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Speech to the National General Assembly of Local Government



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SPEECH BY BRUCE SCOTT MP

SHADOW MINISTER FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT TO THE

NATIONAL GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT

CANBERRA. 14 NOVEMBER 1995

Introduction

Councillor David Plumridge, President of the Australian Local Government Association, Mr Stuart MacCaskill, President of the New Zealand Local Government Association, the Honourable Brian Howe, Minister for Housing and Regional Development, overseas visitors, Chris Iga, Chairman, Commonwealth Local Government Forum, Mayor of Kampala, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to this, the second National General Assembly of Local Government. ,

This conference marks another watershed in the development of local government as a key player on Australia's national political stage.

Any democracy starts at the local level, which underpins the importance of your deliberations.

National agenda for Local Government

Last year’s Assembly resulted in the production of the National Agenda for Local Government.

This week you will ensure that the Agenda remains relevant by updating it to reflect developments which have occurred over the past year and redefining directions where appropriate.

The range of subjects to be discussed at this conference reflects the wide variety of issues which are of vital concern to communities across Australia today.

In this context I was interested to read of a survey of Sydney mayors elected after last month's council elections in New South Wales.

The survey found that most were as much concerned about quality of life and the social well-being of residents as about the traditional local government issues of roads, rates and rubbish.

Transport infrastructure, employment, commercial and industrial development, tourism and social services for the aged, the young and ethnic groups all rated highly.

Rural councils have experienced additional problems in helping to keep their communities together during the drought and recession.

I am pleased to see such a large representation from our rural shires here today.

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Changing Times

It almost goes without saying, I think, that local government in Australia is facing a degree of change most of us would never have thought possible.

More than ever before local government is playing its part on the world stage.

The presence of so many overseas visitors here today is testimony to this.

The international role of local government was highlighted at the recent Annual Conference of the Queensland Local Government Association, with the theme "The Local-Global Connection".

Thinking globally, acting locally, has very real meaning in today's international economy.

Councils do have a role to play in helping Australia become more efficient and competitive and their role needs to be given the recognition it deserves.

The reforms now occurring to a greater or lesser extent in every State and territory are front page news because of the impact they have on the daily lives of your ratepayers and the operations of your councils.

In adapting to the fast moving reform agenda, councillors will be shifting their focus from fine detail of day to day involvement in administration of council policy, programs and operations.

Instead, they will need to embrace the 'bigger issues' involved in preparing their municipality for the future.

Coalition policy on local government

Most of you are probably wondering whether the Coalition will be launching its local government policy today.

It would have been rather foolish to finalise the policy in advance of this, the premier local government forum in Australia.

I can say that our policy is in very advanced stage of readiness, and like the maturing of a good wine can only get better.

The outcomes of this Conference will be taken into account in finalising our policy.

Accord

Many of you have asked me about the Coalition's attitude to the Commonwealth-Local Government Accord which will be signed at this Assembly.

As I have not yet been able to study the final version of the Accord I am not in a position to comment on its detailed provisions.

I do have some reservations, however, about the conclusion of an agreement of this nature so close to the end of the life of the current Parliament.

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The bottom line, however, is that a Coalition Government will commit itself on coming to power to establishing a Memorandum of Understanding with local government and we will look at what the Accord has to offer.

Lack of consultation

I recognise the hope held by many of you that the Accord will result in a new era in Australia's inter-governmental relations.

However, if the Accord is going to produce the results desired by local government it will need to be accompanied by a sea-change in thinking by the current administration.

A piece of paper will not compensate for what l consider to have been official neglect of local government's interests.

Too often in recent years local government has been excluded from decisions which vitally affect its interests and responsibilities. ’

I have difficulty reconciling the notion of an Accord with the way the Federal Government has treated local government in recent years.

Let me give you some notorious examples.

Mobile telephone towers

The Government's decision to allow unregulated construction of mobile telephone towers has infuriated and alienated local communities across the country.

The Government has put in place a National Code which has in fact disenfranchised local government in terms of its ability to make planning decisions.

Under the Code the telecommunications carriers do not have to satisfy normal town planning requirements as a result of the operation of this code.

This has caused considerable anxiety in many suburbs and towns, with some towers completely destroying the urban amenity of many neighbourhoods.

I am pleased to announce today that a Coalition Government will address this issue on the basis of the following principles.

1. that residents have the right to be properly informed and to influence the nature of infrastructure projects which substantially and permanently affect their living environment.

2. local councillors accept responsibility for making sure that their constituents are fully informed of all infrastructure proposals and that residents concerns are communicated to the carriers.

3. that development of telecommunications services should not be unreasonably delayed.

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4. that in a competitive and commercial market, telecommunications companies should be subject to the same level of compliance with planning requirements as applies to other companies.

To achieve this, the Coalition will introduce a firm and balanced Telecommunications National Code, giving local government and their constituents more say over telecommunications in their areas.

The carrier's responsibilities under the Code will be vigorously enforced and there will be early examination of the feasibility of awarding compensation where the installation of telecommunications infrastructure substantially and permanently affects the value of residential premises.

Further, the carriers will be subject to normal planning and environmental regulation when the competitive market in telecommunications is introduced in 1997.

It is through this strategy that the Coalition intends to fix this problem once and for all.

National Competition Policy ,

The implementation of the Hilmer reforms is another example where local government was completely bypassed until the 11th hour.

The need to consult with local government on the introduction of the National Competition Policy is paramount.

The Hilmer reforms will have a substantial impact on local government, particularly our rural towns and shires.

Yet, despite the strenuous objections of the ALGA, the Government deliberately excluded local government from the terms of reference of the Industry Commission report on the costs and benefits of the Hilmer package.

The anxiety felt by so many communities, particularly rural ones, could have been avoided if the consequences of Hilmer for local government were better understood by government, and if local government was 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 implemented under Hilmer, to guarantee that vital services can continue to be provided to disadvantaged communities.

Better Cities

Another example of local government being left out in the cold is the Better Cities program.

Aside from the fact that most councils here today will never see any Better Cities funding, the Government has gone out of its way to ignore local government in the administration of this program.

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

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Administrative fragmentation

Before the Accord will be of any benefit to local councils, the Federal Government will need to fix some problems in its own backyard.

The National Office of Local Government suffers inadequate linkages with other areas of the Department of Housing and Regional Development and other Departments.

If the Accord can foster a "whole of government" approach from the Commonwealth to local government, then it will have achieved something.

Federal red tape

In a climate of financial restraint, local governments are, understandably, keen to attract whatever funding they can.

But this funding often comes with strings attached which allows the Federal Government an unprecedented level of control over local affairs.

I believe local government has been forced to trade its independence for what, unfortunately, have been illusory gains.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the establishment of Federally-funded Regional Economic Development Organisations.

Despite all the rhetoric, and heightened expectations, the money set aside for this program is only $150 million over 4 years.

And these funds must be shared amongst about 45 regions across Australia.

Half the allocation is for administration.

Federal approval is now required for the boundaries and membership of your local REDO.

Notwithstanding the limited funding assistance available, councils and other groups are being made to jump through numerous hoops to ensure their particular organisation qualifies.

This interference is in part the product of a heavy-handed Federal Government which thinks it knows better than you how to run your affairs.

Secret agenda

But it also reflects the not-so-secret agenda of many in the Government to abolish the States and impose a system of regional government on this country.

Even Wayne Goss, a Labor Premier, has voiced his concerns about the Federal Government's centralist push.

He referred to federally-created bureaucratic structures designed to look over the shoulders of the states, and he forecast the de facto disappearance of the States by the turn of the century unless Federal-State relations were overhauled..

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Under this model, the system of local government we take for granted today would cease to exist.

The warning signs should be well and truly apparent to you all.

As the result of the new local government financial assistance legislation pushed through Parliament by the Government earlier this year, the Federal Minister will be required to report to Parliament every year on whether councils have fulfilled the responsibilities set out for them in the legislation.

No longer, it seems, are local ratepayers and councillors to be trusted with local decision­ making.

This means that, for the first time, Federal financial assistance grants to councils are no longer completely untied.

A document recently circulated by leading members of the Left wing of the ALP, including members of the Government, called for action to make local councils more accountable to the Commonwealth.

I believe alarm bells should be ringing in town halls across Australia about this proposal for Federal control over the third sphere of government.

Coalition's directions for Local Government

Although I said earlier I am not releasing our local government policy today I would like to give you an indication of the general direction of our thinking.

The National/Liberal Coalition values and respects the work of local government.

I have already outlined our approach to mobile telephone towers.

It is the level of government closest to the community and is responsible for many of the key services essential to the well-being of local communities.

The Coalition in government will forge a close and constructive relationship with local government as part of our overall commitment to building and strengthening Australia's federal system.

As I mentioned earlier, frequent and effective consultation will be a key element in this partnership.

The Coalition's local government policy will recognise and promote the important contribution and role of local government in Australia today.

This includes areas such as social policy, the environment, service delivery and micro­ economic reform.

Delineating responsibilities

Better delineation of the responsibilities of the different levels of government is one of our key objectives.

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I would prefer councils got on with their real task of looking after their community, rather than filling out forms to be sent to Canberra.

Efficiencies

It is also time that the Federal Government accepted that local authorities are responsible managers and to recognise the tremendous efforts that have been made at the local level.

The recent announcement by your President Mayor David Plumridge that local government will dramatically improve the efficiency of local roads spending, by up to ten per cent, is another welcome initiative by local government in this direction.

This will result in annual savings of to $300 million.

Contrast this with the sorry record of the Federal Government in exempting coastal shipping, the waterfront and the labour market from the Hilmer reform package.

The Coalition will work with local government on progressing further reforms, rather than dictating terms.

Funding levels

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

The lack of any growth factor has seriously compromised local councils' ability to provide the range and quality of services essential for the health and prosperity of Australia's local communities.

Federal general purpose funding for local government has fallen from 1 per cent of total Federal tax revenues in 1983 to only 0.61 per cent in 1995/96.

Federal tax revenues are projected to increase by a massive 10 per cent in 1995/96.

But I wonder how many councils represented here today have received similar increases in the level of their Federal grants.

The fundamental problem facing local authorities is that this Government has built a very low level of local government funding into the budgetary framework.

Infrastructure

Another area of critical difference between the Coalition and the Government is in the area of infrastructure funding.

The Coalition will establish an Infrastructure Advisory Committee to co-ordinate the planning and appraisal of infrastructure investments and services that cross State borders or are of national significance.

Local Government will be represented on this Committee, which will give it a seat at the table in determining the direction of Australian infrastructure investment.

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Local roads

The real level of Federal funding for local roads has increased by only 2 per cent since 1983.

Over the same period, the fuel taxes extracted from the road user at the bowser have risen from $1.4 billion to an estimated $10.3 billion in 1995/96.

In other words, Federal road funding has been reduced from two thirds of the fuel tax revenue to a mere 8 per cent.

Added to this, the Government has also abolished the Federal Road Safety Black Spots Program, which was so successful in helping to reduce the road toll.

A Coalition government will reintroduce this program as a matter of priority.

W ater ’

The state of the nation's water resources will be another key infrastructure issue to be addressed by the Coalition in government.

We will conduct a national water audit to ascertain how much water Australia has, how much is needed, and how to make water use more sustainable.

Local government will play a key role to play in developing an effective water strategy which sees the effective recycling of water.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

I am very impressed by the large attendance at the Assembly from our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The Coalition in government will work to improve provision of services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and to ensure that these communities are able to utilise their own local community structures to determine the most effective ways to address their

community's needs.

Regional development

The Coalition's approach to regional development is also fundamentally different to that of the present Government.

The Coalition appreciates local government concerns that local councils are given no special status on the REDO boards and that their special position in the community is not recognised.

Regional development organisations should have a greater business and local government input and should encompass views from all people interested in the development of the regions.

REDOs should also not duplicate the work of existing voluntary organisations.

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We recognise that regional development cannot be imposed; it must evolve with the co­ operation of those who know the region best.

Conclusion

It has been a pleasure speaking to you today and participating in this conference at such an exciting time in local government's history.

I am sure the Assembly will assist us all to help focus attention on how to maximise Local Government's contribution in meeting the great challenges facing the nation as we approach the centenary of Federation and the twenty-first century.

I wish you well with the remainder of the Assembly.