Address at the 2018 National General Assembly (NGA) of Local Government
18 June 2018
National Convention Centre, Canberra
In welcoming you all to Canberra, I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of this part of the world and Canberra has always been a meeting place for them as it is and has been for modern Australia. So welcome, welcome one and all.
I'm pleased today to be able to speak about the Turnbull Government's focus on supporting the local government sector to improve the lives of everyday Australians right across our country. Because Australians elect us all: local, state and federal. And in our working relationships between all of us they expect us to keep their needs foremost in our minds. Now, I've had the great honour of representing my community at the local government level as well and I acknowledge my local colleagues, councillors, Antonio, Taylor and Summerfield who are here today or this week. I've had the honour of representing my community at state government level and for the last couple of years the federal level as the Member for Groom. And I, like all of you, never forget whom I'm representing and therefore I embrace the theme of this year's assembly, Australia's Future: Make It Local.
As a kid raised on a Darling Downs grain farm, having studied and worked in agribusiness all of my professional career, and as I said one who's represented my community over the last 10 years in various capacities, I know firsthand the challenges and opportunities that face councillors and the communities that they represent. From early 2008, our own council worked through what was at the time the largest amalgamation in Queensland, eight councils, ladies and gentlemen, into one. The Shires of Clifton, Crows Nest, Cambooya, Jondaryan, Millmerran, Rosalie, Pittsworth and of course the then Toowoomba City Council. We worked through the challenges of combining staff, plant, equipment, facilities and installations right across the region and we did that under the expectations, the high expectations, continuing expectations quite frankly, of a broad range of community groups, interest groups and of course individual ratepayers.
Now, I'm proud of my own personal family links in the local government sector. My late grandfather, James Meara, who passed away before I was born was the longest ever serving chairman of the Clifton Shire. My cousin Paul McVeigh is mayor of the Western Downs Regional Council. Our uncle the late Kevin Peters was a long serving Shire clerk in Warwick in Queensland. And as I've mentioned to some of you already, I regularly hear from my very good friend Paul Antonio, the mayor of Toowoomba Regional Council, about how I should be doing my job. I therefore understand the importance of councils in delivering those first frontline services and I certainly acknowledge as we always say that you are the level of government that Australians have most to do with.
Now as member for Groom living in Toowoomba, I've a strong interest in regional development, part of my portfolio responsibility. Again it's what my personal, professional and now political background is all about. The Prime Minister I guess acknowledged the importance of regional Australia on 1 February this year, when he broke with tradition. He made his State of the Nation address, if you like, his landmark speech for 2018, not from the National Press Club here in Canberra, but from our own Empire Theatre in my town of Toowoomba. In his address, the PM noted strong regional jobs growth right across Australia, now up a record 120,000 positions over the last year. But the challenges remain quite obviously we all know that, and David certainly mentioned that.
Now, a big part of my job quite obviously is travelling around regional Australia which I love and as I said have met with many of you and I know how therefore how committed you are to serving your local communities. Now that's also true, can I share with you of many, most, almost all federal government colleagues in the parliament who too, like you, want to support those communities and back you as local leaders to do so.
Now I'm pleased to report that across the country confidence is on the way up. We certainly continue to face challenges but I'm an optimistic person by nature. It's the only way I can get out of bed every morning and soldier on like the rest of you do. There are good reasons for optimism as the Treasurer noted in his budget speech this year, we back small and medium sized businesses with legislated tax cuts, investment incentives. That's important to all of us. Responsible budget savings because that pressure is on all of us, federal, state and local. Savings or some $41 billion legislated since the last election to get spending under control. And this year for the first year since the global financial crisis the federal government is not borrowing to pay for basic annual services. We've got landmark export deals that service our farmers, our miners, our manufacturers and service regions again particularly in regional areas linking with those agreements with the likes of China and Japan and of course Korea and the TPP-11. And we're investing in roads, infrastructure, railways, airports, energy infrastructure, those that we need those- that infrastructure investment we need for the future but there remains plenty more to do. That is the sort of focus we've got on the economic wellbeing of the entire country and we are keen to support you in doing the same in each council area.
Hiring more Australians is what our government is all about, more jobs, and politicians say that all the time. But as I've said in our regional forum here yesterday and of course Queensland gathering this morning for any of us more jobs be it in a capital city, be it in regional centres is the basis of all future opportunities for our communities. And as I said 2017 was the best year on record, on record, for our country in terms of jobs growth. Labour force figures just after the budget released by ABS showed our government is delivering one million—over one million more Australians in work since before we were elected. So the fact that almost a thousand people a day have been finding jobs over the last 12 months is significant indeed. Great news for all of our communities.
Now one of the factors I believe leading to increased confidence is a continued focus on certainty and quite frankly the federal government needs to continue to focus on that in terms of supporting the local government sector, financial assistance grants program for example as David has outlined this morning. Now I know how important that is I like you lived and breathed that and I note that we've now committed more than $2.4 billion in untied funds to 546 local councils under the grants program to be spent according to local priorities. They've been around for a long time since I was a boy in fact when the then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam brought it in in the 70s. And that longevity, I guess, does provide a level of confidence but I acknowledge you need more going forward as resources enable us to provide that. The roads, the rates, the rubbish; all of those basic roles, but it's more than that. You need to plan for future communities. We need to support you in that planning.
So I take those points onboard and I share with you an open mind from the Government to continue to work through processes, models going forward, but we're not going to achieve it overnight. And I guess we, like anyone else, have to measure progress alongside our financial resources which are improving. But it's not just about FAGs, of course. The local government focus on local roads has already been mentioned, is never far from our minds and a number of Commonwealth programs assist with that. Roads to Recovery, of course, is one of those programs, established under a former coalition government in 2000. It stood the test of time and our focus there continues delivering around $4.8 billion from 2013–14 to 2021–22. In the 2016 Budget, we committed to extend Roads to Recovery with a further $50 million per annum from 2019–20 onwards. In that year, the annual base funding for the program will increase to some $400 million.
The blackspot program is also continuing, as you'd be familiar with. We're providing $744.5 million to that program to 2021–22, but I acknowledge there's more work to be done in the future as our planning, our financial management right across the three levels of government has to continue to improve. That is the responsibility that we are entrusted with by all of those we share joint representation responsibility for. The Bridges Renewal Program, ongoing funding of 60 million per year beyond 21–22, building on the current $480 million investment from 2015–16 to 2021–22. One hundred and sixty-six bridges across Australia have been upgraded to date. Many more are scheduled for renewal in the near future and I'm sure we'll all continue to discuss more as we need to keep abreast of their condition and their serviceability in the years and decades to come.
And can I mention very quickly Roads of Strategic Importance. David and I discussed this briefly again yesterday, and again he reminded me of the need to focus on the last mile. A continuing issue for local government across the country and our focus with this $3.5 billion program. And yes, I'm taking up the mantle of making sure that local government has appropriate input—at least through my office, if nothing else—into those discussions going forward. And that's a continuing focus or a current focus for me. That's all about better-connecting the farms, the factories, the businesses across the country with those markets both national and international I mentioned through our growing trade deal arrangements.
Now, local leaders deal with a wide variety of issues and that's evident from the very high calibre of category winners in this year's National Awards for Local Government. Achievements of projects across the performing arts, communications, renewable energy, freight logistics, disability employment, road safety, innovation, the safety of public spaces, respectful relationships and of course continuing Indigenous recognition. Now I'm looking forward to the winning councils joining me for the presentation of this year's awards at the lunch tomorrow and later tomorrow night, I trust we'll all be able to join together to announce the national winner. So that's a great example. They are great examples of what local government does at its best across the country.
As Regional Development Minister, can I just touch on some of the regional development funding programs that I remain responsible for, from community development grants, provide support for critical projects when the Turnbull Government identifies a need, that's quite often based on advice from people such as yourselves. The new sporting facilities, the community centre upgrades, the small-scale infrastructure projects; for example, more than $1 billion has been committed in 795 projects, including 450 projects since the last election, and this is our second term. The $272 million Regional Growth Fund you would be familiar with. Applications closed in late April; grants of $10 million or more from the Commonwealth Government for major transformational regional projects is our focus there, and we've had over 300 applications that are under consideration, and I look forward to making some funding announcements later in the year. The Building Better Regions Fund; again, you would all be familiar with that. The second round of BBRF will have successful projects being announced in the very near future. I know many of you are saying: when is that McVeigh? But it is in the very near future. And that's all about us backing communities to back themselves, to get behind those local priorities.
Now, whilst the first round resulted in 257 projects; construction, carers accommodation, examples- for example, in Bega, Kangaroo Island Sculpture Trail, regional cold store facility in Warwick. These are significant local projects and I'm very pleased to have secured another $200 million for the third round in this recent budget, and that's not easily done, I can assure you. But that's what we've been able to achieve. And this time round, there's specifically $45 million earmarked for regional tourism projects, given the importance of those sorts of projects increasingly in many parts of the country.
Can I just touch on infrastructure policy in general? Now, we have, as we know, some of the best metropolitan centres in our country in the world. At the same time, we have a whole range of what you might call tree changes, sea changes, you name it, who are looking at the same time at lifestyle benefits in regional Australia. The sort of lifestyle that I'm so proud my own family enjoys in my home town of Toowoomba. Whether it's in metropolitan areas or in regional areas, we must keep abreast of infrastructure needs. We must keep up with that demand, and you don't do that unless you're planning for the future. And as I've said, a couple of functions here this weekend already, or over the weekend, a hallmark of the Turnbull Government is a long-term planning approach; $75 billion infrastructure 10-year pipeline. And at the same time, for example, through the Budget, a $250 million specific allotment for major project business case funding. So getting stuck into those business cases for long-term infrastructure needs. And I'm proud in my own region to have secured $15 million business case for planning towards Toowoomba to Brisbane passenger rail; the same sort of pressure happening around our capital cities right across the country. Similarly, $10 million earmarked for East Link Western Australia; the Orange Route.
We've also strengthened the role of Infrastructure Australia as an independent advisor, to establish the Infrastructure and Project Financing Agency to explore opportunities for private investment alongside public investment, to defray capital costs, but to provide opportunities for the private investor as well right across the country. So it's about good process. It's about proper assessment, independent assessment, it's about opening up opportunities for the private sector and bring their capital to bear. It's about a long-term planning approach. More than $8 billion in the Budget forward estimates, ladies and gentlemen, per year proves that we want to be a major investor as well.
Now, despite the challenges, we all soldier on together, but as a proportion of GDP, Australia's investment in transport infrastructure was the second highest in the OECD over five years; more than twice the OECD average according to the most recent data. So let's keep that in mind. We are achieving, we've got a lot more to do but we are achieving. I am pleased that from an infrastructure- direct infrastructure investment perspective, that the Government has announced in the Budget. For example, $971 million towards the bypass at Coffs Harbour; The Melbourne CBD to Melbourne Airport investment of some $5 billion; Beerburrum to Nambour in Queensland, $390 million; Metronet Stage One in Western Australia, a further $1.05 billion dollars, bringing our total investment there to 2.33. The list goes on: South Australia, $1.4 billion to the North South Corridor. In Tasmania, $400 million to the Tasmanian package.
Two big projects stand out, I guess, of national significance. The Western Sydney Airport, because that is a gateway to the rest of our country, to the rest of our states and territories, and of course, I'm thrilled at the same time with the Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail project, which will open up freight opportunities right throughout the eastern seaboard of our country, and most importantly provide finally direct connection to the west as well. So exciting times indeed, and I congratulate amongst others the City Deal approach to Western Sydney around that major Western Sydney project. The eight Western Sydney councils that have joined with the Commonwealth and the New South Wales Government, I think, provides an excellent example of how we should work together. Hence our focus as the Commonwealth Government on City Deals: Townsville, Launceston, growing list of City Deals beyond that. Again, challenges to work through, but I, as Regional Development Minister, as I've said publicly over the weekend am keen to follow up with a regional version of that, and we'll be working on that in the coming months.
Can I just touch on the important responsibility I have for Australia's external territories and I'm thrilled that we have representatives from relevant local governments: Norfolk, Christmas Island. I take that responsibility very importantly because it fits in with regional Australia responsibilities right across the board. $38.7 million dollars for existing and new services on Norfolk Island, 32 for essential infrastructure on Christmas and Cocos Keeling Islands is an example of us reaching out right across the nation.
As I wrap up, ladies and gentlemen, I believe that as federal, state and local representatives that we should all be mindful of the fact that, given the competing needs that we have in our communities, the increasing complexity, whether it's transport, whether it's communications infrastructure and planning for population growth, and planning to grow populations in some parts of our country, we must continue to focus on the basics. And local government provides an essential role in that regard. You are the closest to our communities. The tireless and often unrecognised efforts of local councillors should never be ignored or forgotten. And the innovative and creative ways councils go about providing services for their communities, when resources are tight, I think is an excellent example for all levels of government, the other two levels of government.
So, as the Minister Responsible for Local Government Relations in the Commonwealth Parliament, and as a former councillor myself, I think it's particularly important to see that work continue and the relationships continue. Now, we're all entitled to our own individual opinions in our great democracy, and I've got mine, and I reflect on magnificent examples I've seen in recent travels—Karratha, Yarra Valley, Townsville—with the Prime Minister in western Queensland, western New South Wales, just in the last couple of weeks, of local government leadership.
No greater honour can be bestowed on any one of us than to be chosen by our communities to protect and promote their interests. They've invested in you. They've invested in us their concerns, hopes and dreams for a better life. I believe it's a sacred compact that we have.
Now, I note the alleged behaviour of a small number of councillors around the nation, particularly in my home state of Queensland, and local government associations and councillors are stepping up and recognising there can be no tolerance of inappropriate behaviour.
And I am so focused on spreading the message across the nation that the actions of a very, very, very small number do not reflect on the good nature, the good behaviour, the passion for their communities of the vast majority of local government representatives. So I urge all councils and associations to strengthen transparency and accountability measures to focus on that need to ensure continuing public confidence.
We must all remember what we were elected to do. The Local Government Awards this year will remind us of that. I have a belief that the comments from some councils- apparent focus from some councils on international relations or children's books being taken off shelves because of apparent gender bias, in my view, banning Australia Day celebrations on 26 January or proposed boycotts of businesses that don't particularly fit in with a particular world view, for me, personally, that is deeply troubling. There are certainly threats to Australia's security that we all need to be conscious of, but none of them have to do with Thomas the Tank Engine, I would have thought. So rather than police libraries, show kids the joy of learning.
Help them find a love for books and reading that will carry them through the rest of their lives, a sacred responsibility that local government is the best place to lead, state and federal governments supporting those sorts of activities. They're the future of our country and they'll thank us for it. Rather than waste money on irrelevant political agendas in the local government sector we want to support you to continue to upgrade sporting facilities, ovals, bike paths, getting kids back outside playing a game, and of course those big infrastructure projects as well.
So, I thank you for the opportunity to share some details of our budget, our work with local government and our vision for the future, which we can only achieve by supporting the local government sector. It has indeed been a pleasure here today. Can I again encourage councils to focus on delivering the services that are of vital importance to local communities and look to the examples of those that we see in the Local Government Awards this year. Australia has 546 local councils across the country, many of whom are represented here at this national convention today. I thank you for your service, dedication and commitment on behalf of the Commonwealth Government and I look forward to working with all of you, supporting all of you in the best interests of all Australians. Thank you very much.