ALGA ran its 22nd General Assembly in June, and with more than 700 registrations, it was an excellent turnout, especially given the election campaign and structural reform in NSW.
The theme this year was ‘Partners in an Innovative and Prosperous Australia’ giving voice to the drive in the local government sector to work in partnership with the federal government in creating an innovative and prosperous Australia.
However, the reduced political representation also gave us the opportunity to focus on the local government agenda and the many policy initiatives and solutions that the sector wants to drive, and I believe this energised the discussions at the event. We were able to talk about not just how to respond to Commonwealth policies and programs, but also which policy suggestions and initiatives we could proactively put forward as a sector to improve local services and infrastructure and help deliver Australian Government objectives in every local and regional community across the country.
One of the highlights for me was the panel session focusing on innovation with the Minister for Major Projects and Local Government, the Hon Paul Fletcher MP, along with Pip Marlow, Managing Director at Microsoft. Both these speakers provided powerful insights into how local government could be empowered – as the level of government closest to the community – to drive digital transformation.
The Assembly was also the stage for some announcements: both major parties made substantial promises to the sector during their election campaigns:
- The Coalition committed to the $50 million Smart Cities Program for local government initiatives that apply innovative, technology-based approaches in the areas of planning, infrastructure and service provision. The program’s aim is to encourage councils to partner with communities, local businesses, not-for-profits and research institutes to create service improvements and cutting-edge technology solutions to urban problems. It will help councils develop solutions to the problems facing our urban communities, but the ALGA will be looking to ensure initiatives developed under this program can be extended to our regional and rural centres so that all Australian communities can enjoy the benefits of digital transformation.
- The Labour Party committed that, if elected, Labour would reintroduce the indexation of Financial Assistance Grants (FAGs) from July 2017, and to re-establish the Australian Council of Local Government, with funding to enhance regional innovation and the participation of women in our sector.
Now the Coalition has won, and Cabinet member, Senator the Hon Fiona Nash, has been appointed as the Minister for Local Government and Territories in addition to her role as Minister for Regional Development.The Infrastructure and Transport portfolio structure remains basically the same with the Hon Darren Chester continuing as Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and the Hon Paul Fletcher appointed as Minister for Urban Infrastructure.
The key priority now for ALGA is to seek more detail around the election outcomes – as well as the outcomes from the May Budget – for local government. The sector is also keen to progress the policy initiatives outlined in ALGA’s Local Government Plan for an Innovation and a Prosperous Australia which emphasises the importance of infrastructure investment, and return on investment in proposals that will strengthen the economic base of local government and promote prosperity for all communities.
We also launched our 2016 State of the Regions report, at the NGA. The report highlighted a widening gap in employment rates, household incomes and productivity between and within Australia's regions and cities, which is intensifying the inequality across Australia, and the economic struggles of some regions. It showed that, for instance, if there is no policy action to expand productivity growth outside Australia's knowledge economies such as Sydney and the resource-rich regions, the populations of those other areas will face declining opportunities for work and real incomes.
The report also found that regional income ranges from $20,000 to $30,000 above average in high-income regions and dips to minus $13,000 below average in the lowest income region. On top of this, the unemployment level across regions is ranging from a low 3% for the best performing regions to between 10% and 17% for many of the other regions, illustrating a deepening inequality at a regional level and threatening economic growth on a national level. It's critical that we start the conversation on how these issues can be addressed, how to accomplish a more even spread of prosperity for our communities and how to facilitate better coordination between the three levels of government to assist Australia's struggling regions.
The appointment of Senator Nash as Minister for Local Government, and the partnering of the local government and regional development portfolios, will be particularly significant when it comes to the Federal Government's regional development policy, which Minister Nash has stated will be released in 2017.
ALGA looks forward to mapping out and progressing these commitments with the government over the coming months.