‘We’re all in this together’ has become the catch cry to unite communities. Across Australia councils are creating and promoting local campaigns in an attempt to bring people together (although no closer than 1.5m, of course). Community grants to support local groups providing care to vulnerable people are one means many councils are using. Another way is through waiving rents to council tenants and deferral of general rates payments and interest.
Some councils are promoting local business that are adapting well to the new way of doing business, praising their creativity and ingenuity, showing others how it can be done. On the other side of the coin, shining a light on businesses doing it tough could inspire the community to rally around their doors for some extra support in a spirit of mateship.
Libraries were among the first services affected by the forced closures but were also prompt in finding a way to maintain their service provision albeit with a new look. Story time went online, ‘click and collect’ and home delivery appeared. Digital resources have never been so prolific and have forced us into newfound and hitherto unlooked for degrees of tech savvy status.
While trying to support their communities, councils themselves are doing it tough. Much has been made of the Federal Government’s refusal to include councils in the JobKeeper rescue package, saying Local Government was the states’ problem. To its credit the Morrison Government has put out a call for councils to nominate projects for a fast-tracked delivery program that will help create jobs and stimulate local economies.
The New South Wales Government stepped up to the plate on 26 April, announcing a $395 million stimulus package for ‘the premier state’, making it the first to provide COVID-19 support of this magnitude to the sector. Treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, gave recognition to councils acknowledging them as a critical part of the economy ‘especially in many regional and rural towns where they are sometimes the largest employer’. The package includes low-cost loans for infrastructure projects and a boost to the ‘Jobs for NSW’ fund to support a Council Job Retention Allowance equal to the JobKeeper payment of $1500 per fortnight, and assistance for councils to meet the cost of the 2020-21 increase in the Emergency
Municipal Association of Victoria’s president, Coral Ross, was last month forced to refute rumours in the local media of imminent rate rises to compensate for councils’ lost revenue. The Victorian Government has since announced council workers would be ineligible for the State funding assistance available to public sector workers.
Once again Local Government became the political football when Treasurer Tim Pallas said the problem of not being able to help pay council staff had ‘been created by the Commonwealth making it clear that JobKeeper does not apply to state or local government employees’.
“The state has had to take action to take care of its employees, we would expect that local government similarly would step up to the plate and look after their own employees.”
Meanwhile Local Government Association of Tasmania President, Christina Holmdahl, parried accusations of whingeing from Small Business Council CEO, Robert Mallet, saying local government was an easy target in a crisis even though many councils were predicting deficits for the next five to seven years.