President’s Column 18 October 2019

ALGA President David O'Loughlin gestures at a lectern

This week I want to discuss poverty and drought, and the vital role Local Government plays in trying to reduce both.

Local Government could say that scourges like poverty and drought are caused by external factors, for others to deal with, but should we?

Anti-Poverty Week, which concludes tomorrow, is an annual assessment of the shocking prevalence of poverty in our wealthy country and it serves to highlight the role Local Government is playing in trying to alleviate it.

Some councils, such as Brimbank City Council (VIC) held food drives, others such as Hobart City Council held events to raise awareness.

More than 3 million Australians, or 13.3 percent of the population (yes that many), are considered to be living below the poverty line, or have a median household income less than $433 a week for a single adult and $909 for a couple with two children, organisers of the Week said.

Local Councils see the impacts first hand, creating additional demands on local government services, particularly in inner cities where vulnerable people may congregate, and remote and regional areas where support services can be sparse.

That’s why councils attending the National General Assembly of Local Government have for the past two years overwhelmingly supported motions which called on the Commonwealth to significantly raise Newstart and other payments.

ALGA last month sent a submission to a Senate inquiry into Newstart and explained how Local Governments across Australia were concerned about the adequacy of Newstart for individuals, families and the community more broadly.

“Many local governments address the impacts of an inadequate safety net payment on a daily basis,” the ALGA submission said.

“In many cases they are providing both services and infrastructure to assist the unemployed and other vulnerable members of the community meet their daily needs and specific requirements associated with individuals maintaining their income support payments.  This is in effect cost shifting from the Australian Government, who raise over 80 percent of Australia’s tax revenue, to local governments who raise only 3.6 percent of the nation’s tax revenue. 

Homelessness is another aspect of poverty, and while Local Government lacks a specific mandate to address homelessness, councils try to combat it through coordinating actions with other agencies.

Councils also strive to use our planning levers and regulatory powers to encourage greater housing diversity and thereby a range of price points for housing in our communities.

Some councils do much more, sponsoring affordable housing projects or even funding them directly.

Turning to the drought, this week I’ve spoken at the annual conferences of the Local Government Association of Queensland and LGNSW where motions about drought, water, and communities under enormous strain featured prominently.

It’s not just farmers but entire townships, main streets and while communities across Australia, especially in NSW and Queensland, who are feeling the pressure of water shortages and drought of varying severity.

That’s why ALGA has supported the Drought Communities Program and has engaged with the Drought Minister, David Littleproud, on several occasions explaining that while the money for councils in the first funding round was welcome and played a key role, it has run out, yet their communities continue to suffer.

When farmers leave fields unsown and sell their stock, they need less farm workers, discretionary spending in local towns falls drastically, hitting farm-dependent businesses which themselves then need to lay off staff or close.

The multiplier effect is felt across all businesses and service organisations.  In fact, all parts of the community suffer including schools, sporting teams, volunteer groups and social events.

This is where local councils are critical, not just as a major employer in many regional areas but so in keeping communities functioning and providing services that support community wellbeing and resilience.

This includes organising community functions and events, large and small, that bring people together and provide a vital, if only temporary, break from the drought.

That’s why local governments that were eligible for the Drought Community Programs Extension have welcomed these funds, and acknowledge their importance in providing short term stimulus and relief for their communities. 

ALGA will continue to advocate at the Commonwealth level for further program extensions because drought-affected communities desperately need assistance, and we will work together with state and territory local government associations to make sure those communities are not forgotten and get the support they need.

David O’Loughlin

ALGA President