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Thursday, 15 August 1974
Page: 1020

Senator DEVITT (Tasmania) - I also wish to observe upon the 3 measures now before the Senate. I can accept some of the propositions put to the Senate by the Leader of the Opposition (Senator Withers). I share some of the fears he expressed, but I believe that many of the other fears which he seemed to project into his remarks have no foundation. They are based upon assumptions and misconceptions, and in that respect they tend to be somewhat misleading.

I want to speak at some length on these measures and perhaps I should start by indicating what these Bills propose. Within them is embraced a proposal for the expenditure of $l,126m. The National Roads Bill involves an expenditure of $400m; the Roads Grants Bill, the one with which we are mainly concerned, involves an expenditure of $700m; and the Transport (Planning and Research) Bill provides for expenditure of $26m over a period of 3 years. Therefore this proposal involves an expenditure of $1,1 26m over 3 years. This was not the initial proposal. I make no excuse or apology to you, Mr Deputy President, to honourable senators or to all those who are listening to the broadcast of these proceedings for the attitude that the Labor Party in office has taken to local government in this nation.

I assert here and now that this is the first government in the land that has ever interested itself directly in the affairs of local government. Nor, in fact, do I make any apology for the fact that throughout the 9 years that I have been in this Senate I have missed very few opportunities to deliver myself of some sound advice about the problems of local government. I have urged such things as a voice in the Grants Commission and proper representation at Premiers' Conferences for local government, and on every other occasion when it has been possible for me to put forward the interests of local government I have done so. Whether my advocacy has been of any value I do not know, but I am delighted to see that at least the thoughts I had in my mind for local government very largely have been adopted by the present Labor Government.

The proposals that are before us now arise out of a genuine desire to do something for Australia's land transportation system. Anybody who suggests that land transportation in Australia at present is in an acceptable condition is deluding himself; and it is a dangerous delusion indeed. There is such a back-log of need for upgrading of all manner of transport systems within the total context in Australia that there is a great task ahead of us. It is a great pity that we find ourselves delivering our comments on these measures at present in the light of the current economic situation in Australia. Had that not been so there would have been a substantially greater subvention of funds for the purposes I have just outlined. The Commonwealth Bureau of Roads made a quite excellent report and the Government has based its approach to the general questions of transport, road systems and the like in Australia largely upon the basis of the recommendations of that report, except of course - .

Senator Durack - Less $200m.

Senator DEVITT -That is right. I want to come to the $200m. I am glad Senator Durack intervened with that comment. Had it not been for the current economic situtation in Australia there is no question whatever that this Government would have taken action to see implemented substantially the recommendations of the Commonwealth Bureau of Roads. But we all know that the economic circumstances have led to the need for substantial cutbacks in expenditure. None other than Mr Snedden, the Leader of the Liberal Party, is the one who has been fulminating more than anybody else about the the general question of government overexpenditure. So the Government has had to take heed of the present economic situation, like it or not, and cut the program to the tune of about 17 per cent. That was not a decision which the Government took with any joy or delight; it was a decision taken in the light of the prevailing economic conditions in Australia. I suggest that as soon as the time is opportune for a raising of the amount of Commonwealth subvention to these transport systems I am talking about the

Government will do so. As 1 said earlier, this Government has shown genuine interest, particularly in the affairs of local government in Australia. It is the first national government that has ever done so. As I have said, I make no apology for my Party's attitude in that regard.

These 3 Bills provide for an expenditure over 3 years. Honourable senators may recall that I intervened with a comment when Senator Withers mentioned the funds recommended by the Commonwelth Bureau of Roads for a national roads plan expenditure. It is my understanding- I am basing this upon some excellent advice which was tendered to me by people connected with the Municipal Association of Tasmania- that, in fact, the Government has decided to increase the amount recommended for the national roads plan. This has meant of course- this is one of the unfortunate things and one of the areas where I have sympathy with the comments that were made by Senator Withers- a corresponding cut in the amount of funds available under the provisions of the Roads Grants Bill. It is a curious situation.

Senator Wright - Is that money for the States and local government?

Senator DEVITT - It is for the States and local government. It is for roads other than the principal roads in my home State of Tasmania. As Senator Wright would be aware, the road from Hobart to Burnie would be one of those roads. I think that we should acknowledge that the Federal Government has taken over 100 per cent responsibility for expenditure on national roads.

I deal now with the principal area of concern, the Roads Grants Bill. Before I touch on that subject let me say that I am delighted that the Government has taken an interest in transport planning and research. Some years ago I was a member of a joint committee which inquired into the introduction of breathalyser tests in the Australian Capital Territory. The question of blood alcohol content and so on was inquired into. One of the final recommendations of many members of the committee was that because alcohol was a contributing factor to road accidents in Australia quite drastic measures ought to be taken to reduce the blood-alcohol content provision in relation to a motorist in charge of a motor vehicle. I argued against that recommendation. I said that there were too many factors involved in a total and true assessment of the situation to blame one factor for the terrible and unacceptable road carnage. If we had accepted that recommendation we would have turned our attention away from the need for transport planning, road control, road standards and all manner of things involved in the total appreciation of the road toll question. I appreciate that the Government is providing $26m in the Bill for planning and research into the general question of transport planning and so on.

Let me return to the subject of the Roads Grants Bill. There are 2 principal areas of concern, as I understand it. I am very pleased that the President and the Secretary of the Municipal Association of Tasmania are in the Senate gallery tonight, which indicates the interest which that organisation has in this matter. The main concerns are these: As Senator Withers mentioned at some length, there is the suggested interference with the programming of the works and the carrying out of the expenditure of revenue on works within the immediate purview and responsibility of local government and State government instrumentalities. The Minister for Transport (Mr Charles Jones), in a letter to local government organisations, I think last Friday night, set out as clearly and as explicitly as he could that it was not the Government's intention to interfere. Referring to the expenditure programs of local government being examined by the Commonwealth, he said:

The provisions 1 refer to, however, are not mandatory and it may help the Parliament in its consideration of the Bill if I indicate the manner in which it is intended they be administered. This should also clear up some of the misunderstanding that may exist in the minds of State and local government.

The States and local government will not be required to submit for approval the roadworks program financed from their own funds for the following categories: Urban local roads, rural local roads, developmental roads, beef roads, minor traffic engineering and road safety improvements.

During the course of a conversation with an executive member of the Municipal Association of Tasmania tonight I ascertained that this information had not yet reached the Association. So there is some excuse for the observations which were made by Senator Withers earlier in the debate, in the absence of this information. The Minister also stated:

This means that the Australian Government will not be approving road projects financed from a State's or local government's own resources for the above categories nor was it ever the Australian Government's intention that local councils would have to seek approval for the purchase from their own resources of individual items of road plant, such as tractors, us claimed by Opposition spokesmen.

I forgive the Opposition on the grounds that the Minister has gone to some pains in the past few days to explain the position when he learned of the apprehension of people in local government that they would be required to submit their accounts and programs for examination. I believe that the Federal Government has a genuine and sincere interest in ensuring that the affairs of local government are carried on in the best interests of the welfare of all the people, which is where the responsibility of local government lies. It has manifested this interest and it is a great pity that we have come to this point in time when the Government's real wishes in this area cannot be fulfilled because of the prevailing economic conditions in Australia.

One can take some assurance from the observations made in this letter of the Minister to the local government authorities throughout the land and I, for my part, am quite prepared to accept that the Minister does not wish in any way to interfere with the affairs of local government. In fact it would be quite ridiculous to do so because there is no expertise within the Federal Government in these affairs. This is a special field and requires a special knowledge of and skill in administration and above all a knowledge of local conditions. The Federal Government cannot under any circumstances be regarded as having expert knowledge of local government and local affairs. So I think the Federal Government would welcome the strongest and most vigorous activity on the part of local government in Australia and I suggest that we will see that happening as time goes by.

There is another question that arises and I hope I have given some assurance to those listening and to honourable senators who are interested in this question that there was no wish on the part of the Government of this country to interfere in the domestic affairs of these councils. It is part of the functions of the Grants Commission when it concerns itself with the affairs of the States to have some knowledge of the financial performance of these bodies, but to suggest that this represents any intent on the part of the Federal Government to interfere or get involved with the day to day workings and complexities of local government is stupid in the extreme. There is no desire, no intention and no wish or will on the part of the Government to do that. I am grateful to the Secretary of the Municipal Association of Tasmania for providing me with a very comprehensive report on the situation in Tasmania and I hope that the Senate will forgive me if I confine my remarks in the main to the particular position that obtains in that State.

Mr Johnson,the Secretary of the Municipal Association of Tasmania, has supplied me with most comprehensive details of what is proposed to be expended in Tasmania from the funds made available and it certainly appears that the situation is not all that it ought to be. In fact I am very distressed to find that since the national roads proposal has taken a substantially greater proportion of the funds, as I understand it, than was recommended in the Bureau of Roads report, the amount of funds available for the roads grants proposals has been correspondingly diminished. Unfortunately an equal sharing of the reduced available funds is not to take place. I understand that in my State of Tasmania it has been clearly indicated to the local government institution there that the State proposes to take the lion's share of those funds. On an examination of the figures which were supplied to me it is very difficult to find any real indication that the local government institution in Tasmania is to get any value at all out of the new proposals and that is completely contrary surely to what the Minister intended.

I recall having read some further correspondence from the Minister for Transport, in conjunction with his colleague the Minister for Urban and Regional Development (Mr Uren), addressed in general terms. Unfortunately the letter is undated but I believe it is of recent origin. In paragraph 2 of the Ministers' letter, following an observation they had made, they state:

By way of comparison, the last 3 years of the 1969 CAR Act provided grants totalling $870m.

As I mentioned earlier, the proposal embraced within the 3 measures before us now comprises an expenditure of $1 126m.

Senator Wright -After allowing for inflation, that is infinitely less.

Senator DEVITT -Senator Wright, if you do not mind, would you please let me continue. You have had a good go. You have been going all day almost uninterrupted.

Senator Cavanagh - Two days.

Senator DEVITT -Two days, yes. Give me a bit of a go, will you, senator. Have a little spell for a while. You can get up and address yourself to this at any time if you feel competent to do so. Mr Acting Deputy President, as I said, $870m was provided, whereas the amount now is $1 126m. It would have been over $1400m had not the present economic situation in Australia intervened. The Ministers' letter goes on:

This increase in funds, together with the increase in State government expenditure required under the proposed matching quotas, will make a major impact on road problems in urban and rural areas.

This is the assumption which the Ministers have made. The letter goes on to say:

We appreciate the problems that confront local authorities with every delay in finalising these Bills.

The Ministers go on to say that the double dissolution and so on had intervened and that the presentation of the measures to the Parliament had thereby been delayed. They then say:

Whilst we emphasise that delays in introducing the legislation are not of the Government s making, interim finances have been arranged in anticipation of legislation passing in this parliamentary session.

They were talking about the measures now before us. The letter goes on:

We are informed that many local authorities are not receiving funds from States for road works. If this is the case, your Council . . .

This is a letter which is addressed to the councils-

.   . should immediately contact the appropriate State Minister.

I understand that in Tasmania contact has been made with the Minister on more than one occasion and the Minister has indicated to the local government authorities that the State Government's requirements for funds to carry out its works over the next several years will mean that there is no possibility of the State's passing over to the local government authority any additional amounts saved by reason of the Commonwealth's taking over the responsibility for the national road, in other words, for the construction and the maintenance of the main road from Hobart to Burnie. Notwithstanding the saving effected by the Commonwealth's taking over 100 per cent responsibility for this road, one would have assumed- and I believe it is the assumption of the Minister for Transport- that the State of Tasmania- and I do not think the problem is confined solely to Tasmania; I think it is a problem in every State- would have been expected then to have funds with which to assist local government to carry out its many and varied functions in the provision of roads and communication systems in the remoter communities of the State.

The Minister's letter goes on: it has always been our Government's policy to strengthen the third tier of government.

I might as well say it here that I do not regard local government as the third tier of government. I regard it as an equal partner in the 3-level system of government in this country. I have said on many occasions that if one of the 3 forms of government in this country is not able adequately to fulfil its functions the whole system of government in Australia is not adequately fulfilling its function. Surely there was a glorious opportunity for local government dunng the referendum a few months ago. I would have thought that every person in this land who has an interest in and a sense of responsibility to the local government institution would have gone out on the hustings then and said: 'For heaven's sake vote for this measure, if you are not going to vote for any other. Give local government its rightful place in the land'. Local government does not have to stand in the shadow of any other form of government.

At this point I would strongly urge that there should be a thorough-going inquiry into the whole institution of local government. Let us, for the first time in history, define its role and functions. Let us then go immediately to the point of determining that for the fulfilment, the carrying out, of those purposes and functions local government should have a sufficient availability of finance to do it. Thirdly, let us set clearly in its proper position and proper perspective the relativity of the three levels of government in Australia. I suggest that until that stage is reached we are always going to have problems of the kind to which I am referring at the present time. It is, as people so frequently call it, the Cinderella level of government. So that is the position in which we find ourselves at the present time.

In a submission which was made available to me by the Secretary of the Municipal Association of Tasmania, Mr Johnson, it is stated that a point to be made about national road finance is that the funds available will increase each year. It talks about amounts for Tasmania of $4.9m in 1974-75, $6.1m in 1975-76 and $8.9m in 1976-77. In relation to those figures the submission states:

The annual increases shown in the above figures are substantial enough to take full account of inflationary trends or, in the case of maintenance, they at least stabilise- the point is that the funds do not reduce during the 3-year period.

It continues:

This is not the case, however, in relation to those road categories of importance to local government, where the figures reflect a most unfortunate and undesirable trend- a reducing trend over the 3-year term of the arrangement. This trend is so significant that, in the year 1976-77, the final year of the new proposal, the total amount available for both rural arterial and development roads and rural local roads ($4.9m) is a mere $0. 56m in advance of the amount received by the State in 1973-74 . . .

At page 4 of the submission reference is made to a speech by the Minister for Transport in which he said: the Australian Government has decided to take full responsibility for financing the construction of national roads. This will relieve State Governments completely of any financial responsibility in that area and thus allow them to devote all their own resources to the categories covered by this Bill.

That is the Roads Grants Bill. The Minister went on to say:

In this regard 1 want to make the particular point that previously local government authorities relied on Commonwealth aid roads grants. Whilst local government is still eligible for assistance under this legislation these authorities will now have to turn more to State governments for assistance. I emphasise what I said earlier, namely that with the Australian Government meeting the full cost of national roads, State governments will be able to meet this increased demand for financial assistance from their local authorities.

That is the assumption that the Minister has made. I suggest that if we had had the position in which local government in its own right could deal with the national Government we would not have the situation where local government has to wait, apparently in vain, for some assistance from a State government as a consequence of the State government's enhanced ability to finance its own road programs.

I would like to speak at very great length on this subject and on many other matters that are related to it, but I know that time is running out and there are other points I want to make in connection with this matter before I resume my seat. The submission which was made available to me by the Municipal Association of Tasmania states at page 5:

Notwithstanding the above percentage increases over funds available to the State in 1 973-74 -

To which I have just been referring-

The Government to date can only suggest that local government in 1974-75 will receive probably no more than a paltry 5 per cent increase- if, indeed (and this has been mooted) it receives any increase at all in road funds.

In the light of the increase in the cost of living year by year I suppose it could be said that that 5 per cent increase actually means in purchaseable terms a reduction in the amount of work which is able to be carried out by local government. In the Third Schedule of the Bill there is set out the amount of assistance to be provided over the next 3 years. In the specific area of rural local roads the following amounts have been allocated for construction and maintenance: In 1974-75, $4.3m; in 1975-76, $3.5m, which represents a reduction; and in 1976-77, $3.1m, which represents a further reduction. So that the figure is reducing over the triennium. One has very great fears and apprehensions for the ability of local government to carry out its functions adequately. What we do not seem to realise in the planning of the systems where there is a part to be played by the Federal Government, a part to be played by the State and a part to be played by local government is that there is a complete and serious imbalance and local government gets the last grab at what is left. From my experience of almost 20 years in local government this amount is pretty slim when it comes to the final analysis.

A further observation is made in the report which states:

The whole aspect of road finance may be relatively easily summarised: the road finance grants to the State -

That is, the State of Tasmania- from which local government has in the past received assistance, have been severely reduced on the understanding from the Australian Government's point of view, that the States, being relieved of the burden of National Roads, will be able to meet 'this increased demand for financial assistance from their local authorities'.

Unfortunately past experience tends to suggest that this latter statement will not eventuate in practical terms in Tasmania. I have in front of me figures which show the actual proposed situation in relation to national highways, export roads, rural arterial and development roads, rural local roads and so on, which I am quite prepared to table for the information of honourable senators if someone wishes me to do so.

I want to summarise the situation as it appears at the present time. Local government in Tasmania is very unhappy about what is proposed. It is not unhappy with the national Government but it is unhappy about the prospect that very little finance, if any, will be available to its members above that which is now presently available. The erosion of the value of money through inflation has meant that unless substantially increased sums in actual terms are available year by year the amount of work which can be carried out by local councils will be seriously curtailed. It was suggested to me tonight during a telephone conversation I had with a person in Tasmania that unless there is some prospect of substantially increased assistance to local government in Tasmania local councils in that State would be faced with the possibility of having to dispense with the services of 20 per cent of their employees. That would be a disastrous situation.

Senator Durack - That is the Government's fault entirely.

Senator DEVITT - Wait a moment. I seem to recall that members of the Opposition tramped up and down the countryside day after day condemning government expenditure and telling government institutions to cut down on their expenditure. Here is a situation where expenditure has been cut down. Unfortunately, as I have said, because of the very difficult situation and a lack of recognition on the part of governments in the past -

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Davidson)- Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.

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