Mayor David O’Loughlin Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) – President’s comment
Like green shoots emerging after drought-breaking rains, our local communities are starting to show unmistakable signs of renewed activity after two months of Covid-19 lockdowns.
School children are back in class in most states and territories, clubs, pubs, museums, galleries, and libraries are gradually opening again, albeit cautiously given the potential that still exists for new outbreaks to occur.
Coping with the restrictions imposed on work, travel, study and recreation during the pandemic has been both challenging and difficult.
In many cases, however the crisis has brought out the best in us, individually and collectively.
That has undoubtedly been true of local government.
Councils have turned themselves inside out devising and implementing support measures – freezing rates, bringing forward capital works, fast-tracking approvals process, waiving normal fees and charges, reducing direct costs, and adapting their services in response to the pandemic.
They have given food and essential items to vulnerable groups, organised home deliveries of library books, and bolstered their online services to enable social distancing – among many other initiatives.
And during all this they have maintained core services such as planning and building assessments, inspections and infrastructure maintenance, upgrades, and replacements – even as they have been denied access to the Commonwealth’s JobKeeper scheme.
The flow-on effects of this ineligibility have been felt most acutely by councils which own and operate childcare centres and cultural centres. Some have had to take the difficult decision to lay-off staff or to keep childcare centres open for essential workers even as they incur big operating losses.
The various stimulus, support and finance measures announced by state and territory governments have helped. But their patchy and uneven coverage means many councils’ financial reserves continue to erode.
To that extent, the Federal Government’s announcement earlier this month of a new $500 million Local Road and Community Infrastructure Program was welcome news.
The program – and the bringing forward of $1.3 billion of the 2020-21 Financial Assistance Grant payments – will help local councils support jobs and businesses by delivering priority projects focused on infrastructure upgrades and maintenance.
ALGA advocated strongly for a Commonwealth stimulus package to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19, and we will continue to speak up for our communities, particularly those in bushfire-ravaged areas of Australia whose plight has been forgotten during the unfolding pandemic.
Unfortunately, local council issues will now take longer to reach key decision-makers because of Local Government’s exclusion from a permanent National Cabinet, which is replacing Council of Australian Governments (COAG).
It is a retrograde step in governing the nation, with little gain.
ALGA is actively seeking a seat at the new National Cabinet reform committees for transport and infrastructure, rural and regional, housing, and population and migration – as well as seeking clarity on the future of any environmental or local government forums at the national level, where ALGA has contributed to the development of better policies and vital funding packages to improve the lives of every Australian, no matter where they live.