Two weeks have passed since news broke of the most far-reaching federation governance reform in nearly 30 years: the abolition of COAG in favour of a broadening of the Covid-19 National Cabinet initiative.
Local Government’s shock exclusion from National Cabinet was, we said at the time, a missed opportunity to add impetus to the economic recovery efforts now underway at all levels of government – and so desperately needed by workers, employers, the performing arts industry, tourism operators, NGOs, and so many more in the wider community.
ALGA was a foundation member of COAG, with a strong record of representation and productive involvement in meetings of First Ministers and intergovernmental ministerial councils, so the brush-off was doubly regrettable.
With details still sketchy about the practicalities of the new reforms, we are continuing to impress on the Federal Coalition the importance of reassessing their decision to leave Local Government out of the new National Cabinet.
The challenge facing National Cabinet over the coming months is unlike any which has faced Australian governments in recent times, and it will require the concerted, coordinated, and complementary efforts of all levels of government to carefully lift restrictions, rebuild consumer confidence, support business, re-establish the tourism industry, find safe pathways for the sport, entertainment, hospitality and performing arts sectors to operate, and recreate millions of Australian jobs.
Australia’s 537 councils stand ready to play a critical role in facilitating, establishing, and growing local businesses and economies – because they always have.
They support economic growth through regional development policies and initiatives, strategic and land use planning, targeted investment attraction, prioritisation of local procurement, and focusing their annual investment on infrastructure that serves the community and business alike.
Many councils also provide business networking opportunities, access to training, mentoring, and incubator facilities and employment hubs. These roles are in addition to the sector’s regulatory functions, ensuring a level playing field, and protecting the safety of food and personal services customers.
There is a very strong case for saying that economic development has always been at the core of every successful council — since their inception.
And consider the multiplier effect of local government spending, which is significant.
Councils provide direct employment for almost 200,000 people and support thousands of small and medium-sized business enterprises through an annual operational expenditure of more than $38 billion.
Councils operate the most broadly distributed network of government administrations and offices in the nation, with 537 head offices and many more depot, library, recreation and community facilities all providing a platform for hosting job creation, retraining, business startup or growth programs in partnership with other governments.
To deny National Cabinet this energy, local expertise and highly capable network makes little sense if governments’ main task now is to rescue the economy.
An economy we know is incredibly dependent on what happens at the grass roots – small businesses, tourism operators, builders and renovators, hotels, cafes and restaurants, retailers, musicians, performers, and many more both in cities and the regions.
I would cite another important reason for including Local Government in the National Cabinet: community input.
The domination of National Cabinet by federal, state, and territory leaders enhances or adds to the power of executive government in Australia.
ALGA’s inclusion would allay concerns that National Cabinet was making decisions or reaching agreements without sufficient input from, and feedback to, local communities.
A seat at the table of National Cabinet – where local government’s knowledge and on-the-ground expertise was available to inform debate – would lead to better decision-making, more direct communication and faster implementation in the field.
ALGA’s willingness and commitment, on behalf of the Local Government sector, to continue to work collaboratively with the Australian, state and territory governments – as we have for the past 28 years as a member of COAG – remains undiminished.
But to secure the best possible economic and social outcomes for the country as the Covid-19 pandemic gives way to broader recovery efforts, we need to be part of National Cabinet. In fact, it makes little sense for us not to be.