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Wednesday, 23 May 1973
Page: 2524

Mr UREN (Reid) (Minister for Urban and Regional Development) - One of the major reasons for this legislation is the economic squalor of local government in this country. I will deal specifically with some details and statistics relating to this matter later in my speech. The Leader of the Opposition (Mr Snedden) said that he wanted to do something really positive about decentralisation. The strange story is that during the 23 years that his Party was in power, the population of the non-urban areas of Australia fell from 31 per cent of the total population of Australia in 1947 to 14.7 per cent of the total when the previous Government went out of power. So much for the previous Government's attitude on the question of decentralisation and in its dealings with local government.

In his policy speech before the recent elections, the Leader of our Party said that Labor was determined to make local government a genuine partner in the Federal system. Since coming to office, the Australian Government has acted promptly and has taken 2 decisive steps to meet this commitment. Firstly, the Australian Government sought and gained a voice for local government at the Constitutional Convention. Last month it was agreed by the Steering Committee of the Convention that 21 local government delegates, sharing 8 votes, would be. invited to attend the Constitutional Convention, the first meeting of which will be in September. This fulfils our promise to give local government a voice and a vote at the Convention. Secondly, the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) last week introduced the Grants Commission Bill 1973. As he said in his second reading speech:

This Bill is a key part of our new charter for local government.

He said that the Government is determined to give local government adequate access to the nation's finances'.

These are only our first 2 steps in upgrading the resources and the role of local government within our Federal system. We intend to make the Federal system work as a co-operative partnership - a partnership amongst the 3 levels of government - Commonwealth, State and local. A great deal is spoken about the relationship between democracy and local government. The argument is usually put as one whereby the system of local government, which is designed to administer small areas with direct and visible representation by councils, is one which is most amenable te our democratic tradition. As the Royal Commission on Local Government in England pointed out, the system of local government is 'more than the sum of the particular services provided'.

The Maud Report pointed out that local government is an essential part of democratic government. It is the potential ability of local government to provide for the immediate access of directly elected representatives to a community which gives it this democratic quality once described by Harold Laski as *the genius of place'. This might be called the responsive aspect of democracy. But in order to be properly responsive, a system of government must carry out certain responsibilities. We might well ask the question: What sort of responsive democracy exists when the authority is paralysed? One must recognise that local government has been paralysed, particularly over the last 2 decades. It is with this aspect firmly in mind that the Government now proposes to give local government the opportunity to express its voice on fiscal needs at the level of the Australian Government.

The Bill presently before the House is a first step in upgrading the resources of local government and thus providing that tier of our system with the ability to better carry out its responsibilities. There are 2 distinct parts of the proposal in this legislation to give local government access to the Grants Commission. Firstly, there are sections dealing with the actual operation of the Grants Commission itself. These sections are concerned with the ways in which the Commission will go about its business of examining applications, determining criteria, considering needs and making recommendations to the Minister.

The second part of the proposal in this legislation concerns the role of the Minister for Urban and Regional Development. It will be seen from the Act that the Minister has 2 particular functions. Firstly, under clause 17, the Minister may approve local governing bodies as regional organisations for the purpose of this Act. Secondly, under clause 18, the Minister for Urban and Regional Development has the opportunity to assist the Grants Commission by making submissions to the Commission on the applications for special assistance that the Commission receives from regional organisations. With regard to the first function, one consideration which has led the Australian Government to seek regional organisations for the Grants Commission applications is the very simple matter of the administration of the scheme. There are over 900 local government units in Australia. It would completely overload the resources of my Department and the Grants Commission if we were to try to deal with each unit separately.

In addition, our interest in regional organisation goes beyond the consideration of administering this scheme. All of us are conscious that there are deficiencies in the local govern ment system. Some evidence of this can be seen in the great number of inquiries that have been conducted over many years. In fact, there is hardly a point of time when there has not been an inquiry of some sort or another into local government. At the present moment, there is a Committee of Inquiry into Local Government in New South Wales which is dealing, amongst other things, with the question of boundaries. South Australia has just established a Royal Commission on Boundaries of Local Government. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia does not mention local government. No local government body has a legal existence independent of its State government. The Australian Government has no power to intervene, even if it wanted to, in the question of boundary determination. But there is no doubt that the question of the size of local government units is one which has to be examined when any consideration is given to the maximum potential efficiency of the local government system. This aspect relates, of course, both to the responsibility side and the responsive side of local government that I was referring to earlier.

There is another aspect where the Australian Government can help local government to discharge its responsibilities and that is in the area of finance. Let there be no doubt that until now the financial resources of local government have been allowed to run down to a deplorable degree. A lot has been said about the worsening debt position of State governments relative to the Australian Government. However, if the relative shares of the 3 levels of government debt are calculated over the 30 year period from 1940 to 1970, honourable members will find that - I stress this point - while both the Australian and the State governments' share of government debt have diminished, the share of local government and State semi-government authorities has increased significantly.

For example, let us look at the share of the government debt at 1940 and compare it to that of 1970. In 1940, the share of the Commonwealth was 27 per cent; in 1970 it was 18.6 per cent. In 1940, the share of the States was 56 per cent; in 1970, it was 44.7 per cent. In 1940, the share of local government and semi government bodies was 17 per cent and in 1970 it was 36.7 per cent. These figures reveal clearly the difficult and worsening position of local government. It is also quite apparent that in recent years increases in local government revenues have failed to keep pace with those of other levels of government. Between the years 1967-68 and 1971-72 the increase in government receipts for the Commonwealth was 61 per cent, for the States 63 per cent, but for local government 37.5 per cent. So it should be quite clear that one significant area where the Australian Government could lend its support for local government is in the area of finance. As a responsible Government we. have an obligation to see that financial assistance is granted, in the first instance, to the most deserving causes. This Government also has the responsibility to ensure that any financial assistance that is given to local government is used efficiently and to the greatest benefit. It is our belief that the best way of achieving these objectives lies in broadening the perspectives of the single local government unit. In this way problems, and solutions to these problems, could be looked at in a regional context. Therefore, the Act gives the Minister for Urban and Regional Development discretion in approving regional organisations. My Department is looking at regional formations that have already occurred in some States. We feel that the local government people themselves are good judges of what constitutes a region in their own circumstances.

We hope there will be strong and continuing moves in both metropolitan and rural areas towards the formation of regional organisations for the purpose of the Grants Commission operation. Ultimately we hope that these movements will assist me in the administration of urban and regional development programs. I might also say that the formation of regional organisations seems to offer the prospect for greatly advancing the interests of the regions and their members generally. I mentioned earlier that the 2 functions were given to the Minister for Urban and Regional Development under this Act. The second function is to assist the Grants Commission by making submissions to it. In fact we will be making submissions in support of local government and their regions. In some cases the second ministerial council meeting contain proposals. But it will be my Department that will be giving evidence, to the Grants Commission on details and information in regard to the regions.

Over the last 2 decades the responsibilities of local government have been increased and complicated. The problems of local govern ment have increased due to booming population growth which has been caused partly by an unplanned influx from immigration. I was astounded that the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Snedden) said Australia would have a population of 22 million by the turn of the century. He referred to a population in Australia of something like 35 million people within a half century. If that is to be the growth of population of this nation we will have grave problems. The whole question has to be examined clearly and scientifically. If we want to lift the quality of life, the standard of living and the standard of local government areas in the cities, population growth must be examined and we must not simply pull figures off the top of our heads in relation to population growth. We must consider that if the population growth of this country increases to the extent to which the Leader of the Opposition has referred - 22 million people by the turn of the century - that will mean an increase of 9 million people. No country has been able to decentralise its population to any greater extent than the United Kingdom did between the end of the Second World War and now. By creating new communities Britain was able to slow down the population growth of its major cities by only 1 million people. Despite what the Leader of the Opposition said, even if we can equal the achievement of the United Kingdom between now and the turn of the century, 8 million people will have to be located in our existing cities. I put it to the Leader of the Opposition that that would be madness. We have to improve the standard of our living. We must look seriously at population growth if we want to increase the standard of living in Australia.

This Government is doing something positive about decentralisation. Today I chaired the second ministerial council meeting concerned with the Albury-Wodonga complex. This is a great venture and the State governments of New South Wales and Victoria, to their credit, did a fine job in co-operating with the Commonwealth. It is a new spirit of co-operative federalism. This Government is doing something positive after 23 years of no action by the previous Government.

The problems of local government have increased due to lack of financial resources. These problems are not evenly distributed. Different units of local government have different problems. There are different levels of needs and resources among the local units. Therefore, under this Act, the Grants Commission will be able to receive applications for special assistance from local government organisations. The Act defines 'special assistance' in clause 6 as being to enable approved regional organisations to function, by reasonable effort, at a standard not appreciably below the standards of other approved regional organisations.

My Department will be involved in submitting to the Commission matters relating to standards, matters relating to the organisation of local government, and matters relating to the particular range of needs which might be expressed in applications for financial aid. It is an essential part of my Department's duties to give assistance to approved regional organisations. My Department will be consulting the appropriate State authorities about this assistance. For that reason the Government accepted the amendment proposed by the Leader of the Opposition. We will, in fact, consult the appropriate State ministers. After discussions with the States, the Department will be helping the regional organisations in the preparation of their application for financial assistance. After this Bill is passed by both Houses, further discussions will be held with the relevant departments and the Grants Commission. As soon as possible after this an announcement will be made about the procedures to be followed for submitting applications to the Commission.

I believe this is an historic and far-reaching proposal. Under this Act local government, for the first time since Federation, is given the opportunity to influence the Australian Government in its financial allocations. It can do this through an independent advisory body of high repute as the Grants Commission. The Grants Commission has served Australia well with regard to the dependent States and I am quite sure it will serve Australia well with respect to the claimant regional areas that need assistance. The Australian Government recognises the traditional and statutory relationships of local and State governments. However, the Australian Government also recognises the justice of the case for assistance to local government. This Bill represents a first step in the recognition of that case. It will not solve all the problems of local government. These problems cannot be solved overnight. There are no instant solutions to local govern ment and urban problems. My Department is examining these problems with a view to formulating fundamental solutions which involve co-ordinating the allocation of resources within urban areas. We are aiming for changes which will provide for a more efficient allocation of resources and a more equal distribution of social goods.

I believe that this proposal can work only with the utmost co-operation and goodwill of local government bodies, State governments and the Commonwealth Government. We in the Australian Government have goodwill towards those other 2 tiers in our federal system. We in the Australian Government seek the co-operation of all levels of government We must meet together as a team in the spirit of co-operative federalism, as a team of men and women of goodwill who are concerned to put this nation on the right tracks again. I ask the House to support the Bill.

Debate (on motion by Mir Street) adjourned.

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