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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.

The value of deregulated air services

Regional Queensland, particularly its rural and remote parts, increasingly relies on air transport to help maintain its economic viability.  And the cheaper the flight, the more attractive the region becomes for investors. So there is great interest across regional Queensland in the ongoing deregulation of airline routes and what it will mean for economic activity.

So far, deregulation has been a slow, deliberate affair, with the Queensland Government copping criticism from councils and airline companies about the pace of reform.  The Department of Transport and Main Roads has made much about its review of regulated air routes ensuring “value-for-money outcomes”. But Virgin has recently criticised the Government’s failure to move quickly on deregulating the Brisbane-Roma-Charleville route, despite the ongoing energy boom in the area.

The deregulation of three routes on 1 January 2015 _ Townsville to Mount Isa, Cairns to Weipa and Cairns to Horn Island _ is being closely watched by those councils that stand to gain from increased competition among air carriers.

Torres Shire Council has 26 state and federal government organisations operating within its boundaries, so a high government presence drives the market in the region. But, with the administrative centre of Thursday Island accessible only by boat, airports and harbours are the key transport and waste management focus for council.

The Horn Island airport is one of the primary sources of revenue for council and, with airline competition tipped to drop airfares by as much as 30%, the expectation is the facility will become even more important.

But the council is concerned by the lack of information from the State Government on the looming transition.

“We still don’t know what we need to do, or when we need to do it by,” said Torres Shire CEO Dalassa Yorkston.

FIFO still a hot political topic

Amid the flurry of attention given the launch of the Newman Government’s 30 year vision for the state, the Queensland Plan, last week, one aspect of Premier Campbell Newman’s remarks went by almost unnoticed. Questioned about the Plan’s target of a doubling of the population outside southeast Queensland by 2044, Mr Newman again made it clear that he was against business enterprises relying on a 100 percent “fly in, fly out” workforce.  For a Government keen on ensuring the best of business conditions for the resources industry, this is a notable stance.  But it is one that would have the ringing endorsement of most of those councils acutely affected by the rapid growth of the resources and energy sector in Queensland.

Efforts by such companies as the BHP Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) to introduce sites where those working them fly in to do their jobs and then fly out back home have stepped up in recent months. Isaac Regional Council is already on record as saying these latest applications, now before the Co-ordinator-General, are a test of the Government’s credibility.   Unions, including the CFMEU, are also upping the pressure on the Government.

No doubt the future of fly in fly out workforces will be an election issue, particularly in regional Queensland.

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