, make a dollar and expand their services.

Providing local governments with more autonomy allows them also to accept responsibility for addressing issues as they arise in their region. This then makes them accountable to the people who put them in place to carry out their duties. To be honest, this is a form of delegation of power as well as responsibility, although it is not the sort that can be described as buck-passing. Rather, it is about raising the bar or lifting a lid of sorts to enable local people to achieve things for their own local community. The Australian government recognises that the centralism of government, particularly state government, actually divorces the management of public assets from the community that they are designed to serve. There are some initial steps that may be taken. The inclusion of local government in the negotiation of programs to be delivered will help us as legislators to better understand the effects of our decisions. Establishing clear objectives and measurable outcomes will be very important for federal funding to the states. As so often occurs now, there are very few accountability processes in place once funding has been given.

The business of government is costly, but the reality is that government does very little business at all in terms of producing goods and services of value. This is an important mindset to have so that government can be structured to be a facilitator for those agencies that deliver programs at the coalface. The lack of party politics at local government level is usually very positive. Party ideology may be useful at the macro level of federal government. However, implementation of policy is far more applied.

Our experience in Gilmore is that local governments become the marketing force for their regions in attracting business, tourists and other forms of growth. Wingecarribee, Kiama and Shoalhaven councils all contribute to this process effectively in their own ways. Local governments represent the diversity of the various regions that can never be properly understood and responded to in terms of program delivery by centralist governments. Many local governments say they have the available capacity in terms of expertise and market potential but not the funding base with which to expand their activities.

It is our responsibility to provide local government as far as possible with the autonomy and resources to fulfil their responsibilities for the people they serve. To my mind, the waste of funds, the double administration costs, the blame-shifting game, the political point scoring and the lack of accountability when funds are given need to be recognised. After all, it is the people of Australia who need to be the beneficiaries, rather than the political parties. I commend this report to the House.