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Election2019 Blog

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

Taking the mountain to Mohammed

The flight to Townsville this morning was brim full of politicians, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton included. It was as good an indication as any that the Townsville-based seat of Herbert, the most marginal in the country, is attracting more than passing attention from all parties contesting the 18 May poll. The trouble is that this part of Queensland is much more than just the seat of Herbert, yet few candidates have ventured beyond its boundaries in their numerous swings up north.

So, a different calibre of politician was also in Townsville today. The mayors or deputy mayors of Cloncurry, Richmond, McKinlay, Flinders, Carpentaria, Mount Isa and Burke , all members of the North West Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils, had travelled to Herbert specifically to draw attention to the issues they want to see on the election agenda.  As NWQROC chair and Carpentaria Mayor Jack Bawden told me:  if Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, the mountain will come to Mohammed.

While the prevailing wisdom is that the race for Herbert is being dominated by the politics surrounding the proposed Adani coal mine, these mayors were in town to talk about different things. The economic potential of north west Queensland is enormous; a fact reinforced by the devastating images that came out of the region during widespread flooding earlier this year. Mining and livestock drive the place like nowhere else. NWQROC has done the estimates and found the region contributes $176,000 to the national economy for every person living in the northwest, compared with $66,000 per head for the rest of Queensland. However, the region has received scant attention during this election campaign, chiefly because much of it falls in the federal seat of Kennedy, held with an iron grip by Katter’s Australia Party chief Bob Katter. To say Kennedy is a safe seat for the incumbent is a perilous understatement. His presence means that, unlike in Herbert, the major parties are not expending much energy trying to win it.

But the region needs some attention all the same, and not just the kind it got after the deluge of a couple of months ago. While welcome, that assistance only covered recovery from the floods, not the long-term needs of a region that has not reached anywhere near its potential as an economic powerhouse. To put this in perspective, the stock losses and 12-week shutdown of the north west rail line cost the Australian economy an estimated $500 million. Hence the mayor’s trip to Townsville to tell candidates and party officials of the need for whoever is in government after 18 May to invest properly in road, rail, and energy infrastructure along the logistics and supply chain corridor between the port of Townsville and Mount Isa.

Mayor Bawden and his colleagues were adamant that their organisation was not interested in party politics. “What we need is a government that is going to contribute to nation building,” he said.

“There needs to be some long term vision for our region because the truth is we contribute a hell of a lot to the national economy.”

>>> Listen to the podcast below to hear LGAQ Media Executive Craig Johnstone speak with Jack Bawden - Mayor of Carpentaria and chair of the North West Queensland Regional organisation of Councils (NWQROC) about the marginal seat of Herbert ahead of the Federal Election – and what he wants the running candidates to know about what is important to voters in the electorate and why the North West region deserves a fair go.

Good news from the Cape

While Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten prepare to battle each other tonight in the third and final leaders’ debate, a contest just as enthralling is being played out thousands of kilometres away from the media spotlight in Canberra.

The electorate of Leichhardt, held on a 4 percent margin by the LNP’s Warren Entsch, is gradually forcing its way to the top of the list of seats to watch when the vote count begins on election night. The reason is that, while Leichhardt has always been vulnerable for the LNP, the number of policy fronts on which Mr Entsch and his party have had to fight on to defend it is growing markedly.

The latest is on the issue of indigenous housing, hardly a showstopper for either of the major parties at the beginning of this campaign, but now an area in which both have made major announcements in recent days.

This blog has already covered the implications of Labor’s $112 million indigenous housing promise, an announcement that resulted in a marked improvement in how the party rated on the LGAQ’s election report card.

Now, the LNP has made a policy announcement of its own, promising $105 million to continue construction of hundreds of badly needed dwellings in remote indigenous communities (although there is confusion about whether communities outside of Cape York are included).

The first thing to say is that this is a welcome move from the LNP. After months of political posturing, it shows the party, along with Labor, recognises that the federal government has a role to play in ensuring overcrowding is reduced in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.   Bipartisanship between traditional political opponents is rare so when it comes about it should be celebrated.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion (with Mr Entsch in tow) travelled to Pormpuraaw to make the announcement, which included a vow to deliver the funds straight to local councils rather than through the State Government.

“The Queensland Labor Government rebuffed numerous Commonwealth offers on a genuine housing partnership, so we will now deal directly with the councils to deliver housing,” Mr Entsch said.

“This historic initiative will mean more jobs and training opportunities for local workers in our remote indigenous communities.”

While attractive, this is potentially problematic, given that the State will still be expected to fund half the cost of the program and associated water and other infrastructure would remain a State responsibility to provide.

But in a seat that is somewhat unique in terms of the capacity of the indigenous vote to influence the result at election time, the need to move swiftly on indigenous housing funding might have taken precedence over settling on the detail.

It is intriguing that, with 18 May looming fast, both the LNP and Labor have now got their chequebooks out to tackle this issue after months of fruitless lobbying by local councils and the LGAQ on the need to continue the good work of the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing.

That, as they say, is politics. The bottom line is that, no matter which party claims government after 18 May, indigenous communities look like they will be in a better position than they were a few weeks ago regarding their housing future, and that is unarguably a good thing.

Egging on the digital debate

More evidence came yesterday of the importance that both major parties place on the capacity for regional voters to sway this election, this time in the form of some significant announcements and not a little political argy-bargy over the digital divide between the bush and the city in Australia.

Scott Morrison flagged that his Liberal National Party would expand the mobile black spots program in time for the daily newspapers and morning news bulletins, an attempt to win the day from his Labor opponents in terms if campaign coverage.  It worked…until a protester threw an egg at him during a CWA function in Albury, a development that would guarantee any campaign message by either of the major parties, no matter how carefully crafted, would be given short shrift by the Twittersphere and the evening news bulletins.

Such is the nature of modern campaigning. But before the yolks started flying yesterday, it seemed the campaign would spend yet another day focussing on local community concerns. Both Labor and the LNP have now made significant policy investments in improving telecommunications and digital capability in regional Australia.

The Federal Government’s latest Regional Telecommunications Review, published last September, found that 96 percent of the nation had access to the NBN and 600 extra telecommunications towers had been built to address mobile blackspots. However, the review’s authors were adamant that regional centres were not able to take as much advantage of this new infrastructure as they should, mainly because there was so much uncertainty about the reliability of future investments.

“The committee is strongly of the view that there are compelling factors for significant additional capital investment in telecommunications infrastructure to maximise the economic opportunities and economy-wide benefits that are available for the people in regional, rural and remote Australia,” they said.

“If we do nothing in the short-term then the current inequities faced by many regional, rural and remote Australians will simply get worse. The committee is of the view that there is little to no free market drivers to stimulate the change required in the telecommunications industry’s capital focus.”

That is a big argument for government intervention in this market, which both major parties have heeded.

The LNP yesterday promised to fix 1 million square kilometers of mobile black spot (an area as large as the state of South Australia) but was unclear if this would involve extra investment or be part of the $160 million for two additional rounds of the Mobile Black Spot Program it announced in the Budget.

For its part, Labor has promised to match that funding and pledged to pursue a number of other projects to fight the digital divide, including $25 million for digital skills hubs.

Whoever has the truly better package, it is heartening that the parties are recognising the importance of renewed efforts to boost digital skills and infrastructure in non-metropolitan areas.

This is not just a bush issue because regional Australia’s inability to reach its innovation potential is a drag on the entire national economy.

LNP, Labor on the improve

With just over two weeks to go in this election campaign, momentum is building around the policy positions that all parties will take to the poll. The good news for local government is that the sector’s issues are starting to get onto the campaign agenda of both the Liberal National Party and Labor. While the daily national narrative will always focus on whatever scandal is distracting the leaders (and there have been plenty of them this campaign) or broad policies like tax cuts and climate change, the parties know it is what they promise to do locally that moves many electors.

Over the past few days, announcements by both Labor and the LNP have demonstrated their growing acknowledgement of the importance of local community issues in the campaign. There may not be much interest from the mainstream media on the campaign trail in the future of waste management but it is telling that both major parties have released significant and detailed policies on zero waste over the past few days.

The headline spend in the LNP’s policy, issued today, is a $100 million recycling investment fund to be run through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to encourage production of low emissions, energy efficient recycled goods. This is a greater amount than Labor promised to spend on a similar scheme to promote a domestic recycling industry but having the corporation run it may limit options as to what qualifies for funding.

Overall, however, Labor and the LNP now have detailed platforms explaining where they stand on a zero waste future. Both parties have committed to establishing a Product Stewardship Scheme to tackle recycling of difficult products like batteries, plastic oil containers and the like. Both are committed to reducing food waste, as well as new approaches to packaging regulations.

Of course, this resolve is recognised in the second of the LGAQ’s federal election local community report cards, with both the LNP and Labor now boasting a B plus rating on their commitments regarding waste management.

Indeed, the two major parties have managed to significantly improve their grades between report cards. But there remains a fair way to go to become the top of the class.

For all the sincere rhetoric about climate change and the need to protect the Great Barrier Reef, neither of the major parties feels the need to deal local communities into this challenge. Specifically, there is no commitment to the $57 million that Queensland reef councils need to kick start initiatives on better waste water treatment. Nor have either party said much at all about proper investment in disaster mitigation.

There is talk that the LNP may have more to announce on the issue of remote indigenous housing. And, as flagged in a previous post, Labor is looking closely at how grant funding can be used to maintain jobs in regional areas.

With 18 May still some way off yet and the LGAQ’s final report card yet to be issued, this week’s announcements may not be the last piece of good news local communities will get in tbhsi campaign.

What matters in Australia's most marginal seat

There are plenty of marginal Queensland seats in this federal election, but none are more so than the Townsville-based electorate of Herbert. Labor’s Cathy O’Toole won the seat by just 37 votes in 2016 and _ Adani aside _ Labor has been very careful to lavish attention on electors and nurture its support in Herbert ever since. The LNP and its candidate Phil Thompson, of course, have been working the seat with similar enthusiasm, all of which means good things for Townsville and its residents, bar the crowds of politicians and media that will descend on the seat between now and 18 May.

Campaign pledges have been flowing constantly since the election was called _ particularly focussed on water and transport infrastructure _ and both major party leaders have spent precious times walking Townsville’s streets touting for support.  Journalists have also flocked north to discover what makes Herbert tick. But, as Palm Island Mayor Alf Lacey, told the ABC yesterday the important matters for his community aren’t getting much attention.

While Mayor Lacey has welcomed Labor’s promise of $112 million for remote indigenous housing, the LNP continues to stonewall on the issue. The lack of movement on housing has fuelled some headlines for Katter’s Australia Party chief Bob Katter, who has accused the LNP of “not even putting a fig leaf over the offending part”.

Labor has promised money to refurbish Reef HQ but has so far remained silent on the push by local councils for $57 million to help fund better water management practices to protect the Reef.

This may change as the election date nears and there is speculation that Labor is working on a package aimed at boosting jobs and infrastructure in regional electorates like Herbert. Watch this space.

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