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Monday, 14 October 1985
Page: 1192


Senator MacGIBBON(10.02) —The Opposition supports the National Capital Development Commission Amendment Bill 1985, albeit with very little enthusiasm. We are supporting it on the basis that it may tend to improve what is a very inadequate body. The purpose of the Bill is, first of all, to modernise the structure of the Commission. The second purpose is to make the Commission more accountable. But I have very grave doubts whether it is possible to make statutory bodies or any organ of the Public Service accountable, particularly in a financial sense-not with respect to dishonesty but with respect to the efficient use of resources. Thirdly, it replaces the corporation role of the Commission with a board of seven commissioners. Senator Lewis has very eloquently spoken of the overcapacity, the way in which one gets by with far fewer numbers if one wants anything effective done and the way in which we propose in the Committee stage to amend the constitution of the board of commissioners. We wish the Bill well, but we doubt very much whether there will be much improvement in the management of Canberra as a consequence of it.

Before moving to the closer detail of the Bill or the proposed changes, it is worth recalling that this body has been in existence since 1958. It was formed as a consequence of a 1955 Senate Select Committee report on the development of Canberra, when Canberra had only about 36,000 inhabitants, suffered from an acute housing shortage and when most civic facilities were very short. But in the time since March 1958, when the NCDC started, there have been enormous changes in the national capital.

My view is that the body ought to be disbanded. There is no justification for keeping it going. I emphasise that that is a personal view; it is not the view of the Liberal Party. But were we in government I would go to Senator Lewis as the responsible Minister and ask: `What is different about Canberra from every other city and shire in Australia? What is so different about this place that the accepted practices for the organisation of local government cannot be applied here'? What is different about this place? Why cannot the citizens of Canberra have a city council and manage their affairs in the way in which people under every other Australian local authority do? Why can they not raise their own rates and run the city within their own resources instead of living off the taxpayer in the way in which they do? They have so much kidney fat here, with all the infrastructure that has been put in place, that if they ran the place efficiently they could live on very low property rates and taxes for the next 100 years, because everything that needs to be done has been done.

I say that with some feeling because I live in two cities. For half the year during the last seven years I have lived in Canberra; for the other half I have lived in my home State. I am not at all impressed with what I have seen the NCDC do during those seven years. My mind goes back to my orientation course as a new senator in 1978. We were met by a delegation from the NCDC. It may have been led by the Deputy Director or the Director at the time or whatever the position was called-the head honcho. I cannot remember. He took the new senators around in a bus and very obsequiously pointed out all the good things that had been done for Canberra by the NCDC. I could not see anything that had been done then that could not have been done by the works committee of an efficient city council.

If one looks at the Canberra skyline one can see some of the points of which I am critical. The purpose of the National Capital Development Commission as set out in the Act of 1957 is encapsulated in section 11, which in the first part states:

The functions of the Commission are to undertake and carry out the planning, development and construction of the City of Canberra as the National Capital of the Commonwealth.

Broadly, it is to oversee the development in an orderly, harmonious and suitable way for the national capital. If it were daylight one could walk outside this building for a few hundred yards and see the monstrosity of what is going on in Kingston. Kingston is one of the pleasantest parts of Canberra. It is a suburb that has an increasing number of apartments and units. But nothing there has been built above the level of two or three storeys. For some reason that defies comprehension, the National Capital Development Commission has approved the construction of a tower of 14 storeys that shatters the harmony of the Canberra skyline. All of that sort of construction should be in the downtown area, which is the proper place for high rise development. I do not know how the Commission ever came to allow this building to be constructed in Kingston, but I do not know one person in Canberra who does not find it aesthetically jarring. It contrasts and fights with the inspired genius of the design of the new Parliament House, which fits and nestles, without dominating the landscape, into the hill behind this building. But if we go across the lake and look at the skyline, all we see is this tower poking out of the trees in what is really quite a beautiful vista. That, I am afraid, reflects the efficiency, objectivity and capability of the NCDC.

It has been my experience over the years to serve on some of the Estimates committees that have dealt with the funding of the NCDC and the Australian Capital Territory. The impression that I have gained from that experience is that Canberra is a very self-indulgent city. It is a spoilt child of a city that has never grown up. It lacks cohesion. It lacks unity as a community. It lacks any sort of esprit de corps. It seems to be full of people who go out of their way to prove the point that the more one gives people, the more they want. That applies very much to the bodies that come before this Parliament asking for funds. It is a city that has never been subjected to any of the stresses of life. It has never had, and it cannot have, floods. Neither fire nor famine harms it. Its income is secure, whatever goes on within Australia. It is never affected by drought or a turndown in the rural economy. It is immune from any sort of industrial recession we might have because it lives off the public purse. There is nothing to develop the character of the city. But I am getting away a little from the Bill.

I am not alone in my criticisms of Canberra. In preparing to debate this Bill it was interesting to see that there is a continual level of complaints by residents about the operations of the city and, principally, the operations of the NCDC. There is a continual cry that despite all the planning that has taken place in this city there is inadequate off-street parking. One resident went as far in a letter in the Canberra Times recently as to speak of the NCDC in this fashion:

. . . a collection of academic social planners, the NCDC is too remote from the realities of everyday living and detrimental to the community it serves. One is left wondering if they will ever graduate from lego and matchbox models to an appreciation of the adverse impact their drawing board activities inflict on real lives.

I remember the time a couple of years ago when I spoke to Australia's leading architect who had been commissioned to do a job for the NCDC. This is some four or five years back and we may well be faced with a different circumstance today but I doubt it. His complaint was that the NCDC ran a very closed club with respect to attracting talent to the town for architectural design and commissions. He said: `When you get in you find that your experience is a very unrewarding one because you are dealing with trivia the whole time'. He instanced the case when he flew in from interstate for a meeting with the NCDC. It provided 11 or 12 people for the meeting for the day and all they talked about was the placement of garbage bins for his new building. The meeting was called to discuss the fundamental design parameters of the building and they wasted thousands of dollars and the time of the people involved discussing something that was not worth breath arguing about.

While it is not primarily a consequence of the NCDC, one of the things that really jar people from interstate is the situation of the ACTION bus service in Canberra. It is relevant to this Bill because it is a consequence of the planning that the NCDC has imposed on the capital for nearly 30 years. It has managed to create a situation where the budgeted loss this year for the buses of Canberra is $15.5m. I was not at the Estimates Committee this year which dealt with that, but I guess if any senator had questioned the representatives of the Australian Capital Territory as to why that loss was necessary they would have been dismissed the way I was dismissed years ago with the lofty comment: `All public transport systems lose money-what is unusual about Canberra?'

I think Canberra is different from other capital cities. I would like to know how the loss rate on the buses in Canberra compares per head with the losses of other cities. This year, ACTION will buy 70 new standard buses. It will buy 12 new articulated buses just to drive around the bus-routes-not to carry passengers. It already has 398 buses on strength and if one looks at the statistics one finds that the Canberra bus service on average has bought 20 new buses each year to carry virtually no passengers. I would think that with the 82 buses it is buying this financial year it would be able to use the interiors out of any buses it is retiring because they are certainly not worn out by passengers sitting in them. To do all this it has a staff of over 800 people.

The ACTION bus service is losing over $15,500,000 a year providing a service which no one wants and which no one uses. If one reflects on the needs of Australia, one cannot tolerate this waste. Let us look at the transport provisions in the Gulf of Carpentaria, that great area in the north of Queensland. Not one cent goes to subsidise the transport services in Cape York where people have to cope with very great distances, where there is no rail service and where the very poor roads are affected by the seasonal climatic changes of flood and are frequently impassable in the wet season. Communities are scattered throughout that Gulf area and through Cape York-communities that produce the export earnings of this country; the cattle industry, the gold mining industry and the bauxite mining industry at Weipa and the fishing industry at Normanton. The people of that community get not one cent to move their children to school or themselves to their work and to various locations. If that community could get even $500,000 in subsidy for legitimate transport services it would be really grateful and it would be of great benefit to the country. Those people do not get that, but we fritter away $15,500,000 for transport in Canberra.

I said originally that the amount being spent on transport in Canberra is not required. Canberra has the highest median income in Australia. Even worse, it has the highest family income in Australia because an awful lot of spouses in Canberra also work for the Public Service. There are cars everywhere here and that is why people do not use the buses. However, we go through the ritual year after year of voting more and more money to provide a bus service that no one wants or uses.

The National Capital Development Commission should be disbanded. As I said earlier, we should have a council and the work the NCDC does should be done by a works committee of the council. We should not have a huge edifice which costs us directly over $18m a year. The costs that are hidden cannot be measured but I suggest that the obfuscation to developers, the red tape and everything else that this body puts on the city of Canberra costs as much again in hidden costs as the direct cost of the $18m a year to run it. The reason I am opposed to it is that it is a waste of money on a grand scale.

Many things come before honourable senators in the Senate that we do not agree with. At any one time roughly a half of this chamber does not agree with the business that is before it but we recognise that in politics one has to accommodate a different point of view. Maybe one cannot see the importance of something, one would prefer other things to be done but at least we are conscious of the fact that there is some justification for what is being done. The difficulty with the NCDC is that there is no justification. It is a gross waste of the public funds. For those reasons I am firmly of the belief-I would put the point to an incoming Liberal Government and an incoming Liberal Minister-that this body should be disbanded. In conclusion, I support the amendments that will be moved by Senator Lewis because they will in some way go to improving the legislation for this inadequate body.

Debate (on motion by Senator Robertson) adjourned.