Thursday, May 30, 2024

ALGA President’s National Press Club address: ‘The Year of Living Impossibly’

ALGA and LGNSW President, Linda Scott, addressed the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday. Here is her speech in full:

2020: The Year of Living Impossibly

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal people, and paying my respects to Elders past and present.

There’s a line in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass when the White Queen advises Alice to practice believing impossible things. Sometimes, she tells Alice, “I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

There were times during the 97 weeks of March 2020 where it felt like we, collectively, were doing six impossible things before breakfast. As a nation, we blew past accepted wisdom on what governments could and couldn’t achieve. In a matter of weeks we solved problems that had been previously accepted as intractable and did things that had previously been considered impossible. Affordable childcare, for so long in the too-hard basket, was suddenly not just affordable but free. The Federal Government doubled the JobSeeker rate and lifted more than 400,000 Australians out of poverty overnight.

In Sydney, we worked with the State Government to see 3,732 rough sleepers provided accommodation in the space of a week. Parents and carers around the country who had been asking for more flexibility in start and finish times and work-from-home arrangements, and had been told that it just wouldn’t work … suddenly found their entire offices working-from-home.

These were, of course, emergency measures put in place in a time of crisis, and they were not, by any means, perfect, or particularly sustainable.

Preventing child-care centres from charging fees without doing anything to help them with fixed costs – like wages and food – was incredibly stressful for many. The initial decision to provide local councils with no assistance at all for their childcare centres – excluded as we were from JobKeeper – was, to put it mildly, problematic.

Approximately 540 local government centres faced closure. Putting rough sleepers up in four-star hotels is not a sustainable solution – and less than 1,000 of our 3,732 rough sleepers have been provided permanent homes.

Most employers and most employees want at least some face-to-face office time, even if we’re all more willing to re-evaluate the idea of 9 to 5.  

But if we learn one lesson from the Year of Living Impossibly, aside from how often my sons can prank me while I’m on a Zoom call with the Deputy Prime Minister or every mayor in NSW (they buried a toy spider in a plate of afternoon tea – my apologies for the swearing that ensued), I hope we learn that governments can solve problems. And, wearing my local government hat, I hope Australians learn to expect that they do.

This might sound like an idea from the progressive side of politics – and I am – however in local government, knowing government can solve community problems is bipartisan. That’s what we do.

We don’t do foreign policy, we don’t do free trade agreements, we don’t do finance sector reform.

We do roads, rates and rubbish. We also do pools, parks and playgrounds. We do libraries, local festivals and lighting. We employ lawyers, labourers and librarians; cleaners, carpenters and carers; electricians, engineers and educators.

I wouldn’t try to tell a room full of mayors and journalists that council meetings are always harmonious. We’re all elected by people with differing priorities and we represent those different priorities – that’s our responsibility. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from local government, it’s that when we work collaboratively, we can often find a solution that meets all our needs.

A simple example can be found in the humble light bulb. As many would know, LED light bulbs use less electricity, they’re cheaper to run and produce less emissions. They also give a brighter light. Around the country, councils are working together, in some places with support from State or Territory governments to meet the upfront costs, to transition our street lighting to LED. One example is the Light Years Ahead project, councils in Western Sydney working together to replace 14,491 mercury vapour lights with LED lighting. That’s reduced energy consumption by 4.4 million KWh per year – and reduced energy costs by 77%.

Some mayors are primarily motivated by bringing down power bills. Some serve communities who feel that reducing emissions is a priority. Still others are mainly interested in improving community safety through brighter lighting.  Regardless of the why, councils are working together to put in place the same, triple bottom line solution. Ultimately, we’re all working to solve the issues our communities consider priorities with place based solutions.

Another thing that helps foster collaboration and co-operation in local government is that a huge amount of what we do is popular with everyone, however they vote.

In 2018, with local councils across NSW struggling to fund their public libraries, more than 90 councils of all political stripes came together, with the NSW Public Libraries Association, and more than 12,000 community supporters, calling for more support from the NSW State Government. The NSW Government agreed and gave us an extra $60 million over four years. Libraries are loved! No mayor is going to get booted out of office for keeping the local library open.

That moment of collective, non-partisan action in defence of local libraries also illustrates one of the big problems local government faces that we can’t solve: we are starved of funds.

We hear a lot about vertical fiscal imbalance when it comes to the Commonwealth and the States and Territories, but let me tell you, if you want to see the pointy end of vertical fiscal imbalance, take a look at your local council’s attempts to keep the library open 7 days a week as well running affordable childcare to the highest early learning standards and maintaining roads and footpaths.

Financial Assistance Grants have declined from 1 percent of Commonwealth Tax Revenue in 1996 to about half that now. Our ability to generate our own income – through things like hiring out council owned facilities, or through campgrounds and caravan parks – varies widely from one local government area to another.

I strongly believe that the quality of the services you can access should not depend on the postcode you live in, but sadly, without secure and sufficient funding for local government, that is the reality for too many Australians.

For more than 100 of Australia’s 537 local councils, the pandemic came hard on the heels of the impact of the Black Summer bushfires. That included many who’d been most severely affected by the drought. Council resources were already strained. For others of us, the coronavirus restrictions had an immediate and dramatic effect on our bottom line, crashing our income in ways both obvious – when you work-from-home you don’t need to pay for parking, and if the museum is closed you’re not buying a ticket – and less obvious.

Some Councils in rural and regional Australia run airports, for example. The Dubbo City Regional Airport estimated losses of up to $2 million in the last financial year. 

All this happened at the very time our communities needed us to step up and help them get through an incredibly difficult time. And local councils did.  

My own council, the City of Sydney, is providing a $72.5 million package of support despite the hit to our income. That’s why, if I’m elected as Lord Mayor of Sydney, I will donate my Lord Mayoral salary in that first term to local charities or not-for-profit organisations – which also have been doing so much to support Sydney-siders through the pandemic.

On the very other side of the country to us, the Western Australian Local Government Association provided more than $250 million in relief for rates, fees and charges, and rents as a result of COVID-19, as part of a $512 million support package. Their Marketplace online facility saw local government direct more than $40 million to COVID-affected small business through direct procurement. Across WA, local governments contributed more than $200 million in additional capital and maintenance works in support of the economy through the pandemic.

Tasmanian councils have together provided more than $40 million in relief measures.

Despite the enormous hit the first and second wave in Melbourne had on City of Melbourne finances, they have continued to support their community, including a $50 million contribution to the Central City Reactivation Fund.  

It has been inspiring and humbling to be President of the Australian Local Government Association and seeing the agility, the innovation, and the dedication of councillors and council staff around the country. Local communities have had very different needs, despite the global nature of the pandemic.

Waverly Council took on around 30 casual staff – all stood down from Qantas – as COVID-safe marshals for Bondi Beach.

Broken Hill doesn’t really need beach patrols, but their nearest tertiary hospital is in Adelaide – which is a problem when state borders are closed.  The Mayor of Broken Hill City Council, Councillor Darriea Turley, as luck had it, works for NSW Health.  Facilitating urgent medical transfers isn’t usually in a mayor’s job description but it sure was for Darriea in 2020.

In the same way, recovery is going to need locally driven solutions. Different regions are, have been and will be differently affected by hotel quarantine leaks and associated lock-downs and exposure sites. Add to that the ‘lumpy’ recovery as different sectors of the economy come back at different speeds. The Lismore campus of Southern Cross University employs more than 2,000 people. Lismore needs a recovery plan that supports those people and that campus. Mareeba, in Far North Queensland, is a music and performing arts ‘hotspot’. Mareeba Shire needs a recovery plan that takes that into account. One-size-fits-all solutions will leave some of us behind.

I do believe that we can find those local solutions for our communities. I believe that in local government, we are better placed to do that than any other level of government.

Because we’ve been doing it, not just during the pandemic but all along.

One of Australia’s smallest shires, the Wujal Wujal Aboriginal Community on the Cape York Peninsula, has worked to ensure the safety of their community through a weather-resistant, independently solar-powered ‘hot-spot’ telecommunications backup for natural disasters. Or, to put it another way, it’s a tidal wave and tsunami warning system that works during cyclones.

That is absolutely life-saving up there: but it wouldn’t make a lot of sense in Alice Springs. The Regional Council there, MacDonnell Regional Council, delivers a program called MacSafe in 12 remote communities, transporting children home or to a safe location at night. They also run MacYouth, with a range of youth programs. In 2019-2020 they took just under 15,000 young people to a safe location at night and delivered 13,000 hours of sport and recreation, jobs education and other youth programs. They deliver these and other services through a team of 300 staff, 83% of whom are Aboriginal.

Councils know what their communities need, and we know how to deliver it. We are right there on the ground, we are agile, we are connected to our local communities.

So we are well placed to identify problems, and we are well placed to come up with solutions. What we really can’t do, though, is fund them all by ourselves. Because, as I said – we are not awash with cash.

We are not actually recognised as a level of government by the constitution. We’ve been calling for constitutional recognition for quite some time now. I do want to make it clear, though, it is our position that constitutional recognition and a voice to Parliament for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders in line with the Uluru Statement from the Heart takes absolute precedence over our local government concerns.

Which again brings me back to what local government can do to solve big national problems.

There is a national Closing the Gap agreement, with states and territories working in partnership with the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations. The Australian Local Government Association was part of that agreement, local governments are captured in their State Government implementation plans – there is no formal separate mechanism for individual councils to take part.

Yet regional councils, especially in the Northern Territory are absolutely critical in providing services to remote Aboriginal Communities. It’s a joy to be joined by our friends from the East Arnhem Regional Council today. And right across the country, local councils are already responsible for delivering services that are crucial to meeting the national goal: early childhood care and development; housing; disability inclusion; community infrastructure; and more.

If I’m elected as Lord Mayor of Sydney, my very first Lord Mayoral minute will be to create a City of Sydney Closing the Gap plan. But what we really need is to be part of the process, properly. Formally.

Just as we need to be part of the formal process for responding to the pandemic.

One of the disappointing things in the management of the pandemic has been the exclusion of local government. In the beginning, there may have been a case for this.

We don’t control national or state borders. We don’t have quarantine powers under the constitution – well, we don’t have any powers under the constitution. We don’t run hospitals. And at the beginning of the pandemic, that was where the focus was.

But it’s been nearly eighteen months. We’ve moved on from worrying about flattening the curve to vaccination roll-outs and recovery plans. And we can help!

Local councils have facilities that could be repurposed to mass vaccination centres. In fact, in South Australia, childhood immunisations are already delivered in clinics run by local government. In NSW and Victoria, we employ community nurses. We have resources and local knowledge and deep connections in our local communities.

We can also play a crucial role in the recovery.

Together, we employ 194,000 people and spend more than $39 billion each year. More than 70% of councils are rural, regional, or remote. And regional councils invest around $12 billion per annum in regional communities. Across Australia, we employ thousands of apprentices and trainees in areas as diverse as agriculture, ICT, financial services, transport, automotive services, engineering, hospitality, construction, and if we had more secure longer-term funding we could take on more.

We are crying out for the funding to employ more childcare workers, business services workers, landscapers, community service workers, plumbers, librarians, painters, tilers, carpenters and more.

As major procurers we are well-placed to play a key role in developing plans to support jobs and strengthen local supply chains.  Did I mention $39 billion dollars? Just in our ordinary day-to-day operations, local governments buy workwear and protective equipment, tyres and batteries, every kind of construction and industrial material you could imagine, the whole gamut of vehicles and machinery, office supplies, media and creative services – and oh yes, books. For our libraries.

We collect just 3.6 percent of the taxation and yet we are responsible for 33 percent of the public infrastructure.  We’re productive, efficient and when we work together, we can create real change.

For example, in Sydney we’re working with the Hunter region in NSW to create a recycling factory that will turn glass from recycling collection into road base – creating a truly circular economy. We’re taking glass from your recycling bin, and hoping to buy it back at road and footpath base – creating new jobs in a coal mining region in the process.

Two years ago, when the globalised economy was considered all upside and no risk, we could send our recycling overseas and we could buy our road-base from overseas as well. But it turns out, there are risks to thinking globally and forgetting to think locally, and a world-wide pandemic is one of them. So, working together, councils have come up with a solution that will help us with our recycling, provide us with a local source of road-base, and create clean green jobs in the Hunter.

Another example of councils working together to create enormous change is VECO.  46 of Victoria’s 79 councils are part of the Victorian Energy Collaboration, with their electricity needs pooled into one long-term renewable energy contract. The emissions saved are the same as taking 90,000 cars off the road.

Indeed, a recent report from the ICLEI, or the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, revealed that if all the targets set by Australian local governments were met an incredible 88,200 kt CO2 emissions would be reduced – which would bring Australia 96 per cent of the way to meeting its current target of 28% reduction by 2030. With a national program to help local governments deliver on their ambitions, there is huge emissions reduction potential – and opportunity to grow a roaring green economy across Australia.

Local councils are flexible, we are collaborative, and we are agile in ways State and Territory governments, and the Commonwealth, can’t be.  So many of the problems we face as a nation, local government can be part of the solution – whether it’s coping with the pandemic, recovering from it, addressing climate change and climate change mitigation, supporting local businesses, or Closing the Gap.

To do this, we need the Federal Government to restore Financial Assistance Grants to a level equal to at least 1 percent of Commonwealth Tax Revenue – the level they were when Keating was the Prime Minister, The level they were when John Howard became Prime Minister in 1996.  The current level is closer to 0.5 percent – and that is just not enough.  

A fundamental part of our campaign must be to let the Government know that we value the funding but that we don’t just want a one-off cash injection – we want the increase in the financial assistance grants to be ongoing.

We share the same ambitions to improve productivity, create prosperous and liveable places, improve the quality of life of our residents, enhance community wellbeing, and build social cohesion.

We can be part of building stronger, more resilient communities. In fact, I would say that local government is crucial to the heart of that project.

All we need is the recognition, the place at the table, and the funding, to contribute at our best.

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