Radio interview – Tasmania Talks

AARON STEVENS: 

Over the last week discussed some of the things that councils are doing.  In fact, over the last couple of months, we've discussed ways that councils are dealing with COVID‑19. 

We've heard from the State Government and local councils regarding the fast‑tracking of projects to provide a boost post‑COVID‑19.  And the Federal Government has now jumped on board with vital funding.  Let's get more from the Federal Minister for Local Government, Regional Health, Regional Communications, Mark Coulton this morning.  Hello.

Firstly, are you happy with the way that councils, particularly in Tasmania, have responded to the COVID‑19 challenges? 

MARK COULTON: 

Yes.  Councils, in most cases, have shown great local leadership, and I think that's really important. 

You know, particularly at the start of this crisis people were quite concerned and I think that councils have stepped up admirably. 

Sometimes some councils have even re‑deployed staff to help out Meals on Wheels and other voluntarily organisations within their local community. 

So council have done a great job. 

AARON STEVENS: 

They've really shown the benefit of local council during this time, haven't they?  I mean, that local message is so important. 

MARK COULTON: 

It certainly is.  Obviously I'm a little biased, I'm a former mayor.  So I understand that the local government is the level of government that's closest to the people with the greatest sort of finger on the pulse as to what a community needs. 

And you know, councils are led by their, their local mayor, they've have stepped up admirably. 

AARON STEVENS: 

And one thing I've noticed is how well councils have worked together. 

MARK COULTON: 

They have. 

We're seeing that more and more as councils combine to get a I think a better bang for the buck on infrastructure; they cross council borders, they're sharing senior staff, working collaboratively, you know, with libraries and things like that to actually be able to provide better services. 

Particularly the smaller councils, they really are stepping up and are working more collaborative and it is paying dividends for their local communities.

AARON STEVENS: 

So how much is being offered in this package that you're launching this morning? 

MARK COULTON: 

So there's two parts to it and one of them really is just to bring forward the federal assistance grant, so 50% of next year's payments will be brought forward, paid early. 

That will obviously give them more certainty as to when they plan their budgets coming up in the next little while. 

The other one is $500 million, that will go across all the 537 councils in Australia. 

And the formula we'll use is the same formulas we've used for Roads to Recovery.  Each council won't get the same amount, but it will be a pro rata amount that is in line with the same guidelines and criteria that's used for the Roads to Recovery payment. 

AARON STEVENS: 

So what sort of projects can you see this funding helping out on? 

MARK COULTON: 

Look, I think we're trying to make the criteria fairly broad.  So I think in some regional councils a high proportion of this might go on to roads, but it can also include, and I suspect more of the, sort of, larger centres would maybe do some more infrastructure projects that have a high level of labour. 

So the community programs like painting local halls, or a new fence around the footy field, cycle ways, footpaths, you know, park upgrades.  Those sort of projects that will have a long‑term effect and provide a lot of employment. 

At the moment, you know, there are people who are obviously on the JobKeeper and JobSeeker program, but really looking to get out and do some meaningful work.  So I think this program will be well received. 

The councils have had time to think about it.  The Deputy Prime Minister wrote to them back in March and asked them to think about what they might find as appropriate projects to undertake as a stimulus. 

So it will be broad but, they'll get in and get it underway; local jobs, local procurement and buying the materials locally to support local businesses as well. 

AARON STEVENS: 

You mentioned the JobKeeper payment.  It was a bit disappointing that the local councils weren't included in that, so this really gives them a chance to bring some of those staff back on board. 

MARK COULTON: 

Yes, it certainly does.  And the JobKeeper was designed for private enterprise.  It was done on the taxation system. 

Local government has a very different financial system; they're more into service delivery than profit‑making, obviously, and so JobKeeper was always going to be difficult for them. 

But I have spoken to the head of the Australian Local Government Association - David O'Loughlin – and he is certainly pleased with the style of this program. 

I know the councils that I've been speaking to will be pleased to hear of this announcement today because they're ready to go. 

We've gone to council before, the Federal Government, and they've delivered grant programs and delivering programs now in bushfire affected areas. 

In times of actual disaster, councils are the ones that step up.  And we've got a good relationship with them, as a Commonwealth, and so it made sense that when we needed to get a stimulus that was actually targeted to individual communities, local government was obviously the obvious, you know, the place we would go to.

AARON STEVENS: 

With restrictions still in place, when do you think we'll start seeing the benefits? 

MARK COULTON: 

Look, I would think the money should be available early July.  And I would like to think that soon after that they would be able to get into these projects. 

Obviously, we need them to be completed within the year.  That's the timeframe.  What we would like to see is ‑‑ we are starting to see the restrictions ease and the opportunity for people to get back to work. 

We'd like to see these projects sort of ready to go so when people feel it is safe to come out of isolation and get back to work, but this is an opportunity that might tide them over until the economy picks up and they can go and do a more permanent form of employment. 

AARON STEVENS: 

Well, that's the important thing with this funding, it is an instant boost straight off the back of these restrictions being eased. 

MARK COULTON: 

It certainly is.  One of the great myths in this country is that people actually choose to stay at home and not work. 

I think that's so far from the truth it is not funny.  And people that have been at home over the last couple of months, you know, maybe have lost their permanent work, maybe they work in hospitality or tourism, or one of those industries that have been really hit, they'll be, I'm sure, looking at an opportunity to get out of the house and undertake some meaningful work while everything else gets back on track.  And this is designed to be a very quick hit and designed to hit every local town. 

AARON STEVENS: 

Yeah, obviously we talk about those benefits when it comes to employment and also the economy of local councils but, I mean, there's obviously roads that probably have been waiting to be repaired for long periods of time.  There's these projects that probably have gone missing during the last two or three months, so it is important we get back on those as quickly as possible. 

MARK COULTON: 

That's right.  And so obviously we've been talking about the short‑term effects, but the long‑term effects is that then there's an upgrade level of infrastructure, whether it is roads or other community infrastructure, that will service the community, you know, into the future. 

So it does have long‑term benefits.  And you are right, a lot of the, sort of ‑‑ some of the workers had to stop because of the nature of it and, you know, not possible to do it with social distancing. 

But, I've got to say, many councils have continued on with the construction over this period of time, and so they'll be ready to take this up and I think will do a good job with it. 

AARON STEVENS: 

In your role as Minister for Regional Health, what did you make of the report that came out of the northwest? 

MARK COULTON: 

Look, I think there's two things: I think the ‑‑ what happened in the northwest was a very good example of how volatile this infection is, the virus is, but I think it also shows that all agencies and all levels of government in the end stepped up very well to handle that. 

It was obviously a very difficult time for the people of the northwest of Tassie with that, but the way that was handled was done well.

But also because of what happened in Tasmania, you know the rest of Australia I think got a taste of what can happen, how volatile, how easy it is to happen and how, you know, innocently these things can happen. 

I'm pleased that we're through that, but it was a pretty tough time. 

AARON STEVENS: 

And we've learnt a lot.  And it is pleasing to see that many of the recommendations from that report will be implemented.

MARK COULTON: 

Yes, it is.  And I know that my colleague, Senator Colbeck, who lives in the region there and also has responsibility for Aged Care in the Federal Government, I know, speaking to him about how difficult it was and how many people were impacted. 

If there is a silver lining in something like this it is that we've learnt a lot from what happened in the northwest, and maybe the pain that was caused there by coronavirus has probably saved other parts of not only Tasmania but the rest of the country as we've learnt how to handle the outbreaks.

AARON STEVENS: 

One of the things that was highlighted in the report there and what happened in the northwest is the number of health professionals that are required, just because of the way they operate, to move from one facility to another. 

That's something that's definitely been looked at but it is a part of the way that those regional centres operate, isn't it? 
 

MARK COULTON: 

Yeah, it is.  And you know, before the wave of coronavirus outbreak we were working on sort of collaborative models of employment where, in a regional centre, people with a skillset, whether it is nursing or physio, doctors or whatever, work across different sectors to get the best benefit from their skills into a local community. 

So, there is a lot of cross over from hospitals to aged care to private practice in regional Australia. 

You know, it is probably essential to get the services we need.  We have shown, inadvertently, where our weaknesses are. 

One of the other things that's been surprising in the coronavirus crisis is that the downturn in health practices; and people have been staying away from normal check‑ups and the like, so rather than having the health sector run off its feet, in some cases, there's been a downturn at business.

So now the messaging now has changed somewhat, that you need to go back to your doctor, you need to make sure that if you have got chronic health issues that you're following up on them, or even if you have a critical issue, chest pain or whatever, but it is safe to go and seek medical attention. 

So, we have learnt a lot from the virus outbreak, but we're in another stage.  And I know we haven't beaten it, but I think we are at a stage now where we're looking to get back to some more normality.  And what we've learnt over the last eight weeks, if we follow what we've learnt, and social distancing and cleanliness and things like that, we should get back to more normality quicker than otherwise. 

AARON STEVENS: 

That outbreak highlighted the importance at the Mersey Community Hospital and the Burnie Hospital, the Northwest Regional Hospital, their future and how the hospital system will operate in the northwest is under question.  Do you have any thoughts on the future? 

MARK COULTON: 

Look, I don't.  To be honest, the intimate details of the future of those hospitals is probably something that I'm not as familiar with that I would like to comment publicly about but, as I say, you know, it is a poor day when we don't learn from the past, and so if there needs to be changes made, then they will be, but I'm not familiar enough to comment any more than that. 

AARON STEVENS: 

Yeah, sure.  We look forward to the benefits of that package that you announced this morning and appreciate your time.  Thank you. 

MARK COULTON: 

It is a pleasure.  Any time.  Thank you. 

Media Contact:

Mr Coulton – Steph Nicholls 0417 314 920