Speech at ALGA Conference

KRISTY MCBAIN: Hello, how are you over there? Thank you very much, Linda, for that wonderful welcome and can I start today by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land of where we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respect to elders, past and present. Thank you very much, Aunty Violet, for your welcome to country and I also want to acknowledge any Aboriginal or Torres-Strait Islander people here today. As Aunty Violet mentioned, we are seeing more of our First Nations people elected into local councils, which is a fabulous thing. And just over the border from here, we had the first ever Aboriginal person elected to the Queanbeyan-Palerang Council in Esma Livermore, who was also then elected Deputy Mayor and made these earrings for me. Shout-out to Esma because she is one talented human being. I also want to thank the members of the ALGA Board for making today possible, and all of the mayors, the counsellors, the CEOs, directors for coming along on a Sunday. It really is testament to how much you put in to your local councils that you are here on a Sunday. Many people think that this job might be Monday to Friday nine to five, anyone actually doing it knows that’s never the case.

I want to touch on today’s theme of this forum, ‘Regions Rediscovered.’ Interesting. And how interesting was it that just before COVID we were talking about how to attract people to the regions and now in COVID it’s like, oh my God, everyone’s coming to the regions. We know that now remote work is a feature of our landscape, but it has also highlighted some of the challenges that we have in regional Australia. It’s something that we need to come together and work on and it’s something that each and every day you guys are grappling with. As someone who lives in regional New South Wales, I welcome the trend. I’m delighted to be in this portfolio, a portfolio that is near and dear to my heart, having been born in regional Victoria and living in regional New South Wales. And I bring to this portfolio an understanding, probably a pretty unique one, of the challenges that are facing local governments particularly. I know how incredible local governments are in serving their community and I know sometimes it goes absolutely unnoticed by our community.

I have a really strong and personal attachment to making sure our regions can be the best that they are, like all of you in this room today. Because what you do each and every day isn’t about making it better for you, we know it’s about making it better for the generations to come after us; to make it easier for them to live and work in regional Australia, to make it easier for them to get educated, to have good health outcomes and to have career opportunities that allow them to raise their own families in regional Australia. And I bring to this job my experience as a counsellor and a mayor in the Bega Valley Shire – a region that was hit pretty hard by drought, by bushfires, by floods and by COVID. During the Black Summer, we saw a total of 3,094 homes lost across New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, the ACT, WA and South Australia. Four hundred and sixty-five homes were in the Bega Valley and over 500 in Eurobodalla, which is next door. And I carry this experience with me when I engage with my ministerial colleagues and with the general public, because for so many people, life has moved on. But for so many people impacted not only by this natural disaster, but by floods since, it’s with them each and every day.

I am the daughter of a coal miner; my mum finished her career in aged care. I was the first person in my family to attend university and I combined, I guess, those strong working-class values with a genuine respect for the lived experience of regions, workers and the importance of care and the importance of expertise. I know, trust me, I’m not an expert on every subject, even though I argue the exact opposite when I’m arguing with my husband, I tell him I’m an expert in everything. Which is why I spend a great deal of my time actually listening to people with that real lived experience, people from my electorate and now people from right around the country who are listening to people in their council areas each and every day. And over the next few days, my plan is to just sit and listen. I think I am meeting with something like 65 local councils and joint organisations from across the country and I’m really looking forward to hearing what you’re saying in the conference and to listening to what you’re saying when we meet face to face. But what I’m especially looking forward to is sitting down and working together over the next three years because we are facing some big challenges right across this country and across our region, and we need to make sure that we’re getting that right from the ground up, and what better way to do that than actually engaging with the local government sector.

The Eden-Monaro electorate, which I represent, which literally everyone would have either flown over or driven through to get to Canberra. We surround the ACT and I frequently point this out to my colleagues - all of you have come through Eden-Monaro to get here, so just be respectful. But right across Eden-Monaro, I actually call it a microcosm of Australia. We have a coastal fringe, we have an urban built-up area around Queanbeyan, we have every agricultural pursuit you can think of, we are home to the Snowy Mountains and all round, probably the best place to live, I know each of you will disagree with that, except for people that live in Eden-Monaro. But among the diversity and the difference in my electorate is exactly the same things that you’re experiencing in your Local Council Areas. The issues with telecommunications, the issues with finding a GP, the issues about the wants and needs of regional and rural Australia. We want regional-rural Australia to be prosperous, but we have a long way to go to making sure that the opportunities that our metropolitan counterparts have are equal to us in regional Australia. That our standard of education, our standard of healthcare and our standard of community service is exactly that of which is received in the city. And I know how important it is for local councils to play a role in this, many people don’t know the work that local councils do in actually helping to deliver some of these services across our country. I look forward to hearing your ideas and suggestions on how all three levels of government can work together to develop locally-led solutions that create opportunity and security for all our citizens in this vast country. I firmly believe that the key to maximising Australia’s economic potential is for governments to be working together across jurisdictions with a shared idea of what success looks like. I encourage you all to leave this assembly with a renewed focus on how your council can, with the tools at your disposal, be local agents of innovation and inclusivity. We need to do that – start by celebrating the successes of those in your neighbouring councils, share what you’ve learned, reach out across your borders with support and ideas that can tailor solutions to our local needs. And there are some amazing achievements we have seen just in this last little while from local councils. The Shire of Murray in Western Australia provides just one example, recently. Through leadership and vision, the council transformed the small town of Dwellingup into the state’s premier destination for mountain biking and associated trails. Since the new facilities opened late in 2020, almost 100,000 visitors have attended the Dwellingup Trail Centre and they’re facilities have hosted more than 110,000 rides. It’s injected $16.6 million into the local economy, including the opening of seven new businesses, enhancements to 11 existing businesses and the creation of more than 24 new full-time-equivalent jobs, and this town hosts just 500 permanent residents.

I know how important federal funding is for local councils and I am assuming that each and every one of you are going to come through the door and say that exact thing to me when I meet with you. In fact, I don’t think he’ll mind me saying but the CEO of the Bega Valley Shire texted me as soon as it was announced and said, “are you announcing an immediate increase to the Financial Assistance Grants”. I’d like to, but that would probably make me lose this job immediately too, but I’ll continue to work on it. Since its introduction by the Whitlam Government in 1974, the Financial Assistance Grant Programme has invested $64 billion into local government. In local government, we know financial sustainability is critical and often elusive, particularly for smaller councils. So how do we get there? How do we ensure that local government can continue to support their communities the way that those unique communities need it? In 2020-2021, local governments received a combined total of over $5 billion of Commonwealth Funding from over 70 Commonwealth programs. But how do we ensure the sector can continue to be an effective delivery partner with the Commonwealth and the states? How do we work together to build skills and workforce capability, especially in data management and capability? How do we ensure that local councils can take full advantage of their region and better prepare them for the future? The recent skills and workforce capability survey that my department and ALGA have been working on will go somewhere to make sure we understand quite literally what we’re working with. And I understand that SGS Economics and Planning has presented some of the early insights into this survey on Tuesday, and I’m Looking forward to reading ALGA’s finalised report towards the end of the year. I’m sure these survey outcomes will continue to drive many of our conversations.

Most importantly, I’m really looking forward to talking to as many of you as possible over the next few days and working with you over the coming years. Talk to me about the innovations in your Local Government Area, like the amazing work that’s being done by Shoalhaven Council in its new waste handling facility, I can’t wait for an invitation to see it in operation when it comes online. Tell me how you’re achieving the national Closing the Gap targets. Have you adopted ALGA’s Closing the Gap Implementation plan? And what do you need to strengthen, share decision-making at a local level? Tell me how you’re cooperating with your neighbours, neighbouring councils or public and private institutions to tackle issues that affect your region. The example of the Blue Light Learning Driver programme in Cunnamulla, Queensland, the Paroo Shire Council, the Cunnamulla Police, Public School, local volunteers and PJ’s Automotive work together with disadvantaged youth to teach them how to drive, how to manage common mechanical issues and get enough hours of driving experience behind them to go for their licence. And I don’t think I need to tell anyone how important transport is when you live in a community, but especially in remote communities like Cunnamulla.

These are the ideas and the stories that transform communities. These ideas and stories are what you are part of each and every day. I have no doubt that together we can make a difference in our communities, but what we need to do is make sure that we’re working together to achieve them. I am not going to be a person that is not accessible. In fact, my office will tell you frequently they have to say no because I say yes too often. But I want to make sure that each and every time a local counsellor reaches out to me that I can get in touch with them in person, by telephone, by email, by Facebook message, however, we can do that. Because I am here not only to represent Eden-Monaro but to represent each and every local council area across Australia. And I hope that I have your faith and your confidence to be able to deliver along with you for local councils right across Australia. Thank you.