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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.

Legislation amendment a win for councils

LGAQ members will no doubt be aware that the Local Government Discipline and Remuneration Tribunal has placed all councils in Category 3 or above in regards to remuneration.  But an unintended consequence of the decision was that it obliged small councils to establish an audit committee.  

While most councils were comfortable with the requirement, many wanted the audit’s committee’s composition to be refined to take into account the limited resources available in rural and regional councils. The LGAQ wrote to the Government lobbying for a solution and President Margaret de Wit also raised the issue at a meeting with Local Government Minister David Crisafulli in April.

In a win for councils, the Government has agreed to amend the relevant legislation to change audit committee requirements to better suit the circumstances of small councils. Thanks to all members who provided expert feedback the help the LGAQ win this policy change. 

WHAT'S THE REAL STORY ON FED GRANTS?

There were a lot of confused councils around the country this week following a flurry of media releases from Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss announcing the first payments of financial assistance grants for the 2014-15 financial year.  The general tone from Mr Truss was one of benevolence. “Councils are free to spend the money on their own local priorities, including infrastructure, health, recreation, environment, employment and roads projects,” one statement explained.

The confusion arose because some councils wondered how this apparent act of generosity sat with the grim news from the 2014-15 Federal Budget in May, which included a freeze on the indexation of FAGs grants to councils over the next three years. As the LGAQ said at the time, this decision meant local government in Queensland would forego more than $182 million in extra funding it would have expected to receive from the Commonwealth had indexation remained in place. Mr Truss has said that local government cannot expect to escape taking its share of responsibility for getting the nation's books back on course and the Government has made clear its commitment to continuing with FAGs and even boosting other funding programs like Roads to Recovery. But none of that Budget context was explained in the Deputy Prime Minister’s media releases on FAGs this week.  However, tucked away in the fine print on the website detailing which council will get what in FAGs this financial year is this statement:

“The quantum of the grant pool changes annually in line with changes in population and the Consumer Price Index, so as to maintain its real per capita value. (The Act provides discretion to the Treasurer to alter this annual indexation).”

The Treasurer has duly exercised his discretion, and councils in Queensland and elsewhere will be feeling it for several years to come.  The Australian Local Government Association had this to say about FAGs, and vowed to push for a reversal of the Budget decision.

Almost there: indigenous freehold title coming

When it comes to complexity, land management in Queensland’s indigenous communities takes the cake. Years of incremental changes to regulations, a mix of native title and leasehold issues and range of sometimes competing state and federal interests all combine to create a system in dire need of a fresh approach.  To its credit, the Newman Government is trying to do just that with its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land (Providing Freehold) Amendment Bill 2014.  The essence of this reform is to ensure indigenous communities have the same access to freehold land tenure as other parts of Queensland.

The parliamentary committee’s report on the Bill has largely adopted the LGAQ’s view that the reforms should be accompanied by an education campaign on the system of land tenure in indigenous communities. The committee has also backed the LGAQ’s call for clarification on what the changes would mean for beach access issues.

The changes were the subject of a recent feature on ABC Radio National’s Law Report.  The show highlighted the story of Palm Island resident Luella Bligh, the first indigenous person living on Aboriginal land to sign a 99 year residential lease, and who will seek to convert that into freehold title when the Government’s changes come into effect.

Public policy reform 101: how to involve councils

Some public policy reforms are shouted from the rooftops.  Others are quietly ushered through with little fuss or comment.  It takes a special skill to ensure the big reforms are handled efficiently, with all stakeholders consulted and briefed well before the intended changes are due to take place. So far, it looks like the Newman Government’s handling of certain land reforms fits that bill.

The Government’s recent release of a discussion paper, titled Queensland State Land _  Strengthening Our Economic Future, has signalled its intention to introduce some of the most profound changes to the management of state land in more than 100 years.  But, rather than this coming as a surprise to local government, a significant manager of state land, the extensive consultation the Government has pursued means councils are set to be fully informed of the changes well before they are introduced.

The discussion paper sets out a vision of a state land system which empowers land managers, including councils, to have a greater say on how that land can be used for the benefit of their communities and the regional economy.  The paper also canvasses a system that allows easier conversion of leasehold land into freehold.

The Department of Natural Resources and Mines has already held several workshops with the LGAQ and other stakeholders on the issues outlined in the discussion paper and the Association has sent out to councils a draft submission setting out local government’s attitude to any reform.  As Natural Resources and Mines Minister Andrew Cripps says in the paper, Queensland needs a modern state land system to build a stronger, more economically resilient state. Hats off to the Government for ensuring local government has a say in how that modernisation could be realised.

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