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Thursday, 25 October 1973
Page: 2694

Mr MORRIS (Shortland) - It is my pleasure in this debate to follow the honourable member for McMillan (Mr Hewson) who is affectionately known in this place as Mr Seventeen Per Cent. I just want to remind him that the problems that he talks about in his electorate are problems which were inherited by him from the previous Liberal representative for McMillan and that the problems were developed over a period of 23 years of Liberal-Country Party administration. I say in regard to his challenge to the Government to hold an election that it is quite pleasing to see that the Democratic Labor Party in its political wisdom is too astute to fall for the stunt of the hollow challenge of the Leader of the Australian Country Party (Mr Anthony) to call for a double dissolution. The DLP is too politically astute to be the sacrificial goat in a game for the Country Party.

Next Monday will see the commencement at Coffs Harbour .of the 1973 New South Wales Local Government Association Conference. Today is an opportune time to bring before the notice of this Parliament and the local government representatives who will be attending the conference, and indeed before all ratepayers in New South Wales, the refusal of the Liberal-Country Party Government of New South Wales, led by Sir Robert Askin, to support the proposition of local government representation at the Australian Loan Council. The Australian Government is pledged in the terms of its policy and platform to make local government a genuine partner in our federal system. Direct representation for local government at Loan Council meetings would mean that it would be possible for the Australian Government on request to raise approved loans on behalf of semi-government and local government authorities, thus giving them the advantage of the longer period and lower interest appertaining to loans raised by the Australian Government on behalf of the States. This direct representation would result in considerable savings to local councils and, ultimately, savings in dollars and cents to ratepayers throughout Australia. But in the State of New South Wales the Premier is opposed to giving greater recognition to local government and pursues a course that prohibits an easing of the financial burden on ratepayers in New South Wales. This Government is committed to an objective of assisting and strengthening local government. The New South Wales Liberal-Country Party Government is opposed to it.

It is true that New South Wales was not the only State represented at the meeting of the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) and the Premiers in Canberra on 1 1 October 1973 that opposed local government access to the Australian Loan Council. But I single out New South Wales for several reasons. Firstly, the Premier of New South Wales is a man who so loudly cries about the so-called poor deal his State gets from this Government. Secondly, it is he who is the advocate for states' rights. Thirdly, because by his action at the meeting of Heads of Government on 11 October 1973, as Premier of the major State in Australia, he ensured the rejection of the proposals put forward by the Prime Minister to raise the status of local government. This is the man who claims his Government receives unfair treatment from this Government, yet by the parsimonious attitude of his own State Government keeps local government and the ratepayers in a financial straightjacket.

I want all the ratepayers of New South Wales to understand clearly that the LiberalCountry Party Government of New South Wales stands in the way of local government in that State achieving access to cheaper finance, earlier work programs and accelerated progress. This so-called champion of states' rights - Sir Robert Askin - has deliberately suppressed opportunities of local government in his own State and deliberately obstructs a course of action that would assist New South Wales ratepayers. I want all the ratepayers and local government representatives in New South Wales to know what he has done. Local government is being squeezed between the expanding expectations of society and the limits of its resources. Ratepayers are being squeezed between increasing council rates and soaring land valuations. The 'Newcastle Morning Herald' editorial of 11 October 1973 expressed the hopes of all ratepayers in the Hunter region when it said:

Mr Whitlam'selection speeches, his professed sympathy for local governments' financial difficulties, the direct access of regional groupings to the Grants Commission, and a voice on the Loan Council hold promise of some relief in the future.

The Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) has repeatedly stated the need for a reappraisal of the arrangements of the existing Financial Agreement. These arrangements were based on needs of the decade following World War I when the relative roles and responsibilities of the Australian Government, the State governments and local government were vastly different from what they are now. They were not adequate in the past, they are not adequate now and they certainly will not be adequate for the future.

Over the past 2 decades serious deficiences have developed in the State local sector. This Government has set itself the task of helping remedy those deficiencies. Enlarged allocations in the 1973-74 Budget for education, community health, public housing, sewerage services, land management, urban transport and growth centres evidence our strong beginning on that task. Total allocations to the States in 1973-74 including the State governments' Loan Council programs but excluding unempolyment relief grants are 24 per cent greater than comparable allocations in 1972- 73.

If local government is to play the greater and more effective role that the people of Australia require it to play, the effective influence local government exercises in relation to the fundamental decision making affecting its activities must be increased. Such an increase will represent a most significant step towards true federalism, true local participation in public affairs and, indeed, true decentralisation of government. This Government secured the representation of local government at the Constitutional Convention. It has authorised the Grants Commission to examine applications for assistance by regional groupings of local councils. Additional members have been appointed to the Commission to enable it to deal with this added responsibility. Under the Australian Assistance Plan, special aid will be made available to local government authorities to enable them more effectively to provide welfare and health services to their communities.

But let us have a look at the comparison of State and local government borrowing since 1947. In that year, the total debt of local government authorities was SI 40m or about 7 per cent of total State government debt. In June 1971, on preliminary figures provided by the government statistician, the debt had risen to $ 1,730m or almost 15 per cent of estimated total State government debt at that date. In the 24 years local government authorities' debt had increased twelvefold compared with an increase of not quite sixfold in the State government total outstanding debt. Yet after that period of enormous growth in the range and cost of local government responsibilities its voice in the place where the nation's broad public borrowing programs were determined was still as it was at the beginning - that is, nil.

If the existing Financial Agreement from the 1920s were being drawn up now, local government most certainly would have a say. Under present conditions, local government is left largely to fend for itself and it is no wonder that the costs of borrowing bear so heavily at an increasing rate on their budgets. The picture varies from State to State and as between individual authorities but the fact is that in 1970-71 the overall interest payment by local government authorities was equivalent to about 12 per cent of their revenue. Interest payments plus capital repayments in the same year totalled S 177.5m or about 25 per cent of revenues. If the Australian Government were able to borrow on behalf of local government authorities the servicing costs would be appreciably lower.

Let me return now to the situation in New South Wales which stagnates under the standstill Government of the Liberal-Country Party coalition in that State. The Newcastle 'Sun' of 15 October 1973 carried a feature article headed 'Local Government Must Fight for its Say'. It commenced as follows:

As as professed champion of State rights, New South Wales Premier Sir Robert Askin could have a difficult task justifying his stand against local government admission to the Australian Loan Council.

He is reported as having led the fight against the Prime Minister's proposals for local government representation because he did not like the prospect of local government representatives being in competition with their Premiers for loan funds. What he was really saying was that he wanted local government to remain a dependent child of the States and that councils should be kept in a Statetightened straight-jacket - this from a man who claims that the Australian Government is trying to shackle the States. What hypocrisy is this? But then, with the New South Wales Government, a multiplicity of standards is commonplace.

In the same article the secretary of the New South Wales Local Government Association, Mr Graham Miles, is reported as stating - I commend him for his foresight - that he is positive that local government should have a direct say in the major financial planning of the nation, that its total loan program would exceed that of 2 States and justifies a say at the Loan Council and that the present higher interest rates and shorter periods of repayment that have to be met by local government as compared with the States are a major contributing factor to the high level of rate charges at the moment. Mr Miles is not a politician. He is secretary of the Local Government Association of the major State of Australia.

It is regrettable that the State Premiers did not agree with the Prime Minister at their meeting on 11 October. If they had done so, local government would have received its greatest boost since Federation. However, the ratepayers may yet triumph, despite the negative and restrictive approach taken by Sir Robert Askin. The Prime Minister has already announced that the question of local government representation at the Australian Loan Council will be put to the Australian people for decision by way of a referendum in 1974. So, to all those ratepayers listening today, I ask you to remember quite clearly that this Government has sought to steady your rate burden and improve your local services by giving local government access to cheaper money. But it has been thwarted. When the referendum is held next year, my advice is that you should vote yes to give local governsent access to the Australian Loan Council and a voice at the national financial table.

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