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Election2019 Blog

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

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.

 

Biodiversity: even small investments mean big benefits

Days out from an election is usually not the time the major parties contesting the poll would change the nature of their pitch to voters. So far, that pitch bears a strong resemblance to those adopted at previous federal polls, appeals to the hip pocket nerve through tax breaks and mortgage relief (Liberal National Party) versus big spending on health and welfare (Labor). Barring a sudden shift in voter sentiment or a surprise issue coming in and knocking both campaigns askew, the LNP and Labor will only sharpen these pitches as they run down to next Saturday.

One issue has struggled to get traction despite it being rated consistently now as one of the most important for Australians. When climate change has been discussed in this campaign, it has been in the context of how much the various policies put forward to tackled it would cost. What little debate there has been has also been dominated by questions of mitigation against future climate change rather than adaptation to the changes that are already occurring. Local communities are in the frontline in fighting the latter.

The other big challenge that is vexing councils, and is related to climate change, is preserving biodiversity. What is called natural resource management is a job that falls mostly on local governments. Queensland councils spend $260 million a year on natural resource management including revegetation, habitat restoration to improve connectivity for biodiversity and other such projects for the protection of biodiversity. 

Councils spent about $45 million alone on controlling invasive plants and animals _ that is, preventing native mammals, birds and vegetation from becoming extinct. A recent United Nations paper found that the world risks losing up to one million animal and plant species unless governments at all levels commit to improving biodiversity. Some scientists say the loss of biodiversity poses a greater threat to the world than climate change.

It is local councils that are doing the heavy lifting on preserving biodiversity. For every dollar spent on controlling invasive plants and animals, there is a $2.20 direct benefit to agricultural production and $3.00 of other socio-economic and environmental benefits.

All this is why the LGAQ’s seven-point federal election policy plan calls on all parties to back a program that will share this load. The ask is comparatively small: $9 million over three years but the need is urgent and the ultimate benefits, huge.

 

The big issue the parties cannot see

While this federal election campaign has been notable for the amount of attention parties have given to local community issues like waste management and housing, there remains one significant blind spot in their thinking when it comes to Canberra’s responsibilities. This blind spot has a name,  financial assistance grants. These untied grants are a lifeline for many local communities as their councils simply would be unable to provide the level of services the public expects without them. The funding source that most people associated with councils, rates, can only plug part of the gap between the services council provides and the money they have to pay for them.  The remainder is filled by funds from a range of sources, including financial assistance grants.

The trouble is that these grants have steadily eroded over time and with successive federal governments. This is where the blind spot comes in. The Commonwealth raises 87 percent of all taxes in Australia, while local government is responsible for just 3 percent. Yet the major source of funding to councils from the Commonwealth, financial assistance grants, is half what it was 25 years ago. For local communities, that means fewer roads can be maintained, less green space can be set aside and better water treatment facilities are being delayed because of the financial squeeze being put on their councils from Canberra. These grants maintain local jobs and create new ones, provide infrastructure that communities value and give the federal government a community connection that it otherwise would not have.

Councils from around Australia, not just in Queensland have long called for these grants to be restored to proper levels. That is, at least the equivalent of 1 percent of total Commonwealth taxation revenue. The challenge at this election is for the major parties in particular to acknowledge there is a problem and some indication they will fix it if they win on 18 May. There have been some initial indications from Labor that it may be prepared to address the issue but as yet no detail has been forthcoming.

Until it is, local councils will keep banging the drum for some fairness to be shown in relation to these grants. Each and every local community in Australia benefits from them so, in an election where local issues seem more important than ever, it should be a no brainer.

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