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Thursday, 15 August 1974
Page: 1018

The PRESIDENT - There being no objection to a cognate debate, the subject matter of orders of the day Nos 5, 6 and 1 may be discussed together.

Senator WITHERS -The Opposition will not vote against the second reading of these 3 Bills, the Roads Grants Bill 1974, the National Roads Bill 1974 and the Transport (Planning and Research) Bill 1974. However, as far as the Opposition is concerned these Bills, as presented by the Government, have 2 glaring defects. Firstlythis is especially in relation to the Roads Grants Bill to which I am directing most of my remarks- the Commonwealth will have the power to approve all decisions on road building projects undertaken by the State and local government authorities. Secondly, taxes and charges raised by elected State governments and elected local governments will have to be spent in a way determined by a Commonwealth Minister or by Commonwealth public servants appointed by that Commonwealth Minister.

Senator Devitt - You are not quoting from a document, are you?

Senator WITHERS - No, I am using some speech notes- 'copious notes', I think is the term. The Opposition believes that local authorities ought to make decisions on matters concerning local situations. But under this legislation any decision by a local authority or a State Government to spend money on any road or road plan will have to be submitted and vetted by a Commonwealth Minister or a Commonwealth public servant, appointed by a Commonwealth Minister. We believe that this legislation is needlessly restrictive and, especially, we believe it is needlessly centralist. We appreciate that this legislation follows the Labor Government's policy of appropriating State government powers and local authority powers. We recognise and totally oppose the fact that this Government is hell bent on accruing more spheres of influence and greater powers in Canberra. To that concept we are totally opposed on this side of the chamber because when this Labor Government cannot manage the ordinary housekeeping arrangements for the Australian Capital Territory, it is hard to imagine how it will fare dealing with submissions from 6 State governments, 2 territorial authorities and about 1,000 local authorities around Australia. We are convinced that the result will be one great bureaucratic bungle. Requests for road grants will stultify in in-trays while the roads of Australia will rot. The machinery will be greased by this legislation for Canberra to override decisions made by elected governments- be they State governments or local authorities- and we on this side of the chamber believe that that ought not to be tolerated. I repeat that State governments and local governments, as elected representatives, should take the responsibilities for decisions relating to State government and local government road programs. These decisions should not be made by politicians in Canberra and, especially, they should not be made by delegated non-elected Commonwealth public servants in Canberra, no matter how well qualified those public servants are.

Therefore my colleague, Senator Durack, on behalf of the Opposition in the Committee stages of the Bill will be moving some amendments. When the amendments are ready they will be circulated as early as possible. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs who represents the Minister for Transport will be aware that they are basically the same amendments that were introduced by the honourable member for Gippsland, Mr Nixon, in the other place. The Government's legislation is already causing concern in local government areas. I have received correspondence from the Town Clerk of my own home town, Bunbury, in Western Australia. His letter to me is dated 1 1 July. If anybody wants me to table it I will do so, it is an open document so far as I am concerned. In part of that letter he said:

Request is for your views on this submission and any assistance you can give to ensure that local authorities receive adequate money to carry on, the alternative being approximately a SO per cent increase in rate with a possible reduction of 33 W per cent in staff.

That is how the local authority in my home town is looking at this matter. In a memo that he sent to the mayor and councillors on 2 July 1974, in relation to the future he said:

At this stage no advice has been received of how much this council will receive in grants over the next 3 years. However, it is fairly obvious from advices of the Commonwealth Bureau of Roads, political speeches in both tiers of government, we will be lucky to receive the same grant as last year for the next 3 years. It appears money will be available for National Roads (Eyre Highway), freeways etc. but country rural roads will be cut. Bunbury is considered as rural for this exercise.

Indications are that the State Government will be forced to increase vehicle licence fees by about 50 per cent for 1974-75 and probably a further 50 per cent in 1975-76. The Australian Government has indicated this.

Inflationary trends are set at about 20 per cent per annum- this is wages, goods etc. Council's outside workers yearly wage account grew by $ 100,000 last week and it is believed further increases are in the offing for salaried officers.

Instructions have already been issued to not replace staff as they retire as it is considered our main road scheme is at last reaching fruition and road staff would be reduced to carry out maintenance, reconstruction, subdivisional roads only.

These documents are available to anybody who wants to see them. The question one asks is: How can a central government in a country the size of Australia possibly assess all road needs from rural arterial roads and development roads through to urban arterial and urban local roads to national highways and including 'minor traffic engineering and road safety improvements from Cooktown to Albany with all the towns and cities in between"? Without a massive and costly organisation how can it possibly process requests covering all of Australia without any experience? How much will this massive organisation cost? Will the cost of this massive organisation be taken out of the road grants?

The Minister talks of what he terms dealing with environmentally deficient streets. When will he have time to deal with environmentally deficient streets when he has this vast road grants scheme to oversee? The Opposition believes that the Government's national highways program is a smoke screen to conceal the fact that this legislation will seriously cut back funds made available to State and local government authorities for road construction and maintenance. This is evidenced in the figures provided over the last 3 years and the figures provided by the Government for the next 3 years for the construction of urban arterial roads.

The Australian Government gave $423 m over the last 3 years with annual amounts increasing by about 20 per cent. But in the next 3 years the Government intends to provide only $355m for these works- a reduction of 16 per cent on the last 3 years. When the allocation for 1974-75, the first year of the new 3-year program, is compared with the last year of the last program there is an actual reduction of nearly 30 per cent and this reduction remains the same for the next 3 years. For reasons best known to itself, and reasons which have never been explained, the Government has rejected the overall concept of the report of the Bureau of Roads on the allocation of funds for the construction of roads. It has cut back on the recommended total expenditure on roads of all types by $2 19m while maintaining the total for national highways at the figure proposed by the Bureau- the figure of $400 m for 3 years. We on this side say that this is a misallocation of funds between the different categories of roads when compared with the findings of the Bureau. No explanation has been offered as to why that should have happened..

Senator Devitt - Is that in relation to national roads, in relation to the recommendation or was in fact the final figure above the recommendation? I thought it was above.

Senator WITHERS -It is in relation to the whole concept of what the Bureau proposed. Because of this misallocation, and because of the misallocation of funds, State governments and local government authorities will have less real funds for road construction and maintenance. There will be a serious interference with priorities set by State governments based on need and usage by taking $400m for highways which State needs might well have called for allocation elsewhere either in part or in whole.

The States will not be $400m better off because the Commonwealth proposes to spend that amount on national roads over the next 3 years. They will not be able to give pro rata more assistance to local government. The amount by which the States will benefit from the national roads funds is the amount which the States would have spent in the ordinary course of events on roads now classified as national highways and which they will now be relieved of the responsibility of spending on roads in this category. This will be nothing like the $400m. Not only does this legislation demand that the States submit to the Commonwealth Minister programs of work of a specified kind for approval- in some instances whether or not the Australian Government provides funds for the project- but also it provides that, if the Federal Minister notifies that the State or local authority has expended any money on the carrying out of projects of a specified kind that were not approved by the Minister, the amount received or a lesser amount shall be repaid by the State. This leads to this fact. The State is to be responsible in all details for anything which any road constructing body may do. If any road constructing body spends any money at all on a project not approved by the Federal Minister the State in effect will be fined.

State governments will be forced by this legislation to increase their taxation on motorists over the next 3 years, if only to make up the quotas required by the Commonwealth. Substantial increases will be necessary if the States are not to cut their road construction programs effectively because the value of funds granted by the Commonwealth is rapidly decreasing. This legislation is yet another example of the Government's policy of claiming attributes for legislation which clearly states quite another thing. What is more, and what is more important, it adds to the list of double dealing and broken promises.

On 1 1 June this year the Australian Automobile Association charged the Prime Minister with having broken a pledge which he made when he was in opposition not to reduce the proportion of fuel tax then allocated to roads. The Association's President, Mr Thompson, said that in April 1972 Mr Whitlam, then Leader of the Opposition in the other place, made a statement to a delegation from the Association. Mr Thompson claims that Mr Whitlam told the delegation that in his opinion more money should be expended on city and main highways. In that financial year $450m was collected in fuel tax and the $255m, or 56 per cent, was returned to the States in road grants. But under the Government's present proposals in the next 3 years only 53 per cent of the estimated $2, 132m it will collect in fuel taxes will be spent in that way. Therefore, there will be a reduction of at least 3 per cent in the fuel taxes collected.

By this legislation the States are being forced into an impossible position with regard to roads, road construction, taxation on road users and the administration of their own works. Furthermore, this legislation is a blatant attempt to ignore the constitutional responsibility of the different governments, be they State or local government authorities, and to place even minor administrative decisions on all road matters in the hands of Canberra politicians and the Canberra public servants. We of the Opposition regret that the Government has not lived up to its pre-election promises to do the right thing by the payers of fuel tax in Australia. We can do nothing to increase the road grants but during the life of this Government we will make certain that the users of the roads in Australia know that they have been led up the garden path.

We will attempt in the Committee stage to amend the Bills to ensure that responsibility lies with those who are elected to carry the responsibility. It is of no use for the Minister for Transport, Mr Charles Jones, to claim that merely because the Commonwealth Government collects the taxes it has some special right or authority. After all, it is high time that the Australian Government learned that it taxes the same people as do the State governments and local authorities. We are all Australians and no government has any prior claim on the Australian's money over any other elected authority in Australia. If we are to maintain democracy in this country- we are often lectured in this place by members of the Government that democracy is a very frail thing in the world today- it is important that democracy works at the grass roots. Without strong effective local authorities in Australia we will get a centralised authority and democracy will start to wither on the vine. In order to protect democracy in Australia we have to make certain that local authorities elected by ratepayers have a sense of responsibility, a capacity to plan and a capacity to spend. I am not one of those people who believe that all wisdom resides in members of this Parliament or members of the Commonwealth Public Service. If we are to uplift the role of local authorities in Australia and make greater career opportunities available for professional officers in the local government areas of Australia- I believe that is vitally necessary- we must be prepared to give them authority and not have some Commonwealth Minister or Commonwealth public servant supervising their every move. For those reasons, my colleague Senator Durack will seek to amend these Bills during the Committee stage.

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