Address to the Municipal Association of Victoria's annual conference

KRISTY MCBAIN, MINISTER: Thank you very much for having me again at your conference. It’s always a pleasure to be at local government conferences across the country. This is two years in a row for me so high-five, guys. I obviously like coming to Victoria and hanging out and as many of you know, it’s home. It’s where I was born and where I still tragically follow the St Kilda Football Club who continually disappoint. I know I’m not alone there.

I want to say a big thank you for the Welcome to Country that was delivered earlier and also pay my respects to the local custodians of the land on where we meet and pay my respects to Elders past, present, and emerging. We all know on Saturday we’re headed towards a referendum, an incredibly important time in our country, and for so many of us, the first referendum we will have voted in, the first one this century. After 65,000 years of history, a document that’s 122 years old could recognise the first people of our country. I’ve done a lot of travel in this role, whether it’s Mapoon at Cape York, whether it was William Creek in outback South Australia, Dubbo, or Gippsland, there are a number of opportunities in our regional communities and there are a number of challenges. But all of them come with a productive conversation about what the Voice might mean to us, and absolutely there has been some mis- and disinformation out there and that’s why it’s so incredibly important that we’re having factual conversations in the lead up to Saturday.

I know, and you all know, regardless of the level of government or who’s responsible for what, people will come to you for information. They will come to you as a trusted source in their local community to ask your opinion, to ask where to get information.

Only a few months ago I was at a Bush Summit in Wodonga, which was a fantastic one-day Summit in Wodonga. Policymakers, business owners, health leaders from right across the community, came together and we discussed the defining decade ahead. What we needed to do to maximise opportunities and what we needed to do to overcome challenges in our region.

We discussed what we could do together as a diverse range of people from a diverse range of backgrounds about how we could maximise the opportunities and overcome the challenges in our regions. The concept of bringing people with a different lived experience together, a different view, is exactly what the Voice is about. It’s about bringing First Nations people with a different lived experience together to inform policymakers on what they need to make a difference in their local communities, what they need to make a difference for the future of their friends and family – because we know when we have diverse representation, we know when we hear directly from people who are on the ground, we know we get different outcomes.

I know, more than anyone else, that people in regional areas get that. They get that they are constantly fighting to change the status quo, whether that’s for better services, more infrastructure, the ability to assist people in the greatest time of need for them, people right across our regions get that because that’s what we do day in, day out, and that’s exactly what local government does. Your elected leaders who go to other tiers of government to advocate directly for what your communities need.

This advisory committee is no different and I ask you to really think about the difference it could make to three per cent of our population when we hear them and when we respect their views, when we acknowledge that they were the first people of our country.

Before I move on, I want to also acknowledge it has been a tough start to our spring and summer season already and I acknowledge it’s been a really difficult period for our friends in East Gippsland over recent weeks. I’ve got a lot of friends and family still there and it’s where I grew up. I know that the trauma from the Black Summer bushfires has not yet surpassed, and we’ve already received multiple other bushfires. In fact, in my own region only last week, we had more homes lost in an area that had already been burnt through in the Black Summer bushfires.

In East Gippsland, I recently went to the Sarsfield Community Hall, to the Ensay Community Hall, to the Tambo Crossing CFA shed and spoke to communities that had been impacted during the Black Summer. We know councils play an ongoing and significant role in disaster response and also disaster recovery. The role that councils play in times of natural disaster can’t be underestimated. I want to acknowledge and thank you for the work that you do. So many people in your organisations, who are working on behalf of the community, are generally impacted as well and it takes a lot to continue to get up and give of yourself when you are also hurting. Thank you for the work that you do in natural disasters. I know moving into this next bushfire season is going to be hard for many people and I thank you for the work that I know is going to be undertaken by your communities and in particular by your councils.

I don’t have to give you my back story. I think a lot of people already know it. I was a Councillor, I was a Mayor. I actually refer to myself a lot of the time as an accidental Councillor. Like many people in the room, it wasn’t actually my life’s goal or my trajectory plan. I was on maternity leave and there had been a decision made about my local playground and I ended up putting my hand up for council and getting elected. I know that there are a lot of you in the room that have had that one defining issue and you thought I’m going to stand up and I’m going to go to council.

I’m also an accidental Mayor. I had not anticipated putting my hand up for Mayor in 2016. It became pretty clear that there was going to be someone whose view was that we needed to look back or move back to how we used to things. I thought to myself, that doesn’t seem right because we’ve got to move forward. It kind of dawned on me that well, you know, maybe put your own hand up. So, I did. A bit of an accidental Mayor.

I think I became an accidental Member of Parliament, because that also wasn’t my life’s goal. During the Black Summer bushfires advocating for my community, I had spoken to numerous politicians, as you do, and then eventually one of them asked me to run in a by-election. I was kind of like, I’ve got a good job, I’m not really sure that’s my life’s goal. Here I am though, because I thought I could make a difference in that policy implementation.

Then I call myself the accidental Minister, because I am sure that someone like me is not the ideal candidate for a Minister in a Government. I didn’t go to the right schools, I hadn’t been a Member of a political party my entire life. I was actually unsure of what the process even was to become Minister. One of my colleagues did not get re-elected to Parliament and there was an opening and someone else said to me “Are you going to run?” I laughed and I said, “I haven’t been in parliament that long,” and they’re like “I don’t think that’s a barrier, is it?” I was like “I don’t know.” 

So low and behold, here I am. When the Prime Minister rung me and said, “You’re going to have the portfolio of Regional Development, Local Government and Territories,” I was like “Yes!” I know this space and I’m passionate about this space and I know we can make a difference.

It’s one of the reasons I’ve been so adamant about bringing local government back to the table, back to the table of National Cabinet, on the table of the National Council of Federal Financial Relations. We’ve brought back the Australian Council of Local Government. We know how incredibly important it is to make sure that you’ve got that direct discussion with a sector that impacts every town and village across the country. As the Prime Minister said during the Australian Council of Local Government, “Local governments are a trusted delivery partner of the service communities rely on. My Government’s priorities for cleaner, cheaper energy, more affordable housing, skills, and training, as well as smart infrastructure cannot be achieved without the vital role of councils.” And in the Prime Minister you have a former Local Government Minister. He actually gets the sector and at the believes in the work that you do.

Earlier this year we had the National Local Government Awards which were announced in June. So many fabulous and innovative councils right across the country, doing spectacular things and we don’t do our jobs for other people to recognise what we’re doing. Usually in the local government sector you move onto the next thing because there are always a thousand things going on, but we do, and we should, take the time to celebrate the wins. Celebrate the things that work well in our communities. I want to thank people who do put those applications in, because we should be showcasing to the rest of the sector what we’ve achieved and what maybe they might be able to take away and put in their own communities.

The Indigenous Recognition Award that went to Mount Alexander Shire Council for sharing knowledge with children is a fabulous project. I had a great chat to the Mayor, and she brought with her an Elder in her community to celebrate the win of that award, which was fantastic. The Productivity Through Infrastructure Award, which went to Melton City Council for Moving Melton into Greater Transport Prospectus, and the Addressing Violence Against Women and Children Award to Glen Eira City for Glen Eira Mums. It is so important that we acknowledge and congratulate not only the winners but the nominees, but it’s so important that we continue to celebrate those successes because other people can learn from them. 

I have said multiple times that councils are way more than roads, rates, and rubbish. We deliver vital services and infrastructure across our communities. You protect the environment. When natural disasters strike, you are there front and centre for your communities. We help you, as best we can, to deliver for your communities. Financial Assistance Grants, and I’m sure it will be one of the first questions I get, I thank you in advance for that. $3.2 billion in untied funding every year. We know how important that is. This year we brought the entire amount forward because it has been a tough financial climate for all levels of government, for all businesses, for our communities and we wanted to make sure we were helping with that.

We know these grants include more than $573 million in funds directly to Victoria, $205 million going through your local roads. We have the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program. We brought another round of funding for that, $250 million which we committed to in the last election, which brings phase four to $750 million. We listened to the sector, we’ve extended our delivery timeframes for Phases One to Three. We are working with you to make sure that Phase Four is focused on those outer metro regional rural councils on their road projects, which have been impacted so much through natural disasters. There are over 100 projects happening right now in Victoria through those LRCI programs and there are other grant programs that we have implemented on the back of serious consultation with the sector. 

$1 billion dollars in new regional programs which includes the Growing Regions Program and the Regional Precincts and Partnerships Program, which supports transformative investment, based on the principals of unifying levels of government, of community groups, to grow economies and serve our communities. Applications are now open, and I encourage you to have a look at the Grants Connect website. It’s incredibly important that we are getting from you those applications and understanding what is going to make the biggest difference in your communities.

But for the first time ever, we’re not just having regional programs. Councils in our metropolitan areas can now apply for our Thriving Suburbs Program which is an urban infrastructure program. A competitive program which will look at how we can assist you.

We know local governments are essential delivery partners for us, helping us to deliver our national priorities as well. Priorities like affordable housing, childcare, healthcare, aged care, in skills and training, connectivity, and smart infrastructure, and a future made in Australia. Most importantly, we know councils, like the Federal Government, are focused on a transition to net zero by 2050. I want to praise local councils for the job that they are already doing towards a clean energy future.

More than three quarters of councils across the country have already set targets or are developing community emissions reduction plans. We know that investing in clean energy solutions creates jobs, but most importantly it creates some resilience to climate change across the country. We’re partnering with you. Our $100 million Community Energy Upgrades Fund will be out to help you move toward energy efficiency, reduce council operating costs, and reduce your carbon footprint.

It is incredibly important to put forward your projects and I know many councils have already been doing that. It’s been fantastic to travel to a number of councils and hear from them firsthand about the project they already had sitting on the shelf which this grant will make a complete difference to them.

The other issue that I know is so incredibly important to so many of you, and to the Federal Government, is the housing crisis. The role that you will play in this will be second to none. No matter where you are in this country, everyone is impacted by the shortage of houses. ALGA is a signatory to the National Housing Accord which brings local government to the table in this landmark agreement and in August, National Cabinet supported the Housing Support Program which is a $500 million program which looks at helping councils and state governments with that enabling infrastructure to create more housing supply across the country.

I want to say a big thank you to everyone in the sector who has campaigned for this fund, who has talked to us about the necessity to make sure that enabling infrastructure was in place, and who have said we can help deliver solutions if we have access to a grant like this.

The passing of the $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund has also come at a time which is going to be incredibly important, making sure that we are dealing with getting good supply of housing to our key workers. For so many communities I’ve spoken to, that is council workers. It is hard to attract professionals to an area if there is nowhere for them to live. I am incredibly pleased that we have now passed that legislation, and we are getting on with the job of delivering housing across the country with states and territories and, most importantly, with local governments. 

There is so much happening in this sector and, again, I want to say a big thank you to you. There are no two days that are ever the same in this sector. One day you’re talking about childcare, the next day you’re talking about street lighting and the next day you’re a pool expert. To each and every one of you who does this job in your local community, thank you for the work that you do.

It cannot be underestimated how difficult it can be to go to a Woolworths or a Coles as a local Councillor or Mayor when you get stopped and people say to you, “I don’t normally do this, but…”, and then you’ve got to think what is this question going to be and how am I going to answer it? So thank you for the work that you do because each and every one of your community generally knows who you are, they know where to find you, they know which schools your kids go to or which activities they’re involved in, and they know which service clubs you’re a part of and they know who is your relative or who is your friend to get a message to you. There is no hiding in this sector and for those people who put their hands up for election, to those people who get elected, and to those people who are consistently interested in the sector, it takes a big load, it doesn’t go unnoticed by your community, and sometimes you don’t – you don’t hear the good things, you only hear the bad things. But thank you for the work you do because without you putting up your hand to make those decisions on behalf of your communities, we would be all the poorer for it. Thanks.