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Thursday, 15 November 1973
Page: 3453

Mr O'KEEFE (Paterson) - I rise to take part in the debate on the Bill to alter the Constitution to enable the Commonwealth to borrow money for and to grant financial assistance to local governing bodies. I have listened with great interest to speakers from both sides of the House in this important debate. As one who has served in local government for more than 30 years I am well aware of the problems that shire councillors and aldermen experience in carrying out the various facets of their undertakings. I should like to say at the outset that I am in favour of financial assistance being made available by the Federal Government to local government authorities, but I should like to see it made without any strings attached.

There are more than 900 local government bodies in Australia and they are all in financial trouble because rates have reached saturation point and because local government bodies today are expected to carry all kinds of works far outweighing revenue from the rating system. So they must get a share of the general taxation revenue of this country to enable them to carry out the duties which they desire to perform. These include the provision of sporting ovals, libraries, swimming pools, baby health centres, a social service officer and many other facilities which local government is expected to provide. It is impossible for them to carry out these duties with the outmoded method of rating which has been in existence for so long.

As has been stated on so many occasions, local government has reached saturation point and financial assistance is vital if local government is to succeed and to carry on. Although under the Australian Constitution the financial responsibility for local govern ment is purely a matter for the States - when federation took place this was one aspect of government which was allocated to the various States - I nevertheless feel that the Federal Government has a financial interest in local government and should make the muscle available for it to carry out the works which I have enumerated. In May this year, the Grants Commission Bill was passed and naturally, ever since it was passed, local governing bodies have been making inquiries as to how and when federal finance would be made available. Shire councillors and aldermen throughout Australia have been asking the following questions: Would money be made available to regional councils, to single councils or to shires? Would it be provided by the Federal Government direct or would it go through the State governments? When will any scheme become operative? Any honourable members who are connected with local government and farm their electorates will, I feel sure, be besieged by these councillors and aldermen and asked how the scheme will operate. If federal funds are made available direct to local government, this will be against the policy of the Party that I represent because we support the federal system. We support the principle of finance being made available to the State governments and through them to the local governments in their areas. In other words, we do not want the Federal Government to step in and take over the duties of the States. Hundreds of statements have been made featuring support for local government and many of them have been airy-fairy statements indeed. The statements have been made by the Minister for Urban and Regional Development and by others on the Government side.

This proposed referendum to give the Federal Government power to raise money and to make it available to the various local government authorities has not been acclaimed by the various State governments in Australia. It is true that the State governments desire to secure more and adequate financial help, but they want the assistance to come through their own State governments and the money to be made available direct to them by the State governments. Who knows the needs and requirements of local government better than the various State Departments of Local Government? The local government departments know the needs of local government in the States and if the money is channelled through the local government departments it will be put to good use. I would suggest, with all due respect to the Grants Commission, that no one would be better able to understand the requirements and needs of local government authorities than the State local government departments which are dealing with shires and municipal councils every week in carrying out their functions. It would be a tragedy if the State governments were passed by. The adoption of this legislation will be the commencement of the destruction of the Federal system and a big step towards centralisation. I feel that in the main the borrowing of money for local government is not a real problem in relation to shires and municipal councils.

I have found in my long experience in local government that there has never been any problem about borrowing loan funds. Most of the councils with which I have been associated have been able to manage over many years and to make great progress until the repayment of these funds and interest payments has caught up with them and has had to be recouped by increasing rates, which have reached saturation point. There is no problem about borrowing loan funds for local government. There are times possibly when the big local governing bodies in the cities of Sydney, Newcastle, Melbourne and Brisbane may have some problems in this regard, but I am one who is in favour of local government having a say on the Loan Council in regard to local government finance. But this is not the real problem. The real problem lies with local councils which require relief from the rating system under which they have to impose charges in order to carry on local government in various areas. I hope that some definite decisions will be made by the Minister for Urban and Regional Development so that local government will know where it is going and where the funds will come from.

As I said, many statements have been made on this matter by the Minister. I am not doubting his sincerity in this field at all. I know that he has worked extremely hard but I know also that he has made available money to the City of Melbourne and the City of Sydney to assist in the provision of water and sewerage facilities. I hope that this Government will make available finance - this request will please the honourable member for Shortland (Mr Morris) - to the Hunter Water and Sewerage Board so that it will be able to carry out extensions of water and sewerage facilities in the Hunter area and its environs, including the city of Maitland which is within my electorate. If the Minister can make this money available to the City of Sydney and the City of Melbourne for these purposes, he should be able to make money available to the Hunter Water and Sewerage Board in order that it may carry on with this important work.

So far as I can see the only benefit that so far has been derived under the provisions of the Grants Commission Act in the field of local government is in the money that has gone to the cities. When one reads the statement by the Minister it will be seen that country areas receive very little mention at all. In the main assistance is given for the development of urban and city areas. I remind the Minister for Urban and Regional Development that if we are to centralise, if we are to develop local government right across the board, then country municipalities and shires should receive some consideration from the Grants Commission and also under this local government assistance Bill. I know that in New South Wales regional bodies have been formed, particularly in my own area, and that members of those bodies have come to Canberra to see the Minister. I do hope that some assistance will be forthcoming to them.

To return to the need for positive action and positive statements, I would like to hear the Minister make some really positive statements as to how this money will be made available to local government. We have heard mention about regional councils and local councils. Local councils can apply direct for assistance. Where' do we go from there? Shire and municipal councils are asking these questions. They want to know whether the money will be made available direct to the regional councils for distribution to the councils in their area or whether local governing bodies will be able to apply direct for assistance. Recently the members of a regional council came to Canberra. I will not mention its name. They came here in all good faith to see the Minister with a view to receiving some financial assistance. After they returned to their district a member of that council and one councillor slipped down to Canberra on their own and tried to undermine the regional council. It will be a tragedy if this sort of thing is allowed to continue. I feel that more positive action and decisions have to be taken by the Minister in the field of local government so that local councils will know where they are going.

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