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Productivity Commission wrong, wrong, wrong

The impact on councils of implementing a recommended dramatic cut to the federal share of funding for natural disaster recovery and reconstruction would be nothing short of devastating.

This is spelled out in detail in the LGAQ’s submission to the Productivity Commission’s current inquiry into the future of natural disaster funding. Among a raft of recommendations in the Commission’s draft report was the proposal to cut the Federal Government’s contribution to disaster relief from the current 75 percent to 50 percent.  The Commission also wants to lift the threshold that triggers public funding relief for small disasters. The LGAQ insists that, regardless of what else the Government might accept from the Commission’s recommendations, these two measures would put an unbearable burden on local governments. 

“Over the period from 2009 to 2014, Queensland local government would have faced an additional cost of at least $1.3 billion under the draft report proposals,’’ the LGAQ states.

Where would this money have come from? Not from the State Government, which had enough of a struggle delivering its 25 percent share of disaster relief funding following the spate of floods and cyclones since 2010.

The LGAQ also gives short shrift to the Commission’s view that the Natural Disaster relief and Recovery Arrangements, which enshrine the 75/25 funding split between the Commonwealth and the states, are discouraging Queensland councils from insuring their assets.

“As has been independently verified by the Department of Finance and Deregulation, councils comprehensively insure their civic assets despite the ongoing availability of NDRRA funding for natural disaster damage to those assets,’’ says the LGAQ submission.

“Expecting local governments to take out disaster insurance for roads would result in most councils being subjected to crippling premiums.’’

The Commission does have some admirable things to say about the importance of mitigation infrastructure and how current federal regulations hampering the ability of councils to quickly recover from natural disasters.

But most of its draft report into this most fundamental of financial challenges facing local councils is written from the perspective of a federal agency seeking to save federal money. 

The Commission’s draft report is bound to create fireworks at the LGAQ annual conference in Mackay next week.  


On the road with digital solutions

You would be hard pressed to find an institution that has a better appreciation of the contribution that technological innovation can make to productivity than local government.  Rather than admitting the potential of technological innovation, the challenges for councils are often in deciding on where to start, how to ensure staff deal with change and setting benchmarks to measure performance.

The LGAQ has organised a series of innovation roadshow of sorts aimed at helping councils make those decisions. Douglas Shire will host the first of these on Friday 17 October.  Neighbouring councils Mareeba, Cook and Wujal Wujal will also attend the event to discuss how technology can be introduced to improve productivity, reduce costs and deliver better customer service. 

The roadshows will also feature executives from Telstra, Apple and Queensland Government to cover topics such as business processes, mobility and apps, the digital economy, mobile black spots, telecommunication infrastructure and strategies for the future.

LGAQ Innovation Executive Lou Boyle says the concept of the roadshow is about trying to address local concerns and share local insights while providing some information from market leaders about the influence of digital change on local government workplaces.

Lou said the LGAQ’s digital productivity report showed that councils wanted to focus on what is possible at a local level and better understand how digital productivity solutions were evolving.


Policy galahs and northern Australia

Economic debate in Australia sometimes fixates on a single aspect of reform, chewing it over again and again before finding a way ahead - or not - and moving on.  When he was treasurer in the 1990s, Paul Keating famously observed that if one walked into any pet shop in Australia, the resident galah would be talking about microeconomic policy.  Fast forward to 2014 and it seems the galahs are happy to be chatting about the economic potential of northern Australia.

This week, the Federal Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia tabled its final report.  No doubt it will feature strongly in the Abbott Government’s White Paper on northern Australia, currently in preparation. In recent months, there have been a series of forums organised among business and policymakers to debate the economic potential of the north. Naturally, all of this talk is of great interest to Queensland policy leaders, particularly those in local government. 

The committee’s report is good reading. Much of it is taken up with the policy challenges of improving transport infrastructure, both road and rail, and strengthening security on water supply. It makes seven major recommendations, the first of which is for a Department of Northern Australia to be established (in northern Australia).  Others include giving funding priority to upgrades of the Bruce Highway, the Peninsula Development Road and the Outback Way among other major road links.

And it also calls for continued funding of the Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative, or GABSI, which the LGAQ pushed for following a resolution by members of the Western Queensland Local Government Association meeting in July. GABSI helps control bore water flow and minimise water waste, obviously a key driver of economic growth in the north. With Agricultural Minister Barnaby Joyce indicating the federal government could reinstate funding during this week’s drought tour of properties at Mitchell and Charleville, it looks like momentum is building for a change of heart.

Has Royalties for the Regions turned into a pork barrel?

Widespread anger and dismay.  That about sums up the reaction of Queensland councils to the Newman Government’s decision to “refocus” the all-important Royalties for the Regions program to allow not only all councils but state government agencies to bid for program funds. It means that what the LNP promised before the election would be a carefully targeted fund for those councils most impacted by the rapid growth of the resources industry has now became a big bucket of cash for all and sundry. LGAQ President Margaret de Wit was quick to call this for what it was, a complete contradition of the program's original intent. What is more, the LGAQ understands that while councils will bid for $60 million in funding this Royalties for the Regions round, government agencies will be able to access $120 million.  All this while many councils have yet to found out how their funding bids for the last round of the program went.

Mayors have lined up to back Cr de Wit’s public criticisms of the Government’s move. Western Downs Mayor Ray Brown went as far as says that Royalties for the Regions had now become a pork barrelling exercise. In Karumba, a meeting of the North West Queensland Regional Organisation of Mayors resolved to write to Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney condemning the decision to redirect funds away from councils and toward government departments.

What really galls the mayors is that the Government is suggesting that the need for funding to ensure local infrastructure can cope with the demands of a rapidly expanding resources industry has passed. Yet in the latest round of the program, project after project that councils have identified as in need of funding is either yet to receive funding or has been knocked back outright.

As for Seeney’s claim that limiting Royalties for the Regions to councils directly impacted by mining was always a “pilot”, someone forgot to tell his department about it.  State Development, Infrastructure and Planning Department publications extolling the virtues of Royalties for the Regions mention its application to local government and “local prioritisation” on just about every page.   


Annual conference encourages community debate

If the number and type of motions is anything to go by, this year’s LGAQ Annual Conference promises to be one of the best shows in town.  Several councils have taken the opportunity to announce to local media the policy reforms they will be asking conference delegates to endorse when it convenes in Mackay in the last week of October.  As of today, more than 60 conference motions have been lodged by councils across the state on matters varying from planning reforms to dangerous dogs. Douglas Shire Council, for example will call on the conference to endorse a proposed change in the Animal Protection Act to make it easier for councils to dispose of seized dogs.  Mayor Julia Leu told the ABC that the councils is spending thousands of dollars on housing seized dogs while appeals are being heard.  Cassowary Coast Regional Council plans to put a similar motion to the conference.

Delegates from Livingstone Shire Council want the conference to support a motion aimed at encouraging fewer people to use plastic shopping bags. And South Burnett Regional Council is proposing two motions in a bid to improve the complaints process against councillors.

Of course, it will be at conference where these motions will ultimately be supported but various councils have ensured that, no matter what their fate, these public policy issues are at least getting an airing in the local community.  In other words, these councils are showing the community what they stand for, no bad thing in the crowded market that is public debate.

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