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Thursday, 21 November 1974
Page: 2695

Senator CHANEY (Western Australia) - Debates on areas where the Opposition is in fact voting for Bills seem to get more heated than debates in this chamber where we are voting against legislation. There is a mystery in that which I have not been here long enough to fathom. But I think it ought to be clear enough now from the speeches which have been made by the Opposition that while we support the fact that grants are being made to local government we are deeply concerned and we have misgivings about what the Government has been doing in the field of local government and about the attempts of the Government to achieve what might be, in theory, quite admirable aims. I suggest to the Senate that the Local Government Grants Bill is one of a series of Bills in which the bright promises of 1972 are being shown up as being rather hollow. I think the hollowness in this case has been amply demonstrated by the figures which were put before the Senate by Senator Carrick. Those figures show that the position of local government has, in fact, substantially worsened over the last few years for reasons which relate to the general economic situation.

It is in that context that the promise which the Government held out to local government is not being fulfilled. I think it is clear from the Bill and from the statements which have come from the Government that what was intended was that local government should be lifted up and that there should be a meeting of the generally accepted proposition that local government was in need of additional sources of finance to enable it to better meet its existing commitments and to break into new fields. But the fact of the matter is that local government around Australia, and certainly in my State of Western Australia, is finding that it is- to use a colloquial expression- so strapped for cash that it just cannot do anything about extending the range of facilities which it is offering ratepayers. It is finding that even to maintain a standard of service it has to greatly increase the rates which it imposes on ratepayers. An average increase of somewhere in the vicinity of 30 per cent to 40 per cent is common. Yet the services which local government is providing under the budgets which imposed these increased rates are no better than the services it was providing before.

I suggest that the Government faces this problem not only in the field of aid to local government but also in the fields of education, housing and roads where great amounts of money are being made available and yet the end result represents no improvement. In this chamber we have recently debated Bills relating to housing. Some pretty terrible statistics have been put forward showing the drop in the rate of home building notwithstanding the promise of this Government in that field. So the Government has broken new ground in an area where I think the community generally wanted it to break new ground. But unfortunately the Government is unlikely to achieve the objectives which it has set out to achieve. I think that the faults which have been thrown up by the Government's approach to this area are quite clear. Firstly there is the problem I have mentioned- the fact that the grants that are meant to top up, to add to the services provided by local government, in fact will do little more than alleviate some of the immediate strains of local government. I refer to local authorities in Western Australia such as the City of Stirling and the Shire of Wanneroo which, because of deficiencies in their loan programs, are facing the immediate prospect of cutting back on their works programs and of sacking large numbers of people. They are caught in the peculiar situation where they cannot get aid from the Government to enable them to avoid sacking large numbers of their outside staff until those people have been sacked and have registered for unemployment with the Commonwealth employment office. Then the councils might be able to employ them using Regional Employment and Development scheme money. That is an obvious problem which the Government faces and which it shows no signs of meeting.

There is the problem of excessive paper work. What this Government is doing is imposing great administrative strains on local authorities. Local authorities are required to provide all sorts of information to the Federal Government- to the Australian Government, as I believe it is now called- and they have to add to their staffs or utilise their existing staffs simply to meet the administrative requirements of the Australian Government. So a paper war has been started and this is doing nothing to reduce the problems of local government. In fact it is exacerbating those problems.

I want to refer to the use of the Grants Commission to hand out the money. I suggest to the Senate that that quite clearly is a use of the Grants Commission which is doomed to failure. I think everybody in both Houses of this Parliament would support the concept of the Grants Commission, as it has been used over the years, to equalise services available within the various States. That has been a noble concept which has distinguished our Federation and it is something of which the governments of this country can be quite proud. But to transform that Grants Commission from a body which can survey the needs of 6 States and endeavour to provide equalisation grants into a body which can survey the needs of some 902 local government authorities around Australia is quite ludicrous. I think it is quite clear to anybody who has been involved in any sort of administration that that is imposing on the Grants Commission a task which it simply cannot meet with any efficiency.

If it does meet the task it has been set, I think my next criticism of the Government is one which will become very apparent. What the Government is doing will impose tighter and tighter controls over local government by the central government. It is quite clear that although these grants at the moment purport to be made without strings, requirements are being imposed on councils with respect to the rates they levy. They are being imposed in a clumsy way, as is evidenced in the documents tabled in the other place. For example, a council that has high valuations and hence a lower rate than an adjoining municipality is penalised. What more clumsy assessment of a situation could you have than that. We are going to get that sort of control. But additionally in future years as the Grants Commission continues its work we are going to get the requirement that councils make an equal effort, as in the past there has been a requirement that States make an equal effort to benefit their own citizens. What we are seeing is a pattern by which local government becomes more and more an administrative tool of the central government, and that, of course, will destroy the whole concept of local responsibility and local government.

In the few minutes remaining to me- it is the common view of all honourable senators here tonight that this Bill should be passed so that the money can be made available to local governmentI would like to refer to the Liberal approach to this area. It is often said that it is all very well to criticise what the Government is doing but what would we do. I refer to our acknowledgement of the need to assist local government. We join with the Government, and in fact with most people in Australia, in acknowledging that the needs of local authorities cannot be met by simply leaving them to rely on rates alone. We say that the additional funds which need to be made available to local government cannot be made available through a central authority. That cannot be done, both for theoretical reasons and for reasons of administrative practicality. We recommend a series of State Grants Commissions. There is some precedent for that because 2 States, including my own State of Western Australia, already have set up bodies of that type which perform the same sort of function as the Grants Commission tried to perform in this case but over the more limited area of the State. As some officers of one of the major municipalities in Western Australia that I visited with Senator Carrick just a few weeks ago said, it is all very well to try to deal with these people in Canberra but if you have a problem you cannot just go across the road and solve it. He said that he, and other officers, wanted to deal with the people in Western Australia who are available to them and are known to them. We say that the Government should restore to the States the job of providing funds for the local authorities. Of course, to do that the Commonwealth will have the responsibility of ensuring that the States have adequate finance to perform that function.

In this area, as in so many others, we would also have to say that the problems of local government will not be solved simply by making large financial grants. The approach of providing assistance to all these areas of need that the Government has developed is quite ridiculous because of the unstable economic situation that the Government has produced. We say that all these programs of assistance will make sense only in a stable economic climate in which the additional funds being made available can be used to provide additional services, not merely to meet the strains which have been imposed by rampant inflation.

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