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Election2019 Blog

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

The big three standards of future infrastructure

The challenge of providing enough infrastructure of sufficient quality to drive the economy and maintain quality of life in regional communities is one of the hardest nuts to crack in local government.

No surprise, then, that infrastructure was the major focus of discussion today at ALGA’s National General Assembly, attended by 880 delegates and observers from around Australia.

More than $30 billion is needed to replace old and deteriorating road infrastructure alone, according to a recent report.

Infrastructure Australia chief executive Romilly Madew (pictured) told the assembly that a refreshed national infrastructure audit would be ready to deliver to the Morrison Government next week.Romilly Madew

Her speech is well worth a read.

Ms. Madew said the challenge for infrastructure planning in the future would centre on the need for it to work harder to support more Australians at a time of rapid population growth and more economic uncertainty.

The three standards that lasting infrastructure would have to meet were access, quality and cost, she said.

“But unfortunately too often, our infrastructure doesn’t meet these expectations.”

“Congestion, overcrowding, rising bills, outages, and declining service standards are undermining confidence in our infrastructure.”

There would need to be a greater focus on outcomes for users of infrastructure.

The last infrastructure audit was published in 2015, the first step in the development of an infrastructure plan that fell victim to political expediency and the ever important quest to gain the electoral advantage in marginal seats.

There does seem to be more optimism about the impact this audit will have on the development of relevant infrastructure planning. We shall see.

In any case, Ms Madew’s enthusiasm for including local government in any conversation about infrastructure planning as on show at the assembly this morning.

She said it was vital that local government was included in infrastructure strategies as it was the level of government that dealt most closely with communities who, with the right approach, could succeed in having a better say on the future of where they live.

“While federal and state governments have an important role to play in funding and delivering major infrastructure, councils work to create well-planned, liveable spaces that harness existing assets and meet individual community needs,” she said.

“To support this, community engagement needs to be ongoing – not just on a one off basis for particular projects or developments once they have already been planned and designed.

We need frank, two-way conversations about the needs of the community, at the strategic planning stage, to support effective infrastructure planning and delivery now and into the future.”

Another speaker, Andrew Beer from the University of South Australia’s Business School, took up the major infrastructure issue facing councils _ housing.

He pointed out that there was a huge amount of work and knowledge within local government about the efficient provision of housing but a reluctance by councils to talk about that knowledge.

Perhaps, he said, councils feared that if they demonstrated the impact of their work they would only encourage more cost-shifting by state and federal governments.

In any case, housing was likely to become less affordable before it became more affordable so councils should expect more pressure on their resources.

Image: Infrastructure Australia

Local government descends on Canberra

The Australian Local Government Association’s National General Assembly is on for another year, with around 880 delegates and observers descending on a chilly Canberra to learn from each other, plot the future and perhaps grab the attention of federal policymakers.

NGA

The first day has featured an address by acting Prime Minister and National Party leader Michael McCormack,  who pleased the audience by saying he supported local government being recognised in the Australian Constitution but immediately deflated the room by indicating he did not think the public was ready to vote for it in a referendum.

Journalist Karen Middleton, who wrote a biography of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese some years ago, reminded the assembly that “Albo” was also a fan of constitutional recognition of local government but harked back to McCormack’s remarks, which she took as a hint that councils had not done enough to promote the cause among Australians.

Of interest, too, has been the Regional Cooperation and Development Forum which took place on Sunday. While there was much talk of new approaches to housing in the regions and the perennial challenge of keeping up with infrastructure demands, one session zeroed in on the state of regional journalism in Australia.

Academics Margaret Simons and Gary Dickson of an outfit called the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, released a report off the back of a survey seeking to measure the decline of regional journalism and what it meant for local communities.

Their conclusion was that “it is in the routine reporting of local communities that the most severe journalistic deficits are emerging as a result of the crisis in news media business models”.

“The implications for the civic health of local communities are likely to be profound.”

They are right, of course, but it is probably too early to despair. While the old business model for regional newspapers, in particular, is disappearing under the steamroller that is Facebook, Google and the like, there are efforts to keep local communities informed.

“Local journalism matters,” their report states. “The work done by journalists employed by regional media is not replicated elsewhere.”

Except it can be, given the right circumstances. Both Ipswich City Council and Bundaberg Regional Councils have embarked on projects aimed at ensuring their communities are able to get relevant information despite the challenges being faced by the traditional regional media sector. It is early days but the indications are that these councils have succeeded in plugging some of the gap left by a shrinking regional media presence.

Away from the NGA proper, the LGAQ held its tradition Canberra breakfast, hearing from Assistant Roads and Transport Minister Scott Buchholz and Opposition spokeswoman on the environment and water, Terri Butler.

Both took some curly questions on issues like road safety, renewable energy, and constitutional recognition but the consensus in the room was that it was one of the most informative sessions in recent years. With the election over, it was good to see that civility was making a comeback in Canberra

 

Poll is the start not the end of grants argument

While it was clever politics of Bill Shorten’s Labor Party to issue a “Plan for Local Government” this week, delivering on that plan should it win government tomorrow is where some smart policy work needs to override the politics. The same goes for Scott Morrison’s Liberal National Party if it defies the bookies and snatches victory.

For local government, policy conversations with the major parties of the “never mind the quality, feel the width” variety will need to cease. This election is one of the first in which a policy proposal with keen support among all 537 local councils in Australia _ the restoration of federal financial assistance grants to at least 1 percent of total Commonwealth taxation _  has failed to find favour with either of the major parties. Whoever forms government after the election is likely to be delivered a strong signal by the local government sector that the argument over returning these grants to their proper levels is far from over.

How can it be when local councils are able to raise just 3 percent of the nation’s taxes yet are expected to service and maintain 33 percent of its public infrastructure, all while its access to grant funding dwindles? The Australian Local Government Association, in its All Politics Is Local policy document, put it this way: “The relative decline in core federal funding to local government has reduced the capacity of councils to develop and maintain services and infrastructure in their communities, which fuels the risk of reducing standards of living in those communities and across the nation.”

It was disheartening that neither of the major party leaders used at least some of their time on the election hustings explaining what they would do to stop this cut in living standards at the community level from happening. With hours away from the polling booths opening, the best we have is a recognition by Labor that more should be done to improve the financial sustainability of local government.

“Labor has committed to work with state and territory governments and local government, with the aim of reaching an agreement on the financial sustainability of local government,” the party says.

It is a far cry from acceding to the demands of local communities for a fair go on grant funding but it is a start of sorts. What is certain is that whether Bill Shorten or Scott Morrison wins the day tomorrow, local councils need to use each day of the ensuing parliamentary term to push its case.

Selling the sizzle as well as the sausage

Around this point in election campaigns, political tragics start talking about which side has “won the narrative”. It is the ultimate in insider phrases but it points to an important aspect of modern-day campaigning, particularly if the main electoral combatants have broadly similar approaches to fundamental areas of policy like economic management, foreign relations and so on. While there is some truth to the notion that the Liberal National Party and the Labor Party have not been this far apart on the political spectrum since the 1990s, each of them is still trying to claim the middle ground in the national electorate. The difference is in how they go about explaining themselves to that broad middle.

As far as local communities are concerned, this campaign has seen a growing acknowledgment by both major parties that local issues move votes. And there is one institution that knows local issues like no other: councils. This explains why Labor has pulled ahead (slightly) in the race to claim the campaign narrative: the party has gone out of its way to pitch its policy platform in the context of what is in it for local communities and, by extension, local councils.

Today’s announcement of a “Local Government Plan” by Labor is a case in point. The plan is essentially a repackaging of campaign announcements Labor has already made but it is couched in language that shows a willingness to tackle the essential challenge of local councils across the nation_ financial sustainability.

“Local councils are on the front line of many big challenges, including climate change, waste management and meeting the expanding needs of our communities,” a media release by Labor’s Stephen Jones accompanying the plan says.

It goes on: “Labor is committed to building the nation-building infrastructure Australia needs. We will work with state and territory governments to get projects up and running, with earlier investments in all states and territories.”

There is no commitment to the core policy proposal that will help fix local infrastructure needs, a restoration of financial assistance grants to councils to at least one percent of Commonwealth taxation revenue.  Indeed, Katter’s Australia Party was the only election contestant that supported that policy.

But, along with some other promises on funding for waste management, protection of the great Barrier Reef and remote indigenous housing, this was enough for Labor to manage a B-plus, as opposed to the LNP’s B-minus, in the LGAQ’s final election report card. 

Going to water at election time

Ordinarily, the water problems of an island indigenous community would struggle to get even cursory attention during a federal election campaign.

But timing and geography have conspired to ensure that the woes the people of Palm Island have experienced with their water supply are front and centre of this campaign, at least in the hotly contested seat of Herbert.

Palm Island has had to deal with 14 emergency warnings not to drink the local water this year alone, as operational problems with a relatively new water treatment plant installed by the State Government continue to plague the community. A frustrated Mayor Alf Lacey has been unable to get either the state or federal governments to address the issue…until this week.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion yesterday travelled to the island, with LNP Herbert candidate Phil Thompson in tow, to promise $2 million to fix the plant if the Morrison government is re-elected on 18 May. Both went out of their way to condemn the State Government and Labor’s Herbert candidate Cathy O’Toole for what they claimed was inaction on the issue. Senator Scullion said the money, from the Government’s Indigenous Advancement Fund, would be delivered to Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council for repairs and maintenance.

Ms O’Toole holds Herbert by just 37 votes, making it Australia’s most marginal seat. It also makes Palm Island’s problems ripe for campaigning. As it happens, it was Ms O’Toole’s turn to travel to the island today, where she promised a Labor government would spend $3 million on repairing the plant.

Suddenly, Cr Lacey and his community are swimming in solutions. Naturally, Ms O’Toole and Mr Thompson (who has a slight lead in the opinion polls) would hope that their efforts to resolve the island’s issues will attract votes on Saturday. This might be the case, or it might not. It is worth noting that Ms O’Toole won just over 72 percent of the vote on Palm Island at the last federal election, while her then LNP opponent Ewen Jones, attracted just 7.5 percent.

But, so tight is the contest in Herbert that local issues like Palm Island’s water supply have the potential to turn the election.

 

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