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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 974

Ms BURKE (ChisholmDeputy Speaker) (11:16): I am feeling a sense of deja vu this week, firstly, being back in my role as the Deputy Speaker from the last parliament and, secondly, completely with respect to the motion before the House.

One of the first committee inquiries that I was involved in in this place was a cost-shifting inquiry into local government. We handed down a phenomenal report in October 2003 entitled Rates and taxes: a fair share for responsible local government. Now, in 2012, we are again having the same debate, we are arguing the same issues and we are looking at the same things. The committee that handed down this report worked incredibly hard. We went to every state and territory and to every local government that we could. The inquiry received more submissions than any other inquiry I have ever been involved in—even more than the inquiry on the clean energy bills, which I have just done.

We raised a level of expectation that we would resolve something, and of course, tragically, we did not. I think it is one of the failures of the committee system. We went out, asked people to give us ideas with which to produce something, and here we are dealing with a motion to do with what the report looked at originally—cost-shifting. At the time, the federal Liberal government was looking at the issue of Labor states pushing things back onto local councils, but of course we found that everybody was pushing back onto local councils. It was across the board: local council was pushing back onto states and the states were pushing back onto the feds and everybody, in turn, was pushing back onto the poor taxpayers.

The report, at page 115, summed it up for most people:

Following a meeting of the Local Government and Planning Ministers’ Council in July 2003, the President of MAV—

Municipal Association of Victoria—

was quoted as saying:

Unless we see a reappraisal of the current tax base of local governments, councils will need to continue to go out to ratepayers cap in hand on an annual basis.

… The MAV would investigate several options, including a suggestion that part of the State Government’s GST funds be set aside for councils.

That was the original suggestion in the first Howard GST bill. He actually came out and said that they wanted to propose that the states resume responsibility for providing financial assistance grants to local government from 1 July 2000. So the feds would get out of this space all together, the GST would go to the states and the states would then have responsibility for passing everything on to local government, overtaking what we now know as the FAGs system. Payments would be made under the terms of the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Reform of Commonwealth-State Financial Relations, with heads of government signed at the 1990 Premiers Conference.

But under the agreement between the government and the Australian Democrats to modify the goods and services tax and implement a package of other proposals, the government agreed to retain responsibility for assisting local government, and that was a good thing, otherwise local government would have been ripped off at the time. There was not going to be any more money; there was actually going to be less. The Dems got a bit of a caning at the time for introducing and doing this, but they actually saved local government from getting less than their fair share.

I am not saying that this motion is not important and I am not saying that my committee inquiry was not important, because we now know—and we have known for years—that the push-back is onto ratepayers and is onto local government. And, as all the other speakers have said, one of the things we looked at is: what is the responsibility of local government? It is, 'How long is a piece of string?' Each council does something different. Look at Brisbane City Council. Look at the ACT government, which acts as the local council. Look at shire councils around the place which run ports and airfields. In my community they run nursing homes and childcare centres. What are they responsible for? The difficulty is that they become responsible for whatever the community wants or demands. They become the last man standing and they fill the void. This happens in rural settings in particular, where it is harder to say to your community that you are not going to fund that youth worker this week because the state government has pulled out the funding or that you are not going to fill that pothole because you did not get any federal money to do that. So local council becomes the meat in the sandwich.

The main aim of this inquiry and this report was to say that the three levels of government need to get together and work better together. They need to understand what each is doing, what each is raising, and then work it through, as opposed to just buck-shifting. Councils also need to learn to say no to ratepayers, state governments and the federal government. They need to say it is not their responsibility and they are not going to fill that void. That is really hard. I have said to my local councillors that their job is a lot harder than mine. Everybody knows who they are. When a bin is not picked up, it is their fault. But if something happens at a federal level nobody is going to find and abuse their federal member of parliament. So local councils do find it difficult to say no. I think it is a really difficult thing, but we need to get the three levels of government together and resolve this now so that we do not keep going around in circles.