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Where to for day labour?

Vexed and complicated though it is, the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements system continues to be the main funding source for communities recovering from events such as the recent Tropical Cyclone Ita. In the wake of Ita, one nagging issue about the NDRRA _ the eligibility of council “day labour” costs _ is likely to come to the fore again. In its wisdom the Federal Government decided some time ago that, instead of claiming the costs of using their own work crews in disaster recovery and reconstruction, councils should tender out such projects to outside contractors.

The thinking in Canberra was that this would result in “value for money” due to the competition that would ensue from private contractors. Fine in theory, but in many areas in Queensland, the sheer scale of disaster-related damage, the remoteness of some areas hit and the time and effort required to get contracted work crews and equipment together means that using council “day labour” has worked out to be the less costly option.

In 2012, the Federal Government agreed to a trial of reimbursing costs of disaster recovery using day labour provided councils could prove this was the better value for money option. They have, to the tune of about $90 million in savings to the State and the Commonwealth, according to the Queensland Reconstruction Authority.

But the powers that be in Canberra, namely the Reconstruction Inspectorate recently declared that “there is insufficient evidence at this time to determine whether a broader policy change in relation to the NDRRA is warranted”.

Then along came Ita, and the risk that the recovery work created would not be covered by the value-for-money trial.  There has been some frantic work by Cook Shire Mayor Peter Scott and personal representations by local federal MP Warren Entsch to Prime Minister Tony Abbott to ensure that the value-for-money framework would apply to reconstruction work caused by TC Ita.

There are several council areas that have sustained damage from Ita.  At this stage, they remain in limbo as to whether using their own council staff to do the recovery work will render them ineligible for reimbursement under the NDRRA rules.


Fire Rescue Levy: Who Pays?

The Newman Government's Emergency Management and Fire and Rescue Levy has caused some consternation among local councils and their communities, mostly because some rural property owners who were exempt from paying the urban fire leby are now caught in the new levy net. The Government made it clear when the levy was introduced that better, more equitable means of funding emergency services had to be found. The trouble was that councils' previous methods of collecting the urban fire levy varied.  Some collected in an a per lot basis, while others collected in a the basis of per rateable valuation. The consensus among councils is that the levy be collected per rateable valuation.

But there is another issue: who should collect it? Due to the costs of changing over to the new and expanded levy system, councils at the LGAQ's annual conference last year resolved that the Government should do the collecting. That remains unresolved.  The Government has agreed to pay an administration fee to councils for the cost of administering the new levy system.

Then there is the question of who pays. The Government recently agreed to exempt community organisations in areas not previously covered by the levy.  While that was a good decision, the detail of how it and othre aspects of adminsitering th levy still need to be resolved, as outlined in this letter from LGAQ President Margaret de Wit to Police, Fire and Emergency Services Minister Jack Dempsey.

Watch this space.



Who's afraid of climate change?

Of the myriad government agencies and departments involved in public policy research in Australia, two rise ahead of the rest when it comes to consistency, credibility and authority: the Productivity Commission and the CSIRO. Both bodies tend to produce work that stands the test of time and is referred to often in political and policy commentary, be it in major newspapers or in the houses of parliament around the country.

So it was interesting to read the results from a comprehensive survey by the CSIRO on attitudes towards climate change.  The survey tested the attitudes of mining companies and local governments toward climate change and their readiness to take action to mitigate its impacts. The survey results suggest that climate change adaptation has a higher priority among local councils than it does among mining companies.   It found that, of the bodies surveyed, 45 percent of councils had taken some action to adapt to climate change while only 15 percent of mining comapnies had done so.

The survey report stated: "In general, it is evident from the results of this survey that while climate change remains an issue of considerable importance to local government authorities it still appears of relatively minor concern to mining companies''.

"Interestingly, while mining company respondents in the latest survey indicated greater conviction that climate change is occurring, the levels of concern about its detrimental impacts decreased from the previous survey.

All of this suggests that councils are generating the policy and planning momentum when it comes to protecting local communities from the adverse impacts of climate change. 


Busting the council red tape myth

One of the biggest myths going is that local councils are at least partly to blame for the doldrums affecting the state's building development industry.  The notion that council over regulation and "red tape" is preventing the property sector from reaching its full potential will inevitably be rolled out again when the Newman Government releases its long-awaited review of the state's infrastructure charges framework.  That announcement is expected within weeks. 

Whether or not the Government decides to lighten the obligations of developers to pay for at least some of the public infrastructure required to ensure good quality of life for new communities, one aspect of the whole debate that needs to be put to bed is the wrongheaded idea that councils are out to stymie the property industry.

The truth is that local government is pulling out all stops to attract new development. Southeast Queensland councils, along with their counterparts in other high growth areas of the state, have signed up to fast-tracking development assessment processes through the Concept to Construction project.  That project, funded by the Queensland Government and the LGAQ as well as participating councils, is aimed at ensuring the state has world leading development assessment practices in place to give the industry confidence through certainty.

Another example of local governments going out of their way to attract new development is the Fraser Coast Council's Infrastructure Incentives Policy, which provides subsidies and refunds on infrastructure charges to developments that create job opportunities or are completed within certain timeframes.

What councils will not wear is an infrastructure charges framework which sees ratepayers unfairly subsidising property developers.

Dare I say it, but it might be time for the State Government to resume its role of encouraging a healthy development industry through providing some funding incentives of its own.


Show us your blackspot

One disadvantage of living and working outside the southeast corner of the state is the lack of reliability of mobile phone coverage. Note that Australia is a country with 32 million mobile devices (many of them smartphones) and a population of only 22 million. Given those figures, is anyone going to seriously argue that the strength of a mobile phone reception is not one of the most important considerations of any enterprise?
After several years of unsuccessful attempts by local councils and others to get Canberra focussed on the issue, the Abbott Government has promised $100 million to fix mobile phone blackspots around major transport hubs and other locations.
The LGAQ wants councils to nominate eligible cases for this fund and it’s fair to say that since the call went out the issue has touched a nerve among many regional councils across the state.
Cairns Regional Council, for example, has cited 15 mobile phone blackspots, including entire suburbs.
More councils want to connect and engage with their communities via mobile and smartphone platforms such as SMS and Facebook, particularly for updates on natural disasters and community updates.  So, for them, a robust mobile phone network is imperative.  
The Cairns story is repeated across regional Queensland, and no wonder. As communities expand,  telecommunications infrastructure, like the road network and water delivery systems, comes under increasing pressure to deliver the same standard of service.
The rapid growth of the resources industry has created more congestion on mobile networks, with people finding it ever more difficult to make and receive calls at certain times during the day. 
There are also towns in Queensland that remain without mobile phone coverage (Windorah, Bedourie) and national highways that have very large coverage gaps (Winton – Cloncurry). 
With no funding to improve telecommunications for the bush during the past seven years, the case for Queensland councils ensuring their communities benefit from the Government’s blackspots fund will be a compelling one.
Watch this space.   
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