Local Government Association Tasmania quarterly meeting speech

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:

… how he came to be here. At the ALGA meeting in Canberra recently, Katrina, and Ben, and I had the pleasure of having dinner with the minister, and we thought it was appropriate after he spoke so passionately about the local government sector – and he really is passionate about it – that we thought: [indistinct] we’re going to be cheeky and see if the Minister could come speak to us. And he very kindly agreed to come. So we're really thrilled that he's here. And I'll just tell you a little bit about the Minister if you don't already know him.

He was first elected to the House of Representatives for the seat of Parkes, and he has just told me that his electorate is five times as big as Tasmania, or is it five and a half, Minister? Around that. In 2007, the electorate of Parkes covers an area which is 49 per cent of New South Wales and has an economy based on agriculture and mining. As the Federal Member for Parkes, Mark represents one of the largest Aboriginal populations in the Australian Parliament. On the 26th of May 2019, Mark was appointed to the- by- to the Coalition government ministry by the Prime Minister Scott Morrison as the Minister for Regional Services Decentralisation, and Local Government and Assistant Trade and Investment Minister. Prior to his election to the House of Representatives, Mark was the mayor of Gwydir Shire Council from 2004 until 2007. Mark has an extensive agricultural background, having spent 30 years as a farmer and grazier himself. Mark and his wife, Robyn owned and operated a mixed farming system, growing cereal crops and running beef. And I can tell you from the short time that we spent with the minister in Canberra, he is very passionate about local government. He knows this sector probably like nobody else. He's a straight shooter when it comes to speaking about the issue, and I know you're going to enjoy hearing from him. So would you please join me in warmly welcome the Minister.

[Applause]

MARK COULTON:

Look, thank you so much. It's great to be here. This is my first visit to Tassie with my Local Government hat on. I've been down here a few times in the last year or so with my Assistant Trade Minister’s hat on, hosting free trade seminars, and I've done that one this morning. So we hosted a breakfast this morning to talk about free trade and the wonderful benefits that it will bring to exporters from Tasmania. I hosted a roundtable with the seafood industry as well this morning, looking at some of the barriers. It's one thing having a free trade agreement, that there are other technical barriers that can prohibit that from flying as well as it should is another. I've also had a brief catch up with your minister. So I haven't wasted my time this morning, but certainly great to be here. I'm here for a few days this time and looking forward to not just flying down and flying out.

But certainly, it's great to be here. My portfolio is- so decentralization, which I think covers everything else. So decentralization, Local Government Regional Services so I’ve got, mal distribution of health professionals, regional communications, mobile phone black spots, NBN rollout, regional education, and then for good measure, I'm still the Assistant Trade and Investment Minister. And so with all those things, is not possibly anything that could go wrong that you have to deal with. But I am from the regions, I've never lived any more than 50 kilometres from where I live now, which is a little town called Warialda in northern New South Wales, I do look after a large regional electorate, I do look after a large mining sector. We have coal, we've got gold, we've got copper, lead, zinc out a Broken Hill, but we're also finding rare earths that are vital in the electronics and defence industries now, as well as cobalt and lithium, which are very, very sought after now with the huge shift into renewables and electric vehicles and the like. As well as agriculture, and obviously my area is going through severe drought for a long, long time. I've got one area of my- electorate has had one crop since 2012. Where I live now, we've just had the three driest years on record one after the other. And so it's pretty grim up there at the moment, and it's testing everyone's resilience. So I'm enjoying being down here. I know you've got- some of your represented areas in drought in Tasmania as well. But I'm certainly enjoying every bit of rain on the windscreen as we're driving around this morning.

So I firmly believe that regional Australia is where our future lies. The economy and the reasons that cities have grown and exist the way they are rapidly changing, and the opportunities for regions and - excuse me if I don't refer to Tasmania as a region, you're one of the most decentralised states in the country - the opportunities for the regions is enormous. And we're now battling congestion in our cities with- now we have 40 per cent of our population now living in major cities, and that's putting an enormous strain on infrastructure and service delivery. And yet while as a government, we are continuing to support those cities. We need to recognise that regional Australia is actually part of the solution. I believe that in Australia, we're in a better position now than ever to take advantage of that. I think when people spend two or three hours of their day just looking at the taillights in the car in front of them as they go to and from work, that's an ideal time to have that discussion about looking at the opportunities that lie in the regions. And I know quite a few people from my region actually are moving to Tasmania because of the opportunities and- that lie within this state.

So, for the first time, the government’s recognised, and we have a targeted and considered population strategy to plan for projected future growth, the development of a national population and planning framework, including the establishment of the centre of population for population, will help all levels of government and the community better understand how states, cities, and regions and populations are changing, and the challenges and opportunities that this presents.

So only a few weeks ago the government introduced new visa classes to enable regional organisations such as councils to sponsor skilled migrants, including recent university graduates, to take up positions and support skill bases and service delivery. And decentralisation is part of that plan. Decentralisation is most effective when it represents to the needs of communities and is driven by regions with good health, education, and telecommunications, and excellent local services which I'm focusing on achieving. And that's where local government comes into it. As someone from local government, I know that local government is central to all of these things.

So I want to work very closely with regional local governments, and from my own experience local governments can achieve much if they're working in cooperation with state and federal governments. You know, the smaller the population the local government has, the larger the responsibilities they have. And I can tell you, I- the largest council, as I'm learning as I get around Australia, I think is Brisbane City – 1.3 million people in one council area. The smallest one, I think, is somewhere in Western Australia with 350 ratepayers. But I can tell you one thing, and I'm speaking to a group of mayors, there’s not one council that comes to me, one mayor that comes to me, that doesn't explain how disadvantaged their area is, whether they're representing a large area in South East Queensland or a metropolitan area in Sydney or Melbourne.

So- but when I say how many of you are involved in aged care? How many of you are involved in childcare? How many of you are involved in community services and working with disadvantaged people? And I say- because local governments in many parts of Australia are doing that, not because they necessarily want to; it’s because if they don't, no one else is. And if they want people to actually stay and live in their areas, then these are the services that they need.

I know that local government continues to get squeezed by an increasing demand for services together with limited capacity to raise the money needed to deliver them. Many regional councils are the only providers, as I’ve just said, to childcare and aged care in their communities. And I have no doubt that these are the same challenges facing many of you in this room here. Regional councils are also facing conflicting pressures. Some have shrinking population and increasing unemployment, while some regional areas cannot fill the job vacancies available. There is an estimated 47,000 job vacancies at the moment in regional Australia. And there's always demand for doctors, nurses, allied health workers, hospitality staff, most trades – particularly, at the moment, seem to be high on the list, is diesel mechanics. Just to name a few. So there are enormous possibilities for people to come to the regions. And so some councils have come to me, obviously, have opposite issues. They have- living on the edges of urban areas, they have large population growth, but not large growth in employment. And so they have all the issues of people coming to their council to sleep, but going somewhere else to generate an income, and so all of those are issues that are quite different to different parts of the country.

And of course Tasmania, and consequently its local governments, are facing its own set of unique challenges. But now you're experiencing a period of regional renewal which is fantastic. In June this year, Tasmania was recognised as the fastest growing economy in the country with some of the fastest growth figures recorded in regional Tasmania. Despite significant improvements, this kind of growth has not been experienced anywhere else across Australia and the challenges still remain. To make sure the benefits are sustainable and filled as widely as possible, leadership from local government is crucial now and into the future.

In my role I want to ensure local government is best placed to deliver a range of services to their communities that not only sustain them, but helps them to grow and thrive. And I've been trying to learn about the financial assistance grants. If any of you that were at the ALGA conference, I did mention my interest in looking at the financial assistance grants. I’ve certainly tweaked the attention of some, and my message was: be alert but not alarmed. I'm not coming with major reforms, but we need to look at the financial assistance grants. The federal government provides just under $78 million to Tasmanian councils this financial year under the financial assistance grants, and I want to work with the Tasmanian Government to ensure that every dollar possible is going to where it's needed most, and that was the discussion I had with your minister this morning, and I've been having with other ministers around the country at the moment.

I'm keen to learn about the different methodologies adopted by each state grants commission, which determined the distribution of grants, and to encourage councils to acknowledge and promote how the funding is expended. I didn't even know when I got this job that each state had a different methodology. And so I went to the annual meeting of the grants commissions in Brisbane a month or two ago, where every state was represented working through- how that money is delivered across their states. And so the government is investing in projects that boost regional capacity and connect regional people and product to cities, sports, and the wider world. The Roads of Strategic Importance – which is known as ROSI, we love acronyms in Canberra as we all know - will invest $290 million through the Tasmanian Roads Package. That's extra funding on top of what's already there.

Tasmania is also showing what it can do, particularly in the area of international trade and its booming tourism sector. Firstly, trade. Tasmanian export trends show significant increases in trade with regional neighbours such as Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan. China remains Tasmania's most significant trading partner, accounting for almost one third of merchandise exports. And I had the great privilege in January this year to represent Australia at the first ministerial council of the Trans-Pacific Partnership 11, the eleven countries around the Pacific that we just started the trade agreement for. I was taken to a supermarket in Tokyo, and I was taken to the section that featured Australian produce, and I’ve got to tell you, Tasmania was acing it. I would think 80 per cent of the Australian produce that was on – and this was a fairly affluent part of Tokyo and the prices were pretty good, I’ve got to tell you – was from Tasmania, branded from Tasmania. So, the Tasmanian brand is a significant asset to this state and certainly helping your exporters make their mark all over the world.

With tourism and business visitation to Tasmania, has grown by 12 per cent in the year to June 2019. And Tasmanian education exports have increased over recent years as international student numbers have grown. The University of Tasmania is expected to target further growth over the coming years. And these are just some of the details showing the outlook continues to be positive for Tasmania's trade sector. And a lot of people think free-trade agreements, they think private products, but education is a major one. A lot of our neighbours to the north are looking to our education system as they are trying to upskill their populations to keep up with the growth they're experiencing, and the fact that they are becoming more affluent countries. And so, education and service industries are also a big part of it. 

Tourism has become more important to Tasmania's economy than it is to any other state and territory in Australia. Growing at its fastest rate over the last 10 years, it shows what strong an economic driver it can be. Between September 2018 and September 2019, Tasmania experienced a growth of 6.8 per cent in international tourism. Other states, such as New South Wales and Victoria, experienced a decline or no change. There was a great result in domestic tourism. Interstate visitors to Tasmania was up 4 per cent in the year to June 2019. It’s indisputable that this is significantly due to the Museum of Old and New Art, MONA. I’m having my first visit to MONA tomorrow. I’m looking forward to that very much- well, I think I am. 

[Laughter]

It's funny, I'm really interested because everyone tells me: are you going to MONA? Then they sort of give you a look.

[Laughter]

I'm not quite sure what the look means. I'll find out tomorrow, I guess. MONA has transformed Tasmanian tourism by helping shine a light on what Tasmania already had. Its positive effects are being felt by both big and small businesses, and that's what I'm looking at through regional Australia. In my backyard, we're funding an opal centre at a place called Lightning Ridge. It’s going to be sort of a $30 million project, but the idea of that is it becomes a destination in itself, and all the other areas and towns in the area get a bit of a drink on the way, a bit like the Stockman's Hall of Fame does in Longreach in Queensland. And I guess that's what MONA does here. People might come down to MONA, but while they're here they will hopefully go and look further afield. Great privilege when I was here last time, there was a massive ferry that was about to be heading off to- the day it was heading off to Europe. I think it had been sold to Finland or somewhere. And, just down here at the dock, I got a chance to meet the owners and the builders, and what an incredible industry for this country, this state, this massive ferry. But it was while I was there looking at the ferry, I could see the ferries going backwards and forwards with MONA on the side and the number of people that were using that.

These visitors that are coming here, they’re supporting retail, trade, provide investment in accommodation and tourism facilities, and creating employment opportunities for Tasmanians. Environmental tourism also plays an important part in making sure Tasmania's natural assets, such as Cradle Mountain, Lake Saint Clear and the vast tracks of national park can be accessed safety while also being preserved for future visitors. And when I was here just earlier in the year, Huonville, [indistinct] I’m looking right over the top of you. We saw the significant impact that that fire caused, losing, you know, one of the major attractions to the area with the Skywalk Tree Walk, and how quickly the councils sort of have got to rethink: you know, what can we do now to make sure that people still want to come here? You know, that an iconic destination like that is lost. And so, it's important that we strike a balance between respecting our natural wonders and ensuring communities can see these benefits to the region.

So, the Local Government Awards are open again now. And I would like to recognise the Georgetown Council who have, earlier this year- it was my pleasure to meet them at the National Awards for their Bell Bay initiative. The Bell Bay project involves getting private industry to work together with the different levels of government, creating internships for young adult jobseekers across a variety of local businesses. It’s helped address skills shortages and decrease barriers of employment. This kind of idea is incredibly valuable because if we've got to keep our communities going, we must create opportunities for young people. That's exactly what Georgetown did. This is something very close to my heart, where in some of my towns, we have a high level of youth unemployment. But we're relying on overseas workers to actually do jobs, keeping those young people at school, enabling them to have training apprenticeships or university or whatever. They're the ones that are going to stay in our communities and they're going to help it grow and prosper. And so, hats off to Georgetown for having that example, because we need to look after our own people first. That's always got to be our priority, is looking after our own.

Another example is Flinders Council, as a commendable example of local government that’s stepped in and stepped up. The council recognised the need within its community to deliver a service where no alternative provider exists. Flinders Council is the funeral director for its municipality, managing and coordinating funeral services and burials for its community, as well as maintaining cemeteries at Whitemark, Lady Barron and Settlement Point. Maybe not an ideal situation that they were looking to be involved in, but it shows innovation and leadership is stepping up when it's needed. And incidentally, the local council at Lightning Ridge runs the- no, not even that. It’s a local group of mates that runs the funeral service at Lightning Ridge, and so that's an interesting story in itself. 

Local governments across Tasmania and throughout Australia face many challenges, but equally, are full of opportunity, drive and ambition. The Government wants to support you in that. I want to be your voice in Canberra; not Canberra's voice here. That's what I see my job as the Local Government Minister. And I'm not going to promise that I can deliver everything that you want, but I do have two ears and I intend to use them, listening to what your concerns are, and it's been a great honour to be- I’ll just finished with a little story, and I apologise if some of you have heard this one before, but I got elected as mayor of Gwydir Council. We were newly amalgamated, so we had two towns, about 10,000 square kilometres; two towns of 1200 people each; 45 kilometres apart. And the only time they communicated when they bashed each other up on the footy field or they would make raids to each other on Friday night to try and carry off their women.

[Laughter]

Sorry that's a bit sexist but this is going back a few years. And so, we became amalgamated in 2004, and so there was great- it was like having warring twins. You know, you’d put a slippery dip up in Bingara and there’d be a petition in Warialda: why can’t we have a slippery dip?

But I got elected as mayor at my very first council meeting. And on the council I had four ex-mayors from both councils and an ex-president of the New South Wales Local Government Association. And I was at my first council meeting. And so, but I was very pretty chuffed about it. It was a bit of a challenge obviously, and the first Sunday after I got elected mayor –  four o'clock –  I remember it clearly. The phone rings and a chap, let’s call him Kevin. Kevin rang. Kevin would be a chap in his mid-40s, lived at home with his mum and dad, quite a large gentleman, and it goes like this: G’day Mark, Kevin here. Mum wants to know why the TV ain't working. And I said: Look Kevin, I'm the mayor. I'm pretty sure that I don't have responsibility for TV. He said: nah, nah, mum said you do.

And so I made some inquiries, and indeed I did, that we had a booster that had been put in by the federal government some time before. And the trouble was the air conditioner on the transformer wasn't big enough and on a hot day it would overheat and throw the switch. And it was on a remote hill 20 kilometres from town. And so, when the switch went an alarm was sent to a mobile phone. It was one of the technicians, and they would go up and flick the switch and the problem would go. The problem was he'd gone on holiday. He'd given the phone to his offsider, who'd gone to golf and left it at home. And so, we had to sort out that- had to get someone to go up on top of the hill and flick the switch, and so the TV came back on.

So I think you from local government would understand that it's a much broader job than what people think. You're closest to the people, and quite frankly, the best deal I've ever had was being mayor of Gwydir. Sometimes the effect that you can have is much more immediate. Sometimes I tell people now we're like steering large battleships, you know, eventually you get to change direction and it makes a significant difference. But at the time a lot of people are not really aware of what's going on.

So, thank you for having me, and I’m happy to take a few questions if anyone would like to do that.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:

Any questions?

QUESTION:

[Inaudible] … I think you’re going there on Monday.

MARK COULTON:

Yeah. Looking forward to it.

QUESTION:

I won’t be there because I’ve got meetings down here with Canberra, actually.
One issue that we've got there at the moment, and I know a lot of other regional areas have it as well, is the lack of training. Training [indistinct] major issue for us, and we’ve been pretty good at getting funding from Federal Government for infrastructure projects, but when we try to get funding for training we see seem to struggle. I know it’s probably not in your area but you are involved in agriculture and all of the things that we’re involved in. And we would really love to see this- to be rectified in some way.

MARK COULTON:

Okay. Yeah look, when I was mayor of Gwydir I was also chair of what we called Gwydir the Learning Region. We didn't have any tertiary. We didn’t have any TAFE. And we had that exact same problem. And so, for a start, our council- we became a training organisation. So we had some of our plant operators were basically doing basic literacy and numeracy, right up to the general manager, who was doing a PhD. Everyone in the council was undertaking some form of training at some point. We also had an arrangement with the schools, and we had- most of our kids were doing workplace traineeships. And the council, we actually opened a gym so that we could actually train young people in some physical training. So, not that they were going to be gym instructors forever, but when they went to uni or whatever they might be able to get work in that space.

And so, I had actually had a conversation with the president of ALGA about this, about what we might do because- I presume you’re talking about training within- for skills for your organisation?

QUESTION:

And for the community.

MARK COULTON:

Yeah. And so, I'm a great believer in growing your own, and you know, the opportunity for engineers to actually train on the job. You know, training local people while they're doing their degrees, on the job, and things like that. So, that's something I actually am looking at: is it something that local government would be interested in, would be a package around training and growing skills in your local area? Mostly in a small area. Are you the biggest employer in town?

QUESTION:

No, we wouldn’t be the biggest, no.

MARK COULTON:

Yeah. A lot of towns cancel(*) this. And so, yeah, we are looking at that, for sure.

All good?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:

All good.

MARK COULTON:

So I look forward to seeing some of you. We’re hosting a free trade seminar on Monday morning, and then I’m in Smithton- Smithton, is that right?

[Inaudible]

And also, I’m meeting with, I think some of you again on either Monday or Tuesday [indistinct].

Thanks very much for your attention.

[Applause]