Transcript - Australian Local Government Association Roads Forum

MARK COULTON:

Yes, thanks, Linda (Scott, ALGA President).

One of the advantages of representing half of New South Wales is that half of the audience are my constituents. Congratulations, Linda, on your elevation.

I’m really looking forward to working with you as the President of ALGA, and David O’Loughlin, congratulations on the role you’ve played. It’s been really good having such an open and friendly relationship and making sure that relationship between local government and federal government is a strong one.

I’d also like to acknowledge the Mayor of Wagga Wagga, Councillor Conkey. Thank you for hosting us today. It’s indeed a beautiful part of the world. You know, I think Wagga Wagga really shows the strength of regional Australia. And it’s certainly a powerhouse that continues to grow.

I’d also like to acknowledge Amy and Ursula and thank you for the job that you do largely in the  background and keeping everything tight and under control.

So, it’s about 12 months ago nearly to the day that I addressed you in Hahndorf in South Australia. And boy oh boy, what a 12 months it’s been. It was only a couple of weeks after we all left Hahndorf that there was a major fire in the Adelaide Hills where that very community that we were visiting was under threat. And that was the start of a summer that led to, you know, major, major disadvantage and disaster and fires right across large parts of pretty well every state and territory.

And following on from the four years of drought then, we went straight into the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been a pretty tough year. And I probably could talk on some of the more positive sides, and this year is the 20th anniversary of the Roads to Recovery Program. I would think probably if not the one of the most successful programs and partnership between the federal government and local government, which came from a meeting called by the Moree Council, I think, maybe when Mike Montgomery was the chairman of ALGA, from memory. So that has been universally appreciated and it’s a great example of how the federal government and state government can work.

But the pandemic has really put local government at the spotlight. There has never been a more important time in our short history where leadership is so important. And what I’ve got to say is I think the sector, the local government sector, should be incredibly proud of the leadership that individual communities have shown. And I think sometimes councils and mayors possibly don’t appreciate the difference their strong leadership in a time of crisis can actually make.

We’ve seen some remarkable efforts where local councils led the way, where straight away redeployed some of the under-utilised staff that because of closing down public facilities and re-employing those to help the meals on wheels organisations and other things like that and when the library doors shut, rather than putting the staff off used that to update the systems to do some maintenance that sometimes is difficult to do in the day to day. Local leadership has really come to the fore.

What is really interesting, and as a former mayor of a regional council, there’s always been this  degree of envy of our city cousins that have a larger income flow away from grants and rates. Boy oh boy, that got flipped on its head this year. Some of our members that are representing some of the urban areas where up until now we’ve considered to be quite bullet proof, turned out to be some of the most vulnerable communities that we’ve had.

I’ve got a couple of portfolios, and they’re all quite relevant to local government as well. So. I’m regional health minister and regional communications minister, and so one thing we have seen through the pandemic is that actually the NBN held up better than was expected and people found they could work remotely. I worked for many weeks on my dining room table on a Skymuster satellite connection, all my Zoom meetings, my phone calls, everything at my home goes through the satellite connection. And so that really has flipped things on its ear – people have worked out that you don’t need to be in the CBD of a larger centre to be connected to the rest of the world. We are seeing businesses in regional areas doing online with customers all over the world.

There is a flipside to that, and I think the move to online trading is going to present some serious problems for local government, and even into the City of Sydney where the business model of large retail stores and office is probably going to change. The busiest business in my little hometown at the moment is the post office. But if we are going to have our businesses in the bush online and we’re purchasing online, then we’re going to have to work out how we’re going to manage our main streets. We can’t expect to have a store that sells clothing or general merchandise if no-one goes in there to buy it. I think we’ve got some challenges to manage that.

But I just want to touch on a couple of things relevant to local government. Because of the coronavirus and the drought and bushfires, the partnership between federal government and local government believe is as strong now as it ever has been.

It is an important relationship because we know that to understand the best way to stimulate a local community is to go to the people who live there. And the people that live there are local government, and so as you see the programs that are coming through on the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program they’re as varied as the communities across Australia that you all represent. And I think that’s such an important relationship. And we did that through the Drought Communities Program where many of the councils that were affected by drought got a couple of rounds. Most councils in those drought-affected areas got $2 million of stimulus there as well as an extra round of Roads to Recovery funding.

So, once again, we understand that local government can make those decisions. I know councils that actually employed unemployed, struggling farmers or people who rely on agricultural work, and I’ve seen some of that as I’m driving around. Phyllis is incredibly proud of her fence around the oval in Forbes that was constructed by local farmers who were really doing it tough during the drought.

We’re also funding directly with the bridges for renewal. We’ve now got a $2 billion road safety program, and there’ll be obviously some more state government involvement there. They will be on local government roads.

But one of the things that concerns me is the capacity of getting what needs to be done, done in an orderly manner. I think that Australia and I know I’m speaking to the conference of all local government around Australia, but obviously I’m from a regional area, and I think the silver lining from the COVID pandemic is that regional Australia has now shone. We are no longer seen as a place to be pitied, a place to bundle up your second-hand clothes and tins of food and send out. We’re now seen as a place where you can actually go and get a job. There are hundreds of jobs across regional Australia, from the professions right through, you know, education, health, local government right through. I think we spend too much time talking about picking fruit and not enough time about the real opportunities that are out there.

I have been doing some work, because I know that local government struggles to actually have those skills in their armoury, the staff to actually get a lot of these programs out in a timely manner. And we’ve seen an unprecedented interest in real estate across regional Australia. Land sales, you know, the stimulus we put from the HomeMaker or HomeBuilder, the $25,000 stimulus to build a house, that’s causing an enormous amount of activity, but it’s also putting stress on local government because of the ability to get that done in a timely manner.

But I have been reminded that we should be talking about roads, as it is a roads conference as I was reminded a couple of times over lunch. I’ll just start by saying there’s been a lot of discussion over the last couple of years about 1 per cent of taxation revenue going to local government. Well, it wouldn’t have been such a good deal this year; it would have actually been a reduction in funding if we had that formula this year.

So, I think there’s an opportunity to look at reform in the way that we fund local government and through the FA grants. I mentioned that last year. Since last year, I’ve got to say I’ve probably had an education in knowing that every state is different, that the Grants Commission works differently in every state. They all have a different formula. Roads to Recovery is delivered differently in every state. And I know my colleague Kevin Hogan, who is the Assistant Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister, has been doing some work on Roads to Recovery and seeing that different states have different balances between the larger metropolitan councils and regional councils.

So, I think we’ve got a challenge. When I first was elected mayor, I was invited to an engineer’s conference – they’d just started the engineer’s association, it was in Sydney – and the subject was asset management. A lot of the councillors in the room at that time had somewhat puzzled looks on their faces, because they thought, whoever was belly aching the loudest at the golf club the night before a council meeting should be the one that’s heard the most when it came to asset maintenance. That should not be the case if a council has a proper asset management program to manage the assets of a council, particularly your road assets.

At that time – and I suspect it’s much the same – but this incentive to do that meant that if you put the full depreciation of your road network down then all of a sudden you were on a state government’s watch list for being an underperforming council because your bottom line doesn’t look so good. And so, there was a disincentive for councils to really identify the full issue that they were facing in the shortfall of their road funding, and it got hidden for a long time.

And I think there’s an opportunity now that I would like to suggest that a challenge – that we look at obtaining data and methodology across all the states and territories where we can agree and identify on the status and value and level of that road. Because in some cases a gravel road is rated lower in the formula than a sealed road, and in some cases those gravel roads are still major arteries that have important transport obligations.

So, during COVID I’ve been meeting with the state ministers on a regular basis and they are very keen to continue that forum. I’m intending to raise this issue with them so that – you know, I had a meeting with Linda this morning and I said if I’m to convince my colleagues in Canberra, not only do we have to identify the problems, we’ve got to come up with some solutions. And I think we can do that. I know a lot of that work has been done because I think, you know, we really can do better in that space. I’m looking forward to working with Linda and your board as well as the state ministers to do that.

I was pleased, though, that part of the apprenticeship program we’ve announced means it is available to local government. And I think growing your own is the best way out. I’ll give a shout out to my colleagues from Gwydir city up the back. Don’t take any notice that two-thirds of the delegation have got the same last name as me. But the chap in the middle, Max Eastcott, right from the day that he turned up really valued education. And I presume it’s the same now, but when I was mayor back in 2004 every employee at Gwydir was undertaking some form of education, whether it was basic literacy so that someone could actually get a truck drivers licence that wanted to move on to another job, to a staff member that was doing certificates of some sort to senior management that were doing masters or university courses.

I think two out of the three engineers or three out of the four engineers are locally grown. One of the fully qualified engineers at Gwydir started as a school-based trainee. His first job, I think, was trainee plant operator and now he’s an engineer. The deputy general manager started as the young girl on the front counter taking receipts and handling inquiries as an 18-year-old. Now, as well as raising three kids has done several degrees at universities and is the deputy general manager.

So, I think council can really take a role in that space. Councils in a lot of areas are the major employers in a town. And even if the apprentice that they take on don’t stay with the council, if they stay in the community then the effort of doing that was worthwhile. So, I look forward to working through how we might be able to progress that.

But I see myself as local government’s voice in Canberra, not Canberra’s voice here today. I know that might seem a little churlish, I guess, but I appreciate the role that David has been on, all the phone hook-ups we’ve have with the state ministers and I’m looking forward to Linda continuing that on. And through the pandemic when we were meeting almost on a weekly basis, there was that information coming through from the ground that enabled some of those quick decisions that needed to be made made in a timely fashion. I think that was incredibly worthwhile.

So, ladies and gentlemen, thank you. I know it’s the afternoon of the second day and everyone’s probably thinking about how they’re going to go home. But I thank you for your attention and your time. It’s been a real privilege to be with you today.

Media Contact:

Mr Coulton – Steph Nicholls 0417 314 920