Before I turn to the substance of my speech I want to take this opportunity to recognise and pay tribute to the extraordinary response from local councils across Queensland to the devastation wrought earlier this year by Cyclone Debbie.
Your quick and effective actions ensured that your local communities were able to get back on their feet as quickly as humanly possible.
I know Queenslanders are no strangers to wild weather – but each time they are tested they prove their resilience and willingness to come together to support each other and rebuild their communities.
In 2017, local government is more than ever about far more than collecting the rubbish, fixing pot holes, trimming the grass along footpaths, and catching stray cats and dogs.
In hundreds of different ways, you and your colleagues help build our civil identity, shape the physical character of our suburbs and regional communities, and contribute to the economic development of our country.
Local government is not simply an adjunct to state and territory governments.
PARTNERING WITH LOCAL GOVERNMENT
That’s why the former Federal Labor Government – in which I had the privilege of serving as Local Government Minister – was so committed to partnering with the local government sector to address the challenges confronting our nation, which at the time included the most severe global economic downturn since the Great Depression.
This commitment to a new partnership between the national government and local government was epitomised by our decision to convene the Australian Council of Local Government. This annual event brought mayors, shire presidents and councillors from around the country to the nation’s capital, giving them direct access to ministers and their senior bureaucrats.
For the first time, local government had a real voice in Commonwealth policy-making.
Unfortunately the Coalition never appreciated the importance of this two-way consultative forum, often deriding it as a “talk-fest”. In government, they have simply refused to reconvene it.
That refusal has and will continue to lead to poorer policy outcomes for local communities and the nation as a whole.
The fact is local government is the front line in our democracy.
And you will no doubt be pleased to know that Essential Research’s most recent “Trust in Institutions” poll found that local government was once again by far the most trusted tier of politics.
That’s not surprising.
For one thing, you are directly responsible for many of the services that people use and rely on every day of the week. Indeed, local government is involved in many of the most personal moments in our lives: celebrating marriages at the town hall or in the local park, looking after our children in child care, getting approval to build our dream home, and even becoming an Australian citizen at a council ceremony.
Therefore, it is a serious oversight that the founding document of our democracy – the Constitution – does not acknowledge the role of local government nor fully reflect the modern structure of government in Australia.
In government we sought to rectify this anomaly.
In May 2013, the then Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus introduced a bill into the House of Representatives that would have sought the agreement of the Australian people, via a referendum, to make a modest, common sense change to our Constitution.
Based on advice from an expert panel led by the former Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court, the Hon. James Spigelman, the proposed change would have inserted into the Constitution a clear statement that the Commonwealth can grant financial assistance to local government to help them pay for local services and infrastructure.
What’s more, constitutional recognition would also help prevent state and territory governments running rough shod over the views of local communities when it comes to council amalgamations and re-organisations – as we have most recently witnessed in my home state of NSW.
Sadly, over the past four years, this long overdue reform has been left to wither on the vine.
For our part, Labor has long championed constitutional recognition of local government as Australia’s third sphere of government. And while acknowledging it has been twice rejected at a referendum due to a lack of bipartisan support, we are firmly of the view that the time has come for this issue to again be put before the Australian people for their consideration.
INVESTING IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT
In addition to partnering with local government, the former Federal Labor Government was also committed to investing in it. And that investment was not just in the services they deliver, but equally importantly, in their efforts to create strong, diversified local economies.
You simply can’t have a strong national economy if you don’t have strong local economies.
Local government is an important economic actor.
Not only does local government directly employ almost 200,000 Australians; you also play a significant role in maintaining and building the infrastructure our nation needs.
For one thing, you are responsible for the upkeep of more than 650,000 kilometres of the nation’s roads, upon which tens of billions of dollars of economic activity flow.
All up, local government’s total asset stock is worth almost $250 billion.
To help maintain and upgrade this vital infrastructure, we established as part of our highly successful Economic Stimulus Plan the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program – the biggest ever Federal investment in local government’s community and economic infrastructure.
This $1.1 billion program delivered some 5000 small and larger scale projects such as new and upgraded public libraries, community centres, child cares facilities, parks and sporting facilities. And at time when they were most needed, it created thousands of jobs and helped to keep Australia out of recessions.
Importantly, every local government authority received funding and every one of them determined where the money was spent, based on an assessment of what the priorities of their local communities were.
On top of that we increased Financial Assistance Grants (FAGs) – an initiative first put in place by the Whitlam Labor Government – by 20 per cent. And we boosted funding for the Roads to Recovery program substantially.
In contrast to this record investment, the current Coalition Government has abolished the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program, and ripped nearly $1 billion out of the budgets of local governments nationwide through their three-year freeze on the indexation of Financial Assistance Grants.
The figure for Queensland is almost $200 million.
This is a permanent funding cut, one that has meant that local governments around Australia have been forced to reduce services, increase fees and put off much needed capital works. This cut has been particularly hard on rural councils and shires due to their smaller rate bases.
But the cuts don’t stop there.
As result of last month’s Federal Budget, Federal infrastructure grant funding – the money that goes to the states, territories and local government to deliver major road and rail projects – will fall off a cliff over the next four years.
It will collapse from $7.6 billion this financial year to $4.2 billion in 2020-21.
In the assessment of the peak industry body Infrastructure Partnerships Australia:
“…the Budget confirms the cut to ‘real’ budgeted capital funding to its lowest level in more than a decade – using a mix of underspend, re-profiling and narrative to cover this substantial drop in real capital expenditure.”
Federal grant funding is vital – and less of it will mean less infrastructure.
Indeed, the record levels of grant funding under the former Labor Government allowed us to partner with the Queensland Government, the private sector and Brisbane City Council to deliver the $1.5 billion Legacy Way road project. It also allowed us to partner with the Queensland Government and the Moreton Bay Regional Council to build the long-talked about Moreton Bay Rail Link.
And the provision of Federal grant funding was vital to getting the proposed Gold Coast Light Rail off the ground in partnership with the State Government, the private sector and the Gold Coast City Council. This $1.2 billion piece of infrastructure has transformed the way people get around the Coast.
So yes, while the private sector has a role to play in closing the infrastructure funding gap, governments cannot avoid the fact that they will have to stump up taxpayers’ dollars if they want projects, particularly urban public transport projects, to happen.
There is no magic pudding or silver bullet.
Lastly, I just want to touch on the current state of urban policy.
As one of the most urbanised nations on the planet, we understood that Australia’s continued prosperity would largely depend on how successful we are at making our cities and large regional centres work better.
Importantly, our approach to building more productive, sustainable and liveable urban communities involved investing in both their road and rail infrastructure. That is why we doubled the roads budget and committed more funding to urban public transport infrastructure than all our predecessors since Federation combined.
In addition, we:
- Created the Major Cities Unit;
- Established the National Planning Taskforce;
- Required state and territory governments to have strategic plans for their capital cities as a condition of future Federal infrastructure funding;
- Commissioned an annual State of the Cities report.
In short, the former Federal Labor Government ended the Commonwealth’s self-imposed exile from our urban communities and re-engaged with the states, territories and local government.
Regrettably, one of the first acts of the current Coalition Government upon being elected was to abolish the Major Cities Unit and again retreat from our cities. In the eyes of the former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the challenges confronting our cities were someone else’s problems to fix.
Now while the current Prime Minister’s rhetoric may differ from that of his predecessor, his Government nonetheless continues to ignore the planning needs of the four out of five Australians who live in our cities. The 2017 Federal Budget delivered no new policy initiatives and no new investment in our urban infrastructure, most notably public transport.
Instead it has sought to mask its inaction with vague promises about City Deals.
City Deals originate from the United Kingdom as vehicles for co-operation between national and local government on shared economic development goals. The national government delivers infrastructure funding based on these shared objectives and shares any resulting revenue increases with the councils.
Mr Turnbull’s City Deals bear little resemblance to the UK model.
Indeed, the three City Deals proposed in during the 2016 Federal election – Townsville, Launceston and Western Sydney – all came in response to actual infrastructure investment commitments made by the Labor Party.
In their current form, City Deals are a political fix, not serious urban policy.
I just want to conclude by saying that my passion for local government goes right back to my first job in politics, working for Tom Uren, the architect of the Whitlam Labor Government’s urban development agenda, and later Local Government Minister in the Hawke Labor Government.
And that passion has not waned in the years since.
Importantly, I want to thank everyone in this room for being willing to stand up, to put in the time and effort to represent your communities. I can assure you that I will continue doing everything I can to support what is an indispensable part of our political system – our local governments.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.