Speech at ALGA conference
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet – the Ngunnawal people – and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
I extend that acknowledgment to all other indigenous people joining us today.
I am proud to be a member of a government fully committed to the Uluru Statement from the Heart and I look forward to seeing the continued work of my brilliant colleague – Linda Burney – in implementing long awaited and long overdue constitutional recognition.
I also acknowledge the ALGA president, Councilor Linda Scott, and all the many mayors and councilors who are joining us here today.
I particularly want to thank you all – Councilor Scott and councils and mayors from across the country – for the productive and genuine way you engaged with members and ministers from across our new government through the long years of opposition.
Your engagement has played a real role in shaping our policy, and we look forward to continuing that engagement.
It is fitting that my first major speech as a Minister is to the ALGA national conference – and I am sorry I am not there in person
Local Government is fundamental to the lives of each and every Australian.
Together, you employ hundreds of thousands of Australian workers and expend roughly $40 billion each and every year.
It is local governments that maintain the roads we rely on day to day, delivers services, maintains and builds our sporting and recreation facilities and you play such an important role in protecting our natural and built environment.
And, when emergencies or disasters strike, it is local government workers who are out there on the front line, setting up the assistance hubs, getting support to people where they need it and starting the long, difficult job of rebuilding.
I’ve seen it first hand in my own community and I have seen it right the way across this country.
I also saw it when I held this portfolio last time I was in government.
For a period before the 2013 election, I served in Kevin Rudd’s cabinet as the Minister for Regional Australia, Local Government and Territories.
In that role, I was proud to work closely and productively with local governments across the country.
And now, I am proud to be back in this portfolio, at the very beginning of a new government, committed to working with local government, and ready to continue the work we had started.
If you want to see the importance that we place in local government, you just have to look at our cabinet list.
While the previous government removed local government from cabinet, we have put it back.
And in Minister Kristy McBain – a former Mayor of Bega-Valley Shire – I have a partner fully dedicated to this important level of government.
I have already asked Minister McBain to explore the re-establishment of the Australian Council of Local Government – the annual meeting with the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, Mayors, Shire Presidents, councilor and local government stakeholders.
I think everyone who was there well remembers that day in 2008 when Anthony Albanese welcomed 400 mayors and shire presidents to Canberra to meet with and lobby the federal cabinet.
It was a busy day, but it was an important day.
I can assure you, his dedication to local government has not moved an inch.
You and your councils play a central role in countless policy areas – from social services to disaster relief, the environment, health and infrastructure.
Having already spoken to my colleagues in the relevant portfolios, I know how important they see this opportunity.
Across our government you have friends. From the Prime Minister, myself and Minister McBain, all the way through to the newest member of our caucus, all of us in Government know that to achieve our goals, we must come together and work closely with you.
Our history with local government
Of course, our way of seeing local government is not new, it stretches back from government to government right back to the later days of the Second World War.
It was Ben Chifley, as Minister for Post-War Reconstruction and later as Prime Minister who first sought to include local government at the centre of government.
Even before the war was over, he was already planning to harness the power and skills of local government to rebuild a battered nation.
He worked with councils to drive through his plans for regional development.
Then, it was Gough Whitlam who advocated for Local Government’s even greater role.
As he said, ‘There are few aspects of our environment or our development, our culture or our welfare which can be adequately tackled without involving local government’.
Words that are just as true today as they were in the 1970s.
Matching words with action, the Whitlam Government expanded total federal grants to local government from only $7.5 million in 1972-73 to $165 million in 1975-76.
This funded senior citizens centres, sewerage upgrades, leisure facilities, transport and tourism – all roles that local government still plays today.
That great champions of the cities and the regions – Tom Uren – identified this partnership as “co-operative federalism” across the three tiers of government.
Ever since, the role of local government has continued to grow and the system of Financial Assistance Grants has remained.
Then, the Keating Government formalized local government’s central importance by inviting ALGA to COAG.
The Howard Government expanded your role by initiating Roads to Recovery.
And then the Rudd and Gillard Governments went further with the Council of Local Governments and partnerships to deliver much needed investment and stimulus through the GFC – stimulus programs that were largely revived under the previous Government.
Now, in Government, we will build on that proud record.
We know that councils across the country are struggling to keep up with a backlog of road repairs, which is why we have already committed an additional $250 million to top up the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Programs for rural, remote and peri-urban council road repair.
We know that many parts of the country have missed out on their fair share of investment through Building Better Regions or the Urban Congestion Fund, which is why we will create new, equitable and transparent funding programs.
We know that disaster relief and resilience is an ever more important issue across the country, which is why we will be spending up to $200 million each and every year through our Disaster Ready Fund, looking to partner with local, territory or state governments wherever possible to invest even more – and Minister Watt will speak more with you about that.
And, we know that our priorities in renewable energy, housing affordability, waste reduction and improving communications are impossible to achieve without the crucial support of local governments, which is why we will work closely with you always.
One area in which I see a key role for local government is in further developing the potential of our cities, our suburbs and our regions.
In our cities, we will turn city deals into regional partnerships.
There is promise in the idea of bringing together the three levels of government to deliver targeted investments, but they have been undermised by a lack of delivery, opaque promises, and a focus on delivering funds for political purposes.
Rather than just near-term delivery, we see these partnerships as being geared towards a 20-year vision for a city, identifying the challenges and realizing the opportunities.
In the suburbs, we want to focus on catching up and getting ahead on the infrastructure that is essential to our daily lives.
This is the roads and the telecommunications links, but it is also the parks, the recreation and the services that we all deserve close to home.
And in the regions, we want to see similar place-based decision making.
I have spoken at length about the opportunities that exist in regional Australia.
I live in the regions and I love the regions.
But to realise their potential, regional policy has to be a purposeful exercise.
Governments must engage with local communities, listen to local leaders, do the hard work to find out what investments are needed to grow local economies, to improve liveability and enhance productivity.
We must then invest in the kinds of projects or initiatives that will grow economies and enhance productivity.
In Broome or Far North Queensland that might be tourism.
In Northern Tasmania or Newcastle, hydrogen.
In Wollongong, green steel.
It can mean resources, clean energy, healthcare or the service sector – anything that will create good, secure jobs for local economies.
It means harnessing existing strengths and turning them into lasting engines of growth.
In identifying and delivering these investments, I see local government as a key partner.
Last time we were in office, Labor sought to institute this type of “smart regionalization” when we established Regional Development Australia to provide a direct link between our federal policy making process and the local level.
While they had some success, RDA has in recent years largely been sidelined.
In part, I think this was because we missed a major opportunity when it was created – we didn’t give local government the central role that it deserved.
Local government has the local know how, the existing structures and the capacity to identify the opportunities in region and the limitations holding back growth.
That’s why, as we seek to rebuild RDAs, I have asked Minister McBain to work on new ways that local government can be involved, and even how coalitions of local governments can together form the committees that will identify and deliver funding to their regions.
I have already asked my department to consider how best we can reinvigorate the role of local government and the RDA network in our regional policy settings, and we look forward to consulting closely with you in the weeks and months ahead.
Together, we will form a new regional development policy that recognizes that each region, each city and each suburb is different.
They all have unique strengths, weaknesses, needs and possibilities.
At the federal level we can sometimes struggle to identify those complexities, but those complexities are what local governments deal with each and every day.
Under our government, and as a minister, I look forward to working with you each and every day to help build a better Australia.