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Thursday, 18 August 1960

Mr L R JOHNSON (Hughes) . - I would like, Sir, to raise one matter fairly briefly as the result of the comparative inactivity on the part of the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) in respect of a very important consideration - the great problems of local government. I was interested not very long ago - but long enough ago; in fact, last March - to receive a letter from the secretary of the Australian Council of Local Government Associations. In that letter he informed me - I think he probably informed a number of other members of this House, including members opposite - of the financial dilemma being experienced by local government and the fact that last November the Australian Council of Local Government Associations had made submissions to the Prime Minister, in printed form, on the occasion of its attendance, I believe, in the House.

The nature of the submissions was most comprehensive and extremely factual. In fact, the submissions were accumulated as a consequence of the very elaborate investigation conducted by none other than a former Premier of New South Wales, Sir Bertram Stevens, in his capacity of a chartered accountant. He acted on behalf of the New South Wales Local Government Association and the Shires Association of New South Wales, and subsequently the policy, or the problems which he enunciated were incorporated in a general statement issued by the Australian Council of Local

Government Associations. This council cannot be described as an irresponsible body. I have noticed that its activities have had the support of a number of Government members in previous years, but since the council crystallized its objections and came to this Government with precise proposals, Government members have been conspicuous in the inadequacy or complete absence of their support of the proposals.

I notice, for example, that a conference of the Australian Council of Local Government Associations was supported in 1957 by none other than the Speaker of this House, by Senator Wood of Queensland, Senator Seddon Vincent of Western Australia, the Minister for the Army (Mr. Cramer), Senator Gorton of Victoria and by Senator Wright. These are the names as they appear in the 1957 report of that association. I was astounded to find out, a short time ago, that something like ten months had elapsed from the time when the Australian Council of Local Government Associations had put its points of view to the Prime Minister, and that he had failed to give a reply in that period which, to my way of thinking, is an irresponsible attitude. I will mention briefly the associations and instrumentalities which are concerned with the Australian Council of Local Government Associations, to indicate that it is a bona fide organization deserving of the respect of this Parliament. It has, as its constituent bodies, the Municipal Association of Tasmania, the Local Government Association of Western Australia, the Road Board Association of Western Australia, the Municipal Association of Victoria, the Local Government Association of Queensland, the Municipal Association of South Australia, the Local Government Association of South Australia, the Local Government Association of New South Wales and the Shires Association of New South Wales.

The general nature of the submissions made to the Prime Minister last November was as follows: - That the Commonwealth take the initiative in arranging a conference between the Commonwealth, the States and local government for the purpose of defining the responsibilities of local government and ensuring to it sufficient finance to discharge them. This is a fairly clear-cut sort of proposal and it was substantiated and supported by the submissions derived from Sir Bertram Stevens' investigation. The general effect of it is that local government throughout Australia is experiencing a great financial dilemma. It is not a matter of party politics, because in the Liberal State of Victoria the same problem prevails as exists in the Labour State of New South Wales.

There is a real problem in evidence, and the fundamental reason for it is that the local government system of finance which originated many years ago was associated with the simple need to provide roads to service properties, and because it was believed that properties would be improved as the result of the roads the property owners were charged a rate. But in these days local government services throughout Australia have developed enormously and have extended to town planning problems, baby health centres, rest rooms and a thousand and one things for which no additional provision has been made.

Mr Pollard - And naturalization ceremonies.

Mr L R JOHNSON - Yes, and for that matter, a considerable number of things as a consequence of Commonwealth policy. There is the great problem of migration, for example, with people arriving in a community without having made any contribution to its development prior to their arrival naturally enough. They have to be accommodated from the stand-point of local government obligations, and so the system has changed completely. We might like this three-armed system of government but unless we ensure in a responsible way that each system has the wherewithal to do the job, the people will suffer tremendous inconvenience. Throughout the length and breadth of Australia to-day, we find inadequacies in respect of roads, sewerage and other things concerning the health of the Australian people. What happens in Australia to-day is that the ratepayer is required to carry a far greater share of the local government burden than does his counterpart in most other countries of the world.

We find that in the United Kingdom and in Canada there is a far smaller proportion of local government finance accounted for by the ratepayer than is the case in Australia and so we should have a good look at this problem, because the present system is not working out very satisfactorily. We have only to look at the rates position to find that throughout New South Wales, which is typical of the situation in the other States, the average local government rates went up by 313 per cent, in ten years. In the same period, Commonwealth taxation went up by only 185 per cent., State taxation by 291 per cent., and prices by 145 per cent. Local government rates went up out of all proportion to every other consideration, and in many of the shires and municipalities rates increased by as much as 800 or 900 per cent. So there is a need to have a look at this problem and every important and responsible local government organization in this country has so contended to the Prime Minister. I am rather inclined to believe that it would be encouraging for the people who give voluntary service to local government to recognize that there is some sympathy for them on the part of the Government. Of course, the States are unable to provide any assistance. They have developed through the years to the point where they have now become not much more than mere spending agencies of the Commonwealth. Let us face that as a fact. They are unable to sustain local government to the extent needed. The Prime Minister, having himself received a deputation last November, replied through the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. McEwen). Why he did not reply on his own account, I cannot possibly imagine. The reply was to the effect that local government was the creation of the States and, as such, it was their responsibility to make the approach. I do not understand such an attitude. Is there anything wrong with the Prime Minister sounding the States out on this matter? Will he not give some encouragement?

It was a most unsatisfactory situation that so much time transpired before a reply was given to the submissions of the Australian Council of Local Government Associations and the reply was most unsatisfactory. I suggest that those Government supporters who have had a look at local government matters in the past - many have come into this Parliament from local government - should accept some responsibility, recognizing that right throughout this country local government is languishing for want of the wherewithal to get on with the job. People who are very close to the electors, in circumstances where a very democratic situation prevails, are finding themselves frustrated as a consequence of these conditions. A campaign is developing throughout Australia, sponsored by the Australian Council of Local Government Associations, and I hope that this Parliament will not act as a deterrent to the good intentions of these people who give of their services voluntarily and so enthusiastically to ensure that local government can function in a very practical way. I hope that we shall start to recognize that the ratepayer is incapable of sustaining the great responsibilities of local government. There are many examples, about which so many of us know. A neighbour of mine is a ratepayer on an ordinary wage. Five or six adults are living in his home and only one of those persons contributes to local government services.

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