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Friday, 16 August 1974
Page: 1072

Senator DEVITT (Tasmania) -Like Senator Wood,I have had much experience in local government. If I thought that this Bill proposed what Senator Wood believes it proposes I would share his great apprehensions about it; but the Bill does not propose that at all. As I said in my speech during the second reading stage yesterday, I would be the last to agree that there should be any interference from Canberra in the day to day domestic affairs of the running of municipal councils and in the expenditure of their rate collected revenue. That is not proposed.

Yesterday I mentioned in passing, because time did not permit a very detailed exposition of the situation, that the Minister for Transport (Mr Charles Jones) had attempted to give an assurance that this was not proposed. I think this is important, because Senator Steele Hall expressed some misgivings as to what is proposed in the measure. The Minister issued a statement. I cannot see a date on it, but I made some inquiries and learned that last Friday night the Minister had made a statement, copies of which he had dispatched to all municipal authorities throughout Australia, spelling out the provisions of the Bill. If the Committee will bear with me for a moment, I would like to read out a part of the Minister's reassurance which is pertinent to the question we are now discussing. The Minister said:

The Roads Grants Bill provides for Australian Government assistance to the States and local government for the following categories of roads: Urban arterial roads, urban local roads, rural arterial roads, rural local roads, developmental roads, beef roads and minor traffic engineering and road safety improvements.

The Bill provides for appropriate Australian Government Ministers to approve programs of road works financed by Australian Government grants.

That ought to be borne in mind. They are Australian Government grants. Then we come to the determination of responsibility. My experience in local government tells me that there must be an absolutely correct recording of all expenditure. In fact, during the time I served in this area, when grants were made by State authorities to local government every cent of that money had to be properly recorded and accounts had to be presented for audit examination. So it is nothing new that somebody at a government level making financial grants to some other institution should require that institution to give clear evidence of the fact that the money so advanced has been utilised for the purposes for which it was intended. The Minister went on to say:

The Bill in clause 4(1) provides that the Australian Government may require the States and local government to submit for Australian Government approval programs of road works financed from their own resources. The subclause reads as follows:

I think this is important -

A Minister may -

The word 'may' is used in its correct sense; there is nothing mandatory about it - notify a State the date -

Senator Marriott - You read the Acts Interpretation Act.

Senator DEVITT - Let me go on and then perhaps the honourable senator may -

Senator Marriott - I am correcting you.

Senator DEVITT -I do not accept the honourable senator's correction. I do not think the honourable senator knows what he is talking about, frankly. Clause 4(1) reads:

A Minister may notify a State the date before which a program of projects in respect of a period to which this section applies, being projects of a specified kind, is to be submitted to him for approval, and may, in the notice, inform the State that the program should include all the projects of that kind that are to be carried out by the State and by municipal, shire, and other local authorities in that period.

In his statement the Minister then goes on to say:

As I have said on a number of occasions this later provision was included because this Government recognises the inter-connection of the various modes and is determined to promote the development of a more national approach -

I think this is important - to transport overall.

In fact, it is an attempt for the first time in the history of this country to try to put on to a proper national basis all the modes of transport in this country, including those facilities necessary to enable transportation to flow on road or rail or on any other land based mode that is available. The Minister continues:

We believe it is illogical -

I must agree with this and surely the Senate must agree with this - to provide large sums of money in a number of important areas, including urban public transport and national highways, without recognising that roads built by States and municipal authorities form just as much a part of the transport system as do roads and trains and buses financed by Australian Government grants.

The whole purpose of this legislation is to try to integrate our various modes of transport into a unified national system, not for the aggrandisement of any particular form of government but for the service of the Australian community. That is the whole point and purpose of this legislation. The Minister then says:

The provisions I 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 -

I repeat that they will not be required to submit for approval - the road works program financed from their own funds for the following categories: urban local roads, rural local roads, developmental roads, beef road and minor traffic engineering and road safety improvements.

The Minister winds up this particular aspect in this way:

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, as claimed by Opposition spokesman.

I think it is quite incorrect and improper to try to generate fear in the minds of those people who are genuinely concerned with the welfare of local government. In this respect one has to have regard to the fact- this is becoming more and more evident and increasingly clear as time goes on to everyone concerned with this matter- that the local government institution in Australia at the present time is in a pretty sick state. We have to recognise that fact, and if we are to resurrect it from the low position into which it has sunk over the past several years, the Federal Government, being the Government with the chief sources of finance, must come into the picture and must help. We see the natural consequence of the decline in the importance of the role and of the ability of local government to discharge its functions in the fact that able and conscientious people in the community-the type of people that one would want to see in local government- are now declining in greater numbers to involve themselves in a system for which they can claim only a mediocre performance.

Everybody wants to be associated with a good performance, and people are very disinclined to be associated with something which is less than what it ought to be in the interest of the people. I see evidence of this- surely it must be evident right throughout the land because I have discussed the matter with people in other political parties who are as concerned as I am for the welfare of local government, and they see the same picture emerging. Unless local government can be put in a position in which it can indicate clearly to the community in observable terms that its functions are necessary and appropriate, people will be disinclined to involve themselves in local government.

Similarly, of course, another spin-off- a thing which surely must be agitating the minds of people in local government- is the very serious question of the lack of interest in local government elections. I saw recently in Tasmania an election where, I think, fewer than 100 people were sufficiently interested in what was happening. It was an election for an urban council in Tasmania. There is a substantial enrolment but fewer than 100 people- I am open to correction- - were sufficiently interested m the election. I have warned about this trend. I am not unusual in this respect, I do not suppose, because other people have had the same feeling but have not had an opportunity to express it. I feel that unless something very drastic or dramatic is done to resuscitate local government in the Australian community the people who depend upon local government for the provision of those daytoday locally based front-door services as it were are in for a pretty sorry time. I suggest this is an appropriate way to keep some measure of interest in what is happening in the local community area and, also, a very necessary attempt to ensure a proper co-ordination of the design and construction of road systems and other modes of transportation in which the Government should interest itself.

No government can abdicate its position of responsibility in the expenditure of public funds. I think it is an appropriate function of the national Government- as well as any other form of government- at least to have a provision where it may- it is not mandatory as I said- require an exposition of plans of local authorities so that an adequate control or at least an adequate interest and an adequate assurance can be given to the Australian taxpayer that what is happening is an appropriate thing to be happening. I have heard, and I guess that Senator Wood and other people who have been involved in local government also would have heard, that agitation in a local government area for the construction of a road or some other system has led to the construction of that road. An instance was pointed out to me only the other day by an official of the Tasmanian Municipal Association of a road being built for quite a substantial amount- some thousands of pounds at the time- to provide road access to some farm property. The road has now grown over with grass. Nobody ever uses it. It was merely an access road. Something happened to amalgamate the property and some other entrance was provided. The public funds were wasted. Construction of roads of that sort cannot be justified.

I hope that I have been able in the few brief moments I have had to show that it is not the Australian Government's intention at all to stick its nose into local council business. Heaven help me, it has enough problems of its own, surely, without getting involved. It is an appropriate thing, when somebody provides funds- I would want to do so if I were providing money for some project- to see that they are properly and adequately expended. Is the Opposition arguing that there should not, in fact, be some oversight in the expenditure of public funds particularly at a time when everybody with any sense of responsibility, including the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Snedden), is urging maximum control over the expenditure of public funds.

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