President’s column – 15 May 2020

ALGA President David O'Loughlin gestures at a lectern

ALGA’s firm advocacy both behind the scenes and via the media has ensured bushfire-affected local governments have not been forgotten and will be able to access the Federal Government’s next tranche of money ($650 million) under its $2 billion National Bushfire Recovery Fund, with $448.5 million of this earmarked for the quick delivery of projects focused on reviving and strengthening local economies.

Federal Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud once again emphasised the need for these to be “locally led” – accordingly, National Bushfire Recovery Coordinator Andrew Colvin is directing the National Bushfire Recovery Agency to “draw on the knowledge of local councils and communities to provide [us] with their priority projects”.

It is fitting that local government should be front and centre of discussions to draw up regional recovery plans – and it is a step closer to recognising the central role Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlined for local government when first announcing the $2 billion fund, only 3 per cent of which has flowed to councils to date.

Councils have extensive lists of shovel-ready projects capable of revitalising economies, and they have a demonstrated record of effectively delivering Commonwealth-funded programs over many decades.

Moreover, as the past two months have shown, Local Governments can also display remarkably quick thinking and agility when confronted by crisis.

The LGAQ’s Battleplan for Queensland’s Local Communities contains many innovative ideas for sustaining local jobs and stimulating economies. It was published on 20 April, a few short weeks into the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Elsewhere, LGNSW took quick and urgent action to win state government support for council-run childcare centres and a State-funded equivalent to the Federal JobKeeper fund, although teething problems are slowing the flow of much-needed funds.

In Western Australia, the Local Government response to Covid-19 has been to freeze rates and charges, fast-track approvals processes, bring forward capital works, and to offer rent relief for small businesses in council properties.

The collective value of WA’s response –   over $325 million – speaks volumes of the ability of councils to go above and beyond when circumstances demand it.

Local government action in the other states and territories has been similarly energetic, and even small councils with limited financial capacity have rolled out measures to support their local economies.

Getting council staff who’ve have had to be stood down back on the job – and keeping Australians gainfully employed – was, and remains, local government’s top priority during the coronavirus pandemic.

To some extent, the pandemic has overshadowed the plight of bushfire-affected communities and their recovery needs.

New infrastructure programs are needed to drive this, so it is gratifying to see the local recovery plans being developed in 10 of the regions hardest hit by the Black Summer bushfires will have infrastructure at their core.

The funding for water-saving programs, community wellbeing and resilience measures, and local tourism campaigns that was included in this week’s announcement is also critical to improving the sustainability of our towns and regions.

ALGA worked closely with the NBRA to ensure its planning builds on bushfire recovery plans already in place at local, regional, and state levels.

We advocated for it, and were backed by Minister Littleproud, to ensure rebuilding is guided by the betterment principle, so communities get the increased level of resilience they need to meet what the experts advise us will be a hotter, drier climate with more frequent and increasingly severe fires.

Local planning, supported by local knowledge and local voices, will also be vital to delivering the strong and sustained economic revival we are all focused on achieving.

I make no apology for advocating this fact plainly and directly in my role as ALGA President.

In a radio interview this week, I drew attention to need for councils to be given greater clarity and certainty around the delivery of bushfire recovery funding – and a greater share of the funding.

With more money now forthcoming, it is time for mayors and council CEOs from fire-affected regions to step up their advocacy.

We need projects that can be quickly started and which deliver the short and long-term benefits fire-affected local communities desperately need.

Local Government’s ability to collaborate and share resources at times of emergencies is legendary. Generating economic recovery plans and formal proposals for recovery projects is another time when our smaller and impacted councils may need some help.

Don’t be afraid to ask or to offer professional assistance; it may well be the key to a successful recovery.

David O’Loughlin,
ALGA President