Public Libraries Funding

I am proud and willing to speak about public library funding. I have been presented with a petition signed by 10,000 people. I understand that the petition continues and has been re-presented to the Parliament—and it might be presented again, because so many people in New South Wales clearly are concerned about the future of libraries. There are hundreds of thousands of public library users across our great State. I doubt whether any member of the House would need to be convinced about the value of public libraries. How many children have developed a love of reading by meeting Peter Pan or Atticus Finch in a public library? How many of those same children could have afforded to buy all the books they have read for free? How many people have pursued a passion later in life through their public library?

As an example, think of all the family trees and local histories which have been pieced together in the records sections of public libraries across our State. One cannot put a dollar value on these things. However, dollar values are precisely what this petition is about. This petition is needed because public libraries in New South Wales have been the victim of a lengthy, systemic and bipartisan process of cost-shifting. They have been treated like an ATM for the State Government to plunder whenever it was short of cash. As time has gone on, more and more of the load has been passed from the State Government to local governments.

When the New South Wales Library Act was introduced in 1939, a 50:50 funding split was proposed. By 1980 we had whittled our contribution down to 23 per cent. Today our State Government contributes just 7 per cent of the costs of running 377 public libraries, while local councils pay the rest. Those facts are not asserted to make a partisan political point. The decay of State funding for public libraries in New South Wales is a pox on both our houses. There has been a lot of jubilation in New South Wales of late on account of our great sporting successes, from the State of Origin to the Waratahs victory at the weekend, for example. While we may be winning on the sporting field, we are losing in some vital measures. New South Wales contributes less per capita to run our public libraries than any other State in the country. In my view this failure to support a system which educates and fosters curiosity in our people brings our State into disrepute, regardless of what our football teams may do.

This deterioration has been a gradual process. New South Wales libraries find themselves shackled to an unfair, inflexible and now inadequate base funding system, whereby the State Government is required to provide only $1.85 per capita to each council to support their library services. This figure has not been indexed to population growth or the consumer price index. So as the cost of running a library goes up, the funding from the State Government stays the same. It is little wonder then that the State’s proportion of the funding burden has shrunk so dramatically. Our contribution at a State level has stagnated while costs have ballooned. What was 23 per cent in 1980 is now only 7 per cent of the cost. Reform of this constricting basis for the funding system is the primary motivation of this petition, and it is an aim that I wholeheartedly support.

A response to the tabling of this petition stated that the Government had increased public library funding to record levels through an additional $15 million for the Public Library Infrastructure Program. Whilst welcome, this short-term injection of money fails to address the structural problems in the library funding system. It has been precisely this piecemeal approach that has brought about the current difficulties and inequities. The real reform needs to be targeted at the day-to-day funding of libraries, not one-off projects and programs for which councils must apply. For library advocates the nightmare scenario is that the inequality of current arrangements will lead a council somewhere to withdraw from the Library Act. The likely result of such a move would be that councils could start running libraries on a fee-for-service basis, which would completely undermine the function and purpose of libraries.

Such a development could see the public library system completely unravel. This is not a fringe issue. Forty-four per cent of people in our State hold a library card. To put that in context, if every library card holder voted for the same party in March that party could form government without another vote being cast its way. The New South Wales Public Libraries Association, which should be commended for the constructive, informative and non-partisan approach it has taken during its campaign, has used the slogan “Library Lovers Vote Too.” If they are right the statistics show what impact they could have in 2015. I am proud to have some magnificent public libraries in my electorate. In preparing for this debate today I looked through the calendar for the coming week at Cessnock library. I saw book clubs, internet and information technology [IT] classes, knitting groups, film screenings, story time for kids and a young creative writing group.

In just one week of its calendar Cessnock library showed me everything that a library is supposed to do. Every week hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds go in there and learn something. They expand their social connections and broaden their imaginations. In my opinion the greatest thing one can do for someone, regardless of their age, is to teach them something. Our State has 377 of these sanctuaries which nurture learning and research. We must do better for them.