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Local Yokel

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

On the pressure facing councillors

After months of providing coverage highlighting the worst of local government in Queensland, dominated by court proceedings involving the likes of Paul Pisasale and Andrew Antoniolli, some in the media have turned their attention to the effect this is all having on serving councillors.

They have also examined the operation of the new Office of Independent Assessor and the impact it is having on council business.

There was an interesting opinion piece by Bundaberg News Mail editor Adam Wrattan this week on these issues (subscription required). Headlined “Do we expect too much from our councillors?”, the article examined what the unrelenting obligations to work more efficiently under constant State scrutiny while making sure to be seen to be doing the right thing is having on local councils.

Wrattan, a long-time observer of Queensland councils, described a “sense a hesitancy among our elected representatives. It's a hesitancy to speak out and act on behalf of the community for fear of saying the wrong thing and ending up in a world of trouble”.

“Councillors have to tread a thin line between being the voice of the organisation and the voice of the people - and the safest way at the moment is not to risk stepping over the mark,” he wrote.

He went on to describe how a councillor was only recently cleared by the Office of Independent Assessor over an issue involving the controversial Jewel development in Bundaberg.

“Given the circumstances and the headlines this issue made at the time I'd think all councillors would have felt under a cloud,” he wrote. “It is a bizarre system.”

With local government elections just seven months away, Wrattan said it was in the interests of clarity that he would assign reporters to examining the impact that the Palaszczuk Government’s proposed Belcarra legislation would have on the way councillors go about their jobs.

Watch this space.

Some facts about tax (and levies)

It’s not a milestone that should be celebrated but it signals a lot of things anyway. This financial year local councils in Queensland will collect around $1 billion in government charges they neither introduced nor supported.

That figure is the combined total of the Palaszczuk Government’s waste levy and emergency management levy, both of which are a significant burden on small businesses in particular but are not the responsibility of local councils.

As LGAQ chief executive Greg Hallam told the News Regional Media group of newspapers this week, councils did not strike these levies or determine their level.

There are two main reasons by state governments are attracted to the idea of obliging councils to collect such levies: rates notices are a very efficient way of collecting taxes and they have the added bonus of ensuring the level of government responsible for such imposts are one step away from the process.

It remains that councils in Australia raise just 3 percent of all the funds derived from taxpayers but are responsible for managing 33 percent of the nation’s public infrastructure.

For such efficient collectors of community funds, councils (and their local communities) are still getting not much more than crumbs from the taxation pie.

Mapping the road to zero waste

Open the door to the general meeting of pretty much any local council across the country and it won’t be too long before you will hear about the big changes happening in how Australia manages its waste. These changes are occurring at a rapid rate and are driven by a combination of outside factors, like China’s decision last year to ban imports of recycled waste; grassroots pressure, like the various community campaigns to limit the use of plastic straws; and innovation, like the push to launch a viable energy-from-waste industry. In fact, the new approach to waste management even extends to replacing the phrase “waste management” with “resources recovery” as the industry looks at the business potential that spins out of the so-called circular economy.

Fortunately, all three levels of government in Australia are attuned to the need for a fresh approach to policies dealing with the nation’s waste. One of the most recent developments is the Palaszczuk Government’s efforts to produce a 10-year resource recovery roadmap for Queensland. The roadmap, in draft at the moment but likely to be finalised soon, promises to set out just how Queensland goes about become a leader in resource recovery, reprocessing and manufacturing over the long term.

Why is so much attention being paid to this roadmap? The answer is similar to the response this Government gives to anyone querying any of its actions these days: jobs. To quote the draft roadmap: “Economic value and jobs for Queensland can be created through the development of the resource recovery industries sector. Best practice examples from Queensland and other jurisdictions in Australia demonstrate the capacity for jobs to be created once waste is recovered. For every 10,000 tonnes of waste that goes to landfill, it's estimated that fewer than three jobs are supported, but where that waste is recovered, it's estimated there are more than nine jobs created.”

Little wonder the Government is seeking to back up the strategy it is producing with some cash incentives to get the ball rolling on resource recovery projects. Using funds from the waste levy to be introduced from 1 July, it has set up a $100 million, 3-year Resource Recovery Industries Development Program with ambitions to help develop a high-value resource recovery industry.  It is on the lookout for proposed projects that divert waste from landfill, reduce stockpiling, and encourage activities that facilitate waste avoidance and increase recycling activities.

All well and good, but local councils want to see these funds used strategically given the program would not exist without the waste levy, which councils themselves are expected to collect. The LGAQ has also urged the Government to ensure its final roadmap includes a commitment to quickly draw up local and regional waste action plans to ensure the money for innovation is not frittered away on schemes that do not address the specific goals and timeframes that each region requires. Glass, too, is a significant omission from the draft roadmap. 

An outbreak of stability

The final day and a half of ALGA’s National General Assembly in Canberra had a warm feel about it despite the national capital’s temperature dropping below freezing overnight.

ALGA President David O’Loughlin probably summed it up best when he observed that, after 10 years of mayhem on the federal scene, it seemed the nation had regained a sense of stability following the 18 May election.

Certainly, there was no political rancor between newly minted Local Government Minister Mark Coulton and his Opposition counterpart, Jason Clare. Where usually there would be a fair bit of political needle in the Government and Opposition addresses to this conference, both MPs bent over backward to charm their audience and insist that, above all, they were there to listen.

Both came armed with their best one-liners: Coulton quipped that he was the blue dog that caught the truck and, with the mudflap firmly between his teeth, was wondering what he was going to do with it. Clare, part of the team that had just lost an apparently unlosable election, confessed to delegates that he felt like a guest at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, having to deal with the notion that he had expected to be there in an altogether different role.

Both men succeeded in establishing some goodwill with the 880 delegates at the assembly, marking its best attendance in five years.

Their remarks contained no concrete policy commitments, although Coulton was at pains to remind the room that he had also been given the responsibility for improving connectivity in regional Australia, a good indication this Government is not finished with directing money to fix blackspots and the like.

A key theme for both the minister and his shadow was infrastructure and its capacity to drive economic growth and create jobs. Those who listened closely would have picked up encouraging signs that, with at least 12 months of economic uncertainty looming, there may soon be a call on local government to play a role in a possible stimulus package to support jobs.

In their efforts to get across the needs and aspirations of local communities, Coulton and Clare could do worse than examine the resolutions passed at the assembly.

These ranged from a reaffirmation of the call to restore Financial Assistance Grants to at least 1 percent of total Commonwealth revenue to improving the flow of migrants with science, technology engineering, and math skills, to reversing cuts to ABC funding and bolstering the incentives for medical professionals to live and work in the regions.

Of the 122 motions put to the assembly, just one was voted down. This was a call to, among other measures to improve the supply of affordable housing, introduce mandatory controls in planning schemes. If nothing else, the debate on this motion showed the diversity of views held by the nation’s 537 local councils.



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

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