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Wednesday, 23 May 1973
Page: 2548

Mr N H Bowen (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - As the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Snedden) has made clear, the Opposition is not opposing the passage of the Bill, notwithstanding the fact that it has some misgivings about the long-term implications of the Bill and of the method adopted of getting to local government bodies moneys which they so badly need. We on this side of the House appreciate the need for more funds to be made available for local government bodies to discharge their very important duties. We appreciate the closeness of local government to those issues which affect people so much in their daily living, often more than the national matters which are dealt with in this Parliament.

The real question in this case is: By what method should moneys be allocated to local government? What was proposed before the last election by the Prime Minister has been proposed over a considerable period of time. The Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) gave an address to the Academy of Social Sciences at the Australian National University Seminar on Inter-Governmental Relations in Canberra on Monday, 8 November 1971. In a broad way he flagged this method of dealing with the allocation of finances, which is reflected in the Bill, when he said:

A Labor Government will ask the Grants Commission to recommend the amount of Commonwealth assistance required to remove the inequalities in servicing our developing suburbs and regions. The Commonwealth would clearly be most readily impressed and persuaded by a joint application by local and semi-government bodies in a region.

The Bill is in accordance with that statement made back in November 1971.

On 25 October 1972, in an address to the annual conference of the Local Government Association of New South Wales in Canberra, the Prime Minister referred again to the way in which he, if elected, was proposing to get finance to the assistance of local government bodies. In his address on that occasion he said:

Accordingly, a Labor Government will amend the Commonwealth Grants Commission Act to authorise the Commission to inquire into and report upon applications for Commonwealth grants by any semigovernment or local government authority or group of authorities, preferably on a regional or district basis. The Commission will determine the amount of Commonwealth help found necessary for that authority or group of authorities by reasonable effort to function at a standard not appreciably below that of other authorities or groups of authorities.

As I read this Bill, it seeks to carry out that statement.

The Prime Minister mentioned this again in his policy speech. The Governor-General's Speech on the opening of Parliament, which is reported in the Senate Hansard at page 10, reads in part as follows:

My Government aims to make local government a genuine partner in the Federal system. To promote financial equality between regions the Commonwealth Grants Commission Act will be amended to authorise the Commission to inquire into and report upon applications made for grants for local government purposes. Discussions will be held with the States aimed at providing local government in each State with a voice and vote in the deliberations of the Loan Council.

I mention these references, which were made over a period of time, because I find myself having considerable objections to the method adopted in this Bill. At the same time I must say that this issue was put very fully from time to time before the Australian people, and at the last election they voted the present Labor Government into power. We in the Opposition accept and face that position. We do so in relation to this Bill as in relation to other Bills.

I do not agree that a government necessarily has a mandate to carry out every item which has been mentioned in a policy speech or in the course of an election campaign. I believe that there is a growing misunderstanding on this point. The fact is that, under our system, electors are compelled to choose between parties. They may disagree violently with some points of policy outlined in a policy speech or mentioned in the election campaign and yet, because of other major items which appeal to them or because of something they dislike in the policy of the other party, they vote in favour of that particular party and return it to power even though they disagree with items in the policy speech. No vote is taken on individual items in the policy speech. I suggest that the theory or the assumption that there is a mandate for everything mentioned in a policy speech is a false theory or a false assertion in terms of political science or in terms of our own constitutional conventions.

Of course we have the occasional situation in which a particular policy that is mentioned in a policy speech or made an issue in an election campaign is so much in the forefront of things, is so vital an issue and the parties are so much in conflict about it, that the party which is elected can truly be said to have a mandate to carry out that policy which it espoused during the election campaign. The particular policy that is embodied in this Bill falls somewhat short of that last category. However, it is one of a number of important issues which were put before the Australian people and I think it is fair to say that the Australian people would be entitled to expect this Government to carry out its promise when elected to power. It is a matter of precise detail when one comes to consider what is actually contained in a Bill. The function of an opposition is at all times to see that what is in a Bill, as distinct from the broad general issue which might be debated in an election campaign, is proper, and to oppose anything in the Bill to which it takes exception.

In the Committee stage the Opposition will be moving amendments designed to correct some things which we see in the Bill with which we disagree. The Committee stage will be the proper time to do this. If the Oppotion opposed this Bill, as those who disagree with some of the principles involved in it might be tempted to do, and if it took steps which resulted in this Bill not being able to be brought into effect, local government would be deprived of those funds which are provided for by the Bill. I believe that this would be contrary to the wishes of the Australian people as evidenced by their vote at the last election, following the way in which this matter was put to them. Accordingly, the Opposition does not propose to take any course which would lead to the defeat of this Bill.

However, having said that, I feel I should draw the attention of the House to the implications which are inherent in the method adopted in this Bill. In the distribution of State and Commonwealth powers the area of local government is one, perhaps above all others, which our founding fathers retained for the States. They thought that the States were much closer to local matters. They thought that this area was not of a national character and so it was not given to the control of the Federal Parliament. The councils themselves are created by State laws. The New South Wales Local Government Act of 1919 governs in every detail what the councils do in that State. There is no Commonwealth power to legislate in respect of that. In the past funds to enable these councils to carry out their functions have been derived partly by enabling the councils themselves to strike rates - general rates, special rates for kerbing and guttering outside private dwellings and so on - and in addition the States have provided funds for the local councils.

The difficulty which has arisen is that, with the rapidly expanding areas particularly in the metropolitan outer areas, it has been beyond the capacity of the councils to meet the needs. The well endowed councils in areas where services have been provided over a great number of years and which have become static are not in so much trouble. Indeed, even the poorer councils in the old city areas, where sewerage and other services are present, are not in so much trouble. But the rapidly expanding areas have produced pressures on councils for services, for amenities such as libraries, care centres and senior citizens homes, as well as for the normal ordinary functions of government which have been beyond their capacity to serve. This has led to a very great pressure from local government for further funds. This Bill now offers to those councils a further source of funds. Under the Bill councils may come to the Commonwealth direct. They bypass the States in doing so. It is true that under this Bill they are required to submit applications, and to do so on a regional basis, to a Grants Commission which this Bill establishes. But the Grants Commission provides only a filtering process. It looks at the application. It compares the performance of the council making the application with other councils and decides whether their services are of a standard equal to the services in other regions similar in character. It advises the Commonwealth Minister and then the Commonwealth Minister decides upon the allocation of funds. When he decides on the allocation of funds to the council he does so on the basis of a section 96 grant.

This section when originally inserted in the Commonwealth Constitution provided that for the first 10 years of Federation or until Parliament otherwise provides the Commonwealth could give financial assistance to the States on such terms and conditions as might be provided. The obvious thrust of section 96 was that the Commonwealth could come to the help of the States for the first 10 years after Federation or until Parliament otherwise provided. It was never a section designed to enable the Commonwealth to take over State responsibilities and bypass the States. Of course gradually and with the course of decision we have reached the situation where we have a Bill under which application is made by councils not to the States but direct to the Commonwealth and the grant is made, technically, in the form of a section 96 grant to the States but only on condition that it go straight to the council. So the State is a letter box or perhaps is more accurately described as a post office. The State is a letter box to pass on the cheque under section 96 to the council. This of course was never the original intention of section 96. This is a device that has been used in various ways. It has been used with the Australian Universities Commission. But the difficulty about using this procedure in a case such as this is that it could develop in the course of time into a rigid and detailed control of what the councils do.

If the councils want to establish a child care centre, a senior citizens centre, a swimming pool or a park, who decides it? Not the council. The council does not decide it. Not the States. The States do not decide it. The Commonwealth decides it. The Commonwealth Minister, on the advice of the Grants Commission, will now decide it. This of course means that the whole control of the lower tier of government is now potentially placed under the control of the Commonwealth Government by this Bill. As the Leader of the Opposition pointed out, the opportunity arises for a political application of the discretion in this field so that those regions which it might be thought politically advantageous to favour might be found getting the advantage under this Bill from the Commonwealth Government. I am not suggesting that my friend, the present Minister for Urban and Regional Development (Mr Uren) who a moment ago was sitting opposite me at the table, would engage in this kind of activity, but the Bill itself provides the potential for control of regions and councils from the centre in Canberra on a political basis. To that extent I suggest it needs very careful consideration.

The Bill as originally introduced and as at present before the House did not provide in clause 17 for consultation with the States. This itself highlighted the direct bypassing of the States in this field. I suggest that it is important to consider amendment of this area. The Leader of the Opposition has indicated that in Committee he will be introducing amendments to clauses 17 and 18 to require the Minister to consult with the States, which after all under our Federal Constitution have ultimate responsibility for this matter.

There are different views on how power should be distributed in Australia, and what may have been the distribution of powers in 1901 may not be the ideal distribution of powers in the minds of many of us in 1973. But the way to amend this is not by indirection. The way to amend this is not by stealth. The way to amend this is not by taking away from the States responsibility for tertiary education, by administering their primary and secondary schools through a centralised schools commission, by administering their hospitals by a centralised hospitals commission, by taking over their railways or by taking over control of the territorial sea from the low water mark at the top or by taking away responsibility for local government from them at the bottom, because there will be nothing left in the States but a shell if this is done. We have rationally to look at this matter. We have to decide what is our philosophy on the distribution of powers in 1973, not by indirection and not by this kind of Bill. We have to face up to this question and decide what is the best system.

The Prime Minister in answer to a question in this House this week has said that he is in favour of a centralised, unitary system of Government. Are we? Are the Australian people in favour of that? They have never had an opportunity of saying, and the matter ought to be put to the people so that they can say what they think. It should not be decided by indirection. I suggest very seriously to members of this House, including the Minister for Urban and Regional Development, that it is important when distributing powers in a democracy to have checks and balances. I suggest that there are dangers for all of us, including my friends opposite, in . having simply one central source of power. I do not think Australian people want it. At least they ought to be able to have a chance to say what they want. It should not be done by indirection in a Bill of this type.

However, having said that and given that warning as to the possible implications of this Bill, I come back to the point that I believe that councils and the Australian people are entitled to expect funds as a result of the promises that were given to them by the Government which they elected. I believe that local government needs this additional finance. I know certainly it does in my own area of Parramatta, Hornsby and Ryde, and I would not be a party to holding up the possibility of their getting this finance. I do not think they will get it quite as fast under this Bill as they might expect, but at least the

Government elected by the people ought to be given the opportunity of carrying out its promise to provide it. In these circumstances the Opposition does not intend to oppose the Bill.

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