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Thursday, 15 August 1974
Page: 1026


Senator WALSH (Western Australia) - It seems that there are 3 major issues or 3 strands in the dispute between the Government and the Opposition in this debate. They could be put under these headings- I use the Opposition's highly emotive and rather meaningless term- of centralism, the aggregate level of Commonwealth funding for road expenditure, and the distribution of that aggregate level of funds between various States and various categories of roads. On the issue of centralism my colleague, Senator Devitt, has already exposed the Opposition's argument by quoting the statement of the Minister for Transport ( Mr Jones) who referred to many of the charges and allegations that have been made by members of the Opposition that the Government in Canberra is going to scrutinise in the most minute detail the expenditure on every road work which is to be conducted by local government authorities at places such as Nullagine or Marble Bar. My colleague has already dealt with that and shown that it simply is not true. On the broader issue of what the Opposition likes to call centralism- that is, whether we should have a national roads system which is nationally planned- I think perhaps I could do no better than to quote from the Minister's second reading speech to the Bill which established the Commonwealth Bureau of Roads in 1964. The second reading speech of the then Minister for Transport, Mr Gordon Freeth, is reported in Hansard on 20 May 1964. On the problem of assessing road priorities within Australia Mr Freeth said:

We have official statistics and we obtain the views and assessments of the States. Inevitably, however, this falls short of what we require. Necessarily the views and representations put to us stress particular- and, in the nature of the case, sectional- aspects of the problem. But the Commonwealth must be in a position to make a competent and reliable appraisal of its own. It has to do this in the context of its many other responsibilities. It has to try to see the problem as a national whole and not simply as the sum of particular views of it.

I was not here in 1964 so it may well be that the anti-centralists or self-professed pseudo anticentralists who have spoken in this debate tonight and in the other house on this Bill disagreed with Mr Freeth when he laid out that philosophy in quite lucid and explicit terms. If they did, I apologise to them. If they did not I ask them: What has changed between 1964 and 1974 which made the proposition that the national government should plan the national road system in 1964 a sound proposition and makes it an allegedly unsound proposition in 1974?

I refer now to the second issue, the aggregate level of funding. We all know that it is very easy for an opposition to say that no government is providing enough funds for any particular pressure group or for any particular avenue of government expenditure in any part of Australia. It is very easy for an opposition to say that. It becomes somewhat indefensible when an opposition which has been habitually complaining that a government has been spending too much money criticises a government for allegedly spending too little in any particular area without offering alternative areas in which it suggests expenditure should be cut. Certainly the priorities of road construction as against other competing areas of government expenditure and the distribution of whatever level of road funds is finally decided involve value judgments. They involve an area within which there are quite legitimate grounds for genuine differences of opinion. That is inevitable. What is not inevitable but what has unfortunately crept into this debate tonight, into the House of Representatives debate 2 weeks ago and throughout Australia, is that the facts of the case and the statistics have either been misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented.

There have been a number of changes in the specification of road classes and the categorisation of expenditure in this Bill vis-a-vis the legislation for the period from 1969 to 1974. Because of these changes it is not very easy to grasp the true implications and the true nature of" the comparisons between one period and the next if we feel there is any point in making such comparisons. That inherent difficulty has been compounded by the persistent attempts, knowingly or unknowingly, of the opponents of this Government to mislead the public. We have witnessed one of the most glaring examples of it tonight. I do not mean to cast any aspersions on the integrity or the intentions of Senator Lawrie. I am quite willing to accept- in fact, it is my firm belief- that when Senator Lawrie was quoting what Mr Nixon said he did so in good faith. I am sorry that the honourable senator is not present in the Senate chamber. If he were I would offer him this little bit of advice: Be careful when quoting members of his Party to make sure that the statements he is quoting are correct.

The statement by Mr Nixon made in the House of Representatives, which was quoted by Senator Lawrie, concerned the allocation of funds for rural local roads. Mr Nixon presented a table showing that for the 3-year period $156m would be allocated. I think that figure is correct. But from that fact Mr Nixon drew, deliberately or otherwise, a completely erroneous conclusion that that expenditure represented a decline from the previous level of spending of $248m on rural local roads. What Mr Nixon conveniently overlooked, wittingly or unwittingly, was that there had been a profound change in the definition of rural local roads. Those roads which are classified class 3 and which under the previous legislation had been included in the rural local road category have been transferred under this legislation to the rural arterial road category. That accounts for the apparent difference in the figures. To show the importance of these class 3 roads, within my State of Western Australia there are some 6,000 miles of these class 3 roads which have been transferred from one category to another. I do not know what the mileage is on a national level. That is what Mr Nixon neglected to tell us and what Senator Lawrie unfortunately chose to repeat, I accept, in innocence.

I suggest to people who want to argue- I am not suggesting that the Bill should be argued on this basis- that this Bill is not giving rural areas a fair go vis-a-vis other areas or that it is giving urban areas too much of the cake, if they want to assess the position on this petty parochial level, they should at least get their facts straight. I look now at Senator Wright. In fact, under the previous Commonwealth Aid Roads Agreement the percentage of funds allocated for spending in rural areas represented 47 per cent of the total allocation. In this proposal, the percentage allocated for expenditure in rural areas is 61 per cent. That, Senator Wright, represents an extra 1 4 per cent allocated to rural areas.


Senator Wright - You do not know what you are talking about.


Senator WALSH - I am quoting from the second reading speech of the Minister for Transport (Mr Charles Jones) delivered on 18 July 1974 and recorded on page 385 of Hansard.


Senator Wright -But not understanding it.


Senator WALSH -I ask Senator Wright to correct me where I have misunderstood it. Senator Wright, by his silence, has tacitly acknowledged that his ignorance is profound and my understanding is at least somewhat more complete than his. Senator Wright has cast the wholly unwarranted aspersion that this Government has deliberately spent more on urban roads because there are more votes in urban areas. It is true that there are more votes in urban areas, but it is not true that this Government has allocated a higher percentage of the expenditure under this Bill vis-a-vis the previous Bill to urban areas. Why this Government did that is perhaps an open question. But it certainly was not a very sensible thing to do if it was trying to attract votes in the urban areas by bribing them with a greater allocation of road funds. I now refer to statements which Senator Withers made in opening the Opposition's argument in the debate. I may well have misunderstood what he said.


Senator Baume - That is not surprising.


Senator WALSH - You have not corrected me yet, have you? I understood Senator Withers to say that the Bunbury Council had notified him that it would require a 50 per cent increase in vehicle licence fees.


Senator Withers - Local authority rates.


Senator WALSH - The Council would require a 50 per cent increase in local rates to maintain the level of road expenditure. I stand corrected on that. I had understood the honourable senator to refer to vehicle licence fees. The Minister for Transport in Western Australia, Mr O'Connor, was quoted by Mr Nixon, again on 1 August in the other place, as having stated that it would be necessary to increase motor user taxation by a substantial amount of the order of 65 per cent if these Bills were passed in their present form. He did not define what he meant by motor user taxation but presumably at the very least it included vehicle licence fees and by most definitions would also include drivers licence fees- a substantial source of revenue. Either Mr O'Connor or Mr Nixon did not bother to define in any greater detail or with any greater clarity the point they were making, but I assume they were making the claim that in order to meet the matching requirements stipulated under this Bill for State Government road expenditure from their own financial resources it would be necessary to increase motor user taxation by 65 per cent. That is not true.


Senator Baume - Did you check with Mr O'Connor, senator? A phone call would have done it.


Senator WALSH -Other members of the Western Australian Government have made the statement that in order to meet the quota requirements -


Senator Baume - But you are not sure what he meant.


Senator WALSH - Other members of the Western Austraiian Government made the same claim previously- that in order to meet the quota requirements a 65 per cent increase was required in vehicle licence fees. The quota for Western Australia is $23.8m. The projected matching income for 1974-75 on the basis of the old charges was $ 18.8m which leaves a deficit of $5m. A 65 per cent increase in motor vehicle licence fees over a full 12-month period would produce additional revenue of the order of $10m. It is true that when the State Government made its announcement and stated its intention to increase motor vehicle licence fees by 65 per cent the proposal was that it should apply for only 9 months of this year but even on a pro rata basis there is a sum of $2'/2m in excess funds not accounted for or $2.5m over the quota.


Senator Durack - Excess funds are required to meet the high rate of inflation.


Senator WALSH - There is a stipulated requirement in the Bill. The quota for a State government is not subject to the inflation factor. The quota remains fixed whether there is inflation or not. When the Bill was debated in the other House Mr Nixon once again- and this could well be a Hansard misprint- is reported to have said that the total grant to Western Australia under the Road Grants Bill is reduced from $38.5m to $372m over the 5-year period. There is obviously something wrong there because clearly Mr Nixon does not believe that a grant which goes from $38.5m to $372m is a reduction. So I am not sure what he meant but the facts of the case are that -


Senator Baume - What is the point that the honourable senator is making?


Senator WALSH -The point that I am making is that there has been no reduction in the grant allocated to Western Australia in this period vis-a-vis the last 3 years of the previous road grants.


Senator Marriott - It was caught up with inflation.


Senator Jessop -The inflation rate then was only 4 per cent, was it not, Senator?


Senator WALSH - I am sorry, I cannot find the figures that I have written down for Western Australia. I have so many papers in front of me.


Senator Cavanagh - The figure was 13.4 per cent for Western Australia.


Senator WALSH - Thank you, Mr Minister. For Australia as a whole, contrary to what has been stated, it is proposed that total grants for the 3 years of this legislation to all the States in aggregate- including planning- will be $1,1 26m as against $870m for the last 3 years of the previous program. The $870m includes supplementary grants and beef road grants. If honourable senators like to compare the figures for 1973-74, with the current financial year of 1974-75 they will find that the allocation for all States has increased from just over $32 1 m, including grants for beef roads, to $350m. I have now found the figures for Western Australia. There is an increase of $ 13m in this 3-year period as against the last 3-year period- not a decrease as has been alleged. When this Bill was debated in the other place the honourable member for Forrest (Mr Drummond) made 2 allegations. He said:

One must appreciate also that the base amount that was raised in Western Australia last year was $ 11.279m. The quota for Western Australia under this Bill is $23. 8m.

The figure of $11. 279m appears to have been extracted from schedule 7 which appeared at the end of the 1969-74 Roads Grants Bill. I think it related to the basic quota requirement for the first year. In fact, the quota requirement for Western Australia last year was not $ 1 1 .279m, as Mr Drummond appeared to believe, but $16.5m. The actual revenue raised was $20. 8m. So the required increase in quota is not nearly of the magnitude suggested by Mr Drummond. He also referred to- there is probably somewhat more justification for this complaint- a complaint from the Secretary of the Local Government Association of Western Australia which had been sent to him. The Secretary, in that letter, stated: . .the Press reports, statements by the honourable Premier of the State, indicate that the grants to Western Australia will not only not be increased out that grants are to be reduced by one-sixth.

Now, it is quite feasible that some reports which were appearing in the Press at that time could have led Mr White to believe that there was to be a decrease in the grants. I do not particularly blame him for it but I would like to point out that on 14 June 1974 a Press statement was issued from the office which I share in Perth setting out the basic facts of the allocation of funds under this Bill, comparing funds allocated to urban and rural areas between the period 1972-74 and the 1974-76 period. It compared the future period with the past period and made a comparative analysis of expenditure and of the direction of expenditure. It also specified the important changes in the definition of road categories and the effect this has had on road finances. That statement was circulated to every local newspaper in Western Australia and to all rural weeklies. To the best of my knowledge, the statement was published in only one.

It is the prerogative of a newspaper proprietor to decide what he will publish and what he will not. But if one of the reasons for existence of a rural newspaper is to pass on to rural residents information which is relevant to their interests, surely it is not too much to expect that these rural newspapers could have seen fit to publish what was just a bald statement of facts, even if it did come from what they regard as a tainted source. Had they done so, a lot of the confusion which led Mr White to make that incorrect assessment of the situation would not have occurred. If Mr Drummond has any complaints about this I suggest that his complaints should be directed towards the rural Press in Western Australia which declined to publish important information.







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