Opening address to the Local Government Association of Queensland Forum
KRISTY MCBAIN, MINISTER: Good morning, everybody. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been fabulous to get to Gladstone. It’s actually my first trip outside of Canberra in this new role, because not long after I was announced as the Minister, we had the ALGA National General Assembly so a lot of people were coming to me, but this is my first trip outside and it’s lovely to have made that in Gladstone, especially because the first trip was to a brewery, so I very much felt at home. So, thank you very much for that.
Can I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands and waters of where we meet and pay my respects to elders past and present. It’s fabulous to be part of an Albanese Labor Government, a Government that takes seriously the need to recognise our First Nations people in the Constitution and committed to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. A fortnight ago the Prime Minister announced what that potentially looks like as a referendum question – something simple, something that actually acknowledges our history and I really hope that our local government leaders get behind that push for a change to our Constitution.
Thank you very much to Tim for your introduction today. Thank you to Mayor Matt Burnett for hosting us. It’s been fabulous being with Matt who unfortunately still frequently calls me Minister, but does make sure that I was amply fed and watered, so thank you very much, Matt.
To my colleague Anthony Chisholm who is the Assistant Minister for Regional Development who’ll be here a little bit later and to the other mayors, councillors and CEOs, thank you very much for having me.
Gladstone’s become a bit of a place for inaugural meetings, hasn’t it? The first regional Cabinet meeting was held here in Gladstone and now the first coastal region forum and I’m really pleased to be here today. My new title is Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories, and as I was saying to a number of you last night, just over two years ago I was the mayor of a coastal council region, and I really do feel at home in this role because it’s something that I am very much passionate about. Local government really is the only level of government that has tentacles into every town and village across our country, and it’s the one that does the heavy lifting, especially when state and federal governments can’t get to, and we need to make sure that we continue to support local government because they are a trusted delivery partner for both State and Federal governments.
My time as a coastal councillor and mayor was very interesting. In my term of mayor, there were nine declared natural disasters, which is bloody tough — really bloody tough. There are things that happen in coastal councils which our counterparts who aren’t on the coast have zero idea about. When a 17‑metre wave takes out an industrial wharf, you’ve got some problems. When you have an East Coast low that lifts a historical path walk from its foundations, you’ve got some problems. When coastal boardwalks are washed up on the road, when you have sea foam that inundates a local area, when you’ve got to make sure that someone’s there to pull out the fish lakes, all these thing that is we talked about where I’ve got and have you’ve got counterparts that refer to work that – sort of look at you like: “Well, why is that your responsibility?” Well, it is because we’re the only level of government there to do that work.
In my time as mayor, we had three bushfires, three large bushfires. In the first one we lost 69 homes. The second one we lost five homes and it burnt through 40,000 hectares of land and the last one we lost 465 homes. And about 60 per cent of the land mass of my shire was hit by bushfire. That’s quite substantial and that’s a huge challenge for anyone.
I think the thing that people don’t get is that it is your council staff, and it is the councillors and mayors that are the ones that are there. They are the rolling, 24‑hour a day, seven‑day-a-week rosters to man roadblocks. They’re the ones there making sure the pumps are going into treatment plants and water plants. They’re the ones there in the room [indistinct] of the other emergency services, making decisions that are going to impact our community to get through a particular impact like that.
And then I was going out to community meetings, so like many people we had no telecommunications and no power. So it was the old-fashioned, literally going and sticking up posters around communities to let them know that there would be a community meeting at X o’clock and then telling them that we did not have enough RFS appliances to save their town, to save their houses, and that if they weren’t prepared to save their own lives, they needed to move to an evacuation facility. That job normally doesn’t fall to a mayor. That job is normally given to RFS personnel to communicate, but in our case, we were cut off north, south and west. There were no major highways leading into our council area – they’d all been blocked – and what we had was the personnel on the ground at the time, which meant that we didn’t have any spare RFS personnel to deliver the message to the community, and it fell to the elected mayor to actually go out and explain what was going on.
Now, a lot of other people who believe that this somehow – local government somehow is the poor cousin or definitely much broker cousin of the Federal Government. But in my view, it is most important and it’s the most important because, like was demonstrated to me at breakfast this morning, you leave an area, you leave a restaurant and you have a table of five people that say, “Hi, Matt. How ya going.” You have a community that feels connected, they know you are leaders. You have a community that looks to you for solutions. You also have a community that harasses you in the supermarket and the street about the potholes and all of that, but they feel comfortable doing so because they know you. And the further away we get from the State and Federal governments, the further away they feel. They feel less connected to their leaders. They feel less likely they’re going to be listened to, which is why it is so important that we make sure that there is a real level of joined‑up‑ed‑ness and that is you know a ridiculous word, but it makes complete sense in this case, that we make sure that there’s a real level of joined‑up‑ed‑ness between the local, state and federal governments. It’s more and more important in the world we’re heading into. We will rely more and more on other levels of government to deliver for a Federal Government. If we don’t have close working relationships with our local councils, then we won’t do as well. So, our success relies on your success as local governments.
Each local government area I travel to – I have six in my electorate – each local government area I travel to, there’s usually a theme. The themes are the same things that come out: telecommunications and internet connectivity; housing shortages. There is always the issue of not having enough contractors or it costing too much. We know one of the biggest issues is financial sustainability, so regardless of where you are in this country, local councils tend to give you the same messages; and, if they are giving us the same messages, it’s incumbent on us to actually deliver on them.
The biggest thing that coastal councils talk to me about is tourism and tourism infrastructure. We provide a whole range of things for people that probably don’t live with us for most of the year. We ensure infrastructure is at peak load levels, which might only be used for maybe two to six weeks of the year. We provide infrastructure that we know our local communities will probably not use that often. And we do so because we want people to have a great experience when they come to our area. We want them to remember us for that beautiful park or the great boat ramp, or the accessible access to the beach. We provide things that aren’t beneficial to our local community, or are beneficial but, you know, they’re not super thrilled about it because they cost money, and we do so because we know that we have to provide a product, we have to provide a service that people will come back for, that people tell their friends about, because if we don’t provide that, our businesses suffer, there’ll be less jobs, there won’t be as many options for schools. There are a whole range of things that coastal councils do that probably aren’t to our benefit; they’re to the benefit of other people.
One of the really interesting facts that I found was that more than half of Queensland councils are located on the coast – 80 per cent of the population lives on it. Huge numbers. My old council was one‑eighth of the New South Wales coastline. You could visit a beach every day for six months before you got to the end of our beaches, but a lot of those are – you could go to and you would not see another soul on, which is fantastic in one way. And it’s also great during COVID when they said you can go and exercise and you would go to a beach and know you would be completely fine. It wasn’t like Coogee or Bondi. But it does bring a range of challenges, right? We have to make sure that we can get people to them. We have to make sure that there are roads that are accessible. We have to work with national parks. We have to have relationships to get things done that perhaps our metropolitan counterparts do not need or do not have.
At breakfast this morning we were talking to a number of leaders in business and industry and the particular issue that was coming up was access to staff and skills. And in turn comes with that, housing shortages. And I think this is becoming particularly unique to coastal areas where people love our lifestyle now and they think I can work from anywhere; I’m going to move there. We are holding a Jobs and Skills Summit at the start of next month. We need to bring together employers, unions, schools and training providers, local councils, regional development groups, because we need to work on a plan. When we saw the borders close, we’ve seen people trade up their jobs. We’ve seen people say, “I no longer have to work three jobs. I’ve found a full‑time job and I’m good now.” But what it has showed is that we have a real challenge in our community and we have a challenge because we need to build a better-trained workforce.
My husband and I own a plumbing business and we can’t find a qualified plumber for love nor money. Our apprentices travel for three hours to go to TAFE. We have a TAFE facility 20 minutes away, but it doesn’t do plumbing. And when you’ve got plumbing shortages in the country, you wonder where we’ve gone wrong as a society. When you can’t get an electrician or a tiler. Tiling is really the interesting one I find. Trying to find a tiler in this country is bloody hard. But we for too long, I think, have taken our vocational training system for granted and there are people that can’t – it’s not natural for them. They don’t get online training. They actually need someone to be face to face with them. They need that hands‑on skill. They need somebody there pushing them to get the best out of them, and that’s what vocational training provided for so many people, including my husband and my dad. We need to get to a situation where we value vocational training again, and I’m really looking forward to working as part of an Albanese Labor Government to facilitate that. It’s one thing that we notice in local government, too, is that there actually needs to be a real focus on how we get some of our employees trained up — you know building inspectors, health and safety inspectors. These things don’t need to be university trained. These should be done through vocational education and I’m really looking forward to pushing the case to make sure that we have specific local government training across the board, because it’s really important to our workforce.
There are fabulous initiatives that are done by councils right across this country and far too often we gloss over them. We don’t really give ourselves credit for the work that we’re doing which is really important in our local community, and it is time that we actually highlighted the significant and innovative work that is done by councils and most of it is done on the smell of an oily rag. So, I want to give a shout‑out to the Fraser Coast who has developed a disaster‑ready workforce, and it has developed a disaster dashboard which runs simulated training exercises which empowers the community to make informed decisions to save lives and property. In early January, the City of Maryborough started with an underground stormwater gate barrier. The Fraser Coast operations teams and engineers had redesigned the stormwater gate, had it manufactured locally and reinstalled it. This meant on the second flood, only five weeks later, they were better prepared, and I’m told it saved the main Maryborough CBD for the first time in its long flood history. Another two floods that followed happened in four and six months, and this story of coastal leadership is in response to the clear threat of flooding and it serves, quite like the theme of this forum, “Our Coast, Our Future”. The City of the Gold Coast for its Homelessness Action Plan 2024. Its plan recognises local government as a key partner in addressing the housing crisis. It was developed in partnership with the Gold Coast Homelessness Network, local community organisations and the Queensland Government. The action plan contains 30 actions, approved under four priorities: to create safe public spaces; to build a stronger support network; to reduce homelessness through better connections with services; and to advocate for a range of affordable housing options. I admire the strategy and look forward to hearing more about it as it’s implemented.
These things which coastal councils do and councils do across this country aren’t part of roads, rates and rubbish. But they’re done because they need to be done and time and time again local councils are the ones that step up because it’s their community.
We know the very real threat of climate change, and I’m really proud that we are now in a position where hopefully the climate wars are over, because even if you don’t believe in the science, the things that we will implement and put in place will make it better for our environment and better for our community. The climate change bill recently passed the lower house which locks in our 43 per cent emissions reduction target and, as the PM said, it records our ambition to take the country forward on climate action. It will open new jobs and new pathways, new technologies and a new era of prosperity. And even when people don’t believe in the science they do believe in the economics, so our Powering Australia plan will create 600,000 new jobs across the country. Five out of every six of those jobs will be in the region which benefits all of us.
I want to thank the Local Government Association of Queensland too, a really important voice in this sector for over 125 years, and in the coastal leaders forum for really highlighting the importance of having that peak association. I look forward to seeing how this forum develops over the next few years. I really believe that Australia’s economic potential and ability is highlighted most when three levels of government work together and when we make sure that our local government system is really running on all cylinders. I know that our local councils are going to be vital to the Federal Government in achieving our aims over the next three years. I look forward to continuing with the work really closing on that with you.
And my office is pretty accessible, which my staff hate me saying. I love talking, as you can probably guess and this job and your job as elected officials is about listening. It’s about advocacy and you are only as good as the intel you get. And if I am to succeed in this role, it’s because I’ve had a really good relationship with local governments going forward. I can only change policy within the Labor Party if I’ve got really good intel from people about what that needs to be going forward. And I tell this to the community I represent all the time: my job isn’t to be an expert in everything, my job is to listen to experts and I am here to listen to the local government sector and will be the entire time I am in this role. Thank you very much for inviting me. I look forward to continuing to work with you all. [Applause]
Minister McBain – Melanie Leach 0492 318 450