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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23722

Mr TUCKEY (11:26 AM) —I am delighted to participate in this debate and I congratulate the member for Wannon, Mr Hawker, and his committee for the very good work that they have done in addressing an issue that Australia can no longer ignore—the gross and excessive levels of government, a form of centralisation where, for instance, the City of Townsville is further from its controlling centre, Brisbane, than Brisbane is from Canberra—and recognising that many things have changed in a century of federation. The change of course is that local government no longer delivers the three Rs—roads, rates and rubbish. It has evolved very substantially. The qualifications of its officers have changed and been upgraded. It is ready, in a nation of 20 million relatively prosperous people, to assume the role it would have in most other parts of the world.

We are the unique nation. We are the ones who do not operate at the local level. The United States, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom all perceive local government as the logical deliverer of local services. I think it was Winston Churchill who once said of parliamentary democracy that it was the worst form of government except for all the others we have tried from time to time. As a democratic nation, why don't we empower the people of a region or district to have a very direct say—as has been argued by the member for Gilmore—in the sort of service delivery they want?

The most dreadful indictment of our present system, be it with or without state governments—and I do not want to have the focus on that particular issue—in this report is uncontested evidence that our present system delivers a cost disadvantage of $20,000 million a year. We say we have a problem with health services and with education, yet we are taking $20 billion out into the bush, striking a match and burning it.

But the issue is more about the empowering of local people. I want to address some of the specifics of that. What has the committee recommended to us? What is the challenge for our government and our minister? It is to tell us that it is time that the two senior levels of government, namely the states and the Commonwealth, got together to create an intergovernmental agreement whose first achievement would be to cut out that $20 billion of waste—to put aside to politics of, `This is my power base, and nobody's going to touch it,' and identify who can deliver the service most capably.

It is a very interesting challenge. In my city—Perth—I doubt that the Perth City Council would be the logical operator of the Royal Perth Hospital, any more than Nedlands would be the logical operator of Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital. I see these big teaching hospitals as the practical responsibility of a state administration and, typically, they live next door. But the minute you move beyond that realm you get the situation that has existed in my electorate for virtually the 23 years that I have represented it, and which is now becoming patently obvious in regional and rural councils around Australia, where a local government authority has to put $50,000 or $100,000 in their budget every year to keep a doctor in town. But they are waiting every day for a phone call from the state minister saying, `We are going to close your local hospital because we do not like paying for it.' They are denied any opportunity to say: `Hang on a minute. Just as you forced us to fund a doctor service and make our ratepayers pay for it, we would like to keep our hospital alive. We believe that our people want that level of service.' They are told: `Go bowl your hoop! We are not interested in you. This is a state responsibility. We are short of money; we are going to waste it somewhere else, and your hospital will close.'

Why would we, as a national government, tolerate that circumstance? Why would we disempower local people who are even prepared to use some of their own money to get the level of services they want? If there is a deficiency in this report it is that it dodges law and order. To the credit of the member for Gilmore, she brought that forward in her speech when she reminded us that, around Australia, people are paying their local government authority to hire relatively ineffective security guards to do the job that logically requires the efforts of a policeman. Again, state governments no longer want to fund that type of activity.

A very interesting article appeared in the Sunday Times in Perth the other day which quoted a lady who had actually watched a home invader running out of her house with her valuables, including her mobile phone. She was able to track the person on the mobile phone, and she gave the information to the state police, who said: `We can't use that to catch that fella. That would be breaching his privacy.' We get those sorts of dumb issues.

I want to refer to the example of the Mayor of New York City responding to the community of New York—not the community of New Jersey, or whatever it is that is on the other side of the river, but the community of New York City. They agreed with him that a very strong policy on the application of the law, otherwise known as `zero tolerance', was what they wanted. Irrespective of what the state governor or the President of the United States wanted, they wanted the right to walk their streets at any time—to enter Central Park at any time—and not be mugged. The mayor took it on. With the support of his community, New York today is one of the safest large cities in the world. Some years ago, when we visited there, some 300,000 or 400,000 people had moved back into that city to live and girls were sunbaking at lunchtime in Central Park.

Those sorts of things should occur. In the community in Western Australia, local government is spending $20 million a year on private security guards. A number of councils are actually levying a special rate to pay for it, yet they are denied the right to employ a properly trained policeman to deliver to the community, at their direction, the protection they desperately want.

Why shouldn't local government have that right, considering it is commonplace around the world? This is the real point of this particular report. It is suggesting to us that it is time we caught up with the rest of the world and, considering the very large areas in Australia, stopped this highly costly centralised system. If you were to debate the issues of whether state government should do these things and what the constitutional measures are, you would be doing it for a long time.

We need to look at the dollar situation. The reality is that the Australian government raises about 150 per cent of its own source expenditure. That is a round figure. More accurately, local governments raise about 80 per cent of their own source expenditure. State governments raise less than 50 per cent of their own source expenditure. The rest of it is just recycling the money that the Australian government sends. That is about $50,000 million. At the same time, less than $2,000 million is paid virtually directly to local government.

I welcome the recommendation of the committee—I think it was recommendation 16—that the FAGs money, the financial assistance grants money, should also be assessed on a national basis and distributed directly to local government. One of my experiences as minister was to see the most stupid comparisons of identical councils. A couple of councils in Queensland were compared with a couple in my own state. The differential in their grants was totally inexplicable. You should be able to compare Narrogin in Western Australia in the electorate of Pearce with Roma in Queensland. You should be able to make that comparison. That is a very worthwhile recommendation.

But the real recommendation is that the states and the Commonwealth, with advice from local government, should be working out who does what, what the limitations are on loading another government up with responsibility that it has never had and, more importantly, what money is distributed to assist. If you have $52 billion in the pot, which is now distributed in the ratio of 50 to two, should the ratio—to pick a figure that is meaningless—be 40 to 12? Should local government be delivering the local hospital service and the medical service at a local level? Should it have the financial capacity and the legislative support to have a local police force which can make an arrest and investigate a crime, and which is hopefully restricted to that sort of work, so that they do not end up wanting to sit on a phone waiting for it to ring? It should get them out on the road.

The same applies to education. People are voting with their feet and are abandoning public education. But those who manage the public education system—please do not think that that is state government because it is not; it is the schoolteachers union—fail to realise that people are abandoning it because they feel they have no ownership. I would put this to the committee: if your local authority were the responsible party for hiring the school principal who would run the school and hire the other staff, more people would be interested in utilising public education, because they could go to a council meeting and go crook about the quality of their school.

They would have the right to vote. This is the most interesting thing. I have had people say to me that their local authority could not run a chook raffle. I say, `That's a reflection on you as a voter.' But I assure you that if there were a better defined responsibility and a breadth of responsibility for local government then more people would nominate themselves for positions on councils and, where it is voluntary, more people would vote.

I had a very progressive view about local government politics when I was there. Although voting is not compulsory in Western Australia and the turnout is frequently below 20 per cent, I always got 95 per cent. They either went to vote for me or against me, but no-one was game to fail to vote. I think that is part of the issue when you are doing this sort of thing and have the agenda that I had during my life in Carnarvon as the shire president.

In the last minutes of my speech, I congratulate the committee. They have put the challenge to government. It is logical to take the first step to try to achieve an intergovernmental agreement. I hope that party politics—and there has been very little of it in this committee—is put aside and that state governments in particular do not say, `This is my property and no-one is going to touch it.' If they got less money they would have less expenditure, and I think the overall benefit would be to the broader community in the savings that would be achieved. The challenge is now before higher government and it is before the two major parties. I hope that they maintain their bipartisanship, save that $20 billion and empower communities in terms of their local services.

Debate (on motion by Mr Ripoll) adjourned.