Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Agenda

GREG JENNETT: Well, old ideas never die, apparently. They just go to rest until their inventors get back into a position to revive them again. Now, this is the case with a mega gathering of the heads of more than 500 local councils from across the land. The Council of Local Governments is coming back as a meeting in Canberra in June of this year, and then it'll be repeated every year thereafter. Local Government Minister, Kristy McBain spoke to us about this earlier from Devonport in Tasmania. Kristy McBain, it does seem like whenever we catch up recently, you're in some far flung or relatively far flung part of the country. Devonport it is today, and from there you're announcing that the Council of councils is coming back, I think after an absence of about a decade. Explain what it does, but more importantly, why you're bringing it back.

KRISTY MCBAIN: I'm incredibly proud to be able to bring back the Australian Council of Local Governments. It is getting those 546 councils across the country back, having direct discussions with the Federal Government through a dinner and also a conference. It’s really exciting. It was the brainchild of our now Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, when he held this portfolio in the Rudd Government. It’s so important to get it back because we know over the last few years, local councils have borne the brunt of natural disasters, both the response and the recovery. We know that they've been there during COVID periods, and we need to hear direct from them about some of their ideas and solutions to the problems that are cropping up across the country.

JENNETT: No doubt you will hear a lot from them. And I imagine one of the things you'll hear is, please give us more money, we're hurting out here. It doesn't naturally follow, though, given the state of the Budget that you'll be doing that does it?

MCBIAN: Much of the time it's making sure that councils are aware of a range of the grant funding opportunities that are available to them. In my own portfolio, we provide untied funding through financial assistance grants. In the last financial year, that was $2.9 billion. We've provided funding through the $500 million Roads to Recovery program. $85 million through the Bridges Renewal Program. $65 million in the Heavy Vehicle and Productivity Program. Plus, the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program, which is another untied bucket of funding. We've committed $500 million in this Budget, but also the additional $250 million from the October Budget. There are a range of programs across government which local councils can apply for. It's about making sure that we are working together to access some of those funds. It’s actually about collaboration. Some councils are doing things that other councils have the same problem with, but don't know how to tackle them. Networking and understanding what everyone's doing is vitally important. Bringing people together to have those conversations is one of the roles we can play.

JENNETT: Logistically, in doing this, in holding this gathering, is there a cost to the taxpayer? That's the Commonwealth taxpayer, in reorganising this?

MCBAIN: We’re tacking this Australian Council of Local Government onto the back of the Australian Local Government Association's own conference. These councils, mayors, councillors and CEOs will already be in Canberra for that conference. There will obviously be a small cost to government to put on the event, but we think that the payback to local communities will well and truly be there. It’s about that direct access to Cabinet Ministers, that direct access to the Prime Minister, to talk about some of the big challenges we're facing. In so many circumstances, we're seeing local councils do really innovative things. Sharing that knowledge and making sure that we all have access to it is vital to dealing with some of the problems we see.

JENNETT: Back when COAG, the Council of Australian Governments used to be a thing, there was a seat at the table, literally, for the head of the Local Government Association in Australia. Are you resurrecting that concept, even though COAG has been replaced by National Cabinet?

MCBAIN: We went to the last election saying that local councils needed a seat at the table at National Cabinet. We've brought that back and local government were back at the table on the 3 February, sharing some of the insights and issues from a local government sense. They need to be part of that national conversation and we've brought them back to do so.

JENNETT: Kristy, you started this conversation by reminding us of Anthony Albanese's role in starting all of this back in the day. He also strongly propelled us towards a referendum to recognise local government, which ultimately didn't happen for a whole bunch of reasons. But are you now taking a first step towards repeating that at some time in the future? That is a referendum question on local government?

MCBAIN: It's not my plan to put forward an idea of a referendum to acknowledge local government in our constitution. We've got a constitutional referendum coming up at the end of this year. We are right behind that push to make sure that there is recognition and a Voice to Parliament for our first Australians. That is the conversation that we'll be having for the rest of this year. I look forward to working with Australians across the local government sector in particular, about how that can be a really unifying moment for the country. Another step towards reconciliation, another step towards recognition of our first Australians, and most importantly, a Voice to Parliament on some of the big issues impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

JENNETT: One referendum at a time seems pretty sensible at the moment. Kristy McBain, thanks for joining us there from Devonport.

MCBAIN: Thanks very much.