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Thursday, 2 May 1957

Mr BIRD (Batman) . - I desire to discuss what the attitude of the Government should be towards local government throughout the length and breadth of Australia. I know it can be said that local government is not the constitutional responsibility of the Commonwealth Parliament, but nevertheless I think that we have reached a stage in our national development where we must have another look at local government and decide whether the States have sufficient financial capacity to help the municipalities. Nobody disputes the contention that local government bodies make a positive contribution towards the wellordered existence of this community and that should local government fail in its functions there would be an immediate and serious deterioration of the people's health, comfort, and general welfare. To-day, unfortunately, local government in every State, irrespective of whether it is controlled by a Liberal council, a Labour council, or an independent council, is in grave danger of breaking down. The reasons are quite obvious. The outmoded method of finance cannot stand up to the insistent and urgent demands made on the very limited resources.

All over Australia local government has been forced to increase rates beyond the capacity of the ratepayers to shoulder, and we read frequently reports in the daily press that in this municipality or in that municipality a meeting of ratepayers has been held to protest against what they consider to be inordinate increases. This is not peculiar to one council; it is common to councils everywhere. That presupposes that there must be a reason for this state of affairs and the reason is that the present method of financing local government cannot measure up to modern requirements. As I have said, there has to be a complete reorientation of our thinking in this regard. One reason why local government has broken down - the main reason I submit - is that the range of local government activities has been considerably broadened in recent years. Benefits now extend far beyond the property-owners, but the propertyowners nevertheless are expected to shoulder all the financial responsibilities. These benefits now extend right throughout the community, irrespective of the wage.earning capacity of the people vet the property-owning section of the community is expected to finance projects which should be the responsibility of the community as a whole! Now the stage has been reached - in fact it was reached some years ago - where the coffers of local government must be augmented by a share of general taxation revenue. The Commonwealth should seriously consider making money available to the States for the specific use of local government. I know that at the present time money cannot be handed from. Commonwealth sources to local government authorities in any one particular case. It has to percolate through the State governments, but I suggest that the making of Commonwealth funds available for local government purposes out of general taxation revenue is now the unquestionable moral obligation of the Commonwealth Government. It is the unquestionable obligation of the Government to give financial assistance to local government bodies to help them meet the burden arising directly from national policy implemented by the Parliament. The immigration policy, which is the responsibility of the Commonwealth Parliament, makes demands for more roads, expanded health services and amenities generally throughout Australia. These obligations cannot be met from the depleted resources of an already impoverished local government system.

Another disability suffered by local government bodies at present is that the annual loan allocations are being reduced at a time when local government activities are expanding and the demands for services increasing. Local government bodies apply to various loan authorities for increased loans to meet their added responsibilities, but are met with the extraordinary and paradoxical situation that their loan allocations are decreased each year. Public bodies must be in a position to provide public services such as roads, water, electricity and buildings vital to community needs. Community activities create demands for such services. Surely, the Commonwealth Government, which is the Government of the people as a whole and their chief taxing authority, should assist local government bodies to provide such services which are the responsibility of the community at large. But local government bodies, with a limited taxation field, are expected to find all the money needed to carry out these very essential obligations.

When the next loan allocations are being made, the Government should consider providing £10,000,000, £15,000,000 or £20,000,000 from loan funds for local government purposes in the various States. It is virtually impossible for local government authorities to obtain sufficient loan funds on the open market or from State sources. I speak with some knowledge as a councillor in Victoria. When a council approaches a financial institution with a request for a loan to carry out services which would be of inestimable value to the public, the manager of the bank or the insurance company just laughs. No consideration is given to requests for local government loans which are issued at such a low rate of interest that they cannot compete with other avenues where money is lent at a far higher rate of interest. That, of course, suits the financial institutions, but does not suit local government. Surely, the rights of local government authorities should be recognized; they are carrying out a most essential task for the community. It is high time that this Parliament recognized it as such and made a suitable loan fund allocation each year for that purpose.

Another way in which the Commonwealth could assist local government authorities would be by the payment of rates on Commonwealth properties wherever they may be situated. At present, rates are paid only on Commonwealth property used for commercial purposes or for purely residential purposes. The payment of rates should be extended in respect of other Commonwealth property. Rates should be paid on post office buildings, immigrant hostels and Commonwealth administrative offices wherever they are situated. After all, municipal councils are called upon to provide very expensive services for such buildings. Yet, because the Constitution provides that the Commonwealth shall not be compelled to pay rales, the Government does not do so. It is not precluded from paying rates if it so desires, and I hope that the Government will do the right thing by these very public-spirited bodies. Councillors are not paid any remuneration for their services; they act in a purely voluntary capacity. It is high time that the Commonwealth Parliament, which is in possession of unlimited funds - I say that deliberately - did the right thing by local government bodies and paid rates on properties for which it expects numerous services to be provided by local government bodies.

If the Government decided to pay rates, the additional amount would assist councils on whom the burden now unjustly falls and would give a lead to State governments which are also remiss in this regard. State governments also refuse to pay rates to municipal councils. But unless something is done, municipal councils will fall by the wayside. The Government should recognize that the survival of local government is at stake. Failure to acknowledge this basic fact will cause a complete breakdown of activities in that sphere. I am not an alarmist, but, if the Government inquired into the financial position of any local government body it would find that that body is on the threshhold of a complete breakdown. Unless the Government, with its unlimited financial resources, recognizes that fact, the repercussions will be to the detriment of the community. This Government must face the inevitable fact that, because of the gross inadequacy of financial resources-

Mr. SPEAKER (Hon. John McLeay).Order!The minister's time has expired.

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