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Thursday, 15 November 1973
Page: 3451

Mr ASHLEY-BROWN (Mitchell) - I listened with interest to the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Snedden) and the Leader of the Australian Country Party (Mr Anthony) and also to the honourable member for Bennelong (Sir John Cramer). It is quite evident that they have never played a part in local government, nor have they at any stage been conscious of the financial difficulties experienced by local government since 1950. Ever since the end of World War II local government in New South Wales and, indeed, throughout Australia has been urging that its financial resources be viewed in the light of the heavy demand on it for increased and additional services. Even as far back as 1950 the then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, agreed that a conference should be held devoted solely to examining the financial relationship between the various arms of government. He said that he would like to see the Commonwealth, the States and local government represented at such a conference. (He said further that local government was the third arm of government, and that all 3 arms should get together to iron out their problems particularly those dealing with finance. However, nothing happened to hold that conference.

The Australian Council of Local Government Associations attempted to hold a conference on finance in 1952, and its efforts met with a similar fate. So pushed were the councils in 1966 with regard to finance that the New South Wales State Government appointed a royal commission of inquiry into rating, valuations and local government finance. The result has never been made known because the Government pigeon-holed the report of the commission. It is not unfair to say that in the past State Premiers have regarded any proposals for the direct financing of local government by the Federal Government as an intrusion into State rights and responsibilities, and have been loath to let their power go.

Local government bodies are established under State statute, and are the constitutional responsibility of the States. This is one point that has been hammered home repeatedly by Prime Ministers and their Federal colleagues since 1960. The fact that local government in Australia is all too often subject to criticism stems directly from its inability, owing to lack of finance, to provide the services the citizens expect, and even demand. Australian development now depends more on local government and semi-government authorities established by States than on the States themselves. We talk of a tripartite system of government in Australia, but in practice local government today is a client rather than a partner of Federal and State governments. In comparable countries the pattern of local government and its relationship to central government has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.

In England, the Maude report opened up new perspectives for development with its proposals for a strengthened regional role in local government. Since the Menzies conference in 1950 - 23 years ago - no change has taken place in the methods of financing local government. Councils today in the peripheral areas of Melbourne and Sydney, where over the last 10 years mushroom growth has taken place, find themselves in desperate circumstances in meeting the financial demands on them to cover the normal amenities of life.

Interest and principal repayments are absorbing most of the revenue received from ratepayers. Municipal rates have reached saturation point as far as the ability of the individual to pay is concerned. Local government is directly affected by the decisions made by the Federal Government and at Commonwealth and State financial conferences can only wait for decisions to be handed down to it. Local government, with its special needs and problems, has no voice at present in these discussions. If we can make a fresh start on finance, if we can bring local government into discussions on Commonwealth and State finances, we can hope for a revival of interest in local government. This will involve the people because they will see local government as a creative force rather than as a yearly debit rate notice. The problem of local government finance is that the debt and capital burdens fall on those who are least able to afford them. The spread of our cities means that higher rates are paid mostly by the young and by the migrants who live in the newest parts of our municipalities and cities. These people are hardest hit by the high rates and charges forced on them by local government. So, when they have to pay their municipal and water rates, which are amongst the highest in the world for what are too often the most unsatisfactory services in the world, they blame local government.

Australia has one Federal Government, 6 State governments and about 900 local government authorities. The local government authorities are the cinderellas of the government system. They possess no constitutional guaranteee of their functions or revenue resources. Although the absence of constitutional rigidities might have been expected to make for greater flexibility and responsiveness to changing needs in Australia, local government seems to have been characterised by a high degree of conservatism and inertia. This lack of enterprise is due largely to financial constraint. There are great advantages to be gained from a strong and flexible system of local self government, lt can contribute to the maintenance of a healthy and durable democracy.

Local government already plays an important part in determining what uses are made of the resources of the Australian economy. By its nature, it is peculiarly well equipped to meet the diverse preferences of the population, to develop new kinds of public services and new methods of financing them, to counter the excessive concentration of population and industry in the few great conurbations and to maintain a viable system of democracy. In general, local government's powers over expenditure and regulation are adequate for these purposes. Its financial resources, however, fall far short of the need. The approval of this Bill will give the Government power to grant financial assistance to any local government body. It will then overcome the financial problems of the third tier of government that has been in evidence since 1950.

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