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Thursday, 25 October 1973
Page: 2701

Mr DALY (Grayndler) (Minister for Services and Property) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

The purpose of the Bill, which provides for a number of amendments to the Lands Acquisition Act 1955-1966, is to enable the Australian Government's land and property requirements to be handled in a more businesslike and expeditious way appropriate to modern practices and to efficient administration. The chief provisions of the Bill are:

(a)   Section 4 authorises the Minister to approve all acquisitions by agreement of land and interests in land for a public purpose approved by him under the Act. The section also allows for acquisitions by agreement which are being processed under the provisions of the principal Act at date of assent of this Act to be completed under those provisions.

(b)   Section 7 provides for the short term interest rate to be paid where compensation outstanding on land compulsorily acquired is less than 3 years. In other cases the long term interest rate is payable. Short term and long term interest rates are prescribed. The section also provides that where an acquisition has been compulsorily acquired some time before the date of commencement of this Act, and compensation has not been settled, interest would be payable under the principal Act up to the date of assent of this Act and at the appropriate new rates thereafter.

(c)   Section 8 authorises the Minister under Section 53 of the principal Act to dispose of land no longer required by the Australian Government and to grant leases or licences over such land. The section also allows for disposals which are being processed under the provisions of the principal Act at date of assent of this Act to be completed under these provisions.

(d)   Section 9 amends section 64 of the principal Act to allow the Minister to delegate his power to enter into an agreement with a land owner before or after compulsory acquisition on the amount of compensation to be paid for his land.

(e)   Other amending sections are of a machinery nature, for example, section 6 refers to metric distance in lieu of imperial; section 10 amendments arise mainly because of changes in drafting style.

Apart from minor technical amendments, the Lands Acquisition Act remains unchanged since it was enacted in 1955.

Over 90 per cent of acquisitions of land and interests in land by the Australian Government are completed by agreement between vendors and purchasers and lessors. However, the Minister's authority to conclude these transactions in a businesslike way under the principal Act is limited to cases where the price with the vendor does not exceed $1,000, or in the case of leases, where the term does not exceed 3 years, or the annual rental does not exceed $1,000. A similar limitation applies to the disposal of Australian Government land interests. The approval of the Governor-General is required for all other acquisitions and disposals of interests in land. The effect of these limitations is to impose an unreasonable burden on the Minister and the Department and virtually to nullify the process of acquisition of any interest in land by delegation to departmental officers. They impose an inordinately large burden of paper work on the Minister and the Department and in this context I must emphasise that these limitations occur in cases of voluntary acquisition of land and property where mutual agreement has been reached between the purchaser and the vendor.

Honourable members will perhaps have a greater appreciation of this problem when I emphasise that, very frequently, Executive Council action is required in terms of the Act when the amount involved is as low as $1 and where leases or licences exceed 3 years. Leases or licences over land for power lines, telephone poles, etc., could be up to 30 years or more. Therefore, the Act in its present form leads to absurdities which involve not only the Minister but also the Governor-General in Council. The Government regards it as important that approvals for land dealings on its behalf should be effected having regard to present day land values and efficient administrative practices including adequate delegations of authority. The arbitrarily fixed figure of $1,000 had no particular significance when it was fixed in 1955. Today it is even less significant and is quite out of step with practical administrative considerations and modern business practices.

Australian Government land transactions have increased with the expansion of Government activities. The number of minutes referred to the GovernorGeneral in Council for approval is now running at a rate of approximately 1,000 per annum. The proposed amendments in the Bill will limit references to the GovernorGeneral in Council to approximately 100 per annum. This is because the Government has decided that there should not be any change to the requirement that the acquisition of land by compulsory process should be authorised by the GovernorGeneral in Council. The decision to acquire land compulsory will still remain with the GovernorGeneral in Council. In this connection, honourable members will be interested to know that, although the procedure for compulsory acquisition applies to approximately 100 cases per annum, the major proportion of these are with the consent of both parties in order to expedite settlement and accelerate transfer of title at the earliest possible time. The Bill proposes that the Minister should be authorised to acquire by agreement any interests in land, including leases and licences, and also that he be authorised to dispose of, and grant leases and other interests in land owned by the Australian Government.

The Minister's powers of delegation under the principal Act relating to the determination of compensation for land acquired or to be acquired by compulsory process is limited to $1,000. As mentioned earlier, the figure of $1,000 is quite unrelated to present day land prices and the Bill proposes amendments to the Act to remove the present limit of $1,000. The principal Act provides for payment of interest on compensation for compulsory acquisitions at 3 per cent per annum for periods up to 2 years and thereafter at 4.5 per cent per annum. These rates have remained unchanged since 1955 and are quite unrealistic and must be changed. The rates should be more in keeping with the market in order to do justice to dispossessed owners. The Bill proposes that they be changed so as to relate the interest rate payable on compensation to changes in the short term and long term interest rates.

There have been a number of cases where competition between Australian Government departments and statutory authorities or where agreements negotiated by statutory authorities have lead to excessive rentals being paid by the Australian Government for accommodation or, if negotiations had been handled by the Department of Services and Property, there would have been a substantial saving of public moneys. The Government recently directed that competitive bidding between departments and statutory authorities in the land and property market should be eliminated and that the Department of Services and Property should in future conduct all negotiations. The Government also directed that consideration be given to the amendment of Acts, which currently give statutory authorities power to make their own approaches or to arrange their own rentals with a view to having the Department of Services and Property established as the negotiating authority. Provisions have already been included in a number of Bills which have been introduced into this Parliament, but the amendment of the Acts constituting all statutory authorities would not be practicable for a long time to come.

Therefore, as a further measure to stabilise the land market and eliminate practices which lead to excessive rentals and land prices, the Government has decided that it would be appropriate to amend the Lands Acquisition Act to ensure that the Minister will undertake acquisition of land and interests in land on behalf of Australian Government statutory authorities. This provision has not been included in the Bill before the House but I would like honourable members to know that I propose to move a suitable amendment at an appropriate stage to give effect to this principle. The effect of the proposed amendments will be to substantially strengthen the Lands Acquisition Act. The Minister responsible will be given authority to acquire by agreement land and interests in land not only on behalf of Australian Government departments but also on behalf of Australian Government statutory authorities, and this can only be to the advantage of the Government and the people. The Bill deserves the support of all honourable members and I commend it to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Peacock) adjourned.

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