Speech to the Regional Cooperation and Development Forum, 2023 National General Assembly of Local Government

* Check against delivery *

When you’re sitting at the front you don’t realise how many people are here. Welcome everyone, this is amazing. It’s nice to see that there’s a number of my own local councils here, so hello to all of you. I can see Queanbeyan and the Snowy Valleys and Bega Valley. Are Snowy Monaro here? Well, haven’t they missed out. I can’t see Yass or Eurobodalla? All right, well, they’re on my list. Thank you very much, Linda, that was a really beautiful welcome, and I want to thank Auntie Violet for that welcome to country, she does such a spectacular job of welcoming us to a number of events across Canberra and Queanbeyan.

I also want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on where we meet and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. It is really important that we have a factual discussion about the referendum coming, and I know all of the councillors and mayors and GMs in the room know that regardless of where the responsibility lies in terms of Federal, State or local government, people are going to be coming to you to answer a whole range of questions about the referendum.

It's really important that as local councils we make sure that we can educate people on the process of a referendum, where they can get information about The Voice, and let people make their own mind up about that. It’s important that we allow for factual information about why there’s a referendum, and ensure they can access really plain and factual information about it.

I have no doubt that the questions are already starting in your community. In my own community, I speak to one of my elders quite frequently, and he says to me all the time, “You’ve made decisions over a couple of hundred years about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, some have been good and some haven’t been so good, and we’ve tried your way, and Closing the Gap targets haven’t slimmed. My life expectancy is shorter, I have worse housing outcomes, worse education outcomes and worse social outcomes. How about you try it my way for a change?”

When he puts it very simply like that, I think to myself, “It’s probably not too much to ask.” I will be out there campaigning for a yes vote in my community.

I want to also acknowledge my Nationals colleague, Darren Chester. He’s also my electorate neighbour, and I was actually born in his electorate, so as Linda was just talking about Eden‑Monaro, Darren said, “and she’s a good Traralgon girl.”

Darren and I take this level of government and the work that you do on behalf of communities right across the country very seriously. That is why you have both the Minister and the Shadow Minister here. Thank you for coming too, Darren.

I want to acknowledge all of the mayors, the GMs, the councillors, everyone in the room. Thank you so much for travelling here on what was probably a public holiday for many of you to get here for this forum. It’s incredibly important, and so great to see so many regional and rural councils represented right across the room.

I also want to pay my respects to our councillors and friends in the Hunter region who are going through a really terrible time at the moment. We know when tragedies like this occur, whether it’s in this circumstance, a bus crash, or in many other circumstances such as natural disasters, it is your council that generally pulls together and helps to get people through what’s a really difficult period. My thoughts do go out to our Hunter friends and family.

As many of you know, before I entered Federal Parliament I was in this sector, and it is super important to me. I got involved because there was a decision made about my local playground, and I wasn’t going to let that stand. There’s always a particular issue that usually brings people into local council. At the time that I entered council I was on maternity leave, and I had a two and a half‑year‑old and a three‑month‑old. We’d just started a small business, and my husband said, “We’ve got so much time for this”, and I said, “Don’t worry about it, I won’t get elected.”  Well, a couple of weeks later I did. It was really interesting, because at that time in 2012, I think I was the only candidate that was campaigning on social media. Boy how things have changed in 11 short years. I think that’s probably the mode that most councillors, mayors, candidates, use these days in terms of how we get our message out to people.

I really loved my time in the sector. From working with local communities about delivering infrastructure or creating services, to networking at a more regional level and making sure that we were advocating for regional projects that we knew would make a difference right across the place, to coming to events like this where you were hearing about the really innovative ideas and solutions that other councils were implementing, which you know that you can then transfer into your own council area.

We have a really beautiful sector in the 546 local government areas that we have. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel a lot of the time. We can pull on the expertise and advice from people across sector to implement in our own communities, and that is the thing that is so incredibly important to local government. The idea that we can network right across the country, and take the parts that work in some areas, and deliver them in other areas. Far too often we gloss over the things that work well and move on to the next challenge, and we really need to make sure that we are dealing with the successes, and celebrating the successes and telling the story of those successes, as well as dealing with all the challenges that we have.

As a girl who was born in the regions and continues to live there, and now get to work for them, I love engaging right across the country with our regional communities. There is such a great diversity across the regions. There are some unique challenges and opportunities that exist in the regions, but I also hear some really consistent themes across them.

I love hearing from local people and having your expertise when I’m dealing with some interesting challenges. I love that there is a consistent championing of the regions by councils; councils who can identify some of the solutions that they need implemented, but aren’t afraid to have the tough conversations. I spend a tonne of time obviously in my own electorate talking to my mayors and councillors, to business and industry and community groups about some of the big challenges that they have ahead.

The other thing that’s really important for us to do is to understand the ambitions of our communities, because our regional communities have a different set of priorities and a different set of ambitions than our metropolitan counterparts.

I’m probably going to get some questions on financial sustainability, and I look forward to the first person on my bingo sheet that jumps up and raises Financial Assistance Grants. I know Linda looks forward to it too, because it means that our elders advocacy is working really well.

We know that there are some other key challenges, like labour and workforce shortages, housing affordability and accessibility, roads and community infrastructure, digital connectivity, healthcare and childcare, and that dreaded natural disaster element that councils are now finding part of their core business, when probably 10 years ago that wasn’t something that was on every council’s radar.

During my time as Mayor there were nine declared natural disasters in the Bega Valley; bushfires, floods, and an east coast low which took out coastal infrastructure. That all culminated in the Black Summer bushfires, where my community lost 465 homes, a thousand sheds and outbuildings, thousands of kilometres of fence line, and unfortunately for us, we lost four community members.

It’s really hard to move from one natural disaster to the next, and for us, the only thing that put out the Black Summer bushfires was a flood. We went from emergency capacity in a dam to it overflowing, but with bushfire debris, and then us having to truck water from one part of the shire to the other. My frustration was always that every time we had a natural disaster, we tried to reinvent the recovery wheel. We’d come up with different ideas about how to make it better or how to make it work.

We need to make sure that we are listening to local communities and that there is a more coordinated approach to disaster recovery. We need to make sure that we are refining our processes, not inventing new ones, and I’m really excited to be part of a government focussed on stronger and more sustainable ways of managing disasters with local and regional communities.

Something that we went to the election with was the Disaster Ready Fund, because we know for every dollar we invest in resilience and mitigation, we save $11 on recovery. We know after a community has been through a disaster, what they want most is for governments to listen to them about how they can be better prepared for next time. During my travels there is a whole lot of community members I speak to who say, “This has happened, but next time we need to make sure we’ve got a better evacuation shelter put in place” or “a flood levee” or “an early warning system”, or “a coordinated approach to bushfire messaging.”

It’s been fantastic to be in a role where I can now make sure that those sentiments are part of government policy. Since being elected we’ve committed funding to around 350 new initiatives that support regional development. We’ve continued funding for hundreds of existing initiatives that support regional communities. Packages like Powering the Regions, the Better Connectivity Plan for Regional and Rural Australia, the Growing Regions Program and the Regional Precincts and Partnerships Program. Along with our commitments in Regional Women’s Safety and place‑based investments in Cairns, the Pilbara and Hobart to name a few.

In the May Budget we put the Regional Investment Framework in place, and this isn’t just for programs run by a single Minister or a single department. It’s an approach to take across government to make sure all of our decisions take regional Australia into account, to make sure that we’re listening to the voices of regional people, and our decisions are based on evidence.

The four priority areas of the Regional Investment Framework are investing in people, and that means listening to the local voices, partnering with communities, making targeted investment in skills, education, training and local leadership capacity. Investing in places, working with you to support adaptive accessible, sustainable and liveable regions and delivering infrastructure where and when it’s needed. Investing in services; enhancing connectivity, accessibility and equity of services, including communication, health, water and transport, are incredibly important. Finally, investing in industries and local economies to help activate economic and industry growth by supporting the conditions needed for regional industries to diversify and to grow.

To do this the government needs to value local voices and priorities. We need to listen to and build on the latest evidence to inform investment and operate with flexibility and transparency, coordinating across governments to make investments work better for our regions.

The Budget built on the foundations we set in October to deliver smart and responsible regional investments across people, places, services, industries and local economies, and to realise our government’s ambition of building a better future with no one left behind.

As a government we are only ever as good as the advice we get, and we get that advice from you. As a wise woman once said to me, who happens to be my mum, but don’t tell her I said that, “You have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that ratio.” Her other big saying was, “Put up or shut up,” and that’s how I ended up on the council. Again, don’t tell mum.

It’s important that we keep working together towards our three levels of government being joined up. As something my previous general manager used to say, “We need to make sure that we have a level of ‘joinedupedness’ that hasn’t existed before.” It is incredibly important that we are tackling the challenges that are out there in our communities; whether that’s health, whether it’s housing, whether it’s skills shortages – together. The three levels of government need to be working together, now more than ever, to make sure that we can deliver on those big changes across our communities.

It’s really important when coming to myself, or Darren, or any one of the parliamentary members, that councils are consulting widely and can build strong partnerships for delivery. It’s important that we remain curious and open‑minded and open to new ideas, because when we’re locked in a position, it is hard to see the new opportunities that might be emerging in front of us. We need clear and honest discussions about the challenges and the opportunities facing our regions.

It is fantastic that you all took the time to come here today. Being smarter and more targeted in the way the Commonwealth invests is critical to the future of our local governments and our regions.

This morning, I was incredibly fortunate to meet with an amazing group of people who are the winners of the 2023 National Awards for Local Government. Awards that were decided by votes from community members. As well as showcasing local projects, they demonstrate a clear impact on their communities. The entries from regional councils were outstanding, and I’d like to congratulate them all. I’m just going to give a couple a quick shout‑out. The City of Kalgoorlie‑Boulder in the Women in Local Government category, for the incredible work of council employees. Mia Hicks and Lauren Chapman‑Holle in championing community development. The Moreton Bay Regional Council who won two awards, the first in the Regional Growth category for its free automated data concierge service, Ask Morty, which helps small businesses make evidence‑based decisions. The second in the Career Starter category for its free virtual work experience program, My Future in Moreton Bay, designed to give Year 10 to 12 students a taste of the workforce and help address skills shortages.

We want to be an employer of choice right across the country, and we need to make sure that our kids leaving school know that there are opportunities for them in local council.

To Mount Alexander Shire Council in the Indigenous Recognition category for its permanent exhibition, Boorp Boondyil, sharing Jaara culture through art works and interactive displays made by local and First Nations artists. Buloke Shire Council in Disaster Preparedness category for the Paddock Run Initiative, and I’ve now also been on the paddock run. Thank you too for the Kooka’s biscuits, which provided flood‑affected exhausted farmers and their families with locally made cookies, an informative card with key flood support details, including mental health contacts during the October 2022 floods.

Regional councils were also outstanding in the honourable mentions. Katherine Town Council in the Women in Local Government category. MacDonnell Regional Council in the Waste Management category. Mornington Peninsula Shire Council in the Road Safety category. Eurobodalla Shire Council in in the Regional Growth category. The Shire of Murray for the flood innovation precinct. Moyne Shire Council for the Indigenous Recognition category, and Renmark Paringa Council for the Disaster Preparedness category.

As I said, sometimes we gloss over the successes we have in this sector. We really need to celebrate them and talk about them widely, because we know that other councils might be able to implement similar programs or similar services that have the same effect on their own communities.

Thank you for the incredible and essential work that you do across communities in our country. They demonstrate the best of what local councils can be, and they can do. The Albanese Government firmly believes that you are an essential delivery partner, building better futures for our communities right across the country, and I look forward to hearing what comes out of your discussions today and over the next couple of days.

Thank you so much for having me.