Local empowerment and regionalism

Article image - Local empowerment and regionalism Minister Simon Crean meets with ALGA President Councillor Geoff Lake in Melbourne on 4 October.

During the first sitting week of the 43rd Federal Parliament, the Minister for Regional Development, Regional Australia and Local Government, Simon Crean addressed the National Press Club. Given the importance to the Gillard Government of the rural Independents in the House of Representatives, regional issues are firmly on the table, and given the position of Local Government, this augers well for the sector.

Alongside this, Simon Crean is a Cabinet Minister, fifth in seniority in the new Gillard Government.

During his speech at the Press Club, Minister Crean pointed to “some serious media attention now being directed towards regional Australia” and emphasised his strong belief in local empowerment.

“This is the new paradigm for regional Australia,” the Minister said. “It effectively turns Australian Government upside down – we want solutions coming up from local communities not being imposed from above by Canberra.

At the same time, I also issue a challenge to local communities and regions to come up with effective strategic plans, rather than simple wish lists.”

He said the 55 Regional Development Australia committees around the country will be one way for the regions to communicate their priorities.

“Entrenching local empowerment and regionalism in a whole of government approach at the Federal level will clearly have knock on consequences at the State and Local Government levels,” Simon Crean said. “A ministerial council including Local Government representation will therefore be an important addition to the COAG structure.”

Minister Crean also provided the following responses to a set of questions put to him by Local Government FOCUS.

Q. Can you comment on the synergy of the new Department combining Local Government with Regional Australia and Regional Development?

There is no ‘one size fits all’ to regional issues. Outside of the major cities, Local Government’s ongoing ‘physical’ presence in regional Australia helps ensure it is well placed to understand the specific wants and needs within their own region. This puts it in a unique position to work with the Australian Government on the design
and implementation of regional programs.

Of course, many State and Federal Government agencies also have a physical presence outside major cities. Effective solutions for development in regional areas require commitment from all levels of government and industry and close engagement with local communities. I look forward to working with Geoff Lake and the Australian Local Government Association on locally driven solutions for our regional areas.

In fact, I had a good meeting with Geoff at the start of the month.

Q. How important are all these areas likely to be in Labor’s second term of office?

The Australian Government has a genuine commitment to regional Australia and entrenching the concept of ‘regionalism’ in our national decision making.

A dedicated Department of Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government has been created to develop regional policies, work with local governing bodies and communities on their regional initiatives and provide a source of expert advice on regional issues to the Australian Government. Local Government will play a major and direct role in not only the implementation of the regional programs that are central to the Government’s policy agenda, but the development of local solutions.

Q. What are the Government’s key priorities for Local Government and regional Australia during this second term?

Issues in regional areas are of national significance, including appropriate access to broadband, education or health services, however successful delivery requires local solutions to local problems.

Empowering local communities, building the capacity of our Local Governments and strengthening Regional Development Australia committees (RDAs) are foundation elements of the Government’s commitment to Regional Australia.

Stronger RDA committees will be important in complementing and enhancing the work of both Local Government and communities. Together, these mechanisms will inform priority and the allocation of resources.

Transparency of expenditure in regional areas is paramount for this term of government. For the first time, we’re also going to breakdown the Federal Budget so that regions will be able to see what they get in critical areas, including health, education and aged care.

The Australian Government is committed under its agreement with the Greens and Independents to holding a referendum on constitutional recognition of Local Government during this parliamentary term.

Q. Your Department is now part of Prime Minister and Cabinet pointing to even closer relations between Federal Government and Local Government. Can you comment on the importance of this relationship and how you believe it can be strengthened?

Commitment to regional Australia requires a whole of Government approach.

The inclusion of my Department within the Prime Minister’s portfolio is a signal about the Prime Minister’s commitment to ensuring that the Australian Government understands the priorities of our regional areas. This allows regional Australia to have a strong voice in influencing the decision making process.

A strong relationship between Local Government is crucial to getting this right.

Q. How important is the Australian Council of Local Government (ACLG) to Federal/Local Government relations?

The opportunity for Local Governments to engage directly with the Federal Government and have their voice heard on Local Government matters of national significance is essential to understanding regional issues.

This annual event is the centrepiece of the Australian Government’s engagement with Local Government. The interactive forum not only allows for collaboration between Federal and Local Government, but between the 565 councils in Australia.

Q. Do you foresee any changes to current format of ACLG?

The three meetings held so far have elicited positive feedback from Local Government participants and have been highly successful. In consultation with the Local Government sector, we will look at what has worked in the past and what our options are in the future.

Q. During the GFC, Local Government was very successful in delivering community infrastructure projects as part of the stimulus package on time and on budget. Will this type of direct funding to councils be continued?

Investment in our regions will continue. We will pursue a commitment to constitutional recognition of Local Government and will continue to invest in strengthening the capacities of local councils and boosting local and community infrastructure.

The Government will invest $800 million in a new priority Regional Infrastructure Program, which will fund community infrastructure projects to support and build stronger regional communities. In addition, new growth opportunities in regional Australia will be supported by investing $573 million in projects that expand the development and growth of regional economies.

Importantly, the Australian Government will also establish a $6 billion dedicated Regional Infrastructure Fund to reinvest the proceeds of the resources boom in regions to help them meet the needs of communities and increase their capacity for sustainable economic growth.

Q. Local Government has involvement with a range of Federal Departments, including environment, infrastructure and transport, health, communications and broadband just to name a few. As a senior Minister how will you use your position in Cabinet to assist councils and their communities?

A comprehensive governance framework has been established to listen to and address the concerns of regional Australia and improve long term outcomes. Bringing a whole of government approach to regional issues is crucial and working with other ministers and agencies will be a key part of my role and that of my Department.

As part of my role, I chair a new Regional Australia and Regional Development Committee of Cabinet. This committee is tasked with ensuring that detailed consideration is given to the equitable distribution of Commonwealth funding – across all portfolios – to the one in three Australians that live in regional communities.

A parliamentary committee will be established that will operate like a Senate Estimates process, where the ministers and department heads can be accountable. A new policy advice unit will report to the committee – as an independent source of advice.