Tim Cox: Tell me about the Greg Hallam who started at the LGAQ 29 years ago—32-year-old Greg Hallam.
Greg Hallam: Good question! About 25kg lighter, I still had dark hair, I’d still go for a run every lunch hour… I guess I was brash, I was confident, I knew my stuff but it was a brand-new world for me, coming into dealing with governments and the media and the sheer multiplicity of councils—we had 157 members in those days, from very large to very small—so I ticked a lot of interesting boxes. I was really an unusual pick because I was highly educated and had spent time in Canberra, but I was lucky I folded very comfortably into the job, and I inherited a really solid organisation.
Greg Hallam snowed under with reform in the mid-90s
TC: What were the dimensions of the organisations in those days; what sort of workforce, budgets and remits did it have?
GH: We had 10 staff and about four of those were in industrial relations, so there was about a $3 million budget. We literally did industrial relations and human resources—HR consulting-type work—plus we had three or four advocacy staff and then admin people who sort of ran the budget and did the other side of things. We had no commercial arm, as such, and we were literally very big on writing letters back in those days. We used to write letters to everyone…
TC: And that’s what advocacy was like then?
GH: Yeah, it was what we called ‘representation’. Essentially, we were there to process all the annual conference resolutions. This was a world when things where things could take three, six, or even 12 months… stuff didn’t happen overnight.
TC: So why is it what it is today? What was the process—or the single lightbulb moment— where you thought it could be so much more than it was?
GH: I think it was iterative. I’m an economist by training and understand economies of scope and scale. I knew we could do a lot more to help our members in terms of advice and assistance, but also in terms of giving us the wherewithal and financial backing to become a serious advocacy policy player. So that was really the journey from representation and policy to advocacy. How did we do it? We established, early doors, Local Government Mutual, LocalBuy and LGW and then a range of the other businesses. And within probably five years we had a decent revenue stream, or at least equivalent to subscriptions.
TC: Was it a hard sell to the councils because it was such a different way of thinking?
GH: It was, and it wasn’t. In the insurance game there’s been a raider coming from the UK and slashed the costs of what we call professional indemnity and public liability insurance—a staple for councils—and that was fantastic. In the next year it doubled. It went from halving to doubling, and that was the time for us to do something different.
While I was working in Townsville, I was forever worried about the cost of insurance—a big drag on our budget—and I had started to explore, even in that time, the idea of mutuals. Jardine Lloyd Thompson were our insurers, and they were by far the smallest group; AON were the big players, so we had the advantage of being a market disruptor and a lot of councils were just wanting certainty, but I also had the value of having understood what a mutual could do and they were starting to pop up in other parts of Australia but on a regional basis, and I never thought regional could work, because you can’t get a broad enough pool to spread your risk and you really do rely on the big councils to be in the pool, and you really rely on the small councils to be in the pool.
It was hard taking on a really established player—AON didn’t just roll over and say ‘here it all is’—it took three or four years to get up to a mass. Then the likes of Local Buy—it was threatening to people at first and that’s often the way—people think ‘is my job gone?’. And then people realise ‘well hold on, I might be able to do a better job’. It established itself because it cuts the cost of transactions. So, one tender for whatever it was, say every time a council needed a piece of yellow kit from Hastings Deering, they didn’t have to spend $25,000 on a tender process. And they can get it tomorrow for the shed.
Greg Hallam addresses Annual Conference
TC: Have those aspects of the business enabled better support for elected members and the people employed in local government or is it the other way around? Have things like LG Online driven that, or have you created LG Online and now Congruent and found this is a great way to distribute this information?
GH: It was never technology for technology’s sake, it was about solving a problem. When we did that review about a dozen years ago, when we were becoming a much more substantial financial entity, we thought really hard about how we would become the best imaginable association for our members—100 hours talking to them one-to-one and we took all that data in and knocked it into shape and it really said they wanted us to go and advocate for them—to help them when they have a problem—and they wanted us to partner with them, ‘teach them how to fish’ and provide the businesses that would save them time and money. So that’s what the organisation looked like: we had the Advance Group, which was the businesses; we had Advocate, which was previously policy and representation (I always say, ‘we used to be very good at making bullets’, but now we’re just as good at firing them) and then there’s the Assist function, because we deal with hundreds of thousands of phone calls a year and we deal with lots and lots of emails. So, we have a team of nine people whose day-to-day job is to assist councils and they’re there in recognition of the fact that there are a lot of small councils that don’t have expert staff in those areas.
Council Election night in 2012
TC: Was there a point do you think where you saw that this was going to be pretty much your life’s work?
GH: Probably one thing that people know well about me is that I like having fun and it was exciting and challenging and every day was different. And we were innovating, doing new things all the time. It probably wasn’t until I got to 50—until I had been here 20 years—that I thought, this is it, I’m gunna stay. I felt very committed and part of local government, and I’ve made some great friendships that are enduring, but also absolute commitments to the place because I just love some of the country I used to visit... So hopefully I learned some humility and the ability to work with people. And particularly the last 10-15 years at the LGAQ, the last half of my career, I’ve just worked with brilliant people. Because we’ve had the budget, we’ve been able to bring in so many great people like yourself who have just done enormous things for the LGAQ.
TC: How has the culture changed? Part of recruiting is how will someone fit with the culture of that team and the wider organisation… I’ve never worked anywhere with a better, more authentic, workplace culture than this one.
GH: The people who were here early would always talk about ‘family’, right, not a mafia family but a family! As we’ve grown, technology has enabled us to keep a lot more of that family culture, and we use tools like Workplace to share a lot internally. We do a lot of staff bonding, a lot of training together, and really practice the idea of one LGAQ so you’re not part of a silo, you’re part of the whole thing.
We did a massive project going through and remaking LG Online into Congruent, involving people right across the organisation, so I think we’ve been able to do that pretty well… We do psychometric testing on everyone that comes into the place (thank God it wasn’t done when I started, or I never would have gotten the job!) because you could be the cleverest bugger on the whole planet but, unless you can relate your story and your idea to someone in the public service or talk to someone in local government, then it’s lost. So we like really bright people, we have a very diverse workforce and we’re the better for it.
Greg and Alison Smith at the Wellshot Hotel in Ilfracombe
TC: You are immensely proud of your family. Have there been times when you’ve thought ‘I am not spending enough time with my loved ones because I have created this monster and I’m not keeping up my end of the bargain at home’?
GH: Ah yes, many times. My children are now in their late 20s to mid 30s and I wanted to make sure they understood what it was that I did. So, to give their mother a break on the weekends, they’d always come in to work with me on a Saturday and got to run around and play. If it was school holidays and I was out visiting, I’d throw them on the plane if I was out for a day or two. In 29 years I’ve spent close to seven years out of the office, away from home, which is a big call. I’ve seen every town in Queensland!
When you think about the councils, they’ve got two or three centres—Barcoo, say, has Windorah and Jundah—and I’ve seen the smaller towns as well, classically the Diamantina, Bedourie and the famous Birdsville, brilliant, but if I never sit in another small plane it’ll be too soon! What I really liked about it in the early days, though, is I got to think. One of my great mates—Mayor of Tambo for a long time and President of the WLGAQ, Dougal Davidson—used to say the best thinking is when you’re driving. It’s such a big country, your perspective gets altered a lot. So, if you are really het-up about a problem and you look around and get a sense time and space, you say ‘hold on a minute, I might have egged this up too much’. (And mobile phones didn’t work out there, so it was brilliant.) You really did get the chance to talk to people, to listen to yourself in the country, so I was very selfish because I loved it. As the LGAQ got bigger, I could have passed it off to other people, but I didn’t want to. One, because I enjoyed it and two, in the end, I felt really strong bonds with people and that it was part of what I needed to do.
Travelling throughout Queensland to visit councils has been a highlight of the job for Greg
TC: Is there one thing you and LGAQ have achieved in your time that gives you more satisfaction than any other?
GH: For me, it’s creating and enduring. By way of example, four-year terms for local government in 2000. I’ve had some really big wins including in the high court and matters such as the ambulance levy and performance dividend voted down and, more recently, we fought against compulsory preferential voting, but to me the biggest thing that I’ve done here is road reform. Roads are first, second, last and in the middle for councils.
I remember from my days at Esk and Townsville, it was like a stand-up street fight once a year with the local main roads person, and then it would escalate to the regional guy, and then the minister… it was an abomination. When we looked at the road network in Queensland—main roads and secondary roads, the council’s primary roads—they’re the same set of roads but the punters didn’t give a stuff what road they were on, they just wanted to get from A to B in one piece.
So, with my great friend Neil Doyle, the former Deputy Director General of Main Roads, we conceived the road reform process where we created the Roads Alliance and Regional Road Group, secured hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding; we were able to get councils to work across council boundaries, able to get them four-year certainty about State Government funding, able to get them to work with main roads and private contractors. We established what we call local roads of regional significance, an agreed set of roads between main roads and councils, where we would invest. Twenty years down the track you can see the benefit: one, we haven’t wasted years fighting over rubbish and two, roads now join up and go all the way to where they should go.
It’s been independently assessed and has saved well over a billion dollars. I took great pride in being the first and only person in local government to win Roads Australia’s highest award, the John Shaw medal, and the work that Neil Doyle and I did together was recognised at an OECD level and through the International Road Federation. That was pretty good, and still stands today, and most other states are followers in now going about it the same way. That was doing something people said couldn’t be done and I think in the history of Queensland that will be the most enduring piece.
Signing the Roads Protocol withMain Roads Director General Jim Varghese
TC: I love that someone who’s had such a profound effect on the way our roads operate is not an engineer but an economist. Paradoxically is there something you wish you could go back and redo or that you wish you had done differently?
GH: We’ve had a massive missed opportunity in not being able to roll out smart Internet of Things [IOT] networks across the state, due to some very backward thinking from a couple of governments in relation to using existing streetlights to mount all sorts of technologies to allow us to do our jobs better. Councils pay for streetlights (or a developer does), then we give them to Energy Queensland and pay them $80 million a year to manage them—it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. We had a perfect plan—that would have been rolled out by now—doing away with the old mercury vapour lights to LEDs, saving a hell of a lot of energy. On lighter traffic streets we would’ve had dimmers, so you wouldn’t need the full lights on all the time, which again saves money. We would have had the ability to count traffic, to manage litter, to provide warnings regarding flooding, to give people advice about where amenities or attractions were, to do on-street parking without a physical thing in the ground… an unlimited amount of information that could help us do the job better.
TC: How did you know it was time to rule a line under it and call it a day after 29 years (and a bit)?
GH: I’ve been thinking about it for a few years. I didn’t want to be the bloke who hung on by his fingernails. I didn’t want to be someone that had to be crowbarred out of the place… talking to my partner and the kids—and the dog, who is my best advisor—it all said ‘yeah this is it, this is the time’. Plus, we have great people in the organisation. I felt really comfortable about leaving a great chairman, president, board and policy exec, and the senior staff group is the best I’ve ever worked with; that’s not just being polite or saying it for the sake of it. The talent we’ve been able to bring into this place… and having Alison Smith, who I have massive regard for, to take the place forward, I was very comfortable that what we’ve built will be made even better by the people that will remain.
Greg Hallam coaching the Queensland men’s 4x100 championship team
TC: What some people think of as retirement—I can’t imagine that for you. I can see you being a little less busy but not much less busy. What sort of things do you already have lined up?
GH: I would have been somewhere floating around the Baltics before Christmas if the world had not been affected by COVID. But I’ve been appointed to be director on the combined LGIAsuper/Energy Super board and probably will take up another board position. I’ll still coach athletics, which has been a big love of mine. I will probably get to the races a bit more often, which is not a bad thing, and two of our daughters gave us car seats for Christmas presents, so I know what I’m going to be doing… we’ve got four grandchildren now, so I’ll be doing the school runs, pre-school runs and swimming classes and loving all of that.
TC: You’ll be busier than ever.
GH: Well, I hope so. I can work a 20-hour week or something like that—the fun stuff, that will be heaven on a stick.