Well thanks very much Margaret and can I start by paying tribute to Margaret and her years of well-recognised service to Local Government both at Queensland level and with the Brisbane City Council. Margaret you’ve become synonymous with everything that’s good about Local Government and I thank you for all you’ve done. I understand today is your last day ‘officially’ involved with Local Government in Queensland. (Applause) Greg tells me that Margaret is the longest serving female Councillor on the Brisbane City Council ever and the first female President of the Local Government Association of Queensland, so there’s another couple of attributes to add to a very long list.
Good morning to all the Mayors, the Councillors and CEOs, many of you I’ve met over the years, some of the new ones I haven’t yet got to but I think there’s barely a Council in Queensland that I haven’t visited somewhere in the last 26 years that I’ve been in Parliament. And it’s good to see many old friends here and to make some new ones as I go around the State.
After my 11 years on the Burdekin Shire Council and 3 years as the Federal Local Government Minister, I do understand the worth of Local Government and I particularly understand the good work that Local Government does at the level closest to the people. They are indeed that area of Government that is very much connected with the people they serve.
I can happily say that since I entered the Federal Parliament, not one of my constituents has rung me at 3.00 am demanding me to get a horse out of a well that seemed to be what people expected of me as a of Local Government Councillor. Fortunately as a Federal Parliamentarian, that hasn’t happened to me since. But the other reason that I appreciate interacting with Councils is that I know that Mayors, Councillors and CEOs understand the principles of governance and of democracy, and of balancing budgets and living within their means.
All levels of government have the same issues. In a democracy to be elected you have to try to accommodate every wish your electors would like and you have to do that without increasing your tax revenue because whilst you constituents always want more, most get very tetchy if you ask them for more by way of increased taxes or rates.
And that applies to all levels of government. I suppose if you’re a State Government you can promise whatever you like, whatever your electors want, providing you can get someone else to pay. And I guess that’s the same with Councils, you can promise more if someone else is going to find the revenue to do that. And that someone else, I guess, is always the Federal Government. But the Commonwealth also has electors and we have people, our constituents who want more and more but they don’t want to pay more in taxes. So if you add the States and Councils to our constituents, all of whom want more money, the demands on the Commonwealth for revenue become very difficult to manage.
The Commonwealth has three choices if they are going to respond to the new demands made upon the Commonwealth by its own electors and by State and Local Government.
And those three options are one - you can either increases taxes federally, and I have to tell you our tax payers, our voters, don’t like that option very much.
The second option is that you can cut services and again, that’s also unpopular with those who have come to expect funding. And when we took government we had to make some of those unpopular decisions to address a budget crisis which we inherited.
And the third way of funding these things is to borrow more and more from overseas lenders. And as Councils well know, borrowers, strangely, expect to be paid back one day and in the meantime you pay interest, good money that you know that you’d rather do more important things with, fund more productive things but you have to spend that money paying for interest. And I know Councils understand all that.
Already the Commonwealth has a huge debt burden left to us from a previous administration that, unless addressed, is going to be very, very difficult in the future and that will eventually lead to a Greek situation where lenders stop lending and the government is unable to pay its public servants, is unable to pay its pensioners. So they are the difficult options confronting the Commonwealth government when its electors and State and Local governments keep asking for more.
I guess there is a fourth choice though, that the Commonwealth can look at. And that is to grow the economy to increase revenue streams because the economy is getting bigger and more productive. I know many Councils yearn to be able to encourage new developments which create new rate payments in your Shires and similarly the Commonwealth government can grow the economy and increase revenue in that way.
And your Commonwealth government has a plan to grow the economy to increase the size of the economy, and it involves better ways of doing things as a Nation, focusing more on innovation and science, and I see the theme of the ALGA Conference this year is exactly that, how innovation can build the local economy and indeed the national economy and we’re encouraging entrepreneurship and private investment.
As well, our plan involves new trade deals to increase our exports through better and fairer access to overseas markets for the things that Australia produces well.
Additionally, we are better targeting increased allocations in what is the first duty of a national government, and that is to keep our people safe and to keep our borders secure. And so the huge additional money that we are putting into defence, will, to a degree be spent in building a local and efficient defence support industry which helps build our own economy at the same time as we are doing our number one duty to the nation.
We’re also building better infrastructure to make Australian Industry and farmers more efficient and productive and I’m very proud of the North Australian White Paper which, in part, is very much about infrastructure in the north and making it easier to develop in those areas and to export from those areas and Councils will play a very big role in our plans for the development of northern Australia.
We’re also increasing funding for health and education, in spite of what others might try to tell you, but the funding for health and education is increasing and that’s because that is a longer term investment in our economic future.
We’re also planning, as we’ve always done, to look after our environment and ecology as a way of protecting Australia’s natural resources and in addition to that we have a plan for new tax initiatives, mainly to small business, why, because small business are the big employers in our country and if we can employ more, if we can help small business, then the economy grows. So, that’s the plan our government has for the future, that’s the direction we’ve been taking in the past now.
Ladies and gentlemen, I always acknowledge, as I have done in the past that Councils have a very big role to play and I know that personally. Many Councils do play their part in the national economy very well and by and large Councils play their part very efficiently and cost effectively.
But I can understand that you can, and want, to do more. I’ve spoken with the LGAQ lobbyists who’ve been through my office and every Parliamentarian’s office in Canberra and can I, in that regard, acknowledge that they would’ve been to see my sparring partner, Senator Doug Cameron, Doug and I share a Scottish heritage, Doug’s is a bit more recent than mine. And although at times we’re good friends, that’s about all we have in common. But our joint involvement, as Margaret mentioned in Estimates recently, about some of the issues that are important to local government with NDRAA was indeed, for me, pleasing to see, and I acknowledge Doug’s help and advocacy in that regard.
:Ladies and gentlemen I could give you a heap of statistics and facts and figures today on how much money our Government’s put into this that and the other. I mentioned, as I say, that I’ve spoken with your LGAQ lobbyists. I’ve had many discussions with many individual Councils over the last year or so and particularly in the last 3 or 4 weeks and I acknowledge many people here, the Deputy Mayor of North Burnett thinks that I’m stalking her, everywhere I go we seem to be together and that applies to a number of other Mayors as well.
I have read and I do understand your 2016 Federal Election Local Government Policy Plan. I have seen the Government’s response to that and I have had discussions with Government Ministers and, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve formally raised some of those issues at the Senate Estimates Committee which coincidentally, and perhaps fortuitously I chair.
I’ve also spoken on many of these issues at gatherings at ROCS around the countryside.
I do understand where you’re coming from and I could, as I say, give you those stats and facts and figures but I won’t waste your time in rehashing your LGAQ wish list or the Government’s response. I assume you’ve all seen those and you’ll be able to study them at length.
But I did want to do, just briefly, is touch on a few of the matters which I know are important to you.
Firstly we have all fought and won the Council day labour issue because I know how passionate you have been, particularly the rural and remote Councils, and I have to say that I and one or two others of my colleagues, Senator O’Sullivan is one that comes to mind, have also been equally passionate because we understand that particularly the smaller rural Councils rely on their Council workforces for their towns to continue. And that battle has been fought, and I’m pleased to say, won.
Secondly we understand your support for our betterment and resilience programme but I understand that whilst you’re very keen on that, you don’t want that to be at the cost of the normal recovery funding.
Further you’ve had the Minister’s assurance, in his response, of extensive consultation in developing the ‘up front’ assessment model for recovery funding. And it’s essential that as we go into that new phase that Councils are totally consulted and actually listened to and, should I be re-elected which I would hope that that would be the case, then I will make sure that the Ministers and the Government fully understand and listen to the local government issue on that ‘up front’ assessment model.
I’m led to believe that the resolution is at hand for the Council machinery use at realistic and fair costings. The way it is going, or was for a little while, just didn’t make sense and I think, and I believe that resolution is at hand.
For the reasons I mentioned earlier, the FAG’s indexation has been suspended. We had a difficult few decisions to make when we came to government and local government, State government and indeed many Federal government programmes were suspended or cut to try and address the budget crisis. That was an unpopular decision, the suspension of the indexation, and I understand that, but it was essential and everyone in Australia had to play their part.
But I’m pleased to say that the Roads to Recovery funding was substantially increased with an extra $400 million making a total of $3.6 billion through to 2019/20. And I might say when I, proudly as Local Government Minister in 2001 I think it was, first introduced the very first Roads to Recover Scheme I would never have imagined that it would continue for as long as it has and has now become a permanent part of the funding of local government but it was a new initiative back then where money went straight from the Commonwealth government, by-passing the States, who always took their cut, but went straight to Local governments, I know, from driving just about every road in Queensland, that you have used that money well. And we have substantially increased funding over the current period of time and, ladies and gentlemen, this is on top of increases in the black spot funding, the heavy vehicle safety and productivity programme and the bridges renewal programme which I know many Councils are very, very keen on and which are a wonderful addition to the funding for the work that I know Councils have to do.
The Councils have been wonderful advocates for the mobile black spots programme with 328 of the 975 black spots nominated having already been addressed in addition to some 68 new base stations already built or upgraded and the NBN is being rolled out 6 to 8 years earlier than the plan of our opponents. Rather than prioritise a slow gold-plated service, what we’ve chosen to do is to have a, perhaps silver-plated service, some say copper-plated, approach that will enable business to connect that much earlier.
And finally, in case you hadn’t heard, Councils can participate in the Turnbull’s government $2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund to help you upgrade public lighting, to capture waste methane from landfill and to divert and separate waste at source.
So there are a number of plans for the Federal Government but I understand your wishes and wants which, as the economy dictates, which as our general revenue position allows, we will continue to work for with local government in Australia.
Ladies and gentlemen, should you have any questions or suggestions I’m happy to try and answer them and those that I can’t I’ll pass on and certainly any suggestions I will pass on to the relevant Ministers in the Government.
And finally, can I welcome you to Canberra, my home for about half of the past 26 years. You can imagine with weather like we had this morning, what it’s like coming from wonderful north Queensland and coming to this for half of the last 26 years, but they’re the things that we do and it’s good to be with you. Can I recognise as well the Barcaldine Shire Council which claims to have, and have received awards, for having the best drinking water, in the world, I suspect. But as someone coming from the Burdekin, I must say that I think the Judges were wrong but congratulations anyhow!
Look, the LGAQ Breakfast, this breakfast, first started back in the last century actually when I was either the Shadow Local Government Minister or the Minister, I forget which it was, it’s so long ago, but the very first one I attended and I am delighted to be back with you again. Local Government has become much more sophisticated since those days and I think it is treated these days with much more respect and understanding of the essential role that Councils play in the good governance of Australia.
Thanks for allowing me to be with you today.