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Thursday, 15 November 1973
Page: 3446

Mr OLDMEADOW (Holt) - I rise to support the Bill and I am proud to do so because I am acutely aware of the greatly increased pressures that have been placed on local government. At the time of my election to this Parliament I was a councillor for the City of Dandenong and it was around that council table that I gained the experience that convinced me of the tremendous financial problems faced by the municipal government. I might add that at that time, as I remember it, the Liberal-Country Party Government was in power in Canberra. The financial problem existed then, but no money was flowing through from the Federal Government down to the local councils. Today, local councils face ever increasing responsibilities which relate to people and the quality of their lives. No longer can local governments concern themselves simply with matters of drainage, streets, kerbing and pavements, garbage collection and the like. Councils are expected - I believe rightly - to concern themselves increasingly in cultural and social welfare and recreational activities. The result of these increased responsibilities is, of course, a growing sense of frustration among councillors and community alike as they find themselves unable to find the necessary finance to bring these things about.

I should like to speak for a moment of the municipalities in my electorate. They are situated on the fringe of the Melbourne metropolis in the south-east corridor which is the fastest growing area of Melbourne. In the centre is the City of Dandenong, a regional growth centre of some 14 square miles in which a good deal of the land is non-ratable as Australian and State government buildings are located there. To the west, the area is buttressed by the City of Springvale, a city which has had one of the most rapid rates of population growth in the State, while to the east is the City of Berwick, which came into existence only in the last few months and faces the tremendous challenges associated with a new municipality. Then there are the Shires of Berwick and Cranbourne which at this stage are chiefly rural but which are poised to tackle the problems associated with over-rapid development. It is municipalities such as these which are vitally affected by this legislation. These 5 councils desperately need increased financial assistance both in the form of grants and by having access to loans at lower interest rates. And, of course, this is just what is proposed in this Bill - to allow the people of Australia to decide whether they believe the Constitution should be amended in such a way as to allow this to happen.

I remind honourable members opposite that this is not an isolated piece of legislation, plucked out of the air. When in Opposition the Australian Labor Party made 3 specific commitments concerning local government. Firstly, it promised, and carried out the promise at the 1973 Constitutional Convention, that direct representation of local government would be a condition of the Australian Government's participation. We remained firm to our commitment, and local government was represented. Secondly, we promised to amend the Grants Commission Act to authorise that Commission to inquire into and to make recommendations on grants to regional groupings of local government. In May, we passed the Grants Commission Act 1973. Thirdly, we promised to restructure the Loan Council so that local government representatives from all States could have a voice and a vote on that Council. In October, the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) met with the Premiers to present 2 proposals. One was that elected local governments should have both a voice and a vote on the Loan Council and the other was that the Australian Government should be empowered to borrow on behalf of elected local governments. It is unfortunate that some of the Premiers would not accept the Prime Minister's proposals. Having failed to fulfil our commitment in this way, we now propose to hold a referendum on the matter.

I believe it is important that this Bill be viewed against the total Government record on matters related to the local community. Greater importance has been placed by this Government on local involvement, initiative and interest and I believe this is clearly reflected in our legislative program. I refer honourable members to just a few fields. For example, in the field of social security, we have the Australian assistance plan. In the field of health we have community health centres and community mental health facilities. In the field of urban and regional development, funds have been allocated for public transport, sewerage and open space. I submit that there has never been a federal government which has shown such concern and interest for issues at the grass roots level. I believe that this contrasts sharply with the efforts of the previous Government.

Mr McKenzie (Diamond Valley) - Twenty-three years of nothing.

Mr OLDMEADOW - Yes, 23 years of nothing. I believe that brief mention must be made of the whole new range of responsibilities which were not previously associated with local governments. Today we expect local councils to provide facilities over a wide new field, such as infant welfare centres, pre-school centres, libraries, a multiplicity of sporting facilities, meals-on-wheels, family guidance clinics, open space, home-help services, social workers, welfare officers and youth workers. The list could go on. In rapidly expanding areas like mine, the full impact of the provision of such a wide range of services is felt to the full and the result, of course, is what this Government has recognised, namely, a crushing financial burden on local government and the need for assistance to be given.

I have vivid recollections of sitting around the council table at the time of the estimates, which are handled in a rather different way from the way this place handles them. We would look at the money to be spent on the various projects and we would attempt to prune down the requirements - to things that we knew were absolutely necessary in the community - in a desperate effort to keep the rates down. But unfortunately of course this was not possible. So I took the trouble to contact all the municipalities in my area to find out what the rate increase was last year. In 1972-73 the average rise was 20 per cent. Only 2 of the councils had struck their rates for 1973-74 and the average increase for them was 22 per cent. I agree that the system of levying rates on property is no longer an adequate basis for the financing of local government; it is inequitable and totally antiquated. This method was designed for the days long ago when councils concerned themselves almost exclusively with engineering matters such as streets, kerbs and footpaths and possibly a football or cricket oval. But those days have gone and councils today are facing a tremendous and crushing burden of financial responsibility.

Let me now turn to the broader canvas and look at some of the figures mentioned by the Minister for Urban and Regional Development (Mr Uren). I propose to repeat them because I believe they need underlining. The worsening position is clearly illustrated when one examines changes in the public debt in Australia since 1949. Between 1949 and 1970 the public debt of the Commonwealth increased by some 5.4 per cent, that of the States by 323.3 per cent, and that of local government by the huge percentage of 845.6. As was said earlier, interest liability also increased over the same period. The interest liability of the Commonwealth increased by 54.4 per cent, that of the States by 571.3 per cent, and that of local government by the gigantic percentage of 1931.8. Surely this is clear evidence that establishes the need for increased grants from the Australian Government and access to loans at lower interest rates.

I was hardly surprised to hear from the other side the cry of centralism and the negation of State powers. I have been here only a short time, but I have grown used to hearing constant bleating about centralism. I wonder whether honourable members opposite have had a good look at what this legislation is all about. Its object is to provide a long overdue transfusion to the level of government that is closest to the people. Surely it is at this level that the needs of local areas can be most accurately assessed. Surely it is important that there should be a maximum amount of community involvement in these matters. These things are not mentioned when we hear the old catch cries about Canberra bureaucracy and the like; they are the other side of the story that is never told by honourable mem bers opposite. For years we have operated under a 3-tier system of government, which has been accepted throughout the country. It has become increasingly evident that the final tier of government is in an impossible financial position. The Liberal-Country Party Government for the past 23 years stood idly by and did nothing to arrest this worsening situation. We as a government state categorically that local government is of the utmost importance. We believe that the people of Australia should strongly support this alteration of the Constitution, which would allow us to make funds available direct to local government both by way of grants and by way of loans at lower interest rates.

In conclusion, I believe there are 2 principal schools of thought in local government First, there are those who sincerely experience frustration within the financial limitations of municipal budgets. They believe that powers such as those sought by this Bill should be available to the Federal Government. The people in this group eagerly await the results of the referendum. Secondly, there are those who conveniently find refuge for their lack of initiative in passing the buck to the Australian Government, knowing full well that it has not the power to act in the matter. Some such councils have a majority of councillors who have clear sympathies to reactionary State governments and are often politically and philosophically opposed to the national Labor Government. If this Bill is passed, no longer will such councillors and municipalities be able to use this as an excuse for doing nothing. This Bill is one that sets out to allow the people of Australia to decide whether elected local government in this country should have access to public funds on better conditions and in a more direct way than at present. It is this Government's conviction that local government should be given this facility. I commend the Bill to the House.

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