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Wednesday, 27 February 1980
Page: 456

Mr INNES (Melbourne) -The Commonwealth Grants Commission Amendment Bill that we are now debating opens the way for the Government to give to the Grants Commission a reference to inquire into aspects of public financing within the Australian Capital Territory. As the shadow Minister for the Capital Territory and as the spokesman for the Australian Labor Party on this matter, I welcome the Bill. I also welcomed the announcement by the Minister for the Capital Territory (Mr Ellicott) some six months ago that there would be an inquiry. That act was laudable. It is pleasing to see that the machinery of this Government is so well oiled that after a mere six months a simple short piece of enabling legislation is ready for debate by the Parliament. Nonetheless, the Bill is now before the House and is subject to scrutiny. Scrutiny of the Bill proves to me that it has been prepared- at least if explanations are not forthcoming from the Minister- in a very sloppy way indeed. It contains only two important paragraphs, the remainder being consequential or machinery amendments, and it would seem that even the legality of those two paragraphs is open to question.

Amendments to an Act must be within the ambit of the original or principal Act. That ambit is defined by the title of the Act and the title of the Commonwealth Grants Commission Act 1973, as amended, is:

An Act to establish a Commonwealth Grants Commission to make recommendations concerning the granting of financial assistance to the States and to the Northern Territory in certain circumstances.

I emphasise that the title refers to the States and to the Northern Territory. The title makes a point of not mentioning the Australian Capital Territory or any of the other Commonwealth Territories. I also make the point that when an amending Bill relating to the Northern Territory was introduced the words 'Northern Territory' were included in the long title. I understand that there is a difference in terms of what might well be the local authority in terms of local government and the status ofthe authority in the Northern Territory vis-a-vis the authority in the Australian Capital Territory. However, it would appear that some argument could be raised in that the Australian Capital Territory could be deleted or there could be some restriction in carrying out the functions spelt out in the Bill.

The Bill we are debating specifically concerns inquiries into public financing of the Australian Capital Territory. Such inquiries are clearly not within the province of the Grants Commission, as the Act and recommendations concerning its public financing are clearly not within the ambit of the title of the principal Act. I draw the attention of the Minister for the Capital Territory, or whichever Minister will reply in this debate, to the fact that if we can be assured that this is not necessary the amendment will not be necessary.

Mr Ellicott - Are you referring to the title?

Mr INNES -It is the long title.

Mr Ellicott - Not necessarily, and it would be confusing if you made it.

Mr INNES - I bow to the superior legal knowledge of the Minister. He assures me that this amendment is not necessary. We will simply test the situation during the Committee stage. If we can be assured by the Minister that may well satisfy us. I hope that in the future he will stand by the decision and the information that he has given to the Parliament. As we indicated before, the Act appears to restrict the ambit of the Commission in carrying out its functions vis-a-vis the Australian Capital Territory. If that is correct, we would have some criticism of the way in which the legislation was drafted. If this is not the case, perhaps we can be satisfied by an explanation from the Minister.

We also think that the Bill is inadequate not just in substance but in spirit. The Bill proposes that the Commission, upon reference to it by the

Minister, be empowered to inquire into matters relating to the financing of works and services within the Capital Territory, with the rider that these works and services must be similar to those provided within the States by State or local government bodies and authorities. This is a much more restrictive form of wording than that empowering the Grants Commission to examine State or Northern Territory finances. But the Opposition accepts that this is largely a necessary result of the fact that the Australian Capital Territory is a non-self-governing body. Canberra's total finances are gathered together in purely notional accounts. The Australian Capital Territory has no separate budget as such and the elected representatives of the Territory do not control its purse strings. What the Opposition does not accept is that any Grants Commission inquiry into Canberra financing should examine only aspects of that financing related to what are normally State or local government functions. The Australian Capital Territory has a unique place in Australia, containing as it does the national capital. Within the Australian Capital Territory many millions of dollars are spent by the Government to enable Canberra to fulfil its national functions. To look at State and local governmental activities only without examining Commonwealth responsibility towards Canberra is a futile exercise. All are parts of one whole. Should one section not be examined the remainder cannot be seen in perspective.

To give a specific example, the Commonwealth Government and its authorities do not pay rates as such within the Australian Capital Territory. They make a contribution to the municipal accounts for general services, water and sewerage services, but these contributions have never been anything but voluntary and remain unchecked so far as being fair or otherwise in the circumstances. The Government pays no general rates for municipal services on its millions of dollars worth of property in the Australian Capital Territory. In lieu thereof the Commonwealth contributes $2.9m towards expenditure on municipal services, This is only 1 1.9 per cent ofthe estimated expenditure on municipal services. Until this year the Government contribution was just $2m, which was only 9.3 per cent of estimated expenditure. It is questionable in the extreme whether the Government owns only 1 1.9 per cent of rateable value in the Australian Capital Territory, and whether it receives merely 1 1.9 per cent of the worth of the municipal services that are provided in Canberra. Of course the same story applies with water and sewerage rates.

Estimated expenditure and receipts on water and sewerage services are calculated and the Commonwealth contributes 15 percent and 14.4 per cent respectively of the expenditure on each budget. Once again, no independent check has been applied to determine whether these ersatz rating procedures are adequate or accurate. In fact, procedures are so poorly organised and dominated by the Federal Government that on the same day as the Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for the Capital Territory announced that there would be a Grants Commission inquiry, he announced also that rates in the Australian Capital Territory would rise, on average, by 14 per cent, an impost of $43 on the average Canberra ratepayer. Under the proposed Bill, any true evaluation of Canberra's accounts does not appear likely. The Bill does not give the Grants Commission specific powers to examine Commonwealth finances within the Australian Capital Territory or, indeed, powers to examine Government charges and imposts such as those represented by municipal rates. Similarly, the Commonwealth refuses to add to the notional Australian Capital Territory municipal accounts the 1.75 per cent of income tax receipts which is available throughout the remainder of the nation for local government purposes.

Clearly the public funding of the Australian Capital Territory deserves a full and proper inquiry. The parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory called for a Grants Commission inquiry as long ago as 1973. But the wheels of industry grind along ever so slowly. For some years the Canberra Times has been editorialising for just such an inquiry. There has been a lot of public debate about it. People have been pushing for many years to have such an inquiry take place. An inquiry should not be restricted in the sense that it will not deal with the whole ambit of costs to the citizens within the Australian Capital Territory. The Australian Labor Party has sought this inquiry also for many years. Six months after the Minister for the Capital Territory announced that an inquiry would go ahead, the Government now brings forth this enabling legislation- restrictive in its sense, as we see it- which, in all likelihood, will prevent the wide-ranging inquiry that is so justified in this situation.

For too long the people of Australia have seen Canberra as a city cosseted by governmental activity and unnecessary expenditure. When one considers the national capital purposes of Canberra this claim becomes very doubtful and, in fact, the reverse may be true, should the Government not be contributing its fair share towards the running costs of the city. Only a wide-ranging public inquiry by the Grants Commission can reach the truth in this matter. Yet this Government appears to be hamstringing the only possibility of such an inquiry. Without an amendment to the Bill that becomes a danger. The possibility of having an inquiry should not be put at risk. I believe that the legislation now before us ought to be withdrawn and redrafted specifically to allow such a wide-ranging inquiry and also to remedy the omission of the Australian Capital Territory from the title of the Act. Unfortunately the scope of any such inquiry is not just hamstrung by restrictions placed on its terms of reference within the legislation.

The legislation proposes that a reference to the Grants Commission may be provided only by the Minister for Administrative Services. Given the non-self-governing nature of the Australian Capital Territory, this is an unfortunate but unavoidable state of affairs. The Opposition accepts that as it is the state of affairs that exists at this point in time. However, it is only at the Minister's whim that any inquiry will be wide-ranging or, indeed, that there will be any inquiry at all. I would hope that the Minister, in reply to what we have said- if that is his intention- will answer some of the questions that we pose on the ambit of the terms of reference contained in the Bill. I would ask the Minister also to repeat the statement that he made last August that there would be a Grants Commission inquiry into the public financing of the Australian Capital Territory and to give an assurance that that inquiry will have the widest possible terms of reference. I should like him to assure the House also that the inquiry will report before the next Budget. Before the inquiry is convened the terms of reference should be floated for public debate.

In my opinion the terms of reference should permit the fullest possible analysis of Commonwealth financing in the Australian Capital Territory. Any inquiry should produce proper accounts for the Territory and determine fair and just Federal subventions to those accounts for the purposes of municipal rates. Should the people of the Territory have to wait- it will not be long- until the Labor Party is returned to the Treasury bench in this country before a proper inquiry gets under way, then at this point in time the Opposition gives an undertaking that, if there is any restriction, there will be a wide-ranging debate held in accordance with the principles that I have outlined. There should have been an inquiry some years ago. Certainly it should have occurred before the self-government referendum held in the Territory in 1978. A full examination of Australian Capital Territory finances and the ability of the Territory to generate revenue may well have made a considerable difference to the results of that poll. In that election people voted not knowing what the price of self-government might mean. People and interests friendly to the philosophy of this Government torpedoed selfgovernment for the Australian Capital Territory with specious claims about the impossibility of local self sufficiency. As it is now, any inquiry should report before the next Budget to enable rationalised funding for the Territory to be implemented for the coming financial year. There should never have been an increase in municipal rates on the same day as the Minister announced an inquiry into local finances. There should have been a stay of the announcement by the Minister.

In accordance with these principles I give an indication to the Minister that at the Committee stage the Opposition will be moving the amendments that stand in my name. I would be pleased if he would give an explanation- as he indicated across the table in the course of my speech- in regard to the long title, the status of the Bill without the amendments, and whether or not the Bill in its present form contains the terms of reference and covers the necessary ambit and meaning to carry out wide-ranging investigations.

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