Weekly Speak CEO Column
May your words be your guide
An open letter to Bridget McKenzie, Minister for Regional Services, Sport, Local Government and Decentralisation.
Dear Minister McKenzie,
Congratulations on gaining the local government portfolio along with your additional responsibilities for regional services, sport and decentralisation. We in local government are looking forward from what has been a turbulent few weeks in federal politics and are trusting that our new Prime Minister is anxious to sharpen the Government’s focus on working for the benefit of all Australians. In that context, the Queensland local government sector is keen to meet with you and express to you some of the key areas in which we believe you have the capacity to make a real difference to everyday challenges faced by our communities.
Local councils in Queensland have always been heartened by your commitment to regional Australia. It is well known as a common theme in your communications. "A sustainable future for regional Australia is worth fighting for” were your words in your first speech to Parliament and we welcome the opportunity you now have to reinforce this commitment around the Cabinet table. Councils also strongly agree with the sentiments you have expressed about the benefits of how the Constitution enshrines the decentralisation of political power in Australia and the competition it encourages in the battle of ideas.
These ideas do not only exist in Canberra and if you do want to get a good read on what is important to Australians, issues that impact on their day-to-day lives, and how to make things better, there is a wealth of knowledge residing in the council offices and city halls.
While it is an easy observation to make that local government is the closest level of government to the people, it is a fact elected councillors are reminded of (for better or worse) every day, whether they are in their offices, picking their children up from school, at a community sporting event or standing in line at the local checkout.
Their insights into the aspirations and concerns of Australians are second to none, simply because their circumstances put them right in the middle of dealing with those concerns. So, please take this letter as an open invite to contact the local councils whenever visiting our great State and seeking to understand what the real issues are on the ground.
Local councils also understand the value of a dollar and the prudent management of public funding. Of all the taxation revenue in Australia, the Federal Government collects 84 percent, the states collect 13 percent, and local government picks up just 3 percent. Yet, nationally, councils are responsible for managing 25 percent of Australia’s public infrastructure. Here in Queensland, local government is responsible for $155 billion of public assets and maintaining 153,000 kilometres of local roads while providing jobs to 40,000 people, many of these in the regions. As an industry sector it is incredibly significant to the viability of local communities across the country, particularly in rural and remote areas.
It is for these reasons among others that you will soon hear from local councils about the struggle they are having with the decline in the value of untied federal funding over the past two decades. In 1996, these grants represented 1 percent of total Commonwealth taxation revenue. The decisions of successive governments since have seen this proportion decline to just 0.55 percent today. As a result, the funds to pay for the local infrastructure and services that communities truly value and need have become harder to find. That is a situation that should worry not only local councils, but all those concerned about the future of local communities, particularly those in regional Australia.
Minister, we believe you understand the challenges we have listed above, and that you will advocate strongly for the sector. Your portfolio both directly and indirectly is critically important through its ability to influence the broad base of service delivery functions of councils and in turn its impact on communities. Whether it be support for housing programs in our discrete indigenous councils through to reef protection funding for our coastal councils or drought assistance in the bush. So again, can we offer you our most sincere congratulations on your appointment and extend to you every support we can to make sure you are able to achieve your commitment to sustainable regional communities underpinned by strong decentralised government.
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