It's great to be meeting with you here in Canberra. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, the Ngunnawal people, their elders past and present.
The Australian Local Government Association enjoys a strong voice here in Canberra and the relationship between federal government and local government is incredibly important. It should be a fact well understood in our national Parliament as 24 of the 225 Members and Senators were once Councillors.
There have been five Prime Ministers who started their political life as Councillors and there have been six Members of Parliament who have been so attached to their local role that they served concurrently as Members of the Parliament and of their local Council.
I’d like to make a few observations about why it's incredibly important to have a national body representing local government matters to the federal government and why the partnership between local governments and the Commonwealth means so much to the everyday lives of Australians.
Although councils are the only tier of Government without a firm footing in our national Constitution it’s hard to imagine Australian life without your contribution. Beyond the collection of rates, the planning and building of urban infrastructure and dealing with core services like water and waste our councils are an organising force of most civic, cultural and sporting events in the country.
There are over 500 local government bodies and they employ 134,000 people.
As I said the relationship between federal government and local government is critical
Local government is a key partner in the delivery of Commonwealth government programmes, including the delivery of infrastructure programmes. The Commonwealth program Roads to Recovery delivers vital funding to local councils to enable roads to be built and maintained throughout the country. From 2014-15 to 2018-19 the Government will provide $3.2 billion under this programme.
Since 1974-5 the Commonwealth has provided over $48 billion under the Financial Assistance Grant programme to local government, including $2.3 billion in 2015-6.
During the Global Financial Crisis local government was a critical partner in delivering nation building projects. These were projects that will have long-lasting economic and social benefits that were ready to go as part of the federal Government’s timely response to an economic crisis that could have seen Australia follow in the same path of so many other countries – high recession and high unemployment. We didn’t and you were part of the solution.
What is less well known is how local government is also on the front line of human service delivery, often as a service provider of last resort where the market has failed to deliver and where other tiers of government are unable or unwilling to do so.
For example, in many states local government is a key provider of commonwealth funded Home and Community Care services.
Certainty is critical for local government, we shouldn’t forget that. In particular, certainty around funding and certainty around their basic existence. Without this certainty councils can’t get on with the job and communities across the nation are the ones who bear the resulting burden.
The Turnbull Government’s freezing of the Financial Assistance Grants undermines the capacity of local governments to get on with the job.
The shortfall has put many councils in an impossible position. They either have to scale back or cut completely the services they provide or make up the deficit through rate rises and increased charges.
The situation is particularly desperate outside of our major cities because the total $1 billion cut includes a cut of $680 million from councils in regional Australia. That means that councils in the bush are bearing twice the load compared to their metropolitan council counterparts.
It gets worse - councils with the smallest populations in remote areas are more reliant on the very grant income that is being axed.
Local government should be representative of, and accountable to, the people represent. This can’t happen if they are constantly looking over their shoulder wondering if their funding or their very existence will remain in jeopardy.
The recent changes in New South Wales are an unfortunate case in point. This is my first opportunity to talk publicly about the Justice Moore’s decision in the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales. This is the appeal by certain New South Wales councils against the Baird Government’s forced amalgamations.
The court set aside two mergers due to flaws in the recommending reports. The minister did not follow proper processes and this decision presents an opportunity for the Baird Government to break from the current approach it has taken to date.
The response from many voters in the New South Wales to the council amalgamation demonstrates once again that local government matters to communities.
People expect a lot from local government and recognise that it plays a significant part in delivering services they rely on. We should expect a great deal from local government but also respect the work performed by our mayors and councillors. This means affording them the financial certainty to undertake the vital work performed by councils in every corner of Australia.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today, I will have plenty more to say on local government matters in coming time ahead.