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Tuesday, 9 October 1973
Page: 1779

Dr GUN (Kingston) - I wish to deal with Division 546 of Appropriation Bill (No.l) 1973-74, which relates to the Grants Commission and which is included in the appropriation for the Department of the Special Minister of State. In particular, I refer to the recent amendments to the Grants Commission Act, which enable grants to be made to local government. That was a very great step forward for local government. It was one of the many important reforms of the Whitlam Ministry. It is a reform which never would have been achieved under a Liberal government. The attitude of the Liberal Party of Australia to local government was well illustrated at the Constitutional Convention held in Sydney recently. At the Convention Liberal Party spokesmen from the various State parliaments repeatedly spoke out against local government being able to deal directly with the Com monwealth Government, either by the receipt of grants or by having representation on the Loan Council. It was extraordinary to hear claims by Liberal Party speakers that if their local councils took money from the Commonwealth they would lose their financial independence. It is worth noting that this extraordinary argument has never been used by mendicant States. They have always been quite willing to take money from the Grants Commission and have never suggested that the States would be any worse off by getting this money. The fact is, of course, that the payment of section 96 grants to local councils will remove many of the constraints under which they now operate.

The responsibilities of local governments have expanded greatly in recent years and they now carry out a much broader range of activities than they did when local governments were first set up. However, over that time the ability of councils to raise revenue has not expanded in line with their responsibilities. Councils still depend largely on rate revenue. Rates were originally intended to be a charge on land. This was to be used to provide improvements for that land, such as roads, footpaths and similar facilities. These were therefore the main matters which concerned local government. Now, however, local government is involved in many other activities, such as those of a welfare nature. As these are not greatly related to property improvements local governments should be given extra finance by methods other than taxes on property. In other words, they should be financed out of the same revenue as other governments use to pay for their welfare services, that is, local councils must have access to Commonwealth revenue. That was the reason why the recent amendments were brought in by the Government.

The principle of payments from the Grants Commission will be the same as now applies to the States, that is, it will enable the local governments, if they undertake reasonable revenue raising efforts themselves, to provide a standard of services and amenities comparable with that enjoyed by other communities elsewhere. This measure will help the people - I emphasise the word 'people' - who depend on local government for services, particularly in those areas which have been unable to provide a standard of services which Australians should reasonably expect. However, the Liberal Party speakers at the Constitutional Convention did not seem interested in the rights of the people. They were more concerned with what they called the rights of State governments. It was amazing how Liberal Party speakers who were so against being dictated to by the central Government in Canberra were so centralist themselves when it came to their relationships with local governments.

The areas which will benefit particularly under this new provision are mainly made up of new housing developments. I have such areas in my own electorate where there are no long established areas to help to distribute the burden of paying for local government works and services. Every area requires such works. The problem is compounded because most of the families are young and are paying for houses at a time when the home repayments form a high proportion of their incomes. The responsibilities of councils in these areas are great, but their ability to raise revenue is limited unless supplementary assistance comes from the Commonwealth via the Grants Commission. I would like briefly to refer to the requirement that local councils form regional groupings. I thank the Minister for Urban and Regional Development (Mr Uren) for coming into the House to hear what I have to say although this matter comes under the control of the Special Minister of State (Senator Willesee). We all know that the Minister for Urban and Regional Development has a very important role to play under this provision.

In general I agree with the principle of regionalisation. I think that grants for specific projects, such as those which will be provided by the Department of Urban and Regional Development and the Cities Commission, will serve a good purpose. However, in the case of payments from the Grants Commission I can think of examples where regions would not be of great value. For instance, supposing requirements for Commonwealth assistance within a region are not uniform; in other words, different councils within the one region have different requirements. How will the grant to such a region be divided up? Clearly someone will have to apportion the grant between the different councils in that region. This can be done in one of two ways. The grant could be divided up on a basis decided upon by the councils themselves or the apportioning could be done by the Grants Commission. Consider the first alternative. I believe it will be quite impracticable to expect the councils forming a regional grouping to divide a grant between themselves except in the unlikely chance of their getting complete agreement amongst themselves. If there were any disagreement the regional body would have no statutory author ity to resolve any difficulties, because the regional grouping can be only a uniform arrangement.

Clearly the Grants Commission will have to decide the needs of individual councils in such cases. I believe the Minister agrees with that view. Therefore we might as well allow individual local governments to approach the Grants Commission in the first place. No doubt regions will have a decisive say at some future time but this will be surely in the long term. The provision of assistance to local governments should not have to await clarification of what the regions are, what they will do and how they will do it. I urge the Government and the Minister to allow individual councils to deal directly with the Grants Commission so that this much needed and most welcome reform can get under way and assistance can be provided to local government authorities in the next Federal Budget.

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