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Speech to the Annual Conference of the Local Government Association of NSW



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SPEECH BY BRUCE SCOTT MP

SHADOW MINISTER FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT

TO THE ANNUAL CONFERENCE OF THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT ASSOCIATION OF NSW

WAGGA WAGGA. 22 NOVEMBER 1995

Introduction

Cr Peter Woods, President of the Local Government Association of New South Wales, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted and honoured to have this opportunity to address this very important Conference.

I must say I feel quite at home here since I was fortunate enough to meet many of you at last week's National General Assembly of Local Government.

I apologise for Noel Hicks, the local Federal Member, who could not be here today, although I understand he attended the opening ceremony on Sunday.

Diverse interests

The role of local government in the community has steadily expanded, and so too has local government's interest and participation in issues of concern to the wider community.

This broad range of interests is reflected in the comprehensive set of policy statements being considered at this Conference.

I assure you that I, and my Coalition colleagues, recognise the vital role played by local government in national affairs.

I would also like to make reference today to the vital role which you will play in the lead up to the Sydney Olympic Games.

The planning involved in providing the necessary infrastructure and managing the vast numbers of visitors are I am sure issues many of you are already starting to address.

APEC

One of the major issues facing Australia is our mounting foreign debt, combined with our alarming current account deficit.

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The nations sorry record on this front lowers the standard of living of every Australian.

Australia must become more competitive in international markets and start paying its way in the world.

The free trade arrangements approved by APEC last weekend hopefully will boost Australia's international trade opportunities.

According to one estimate, this could result in an additional $40 billion income for Australia every year.

The challenge of all three spheres of government is to ensure that Australia is in the best possible position to take full advantage of these opportunities.

This includes local government, which is not only a significant consumer and provider of goods and services, but is also responsible for regulating many businesses large and small.

Local government accounts for some 7 per cent of total public sector outlays, collects some 4 per cent of total taxation revenue and employs some 9 per cent of the total government civilian work force.

Local government's role is recognised in the National Agenda for Local Government.

It acknowledges that local government has a key leadership role, in partnership with other spheres of government, to achieve further micro-economic reform.

And the recent announcement by the President of the Australian Local Government Association, Mayor David Plumridge, of a local roads efficiency program, is further evidence of the willingness of local government to play its part.

By improving the efficiency of local roads spending, local councils will save up to $300 million a year in the cost of building and maintaining roads under their responsibility.

Coalition's directions for Local Government

The Coalition's local government policy, to be released closer to the election, will take into account the outcome of this Conference and that of the National General Assembly.

However, I will outline some of the broad directions the policy will take.

Commission of Audit

One hurdle which we must overcome in the drive to become more competitive is the vast overlap in functions between the different spheres of government.

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This duplication, and in some cases triplication, costs us dearly by wasting resources and thereby inhibiting our international competitiveness.

Immediately after the election of a Coalition Government, a Commission of Audit will be established to report on the level of government duplication and the measures necessary to deliver these services more efficiently.

The Coalition recognises that local government is responsible for providing many of the key services vital to local communities and so is the level of government that is closest to the people.

Many decisions are just better made at local level, rather than by a Minister or bureaucrat in sitting in Canberra.

The Coalition will provide local communities with greater autonomy by dismantling current rigid bureaucratic controls.

Regional development

Another area which will come in for Coalition attention is regional development.

The money set aside for the Regional Development Program is $150 million over 4 years and must be shared among about 45 regions across Australia.

Federal approval is required for the boundaries and membership of your local Regional Economic Development Organisation.

However, the Coalition believes that regional development cannot be imposed; it must evolve with the co-operation of those who know the region best.

Instead of tinkering with regional boundaries from Canberra, a Coalition Government will implement a truly effective regional development strategy, which is driven at a community level.

The McKinsey report on the growth of Australia's regions identified 41 % of our towns and regions as being in decline.

It is ironic that many regional areas face the very real spectre of 'ghost-towns', while our five major cities, which house 60 per cent of Australias population, are bursting at the seams.

It is absolutely essential that we relieve the pressure on our capital cities by making provincial and rural Australia more attractive places in which to invest and to bring up children.

As we are enjoying the hospitality of the great city of Wagga Wagga, I would like to refer to recent comments by the city's Mayor, Councillor Peter Dale.

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According to Mayor Dale, the State Government has relocated or axed nearly 130 jobs, at a cost to Wagga of $12 million.

This is an experience being repeated around the State.

Premier Carr has quite rightly drawn attention to Sydney's population growth and urban sprawl.

But if he was fair dinkum, he would reverse some of the anti-regional policies he has adopted since coming to office.

The Federal Liberal/National Coalition has already started to release policies to reinvigorate regional Australia.

Yesterday, we announced that the Coalition would ensure that people living in regional and rural Australia had access to the latest telephone technology.

For too long regional communities have had to put up with substandard telephone services.

By 1997, under a Coalition Government, rural Australians will have access to services such as call waiting, call diversion, itemised billing, and better and cheaper access to the Internet.

The upgrading of telecommunications services that we have guaranteed will improve the delivery and efficiency of government services like education.

It will also facilitate financial transactions such as the lodgement of Medicare claims and tax returns, and allow medical services such as remote diagnosis of X-ray and CAT scan images by experts in other parts of the country or even the world.

Accord

Many of you have asked me about the Coalition's attitude to the Commonwealth- Local Government Accord signed last week.

At the outset I should say that I do have some reservations about an agreement of this nature being concluded so close to the end of the current Parliament.

This in no way implies that the Federal Coalition does not recognise the need for close and continuing dialogue between local government and the Commonwealth.

At last week's National General Assembly of Local Government I committed the Coalition in government to establishing a Memorandum of Understanding with local government.

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Crucial issues ignored

One of the remarkable things about the Accord is how many crucial issues it manages to avoid.

It seems to me that many of the commitments are made by local government, but you have to look hard to find any quid pro quo from the Commonwealth.

Funding

Councils have had to put up with Federal funding levels for general purpose and road grants which take no account of their increasing responsibilities over recent years and the considerable population growth in many local government areas.

Federal general purpose funding for local government has fallen in terms of its share of Federal tax revenues by over one third since the current administration came to office in 1983.

Over the same period, Federal road funding has been reduced from two thirds of the fuel tax revenue to a mere 8 per cent.

Within a week of the signing of the Accord, the Queensland Local Government Association has started a public campaign to increase the level of funding for local councils in that State.

This is scarcely a ringing endorsement of the funding clauses of the Accord, which simply restate previously announced funding levels, and promises yet another review of local government's finances.

Hardly cause for much encouragement that better things lie ahead.

Constitutional recognition of local government

The Accord also disappoints in the area of constitutional recognition of local government, which I know is a subject very important to many of you here today.

What do you find when you turn to the Accord?

"The Commonwealth will provide support for recognition of local government in the Australian Constitution.

When, where and how are details the Government cannot or will not spell out.

Upon assuming the local government portfolio in 1993, Mr Howe promised to look at this issue.

Two and a half years later, nothing has happened.

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The Coalition has promised that in 1997 this issue will be addressed by a Peoples Constitutional Convention, which will include representation from local government.

Better Cities

The Accord also needs to come to terms with the inadequate involvement of local government in the implementation of the Better Cities Program.

Despite making a great show about mailing Better Cities guidelines to each local council, most if not all decisions in the first funding round were made before you ever received the guidelines.

It is absurd that a program which is supposed to foster better planning practices has so little input from the local communities which will be most affected.

Mobile telephone towers

The issue of mobile phone towers and pay-TV cables, which was considered by this Conference earlier in the week, also needs further Federal attention.

Local councils around Australia have been outraged by the decision of the Government to effectively remove telecommunications carriers from the planning processes.

If the Accord is to have any significance at all you would have thought it would have addressed this problem.

As I announced at the National General Assembly last week, a Coalition Government will ensure that the carriers will be subject to normal planning and environmental regulation when further competition is introduced into the telecommunications sector in 1997.

Airport privatisation

It will be interesting to see whether the Accord will provide the framework within which local government's concerns about the Federal program of airports privatisation can be addressed.

According to the Australian Mayoral Council, the Federal Government's program had no real or effective community input.

It also fails to incorporate controls on aircraft noise, airport air quality, non-related airport development, airport related traffic management, and waste water disposal.

National Competition Policy

If the Accord is to have any chance of success the Federal Government will need to substantially lift its game in the area of consultation with local government.

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A prime example of a failure to consult is the implementation of the national competition reforms, where local government was ignored until the 11th hour.

The anxiety felt by so many communities, particularly rural ones, could have been avoided if local government had been more closely involved in the process from the beginning.

As the result of Coalition pressure, I am happy to say that a parliamentary committee is now looking at how community service obligations can be dealt with so that vital services can continue to be provided to disadvantaged communities.

Despite these reservations, I congratulate local government, particularly the Australian Local Government Association, on its work in negotiating the Accord with the Federal Government.

It does provide a framework within which local government can strive for a better deal from the Commonwealth and that is a good thing.

Conclusion

Thank you for inviting me to speak at your Conference, which I am sure will be a great success.