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Election2019 Blog

by LGAQ Media Executive, Craig Johnstone by LGAQ Media Executive, Craig Johnstone

Saving the Reef need not cost the Earth

It is 6am and already The Strand in Townsville is teeming with people of all ages, shapes and sizes. It is impossible to say how many tourists are among the throng but what is clear is The Strand is one of the most popular attractions in this capital of the Australian tropics. But an even more popular attraction lies off shore and is a major driver of Queensland’s economy. Estimates put the Great Barrier Reef’s ability to generate wealth for the State at a rate of $6 billion a year.

It’s a fair bet that some time over the next 30 days either Scott Morison or Bill Shorten, camera crews in tow, will venture out on to the Reef over the next four weeks to spruik their commitment to its protection. The pictures may be pitched at inner-city electorates further south whose politics have grown a distinct tinge of green. But the pledges need to be serious.

A study in 2014-15 found that it was local governments, not state or federal government, that were the largest investors in actions and projects that helped conserve the Reef. That investment amount to $228 million, much of it to pay for better treatment of the water that flows into the Reef catchment.

These councils took such decisions because they understood the economic value of the Reef. It attracted tourists, who spend money locally, and students, who did the same.

For all the hand on heart rhetoric about coral bleaching and the devastation of climate change, the national debate on the future of the Reef does not centre on its sheer value as a money spinner for regional economies.  Yet preserving this value need not be a matter of investing billions of dollars.

In fact, Reef catchment councils have a plan to continue their water quality work, plus venture into innovative designs for road maintenance, all of which are aimed at making tangible improvements to the quality of the Reef.

Cost? About $57 million over seven years. Chickenfeed compared with the many hundreds of millions of dollars spent on other projects aimed at conserving the Reef. While these are worthy, it is Reef catchment councils and their local communities that have the most skin in the game

The future of the Great Barrier Reef is a responsibility for all levels of government. Time for those wanting to claim the Treasury benches on 18 May to think harder about what practical, on-the-ground measures can be taken to meet that responsibility.

Parties take note: Local perspectives produce better policy

Those who follow recent federal elections fairly closely will find that the rhetoric that dominates debate in the lead up to the poll has a familiar ring. A favourite is that this upcoming election is the “most important in decades”. Funnily enough, so was the last one in 2016, and the one before that in 2013.

Only in retrospect can we truly label certain elections as more important than others because no one can predict with accuracy the policy and political challenges that the next term of federal parliament will present.

That said, there is value in rating the policy performance of political parties against the challenges that any incoming government may face.

The Grattan Institute has embarked on such an exercise and this week produced its Commonwealth Orange Book 2019, which rates Australia’s performance against similar countries and proposes policy reforms to schools and universities, hospitals and housing, roads and railways, cities and regions, budgets and taxes, retirement incomes and climate change.

But that is the big picture. How about suggesting what the next federal government needs to do at a local level?

Some of the challenges that local communities face are very apparent: dealing with the impact of climate change (particularly when it comes to major regional economic drivers like the Great Barrier Reef), improving road safety and ensuring local infrastructure is able to withstand the inevitable next flood, bushfire or cyclone.

Federal governments have a big role to play in these challenges, even if they often do not make the national headlines.

This is why the LGAQ is releasing regular Local Community Report Cards between now and the 18 May election. The way the parties intend to address these local issues is all important in the context of an election campaign, and deserves at least as much attention as the latest opinion poll on voting intentions.

Federal election scorecard

These cards rate what the LNP, Labor, The Greens, Katter’s Australian Party, One Nation and the United Australia Party have said they will do in relation to the decline in grant funding to local communities, the need to address a local road infrastructure underspend of some $1.2 billion a year and the challenge of maintaining the Reef as a valuable economic asset, a notion local communities have been trying to promote for many years.

Some of these issues present a high hurdle to clear for the parties contesting this election. So far, none of them rate better than a C minus.

But so it should be. Poll after poll has shown an increasing disillusionment with the performance of successive federal governments. Canberra’s attitude toward local communities needs to improve. Why not start developing policy from a local perspective, where it matters every day?  

Road safety: what needs to happen at this election

The newly minted sign held up this morning on Waterworks Rd, Ashgrove by a volunteer for the LNP candidate’s campaign for the seat of Ryan said: Will fix local roads.

A welcome commitment you might think. But it depends on what you understand by the term “fix”.

Waterworks Rd, for example, is Brisbane City Council’s responsibility, not the federal government’s. Certainly, the council would welcome any help from Canberra in paying for its maintenance, but it remains a local government road.

Across the country, local roads suffer a significant under-investment which is having an increasing impact on both the efficiency of freight movements and the quality of road safety.

 

That federal candidates have taken the trouble to address local roads in their campaigning for the 18 May election shows that the voting public regard the issue as important.

The Morrison Government last month announced a substantial funding increase for road maintenance, a decision that was welcomed but in truth it only went part of the way towards repairing the road infrastructure deficit around Australia.

For example, the Government revealed a 25 percent boost to Roads to Recovery funding over the next five years, which translates into an average $20 million a year increase in funding for local roads in Queensland.  

However, the Australian Local Government Association’s State of the Assets report estimates that around 11 percent of local government transport assets, with a replacement value of around $20 billion, are in poor or very poor condition and in need of urgent maintenance or renewal.

So, a welcome boost to necessary funding but not enough.

ALGA and the LGAQ are calling on all parties contesting the poll to commit to investing $800 million a year into Roads to Recovery to help plug the deficit in road infrastructure funding in local government.

That deficit represents an overall underspend of $1.2 billion a year, an outcome which directly affects road safety in Australia.

A commitment to improving road safety is included in the LGAQ’s seven-point federal election plan. With its pre-Budget announcement last month, the Liberal National Party coalition has addressed the issue, albeit only partially.

While Labor has signed up to some big spending road and transport infrastructure programs in Queensland if it wins the election, not a lot of them involve local roads, where half of road crashes happen. Moreover, far more deaths occur on rural and regional roads than on metropolitan roads.

Time for Labor and the other parties to come clean on where they stand regarding specific commitments to Roads to Recovery, the Black Spot program and other vital road safety programs.

The sleeper issue of the campaign

Every now and then, the media hits upon something that moves people outside of the daily political narrative dominated by the major parties.  The pundits call these “sleeper” issues. That is, issues that don’t get much attention in the hour-by-hour arm wrestle that is modern political campaigning but matter to voters all the same.

The Great Barrier Reef is a sleeper issue in this campaign.

Reports about how much the Reef is under stress have been a regular feature of news bulletins and newspaper headlines for the past decade. However, the solutions as to what to do about relieving that stress have often fallen victim to the political argy-bargy over climate change policy.

Hear from Whitsundays Regional Mayor Andrew Willcox about why the Great Barrier Reef should be a key issue this Federal election. 

Whether climate change is man-made or not is an argument fraught with uncertainty and political battle lines. But what is certain is that the Reef is suffering. And, as with other climate-related impacts, the level of government that is most aware of the daily changes occurring on the Reef as a result of this stress is local government.

The Great Barrier Reef contributes $6.4 billion every year to the national economy. For regions like Douglas Shire, the Reef, combined with the Daintree National Park, generates 80 per cent of all economic activity.  It is a $60 Billion asset and it needs to be maintained with the same care as we would with any other infrastructure of that value.

The councils within the Reef’s catchment collectively invest about $230 million a year in protecting and managing the values of the Reef through coastal and waterway protection and rehabilitation, land use planning initiatives, stormwater management, sewerage treatment upgrades and community education and awareness. But it is not enough.

The Reef Guardian councils are among the principal organisations working to protect this most iconic of Australia’s natural assets. They meet regularly to discuss the latest proposed policy, strategic responses and stress the importance of working collaboratively to protect the Reef’s future.

They do this by contributing to the policies and actions being undertaken through the Reef 2050 Plan.

Given all this and the importance of the Great Barrier Reef to job creation and business investment, local government’s ask of $57 million in federal funds over seven years to help councils protect the Reef is modest, to say the least. And councils have practical solutions that will make a real difference.

It’s a sleeper issue all right, but not one that is going to cost the Earth. Unless we ignore it.

Candidates beware: mayors are not happy

With the election date set and the major parties already reciting their focus group tested lines about economic management (Scott Morrison) and leadership stability (Bill Shorten), the grand narrative of this campaign is being played out on the national stage. But, for voters, the big picture need not be drawn on a national scale. In fact, the more successful a candidate can be at convincing voters he or she is looking after their local interest, the more likely they will emerge victorious on 18 May. 

This is why it is in the parties’ interests to take notice of what peak bodies like the Local Government Association of Queensland is saying about this campaign. The LGAQ has a seven-point policy plan it will challenge the parties to respond to before the election. How the parties respond, along with their wider policies and funding commitments, will draw a picture about the extent to which whoever wins government on 18 May will unlock local community potential. And that’s a pretty big picture for many.

Among the LGAQ’s asks is for the parties to commit to proper grant funding for local governments. The proportion of grants flowing to councils from Canberra used to amount to 2 percent of total Commonwealth taxation revenue. It now stands at 0.55 percent, meaning local communities are missing out on a chunk of funds that they had previously used to build and maintain roads, libraries and parks. This at a time when many councils are being expected to shoulder more of the burden of providing services that should be with the remit of the states or Canberra. Think paying for teachers so that rural schools can remote open, or nurses so hospitals can continue to look after community health. For some councils, particularly the indigenous communities on Cape York and elsewhere in the state, these grants are the ONLY source of funding they have.

 

The response of the major parties to the proposal to restore financial grants has ranged from flat out refusal to barely disguised disinterest. But more than 60 percent of Queensland’s councils have gone to the trouble of passing formal resolutions in favour of restoring these grants to a meaningful level. That’s a lot of mayors to have off side. They are unlikely to stay politely quiet about the issue in the next five weeks of the election campaign. That spells potential trouble for candidates in marginal seats, especially for those with mayors who have a loyal community following.  Those hoping to win the day on 18 May will be reminded regularly that councils in Queensland employ 40,000 people and manage public assets worth more than $150 billion, and are headed by mayors, all popularly elected by their communities, who are not happy with the current financial treatment being meted out by Canberra.  

Watch this space…

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