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Thursday, 6 December 1973
Page: 2549

The PRESIDENT -Is leave granted? There being no objection, leave is granted. (The speech read as follows)-

The purpose of the Bill, which provides for a number of amendments to the Lands Acquisition Act 1955-1966, is to enable the Australian Government's land and property requirements to be handled in a more businesslike and expeditious way appropriate to modern practices and to efficient administration- to ensure that a more reasonable rate of interest is paid on money owed by the Commonwealth and to bring statutory authorities under the provisions of the Act. The chief provisions of the Bill are:

(a)   Section 4 authorises the Minister to approve all acquisitions of land and interests in land for a public purpose where those purchases are made or interests in land are acquired by agreement between the vendor and the Commonwealth. The section also allows for acquisitions by agreement, which are being processed under provisions of the principal Act at date of assent of this Act to be completed under the provisions of the principal Act as though these amendments had not been made.

(b)   Section 7 provides for the short term interest rate to be paid where compensation outstanding on land compulsorily acquired is less than 3 years. (Section 36 (2) (a) of the principal Act currently limits this to 3 per cent.) In other cases the long term interest rate is payable in lieu of 4.5 per cent as stipulated in the principal Act. Short term and long term interest rates are prescribed. The section also provides that where acquisition has been compulsory before the date of commencement of this Act, and compensation has not been settled, interest would be payable under the principal Act up to the date of assent of this Act and thereafter at the appropriate new rates.

(c)   Section 8 authorises the Minister under section 53 of the principal Act to dispose of land no longer required by the Australian Government and to grant leases or licences over such land. The section also allows for disposals which are being processed under the provisions of the principal Act at date of assent of this Act to be completed under those provisions.

(d)   Section 9 amends section 64 of the principal Act to allow the Minister, by notice published in the Gazette, to delegate his power to enter into an agreement with a land owner before or after compulsory acquisition on the amount of compensation to be paid for his land. A delegation under this section is revocable by will and conditions may be attached to it.

(e)   Section 10 of the Bill authorises the Minister in his discretion to require all statutory corporations incorporated by a law of Australia or of a Territory to effect transactions relating to land and interest in land under the provisions of the Lands Acquisitions Act. The Minister may exempt certain corporations by notice in the Gazette and the Minister proposes, immediately assent is given to the Bill, to gazette a number of statutory corporations which have special responsibilities or which are engaged in highly competitive commercial enterprises. I shall be happy to provide a list of these corporations to the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Withers) if he so desires but I want to emphasise that the list is flexible and that those exempted will be required to conform to Government policy and to avoid competitive bidding with the Department of Services and Property, otherwise the exemption will be withdrawn.

(f)   Other amending sections are of a machinery nature, for example, section 6 refers to metric distance in lieu of imperial; section 10 amendments arise mainly because of changes in drafting style.

Apart from minor technical amendments, the Lands Acquisition Act remains unchanged since it was enacted in 1955.

Over 90 per cent of acquisitions of land and interests in land by the Australian Government are completed by agreement between vendors and purchasers and lessors- and 90 per cent of compulsory acquisitions are completed by agreement. However, the Minister's authority to conclude these transactions in a businesslike way under the principal Act is limited to cases where the price with the vendor does not exceed $1,000, or in the cases of leases, where the term does not exceed 3 years, or the annual rental does not exceed $1,000. A similar limitation applies to the disposal of Australian Government land interests. The approval of the GovernorGeneral is required for all other acquisitions and disposals of interests in land. This limitation is quite unreasonable today and causes considerable loss to the Government arising out of delays inherent in the system and hardship to the vendor. The effect of these limitations is to impose an unreasonable burden on the Minister and the Department and virtually to nullify the process of acquisition on any interest in land by delegation to departmental officers. They impose an inordinately large burden of paper work on the Minister and the Department and in this context I must emphasise that these limitations occur in cases of voluntary acquisition of land and property where mutual agreement has been reached between the purchaser and the vendor and hence where the transactions should be completed without delay.

Honourable senators will perhaps have a greater appreciation of this problem when I emphasise that very frequently, Executive Council action is required in terms of the Act when the amount involved is as low as $ 1 and where leases or licences exceed 3 years. Leases or licences over land for power lines, telephone poles, etc., could be up to 30 years or more. Therefore, the Act in its present form leads to absurdities which involve not only the Minister but also the GovernorGeneral in Council. The arbitrarily fixed figure of $1,000 had no particular significance when it was fixed in 1955. Today it is even less significant and is quite out of step with practical administrative considerations and modern business practices. The Government regards it as important that approvals for land dealings on its behalf should be effected having regard to present day land values and efficient administrative practices including adequate delegations of authority.

Australian Government land transactions have increased with the expansion of Government activities and are rapidly expanding. The number of minutes referred to the GovernorGeneral in Council for approval is now running at a rate of approximately 1,000 per annum. The proposed amendments in the Bill will limit references to the Governor-General in Council to approximately 100 per annum. This is because the Government has decided that there should not be any change to the requirement that the acquisition of land by compulsory process should be authorised by the Governor-General in Council. The decision to acquire land compulsorily will still remain with the Governor-General in

Council. In this connection, honourable senators will be interested to know that although the procedure for compulsory acquisition applies to approximately 100 cases per annum, the major proportion of these are with the consent of both parties in order to expedite settlement and accelerate transfer of title at the earliest possible time. The Bill proposes that the Minister should be authorised to acquire by agreement any interests in land, including leases and licences, and also that he be authorised to dispose of and grant leases and other interests in land owned by the Australian Government.

The Minister's powers of delegation under the principal Act relating to the determination of compensation for land acquired or to be acquired by compulsory process is limited to $1,000. As mentioned earlier, the figure of $1,000 is quite unrelated to present day land prices and the Bill proposes amendments to the Act to remove the present limit of $1,000. The Minister will have power to revoke delegations and to attach conditions to them and will be informed from time to time of the way in which the delegations are exercised. In the exercise of delegations officers will be subject to all the usual constraints of Parliamentary scrutiny, for example Treasury control of funds, scrutiny by the Auditor-General and control of legal aspects by the Attorney-General.

The principal Act provides for payment of interest on compensation for compulsory acquisitions at 3 per cent per annum for periods up to 2 years and thereafter at 4.5 per cent per annum. These rates have remained unchanged since 1955 and are quite unrealistic and must be changed. The rates should be more in keeping with the market in order to do justice to dispossessed owners. The Bill proposes that they be changed so as to relate the interest rate payable on compensation to changes in the short term and long term interest rates. Most transactions will be completed expeditiously and this section is likely to apply only in a limited number of compulsory acquisitions where bargaining over prices is extensive or where the vendor exercises his rights to litigate the matter.

There have been a number of cases where competition between Australian Government departments and statutory authorities or where agreements negotiated by statutory authorities have led to excessive rentals being paid by the Australian Government for accommodation or, if negotiations had been handled by the Department of Services and Property, there would have been a substantial saving of public moneys. The

Government had directed that competitive bidding between departments and statutory authorities in the land and property market should be eliminated and that the Department of Services and Property should in future conduct all negotiations except where the Minister exempts a statutory authority. Honourable senators will appreciate that approximately 70 statutory corporations may now acquire land under their own Acts, subject to availability of funds. Approval of the Governor-General is not required. If clauses 4 and 9 are not accepted as proposed it would impose an intolerable burden on the Minister and Department of Services and Property and therefore the 2 clauses are inseparably linked. The Minister could not accept the burdens inherent in this section without the machinery proposed in clauses 4 and 9.

The Government directed that those Acts which currently give statutory authorities power to make their own acquisitions or to arrange their own rentals should be amended so that a single government authority- the Department of Services and Property- would be the negotiating authority. This decision is a further measure to stablise the land market and eliminate practices which lead to excessive rentals and land prices.

The effect of the Bill will be to strengthen substantially the Lands Acquisition Act. The Minister responsible will be given authority not only to acquire by agreement land and interests in land on behalf of Australian Government departments, but also on behalf of Australian Government statutory authorities, and this can only be to the advantage of the Government and the people. The Bill deserves the support of all honourable senators and I commend it to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Withers) adjourned.

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