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Tuesday, 11 October 1983
Page: 1563

Mr JOHN BROWN (Minister for Administrative Services)(5.50) —I would like to make a few comments on some of the contributions-some constructive, some otherwise-to this debate on the estimates for the Department of Administrative Services. I start by making a few comments on the remarks made by the honourable member for Stirling (Mr Ronald Edwards). He spoke about the need to make Administrative Services a department that operates on a quasi-commercial basis. I agree with him totally. I am pleased to say that since I assumed the stewardship of this particularly important Department I have been able to see in that short period of six months an increase not only in the productivity of the Department but also in morale. The actions of the previous Government and of the Ministers who occupied this post were all dedicated to the destruction of this important services Department, prompted no doubt by some decisions that were taken under the Review of Commonwealth Functions, the old razor gang. The very excellent public servants who populate this Department, including those officers who are now sitting at the back of the chamber, found themselves in the position of not knowing whether their jobs were going to be there next week, given the number of decisions taken in this Department to wind down the various functions it operated.

We are now putting this Department on a semi-commercial basis and we have done several things to promote that. The honourable member for Stirling mentioned a couple of them-the building of government buildings and the policies we have taken with regard to the purchase of government motor vehicles. I will spend a moment or two talking about both those matters. The previous Government did not build a major Commonwealth building when it was in office. The result of that is that the Federal Government has the highest rate of occupancy of leased buildings amongst federal governments in the world. The sad situation is that 64 per cent of all the hundreds of thousands of public servants in Australia are in rented premises-in fact in Sydney it reaches a ridiculous 83 per cent-with the Government paying out something like $150m this year in rents for leased premises around Australia, when the obvious, reasonable and businesslike approach would to to own the buildings.

I am delighted that the Cabinet has agreed to a proposition I put up for the building of something like $120m-worth of Commonwealth buildings around Australia in the present financial year. I will give one good example of how rational a decision this is. Let me talk about one in which I, and I am sure the honourable member for Dundas (Mr Ruddock) in another way, have a particular interest-the building of a Commonwealth building in Parramatta in my electorate. There are so many Commonwealth departments residing in the central business district of Sydney where there is no need for them to be that the situation is quite ludicrous. Any reasonable commercial enterprise would not have allowed the situation to deteriorate to the stage it had reached under the previous Government. Government departments are sitting in prestige office space in the centre of the Sydney business district paying rents of up to $300 or $400 per square metre per year to provide services which could adequately be provided in the suburbs where the public servants live and near to where the people who want to do business with them also live.

Mr McVeigh —Put some beef in it. They are all leaving.

Mr JOHN BROWN —Do I have to contend with this bumbling fool from the National Party? I thought I was doing a solo act.

The CHAIRMAN —Order! The honourable member has no right to engage in incessant interjection. I ask him to desist.

Mr JOHN BROWN —In Parramatta we will be able to build a major Commonwealth building to house approximately 4,000 public servants.

Mr McVeigh —Is this Parramatta Park? Does Tom Uren agree with that?

The CHAIRMAN —Order! I ask the honourable member for Darling Downs to cease interjecting.

Mr JOHN BROWN —The point I was making was that for the cost of housing these 4, 000 public servants in the central business district of Sydney and paying incredibly high commercial rents we can build a Commonwealth building in Parramatta, and at the end of 10 years, own it. I am yet to hear anybody who would question the veracity or sound commercial sense of doing that. I think it is to the credit of this Government that we can see the sound commercial sense of owning Commonwealth buildings and housing public servants in proper conditions instead of putting up with the sub-standard conditions in which they are now housed in privately-owned buildings for which the Commonwealth is paying exorbitant rents. I suggest that at the end of this period of government, before we are elected next time, something like 16 major Commonwealth buildings will be constructed around Australia, six of them in Queensland, I might add, in Mackay, Townsville, Cairns and Thursday Island, with a great deal of refurbishing in Brisbane.

Mr McVeigh —Toowoomba?

Mr JOHN BROWN —None in Toowoomba that I know of. The population of Australia will congratulate this Government for its great commercial sense in saving taxpayers' money. Public servants will then be working in areas where they live instead of having to travel massive distances to commercial centres in the centre of cities. They will also applaud the fact that they are working in reasonable conditions. I think it is an indictment of the previous Administration, for instance, that in Townsville public servants have been working in conditions that could be described only as dickensian in buildings that were built before the turn of this century. In one building that I attended there were candles in bottles. I said: 'What are they for-blackouts? They said: 'No, that's probably the best lighting we have. The electric lighting in winter is so inefficient that we light candles to help'. The previous Government was prepared to leave people working in those sorts of conditions. A major building for Townsville has been designed, and approved by the Public Works Committee. It has been sitting on the stocks since 1977 waiting for the previous Government to give it the go-ahead. This Government, in its first couple of months of office, took the decision to build that building in Townsville, which will mean that all the 16 government departments represented in Townsville which service all of the north of Queensland across to the Northern Territory border will now be better able to deliver services to the people who are entitled to get services from them. The public servants who will work in that modern, air-conditioned and splendid construction, built under the supervision of the Department of Housing and Construction, will also be happy that their working conditions will be more pleasant, and obviously their services will be more efficient. The previous Government could not see the sense of doing that and was quite happy to pay excessive commercial rents for inferior buildings when the possibility was there to construct buildings which the public owned.

Mr Hodgman —When are you going to get on with Hodgman House in Hobart?

Mr JOHN BROWN —I do not propose to name any house after Hodgman. It is more likely to be an institution of ill fame named after the honourable gentleman. I think Townsville and Parramatta might be fairly good examples of what we propose to do over the rest of Australia to provide a sound and business-like basis for the Department of Administrative Services. The same might be applied to motor vehicles. Any survey done by any reputable firm of accountants across Australia would indicate that the best time to sell a commercial vehicle is after two years of service, and that had been the policy under the Whitlam Government. It is sad to relate that, under the Fraser Administration, Commonwealth-owned cars were 3.8 years old before they were disposed of. The economics of that are simply ridiculous. This Government has voted money to the Department to replace our vehicles almost by the two year stage; it is now about two years and three months. By the next Budget it will be back to two years. The sound economic basis for that is clearly defined in a dozen surveys, including the most recent one which was done for the previous Government but of which, of course, it took no notice. The result of that will be savings in the order of $2.5m a year in the cost of maintenance and replacement of vehicles. This Government has adopted a very business-like approach to the administration of this very important Department and, more importantly, has given those people who work in it a totally new sense of dedication and morale. I think that is a very important decision we have taken.

I turn to some comments that were made by the honourable member for Dundas concerning a block of land at the corner of Bettington Road and Kissing Point Road which is quite near where both he and I live, that had formerly been the site of a Commonwealth hostel. I will not go over the arguments that he made about the history of the disposal of the land, except to say that that land has traditionally been welfare housing land since its purchase by the Commonwealth. That was the reason for its purchase and that was the reason for which it was used. When the hostel became surplus and was disposed of and the land remained fallow under the previous Government. The honourable member has mentioned that the New South Wales Government had not been interested in that piece of land. I do not know whether that is true. I will accept his word, because I find him to be an honourable gentleman. I will tell honourable members what this Government proposes to do about it. It is a piece of land that is admirably suited to the provision of welfare housing which was, as I said, the traditional use of that land. This Government is involved in discussions with the New South Wales Government and the Housing Commission of New South Wales under Mr Walker, to see that that land is used for the building of welfare housing.

The arguments that were put forward by the honourable member to my mind hold no substance. He claimed that the land is not flat, it is not near shops and is not ideally suited for welfare housing. I will explode a few of those arguments. It is on public transport routes going in two directions; it is quite near a block of shops and the major shopping centres of Parramatta and Carlingford; and it is surrounded by schools. The terrain is absolutely perfect for the building of townhouses, which the New South Wales Housing Commission proposes to build up on it. The honourable member made reference to the fact that if the Commonwealth sells that land to the New South Wales Government we might not be obtaining full value for the land. That is a matter for some debate. I argue strongly that the Commonwealth will be obtaining full valuation for that land as, of course, we should in any proper dealing. As Minister I am charged with seeing that the Commonwealth gets full value for any land or building that I dispose of.

But in evaluating what the Commonwealth receives for land or property, one should also look at the social, as well as the base financial, criteria. It is fair to say that in the evolution of Sydney, young people seeking Housing Commission homes are constantly pushed to the peripheral areas-to Campbelltown, St Marys and Emu Plains-where there are many social problems, not the least of which being that no jobs are available because there are no industries there. When we find a piece of land such as the one in Dundas, which is about five hectares and which is perfect for the development of welfare housing, it seems to me to be incumbent from a social point of view for the Commonwealth and State governments to see that welfare housing is put on traditional welfare housing land, and that is what will happen. I add that 1.18 hectares of that land will be provided for open space under some agreement with the Parramatta City Council to improve amenities for the people.

Mr McVeigh —You are not going to get many houses, are you?

Mr JOHN BROWN —The honourable member, as a former Minister for Housing and Construction, should have some idea of how many welfare housing townhouses could be put on 3.53 hectares of sloping land.

Mr McVeigh —I am asking you.

Mr JOHN BROWN —I am not about to tell the honourable member because the New South Wales Government must decide about that. But it will be developed totally in accord with the zonings that are supplied by the Parramatta City Council which controls that block of land. The Government's action in providing that land to the New South Wales Government for welfare housing is absolutely defensible. The more welfare housing that we build on built-up land which has an underutilisation of expensive services such as roads, sewerage, water and electricity circulation the better we will be. I am sure that you, Mr Chairman, as a former distinguished Minister for Housing in the Whitlam Government, would totally agree with me, because that was a philosophy that you pursued. The things that you did as a Minister stand as testimony to your judgment. What we are doing in Dundas will accord exactly with your philosophy-that there should be a social mix in areas; that welfare housing should be built where people do not find themselves in an isolated position; and that people at the base of the socio-economic scale should not be deprived of the enrichment that is available to them in built-up areas. That is exactly what we are doing with regard to the land in Dundas. I will not step back from my proposition that that land should be supplied to the New South Wales Government under proper terms and conditions for welfare housing.

When I hear the honourable member for Dundas talking about a waste of public money, I am almost tempted to laugh. In my short period of tenure in this office I have discovered-and corrected the waste of many hundreds of thousands of dollars under decisions that were taken by the previous Government. I am proud that we have made commercial decisions about housing, accommodation and motor cars that will all be to the advantage of the Australian taxpayer. I am happy to say to you, Mr Chairman, that I, apart from being the Minister for Administrative Services, am also a taxpayer, as are all members of this Parliament. I find it incumbent upon us to take actions which are responsible to the taxpayers of Australia and within our political philosophy: Those decisions were not taken by the previous Government. Its lack of efficiency stands greatly to its detriment. I turn to some of the comments that were made by the honourable member for Griffith (Mr Humphreys), the Government Whip, regarding car disposal.

Mr McVeigh —Tell him to wind it up, then.

Mr Hodgman —He's the one who is trying to shut you up.

Mr McVeigh —The Government Whip is interested now.

Mr JOHN BROWN —He made some remarks about some pieces missing from motor cars that were disposed of at our auctions. He spoke about hub caps, lights and various other things.

The CHAIRMAN —I ask the honourable members on my left to cease making frivolous interjections. An occasional intelligent interjection is not resented by the Minister or anybody else. But I do not think honourable members have a right to persist with frivolous interjections. I ask the House to come to order.

Mr JOHN BROWN —The honourable member for Griffith spoke about the disposal of Commonwealth vehicles through an auction system. There is a lot of substance in the criticisms he made. I am happy to tell him in this forum that we are at present undertaking a review of the disposal of Commonwealth vehicles. Many of the suggestions that the honourable member has made-they were made out of a sense of his own skills because of his trade before he entered this Parliament- were made with a view to getting better value for taxpayers' money, and they will be incorporated in that review of the disposal of Commonwealth vehicles. But I must answer a charge he made, with regard to missing hub caps and other accessories of vehicles, that there might be some evidence of dishonesty by departmental officials. It is fair to tell him that an exacting audit is made of Commonwealth vehicles and the accessories that go with them. Any examples of dishonesty amongst the staff would be found out by that audit and appropriate disciplinary action taken. I can assure the honourable member with regard to his charge that that is not the case and often vehicles are sold minus hub caps that have been lost during the vehicles' former service, particularly on rough country roads.

He asked me also, with regard to the buildings that we are about to build in Queensland and the advertisements that have been placed seeking submissions of interest from developers, how many developers have applied. I cannot tell him the exact number, but every decent developer in Australia is keen to enter this program which the Government has propounded.

Mr McVeigh —That is in Queensland?

Mr JOHN BROWN —All over Australia, but in Queensland a number of people have applied to build those buildings, particularly in Townsville where the tender has been let. I understand it has been let to Leighton Contractors Pty Ltd. It would astound honourable members to know that every major developer in Queensland is very keen to apply for jobs-in Mackay, Cairns, Rockhampton and Thursday Island.

Mr McVeigh —That is because of Joh.

Mr JOHN BROWN —No, it is despite Joh. The major building will be built in Parramatta. I think we will find that when the tenders for Parramatta are opened every major developer in Australia will have applied for that project. It is an enterprise which will probably be in the $50m to $60m bracket. It will be a major building. Not only the taxpayers of Australia but also the building industry are thankful that this Government has taken the initiatives to add that stimulus to the building industry by building some Commonwealth buildings.

The other matter that was referred to by the honourable member for Griffith related to the purchase of Government vehicles. He asked me whether priority would be given to Australian made vehicles. I think it goes without saying that, given this Government's priorities with regard to Australian industry and our commitment to an Australian preference scheme for Government purchasing, that, of course, will be the case. The vehicles that will be purchased under the Government's new purchasing program will, of course, be vehicles with a very high Australian content, if not 100 per cent Australian content; and he can rest assured of that.

Summing up, I am very proud to be the Minister for Administrative Services. My short association with the public servants in this area has been one of great joy. They are doing a splendid job. They have been given new life from this Government in terms of their tenure of employment and in terms of the satisfaction they get out of doing a good job. By the end of three years of this Government the Department of Administrative Services will have climbed out of its inferior position, where it was pushed by the previous Government in its attempt to wind it down to nothing, into a position of pre-eminence amongst the departments that serve this Government.

Proposed expenditures agreed to.

Department of Primary Industry

Proposed expenditure, $146,912,000.