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Thursday, 1 March 1973
Page: 160

Mr ASHLEY-BROWN (Mitchell) - Mr Deputy Speaker, with the indulgence of the House I should like to speak on the subject of local government which has been the cause of growing concern among many segments of the community particularly over the last decade. It is a service with which I was privileged to be associated for many years. Members of the Government, and particularly the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam), have been acutely aware for a long time of the dire circumstances of local government. Yet it is, or has been until now, a paradox that that third tier of government, which has been a cradle of the political life of so many, has been so cynically neglected and, at times, even contemptuously thrust aside.

I should like to refer to the speech of His Excellency the Governor-General on the occasion of the opening of Parliament. Among other things His Excellency said:

It is the intention of my Government to introduce legislation establishing Commonwealth-State Land Commissions to acquire and develop residential land. These Commissions will co-operate with State and local government authorities in achieving a more rational and economic form of urban development and will help combat rising land prices.

My Government has offered immediate financial assistance to the States to increase the number of dwellings under construction for letting to needy families.

The success of urban and regional development and the provision of additional housing can be made so much easier with a financially buoyant local government. Local government is not a matter that has not been well ventilated and documented. From the most erudite commentators to the most humble observers there has been a common plea for justice and recognition. There have been commissions of inquiry, symposia, treatises, theses and seminars. Some have had official status; others have been inspired by student and academics; others have been from local government associations meeting in annual conferences, including lord mayoral get-togethers; others have resulted from the concern of professional administrators, engineers and planners, and of course there have been those from progress associations and kindred organisations.

The range of these investigations and activities has not been narrow. Had they been but parochial and entirely selfish they might have merited the inaction and lack of interest which they have met. But they were not. They have attempted to look at local government from all angles. They have tried to assess its role, its very reason for being; its effectiveness; whether its scope should be enlarged or diminished, and, if so, whether it should be restructured into more or less tiers or replaced by statutory authorities and ad hoc bodies; how it should be financed; and, above all, given its very delegated nature, whether it is or is capable of meeting the needs of the communities it seeks to serve.

What, then, is this local government? Whose is it? What is its place in our present federal structure, and what can be done not only with it but for it? It is not that reasonably happy state that elsewhere was the progenitor of central government, that local government which grew, on the one hand, from parish responsibilities for the poor and the sick and, on the other hand, from what citizens of market towns saw as necessary for the good government of the community of interests. Neither is it the hodge-podge of town moots still existing in some parts of New England, the school, fire and other local boards of Michigan, the bustling dynamic city-state of Singapore, the city-country boroughs of London, nor the departments of France. It does not even have sure knowledge, as laid down by previous government, that it is only advisory - an illusion of local government - as is the Advisory Council of the Territory in which this Parliament assembles. No, ft is none of these things; it is the creature of State governments, told what it may do and often execrated for doing it.

This is its dilemma. It varies from State to | State. There are trading undertakings and municipal transport systems, but it is the roads, drains, parks and general local government activities which are of prime concern. I doubt that what I want to enlarge upon could be gainsaid generally by representatives of Geraldton, Bendigo or Gladstone any more than by the representatives of Bathurst, Blacktown or Parramatta. Lest the House think that 1 am addressing myself to a question of little consequence - after all it is local government, the lowest rung of the ladder - I should like to inject some facts and figures. These facts and figures will, I hope, illustrate that junior, the third rung on the ladder, is a fairly big boy; that of necessity he consumes a fair slice of the national cake; and that therefore he merits the most serious considerations of his social and economic guardians and dieticians.

The danger lies not in his demise as such. If planned, it might cause a momentary but absorbable shock to the body politic. The danger lies in his demise from inattention, lack of interest and a creeping paralysis. At a conference on local government economics held at the University of Sydney on 21st February 1969 Professor Gates of the Faculty of Commerce and Economics at the University of Queensland brought out some highly interesting facts. He opened his address by saying:

This is intended to be an argumentative paper, a paper concerned less with empirical facts than with principles and policies.

I do not wish to engage in what is termed quoting out of context, that is, selecting only those of his arguments which suit my book, but I wish to repeat some of the statistics he used. On one basis of classification there were 217 cities, towns and municipalities, 682 shires, boroughs and municipal districts and 53 New South Wales county councils largely engaged in electricity distribution. At the end of 1968 those 950 local government authorities employed slightly more than 100,000 people or about 10 per cent of all employees of government bodies, other than the defence forces, and about 1 in 40 of the total work force of Australia. Their capital expenditure in recent years has constituted around one-sixth of the total for all levels of government, including government business undertakings. Their current expenditure on services, other than those for which they charge a commercial price, amounts to a little over 5 per cent of the corresponding figure for Australian governments as a whole.

The yield of local government taxation is equal to not much less than half the amount raised by all the State government taxes to gether. Local government taxation in 1969-70 amounted to $466m and the taxation of all State governments amounted to $l,103m. As Professor Gates said, clearly we are not dealing with peanuts. We can see, therefore, that as a whole we are speaking of a segment of government which is not insignificant either from the point of view of employment and other social factors or from an economic point of view. The problem is compounded by what is now expected of local government bodies and the ability to pay for those expectations.

Mr Speakerand honourable members might well be indisposed to be treated to a dissertation on the history of the development of local government in Australia. But to put a case I fee] that there should be some reference to its beginnings, particularly to the thinking which led to the narrow, non-growth basis of revenue-raising, which basis persists largely today. Thus during the 1830s, it has been noted: 'Changed circumstances generated forces which eventually introduced local government . . . making the colonists bear some of the rising costs of administering the settlement'. It is true that there were protagonists as well as antagonists of some form of local government for Sydney in line with Governor Bourke's minute of 1832. The minute recorded that it was believed that it was then suitable for the inhabitants of Sydney to minister to their own convenience and comfort, by means of providing, by means of a body elected among themselves, for the repairing, cleansing and lighting the streets, etc., at no greater cost than a rate levied on the houses according to their value. Two points might be emphasised, apart from the imposition of this rate from above - the narrow basis of revenue raised and the restricted nature of the works proposed. Although such a system did not eventuate until some years later, it might be noted that there was no mention of parks, libraries, community centres, town planning, health services or baths, let alone such modern day concepts as meals on wheels, immunisation campaigns, etc. Since it was a time when land ownership was equated in one way or another largely with income and wealth, the basis of taxation may be deemed to have been not wrongly laid.

Local government responsibilities since 1906 have been extended into wider fields of community service essential to the needs of all people. The mounting costs of these needs are to a large extent met by the rates on property, no longer regarded as a measureable consideration for benefits received. In the background has been the reluctant ratepayer unwilling, and with justification, to accept the full responsibility for the cost of some service or a development claimed to be of wider than local significance and, for that reason, qualifying for outside financial aid. What is wrong with local government today is that the rates levied bear little if any relationship to the capacity to pay. True, there are some wealthy areas where only the wealthy reside and there is some relationship between the demands made and the capacity to pay. One pays income tax on one's earnings, and surely one's capacity to pay the sales tax on a Rolls Royce is related to one's ability to think in terms of a Rolls Royce in the first place.

There may well be some argument in that some areas of local government want the best of everything. Be that as it may, let them pay for it. But in local government, as elsewhere, standards of expectation have risen. There are now items in the consumer price index that would have been considered luxuries years ago. Similarly, today in local government people expect more as basics: Paved footpaths to walk on; something more than a Stygian gloom to light their way home at night; and drains that do more than flood the property where they finish. What is iniquitous is that a system of taxation, devised for limited means, is now expected to finance, on an equalityofquality basis, social, health and welfare needs for everyone from all areas, irrespective of their capacity to pay.

Governments have deemed home-nursing services to be not only necessary but also worthy of some subsidy. Yet what would happen if, in order to reduce or maintain a rate level, local government bodies decided to opt out? Who would then attend to the needy? Governments have set up such worthy causes as libraries, vacation play centres, pre-school kindergartens and the like, but in the long run, however, it is local government that pays for these. Services today, particularly in the western areas of Sydney, in many respects fall far short of public requirement and the standard that local authorities would like to give. Over the last 20 years the Sydney western metropolitan region, which I had the pleasure of inspecting with the Minister for Urban and Regional Development (Mr Uren) some time ago, is the scene of a vast population increase. Forced by the lack of low or medium priced land close to Sydney, great numbers of the city's population have moved into the western areas of Penrith, Blacktown, Windsor, Baulkham Hills and Colo. This rapid migration to the west, without adequate detailed and co-ordinated planning, has placed a tremendous burden on all areas of government in even providing basic services, and this has been particularly felt by local government where the provisions of sewerage, roads, etc., has fallen way behind demand.

In the local government field, where the costs must be met by local residents, we have the situation where people moving into these areas usually are young people trying to establish homes, who then have the additional financial burden of trying to upgrade their area. 'Construction Finance Australia Ltd' states that in 1966 the population of Penrith, Blacktown and Baulkham Hills was 191,000; in 1971 it was 274,000; and by the year 2,000 it is expected to be 880,000. So between 1966 and 1971 we had an increase of 83,000, and the increase between 1971 and 2.000 is expected to be 605,000. Councils are not geared to cope with these increases without additional financial aid. Rates have climbed steadily until saturation point has been reached with regard to the ability of the ratepayer to pay. Councils, endeavouring to collect outstanding rates, broke the payments down to half-yearly, then to quarterly, and now it is monthly but still the outstanding rates continue to grow. Mr R. Else-Mitchell in 'Challenge and Change' said:

One of the major problems that arose again and again in the course of the Royal Commission's proceedings was how to bridge the financial gap between needs and revenue.

He said also:

I think we accepted as basic the proposition that local government is dynamic and that its increasing demands require additional funds.

But none of the recommendations was accepted by the New South Wales Government.

In conclusion, might I say that today there is a very large gap between the cost of building the standard of community the people want and the adequacy of rating as a system to meet this cost. What local government requires is financial assistance to bridge this gap. Local government requires representation on the Loan Council so that it can state its case in order to obtain that extra finance which is so necessary today to give to the old and new residents alike those little extra amenities which are so necessary.

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