President’s Column – 7 February 2020

ALGA President David O'Loughlin gestures at a lectern

Prime Minister Morrison’s bushfire condolence motion this Tuesday said that the response to the tragic summer bushfires which have affected such a large area across five jurisdictions included “unceasing efforts and close cooperation between state and local governments”.

He later noted “the actions of every level of government have been exemplary” and he paid tribute to state “Premiers, to their agencies and local governments who have all been doing exceptional work.”

I appreciate the Prime Minister’s motion and those of other parliamentarians who highlighted how communities worked together to support each other before, during, and after the fires.

His public comments match those made to me directly at recent bushfire recovery round tables, and were echoed by commendations from the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack recognising the central role local government has played in responding to the unprecedented number and scale of recent bushfires.

Their visits to affected communities, relief centres, and ravaged fire fronts has emphasised the central role of Local Government in large scale disasters, and how much our communities rely on us.

But that reliance requires comes at a cost. Whilst the 42 Category C declared councils are grateful for the $1m in rapid Commonwealth assistance, most say it is nowhere near enough. Whilst nearly 20 other councils that also suffered huge losses have received no financial assistance to date.

It’s all very good to say we need to “build back better” and “improve resilience” at the local level, because we will all agree!

But councils can’t fund it on our own when our share of national taxation is steadily falling, when the Federal Government have not reversed the cuts they made in the 2014/15 funding freeze that ran for years, and when they have repeatedly ignored our calls for disaster mitigation funding and climate change adaption funding.

It’s even less feasible in jurisdictions that are rate capped!

If we are to build stronger communities, more resilient infrastructure, and prepare for more intense and frequent disasters, then something has to change- and the Federal Government hold almost all the keys.

That’s a point we’ve made strongly in ALGA’s submission to the 2020-21 Federal Budget.

It again stresses the need for the Commonwealth to address the funding imbalance in the Financial Assistance Grants – ALGA’s ongoing priority.

Our submission stresses that local governments are finally constrained by raising only 3.4 percent of Australia’s total revenue, compared to the Commonwealth’s 80 percent.

The submission states:

On behalf of the local government sector, we are calling for a phased return of the Financial Assistance Grants to a level equal to 1% of Commonwealth Taxation Revenue as follows – an additional $830 million per annum over two years on top of the base quantum starting from the 2020-21 financial year, followed by an additional $200m per annum from 2022-23 until 1% of Commonwealth taxation revenue is achieved.

Our budget submission says that as Australia remains in the grip of drought and grapples with the onset of an early and extreme bushfire season, and potentially faces more extreme and frequent weather events, it’s vital we build community resilience.

Higher levy banks, stronger coastal protection, wider firebreaks, more reliable communication infrastructure.

“To help achieve this we propose a targeted disaster mitigation program at a level of $200 million per annum for four years and a Local Government Climate Response Partnership Fund of $200 million over four years,” our submission says.

The submission agrees with the Prime Minister’s sentiments that local governments are on the frontline when dealing with the risks and impacts of climate variability.

“Councils need to prepare for the unavoidable impacts of climate change (adaptation) and have a significant role in reducing the degree of climate change which may occur (mitigation).

“Australian councils and communities are ready to step up to tackle climate change in a way that can stimulate economic growth and manage their assets more wisely.”

But we can’t fund it out of “business as usual” revenue, nor can we step up if our share of the national tax purse continues to step down.

I invite you to read the ALGA Federal Budget Submission.

I urge you to share your efforts and aspirations with your local federal member, emphasising at every opportunity that we have proven to be and will continue to be a trusted partner in delivering for our communities # providing we receive funding support.

Finally, thank you to the President of LGNSW, Linda Scott, and large number of councils who hosted me last week during my tour of fire and drought affected councils in NSW.

I can assure you your work on the fire ground and beyond, your protection of your communities and your concern for the future of your local economies has been appreciated at the highest levels of government.

My continued advocacy reflects your concerns and your aspirations for a full and rapid recovery.

Keep up the great work Local Government!

David O’Loughlin

ALGA President