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Wednesday, 23 May 1973
Page: 2552

Mr THORBURN (Cook) - It has long been recognised that local government is in urgent need of additional finance. Over the years the traditional functions of local government have changed considerably from building roads and providing kerbing and guttering, of controlling sub-divisions and of supervising building operations. It has now entered the wider role of providing welfare, which is urgently needed in the Australain community. It might be thought and properly argued that local government has now reached an age and a measure of power, independence and influence sufficient to enable it to carry out its wider community responsibilities. It might also be thought that there is a proper way in which local government can raise its finance through the traditional channels through which it has been able to raise it for years. But it is a wellknown fact, and well known throughout local government in Australia, that the rating system of raising finance for local government has reached saturation point where people cannot afford to pay any more money by way of rates and so it is necessary, with the wider powers that local government has had to assume, that local government bodies be able to find additional sources of revenue. It is interesting to note that in government receipts for the period 1967-68 to 1971-72 Commonwealth receipts increased by 61 per cent and those of the States by 63 per cent, whereas local government receipts increased by only 37.5 per cent. I think that when one considers the additional outgoings of local government one must concede that local government is the poor relation in relation to finance that is available in the 3 tiers of government in Australia.

There is an implication in the Act which I think is desirable because local government areas were designed away back, possibly a century ago or shortly afterwards, on some neighbourhood affinity between people. They do not bear any resemblance to the needs of a modern local government area. It is implied in this legislation that local government has some responsibility in this regard. It is interesting to note that there are 900 local government areas in Australia. Many of these are very small areas which do not properly provide the functions that one would anticipate local government should provide today.

The Leader of the Australian Country Party (Mr Anthony) made some reference to the attitude of the New South Wales State Government to areas of local government. That Government has to be given a great deal of credit because I think it was the first government in the Commonwealth to set up 9 areas of association for planning purposes in regions throughout New South Wales. I think it is commendable that it took the initiative to bring those regions together so that they might at least have some say in planning within the areas concerned as local people are entitled to have. It is also interesting to note that the New South Wales Government appointed a former Under-Secretary of the Department of Local Government in New South Wales, Mr Barnett, to a very expert committee of people. In fact it would be very doubtful whether there has ever been a committee comprising more people who are better qualified to look into the role of local government in New South Wales. That committee will be reporting to that State Government in the near future.

It is fairly obvious from the statements that it has made and from the deliberations and the evidence that it has gathered that it is looking to larger local government areas with a view to the compounding of areas which previously had been small councils into large councils. I think the need for this is very obvious. If the Leader of the Australian Country Party thinks that this is not desirable then he and also the honourable member for Parramatta (Mr N. H. Bowen) are in conflict with the people who are regarded as being the most knowledgeable people in Australia on these matters. At the second national seminar on the needs of local government which was held in the national capital about this time last year many prominent people attended to present papers in relation to local government. It is generally conceded by those who attended the seminar or read reports of it that there is a great need for a rationalisation of areas of local government. Mr Justice Else-Mitchell said that a conference of State Ministers for Local Government in 1971 had expressed the following beliefs:

(1)   Additional financial resources are essential for Local Government;

(2)   that as Local Government is the responsibility of State Governments the annual reimbursement grants of income tax from the Commonwealth to the States should include an element of contribution to Local Government finances.

His Honour went on to amplify that statement. There were many others who held that view. It is also interesting to read from Richards on the new local government system. This relates to the position in Great Britain. The grants title commission has operated in Great Britain and honourable members will be aware that the system of government in that country is not the 3-tier system of government that we have in Australia. There is some difference. But the national Government has recognised for many years the need at the local level to provide this sort of bridging finance. In writing about this Richards said: 'Every benefit involves cost'. He went on to say:

.   . subsidies are paid to relieve poverty but not to relieve minute organisation.

So there is a great responsibility on local government to look into its own situation and to do something about it. I am rather amazed that Opposition supporters can stand up in this place and make some of the claims that they do make in view of requests by the Australian Local Government Association. I think that every honourable member would have received before the last general elections from his mayor or shire president or whoever was the local government leader in his area a booklet asking the Government to make finance directly available from the Commonwealth to local government in order that it might carry out its functions properly.

It is interesting to hear the Leader of the Australian Country Party when he becomes very critical of the fact that this Government will give money to local government and that it will do so, as he said - which of course is not correct - directly without passing the money through the State governments. This is not the case. The money will go to the States. Admittedly the needs will be examined by a Commonwealth department but the money will be paid through the States. If honourable members look at the Aged Persons Homes Act 1954 they will notice that the Government of the day whose supporters now sit on the Opposition side of this House expressly excluded local government from being able to receive any benefit. If we look at the 1967 Act we will find that the previous Government changed the Act and it expressly stated that this money could be paid direct to local government, not through the State governments. It could be paid directly without any reference whatsoever to a State government. So the principle that the Commonwealth could make money directly available without any reference whatsoever to the State governments was well established by the people who are now trying to criticise this Government for doing what the Australian Local Government Assaciation had asked the Government to do for many years - to my knowledge since 1960. The Association had been completely ignored by the previous Government.

The honourable member for Mackellar (Mr Wentworth) made, in his ministerial capacity, direct subsidies available to his own local government area in the form of a subsidy to a welfare officer. It was all kept very quiet because there were plenty of councils throughout Australia which were employing social workers and social workers were not entitled to a subsidy. But the Warringah Shire Council was able to attract from the Commonwealth Government a part subsidy towards the salary of a welfare officer. The Leader of the Australian Country Party also made reference to a country council, the Gloucester Shire Council in New South Wales. It is a well known fact in local government in New South Wales that there had been - I say this without intending to give offence - a lack of management in that the Gloucester Shire Council had for a number of years not increased its rates. So there was a disproportionate or an abnormal increase in rates on one occasion because it was of great concern to the inspector of accounts in local government in New South Wales and to the Minister for Local Government in that State that the council together with one other rural local council in New South Wales had got into a financial position from which it was almost unable to extract itself. It is quite unfair of the Leader of the Australian Country Party to take this example and to say: 'You know, this is the typical situation'. It is not the typical situation at all. lt is a very abnormal situation.

I compliment the Minister for Urban and Regional Development (Mr Uren) and the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) on their initiative in doing what the Australian Local Government Association and 900 councils throughout Australia have asked the Government to do. That is to make money available to them. This is only a first step in a process of bringing local government into its proper perspective as the third tier of government. Other moves will be made. When the constitutional convention is held later this year there will be direct representation from local government and they will be asking for direct representation at meetings of the Australian Loan Council so that this inequity that has existed over all these years when councils have not been able to get proper loan money to carry out their functions and to provide for the needs of their areas will be removed. The Minister for Urban and Regional Development has stated and the Prime Minister has said in a speech that the purposes of this Bill is a topping up process. It is the same process as the Commonwealth Grants Commission has provided to the States since 1933. Since 1933 those States which were at a disadvantage with the other States were able to get money from this Government directly in order that some people might have no unfair advantage over other people in Australia and that everybody might have an equal share of the wealth that is available. This is the whole purpose of this Bill. Those who have been involved in local government will know that there are plenty of areas, particularly those that have rapidly developed over the post war years, that are urgently in need of some additional financial assistance to enable them to improve the standard of the roads, kerbing and guttering, drainage and the other works that are so urgently needed. I commend the Bill to the House. I think it is a move in the right direction. Certainly it is an ambitious move and it will present some problems. The Government does not deny that, and I do not think that anybody could properly concede that it will not present some problems. However, the Government will attack the problems. No doubt when the Commonwealth Grants Commission Bill was introduced in 1933 it was seen that it would present problems too. But these problems are not insurmountable, and certainly the Government will work to see that the Bill equitably distributes the money that is available in the areas where it is needed. As I have said, I think this Bill is a move in the right direction. It will be hailed by local government as the first breakthrough of any significance it has had in the last 2 decades.

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