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Thursday, 24 May 1973
Page: 2619

Mr Eric Robinson (MCPHERSON, QUEENSLAND) - The last paragraph of the second reading speech of the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) referred to the fact that the Bill, in his opinion, represents an historic step forward in advancing and enhancing the role of local government in Australia. One would hope that it means a significant step forward for Australia. Reaction to it is mixed. It should have come as no surprise to any Australian. One's attitude to it would depend upon one's interpretation of the Government's intent. I am prepared to concede certain things. Firstly, I concede that this whole approach was mentioned time and time again in Australian Labor Party speeches by the then Leader of the Opposition and his shadow Ministers. There is no doubt that it had an electoral impact in the last Federal election. I believe that it was one of the most important issues and one through which the Labor Party was able to encourage substantial support. I would concede that the Government does have a mandate for this approach, although I would not concede that it has a mandate for each Bill which it introduces. But this approach was enunciated so clearly and the intent was made so clear that I would concede that the Government has a mandate.

The Bill contains much of merit and much which should engender support, but of course there has to be concern about its intent and implementation, particularly from the Liberal Party Opposition which stands so much for the federal system of government. If we had to crystallise our concern it would be because we see the Bill as a possible vehicle to break down the federal system of government. This is why a number of my colleagues in the Liberal and Country Parties have expressed opposition to it and concern about it. One may be able to take some comfort if one reads the first paragraph of the Prime Minister's speech - this has been referred to by the honourable member for Gwydir (Mr Hunt) - in which he refers to the local authority becoming a genuine partner in the system. Presumably he means the federal system. But that is in conflict with his comments about a unitary system of government. In the last few days honourable members have seen very clearly the conflict arising out of the Prime Minister's comments.

The Grants Commission has had a pretty good history going back to 1933. I am informed that it was a Tasmanian Prime Minister who introduced it. As we all know, the Commission was designed to help the smaller States to achieve an equality of standards with the larger States. I am glad to see that the States' rights have been maintained. I quote from the second reading speech as follows:

The automatic right of claimant States to have their applications referred to the Commission for inquiry and report is in no way diminished.

The purpose is to extend the right to local authorities. There is inequality in local authorities, and they need assistance. I do not think that anybody would argue about that. From looking at the differences in the revenues that have been achieved in recent years by the 3 levels of government, it is tremendously clear to each and every one of us that there is need for assistance to local authorities. I believe that, as Australians, we owe a great debt of gratitude to many people who have contributed to local government. It has attracted many successful people from all walks of life. Many of them make their contribution in a completely honorary capacity. They are unpaid. Substantial demands are made on their time.

In my own electorate, which takes in the city of the Gold Coast - the second fastest growing city in the nation, after Canberra - I am aware of all the problems of growth and development there, as well as in the northern end of the McPherson electorate, in the top end of the Albert Shire and in the outer suburban areas of Brisbane. I know of the problems of the young communities there. Of course, there are problems in some of the rural areas because of the static or declining populations and increasing costs. The shires have tremendous difficulty in finding the necessary revenue to cover cost. We all accept that in the large capital cities of Australia there is a need for assistance in the outer sur.burbs. In this affluent and successful country Australians are entitled not only to adequate roads, water and drainage and sewerage but also to libraries, recreation facilities, community centres, child care centres and cultural centres. These are the necessities and the requirements of life. They are the facilities and amenities to which each and every one of us is entitled.

I believe that the regional arrangements in the Bill are to be commended. Obviously it is impractical if some 900 shires and councils throughout the nation have to be dealt with. The decision as to where there are to be regional arrangements is one for the Minister for Urban and Regional Development. I hope that some of the smaller shires, particularly those in Queensland which I know, will make use of this arrangement. What has concerned me has been that in some of the smaller shires, with their very limited revenue, a sense of rivalry and competition has led to duplication of machinery and unnecessary expenditure. I am certain that there is room for improvement in effectiveness and efficiency in those smaller shires. The Bill makes it necessary for the submissions to go to the Special Minister of State. He has real discretion as to what is sent on to the Commission. I am pleased to see that a copy of each submission will go to the relevant State government for its comment and that, should it see fit, that State government will be able to make a submission to the Commission. This is essential because State governments have a very real knowledge of local authority areas. I believe, however, that a real responsibility rests with those 2 Ministers. The first one has to decide what regional arrangements are to be accepted, and the second one has to decide what submissions are to go to the Commission. I am not suggesting that either Minister would be involved in this, but this sort of system could lend itself to political patronage, which should be avoided, and also to the suggestion that all wisdom resides in Canberra, which I hope none of us would claim.

The Bill makes it perfectly clear that it is a topping-up process; it is not a substitute for rates and charges, which provide about 90 per cent of local authority revenue in Australia. I believe that there ought to be revision by local authorities of the manner in which they raise revenue. To my mind, there is a great need to see that we have a more effective and fairer way for local authorities to raise revenue. They should not simply depend upon rates and charges. The Commission will play a very significant role in the national economy. I hope that the Government will be able to attract people with skill and experience to serve the nation.

I would like to make two or three general comments. I believe it is fair to say that this is probably one of the most significant Bills to come before the House in this session. There have been others of significance, but this is one of the most significant.' I would have hoped that more time could have been made available between the presentation of the second reading speech and the debate today. This is a matter of national significance and national interesst. It is regrettable that we have not had more time in which to study this Bill very deeply. The concern about it relates to the maintenance of the federal structure. My attitude and, I believe, the attitude of many Australians will depend on this. It is a question of the Government's genuineness. References were made in the Prime Minister's speech to the federal system. We have had assurances from the Minister for Urban and Regional Development (Mr Uren) in the House. Many people will be watching with great interest to see that the co-operation with the States and the consultation with the States, about which those 2 honourable gentlemen have spoken, does occur. Australians want to see decentralisation of power. They will be displeased, to say the least, if this Commission is used as a vehicle for the centralisation of power. 1 suggest that there will be a backlash against the Government should it attempt to use the Commission in that manner.

Finally, I am concerned about the substantial drift in Federal-State relations. Since the new Federal Government took office increasing strains and stresses have been developing. I will not claim that it has been one-sided. I am on record in my own State as saying that I believe that some extreme statements have come from Queensland. In many areas the new Federal Government has adopted an attitude of heavy-handedness, an attitude of tactlessness, an attitude verging on arrogance, towards the States. This is not in Australia's best interests. It does not develop the sort of national unity we should have in such a strong and important nation. The 3 tiers of government will be represented at the forthcoming constitutional convention. I applaud the decision that local authorities will be represented at the convention. I hope, for the benefit of Australia that it will be successful. I hope that no growing disagreement will create divisions between governments which will make mature and balanced decisions difficult to achieve at the convention. I support the Bill but reiterate my concern, and the watchfulness that many people will be having in this matter, as to the way the Government implements it.

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