MARGARET REYNOLDS. Australian Councils Need a Stimulus Too

Apr 8, 2020

Australian councils, as the front line in so many areas of public policy, need to be properly funded in order to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent Prime Ministerial announcements that guide the community through the COVID 19 pandemic indicate that much thought is being placed on the health and financial well being of all Australians. The scale of financial measures impresses as the National Cabinet takes on the very unpredictable task of trying to keep pace with the disturbing trends that are threatening so many citizens.

However, to date, there has been no formal acknowledgement of the 537 Australian councils which are also trying to respond and adapt to the unprecedented challenges we face. Many people associated with local government have long known it is the “Cinderella” sector of Australian public administration. It operates under the jurisdiction of state governments and is so often overlooked at the national level.

Unfortunately, some people still think of local government as responsible for only very basic services… “rates, rats, roads and rubbish” was the original 19th-century view of the local government, but in modern Australia councils oversee a much more diverse program of local administration. Councils provide a wide range of community services…. sporting facilities. swimming pools, libraries, parks and playgrounds, recycling initiatives, arts and culture programs. It is this local leadership in so many areas of public policy that contributes to the wellbeing of citizens and the local economy.

It is local government that initiates, develops and maintains community facilities, and some are operated as small businesses. For example, swimming pools and city parking facilities are now closed because of the pandemic social isolation rules. If these businesses are run by the private sector with the need to stand down employees then that business may well qualify for the newly announced “Job Keeper” payment to protect both the business and the worker. Local governments also run a range of essential health and other services including childcare, youth and aged care service, where councils partner with the Federal or State Government to provide a variety of opportunities for people at the local level.

To date, the local government has been overlooked in the National Cabinet announcements to assist Australians to respond to COVID 19. Yet all our communities are so reliant on local councils to guarantee health and stability at this critical time.

The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), the voice of local councils around the country, has offered to work with  State and Federal Governments  ‘to help keep the wheels of the economy turning in this time of national need .“ In a  recent statement, President of ALGA David OLoughlin reminded the Prime Minister that “rebuilding bush fire-ravaged communities, creating jobs and renewing worn-out community infrastructure are immediate needs that Councils are “shovel ready” for a targetted short term stimulus with long term national benefits.”

It would seem obvious that the COAG Local Government Ministers Meeting last Thursday would support Australia’s local councils as partners in responding to the current pandemic and contributing to economic recovery. However, the only news to emerge after this meeting was a statement that Council run businesses did not qualify for the “Job Keeper” initiative

Already cash strapped Councils are grappling with the economic realities facing their communities. Residents and businesses are calling for rate relief, council business services are closed, workers are being urged to take leave or being stood down indefinitely. In addition, the annual  Federal Government financial payment to councils, the Financial Assistance Grants, which are normally paid concurrently with the Federal Budget will be delayed.

Australian Local Government employs 189,500 workers in a wide variety of professions and nearly 70% of these workers are full-time employees. Local communities depend on these workers who provide essential services around the country. Indeed 55% of this workforce is based in remote, rural and regional Australia, where service delivery is more challenging.

Of course, decision making about COVID 19 is necessarily changing by the day so perhaps those Local Government Ministers are indeed working behind the scenes to ensure that councils are specifically included in a future stimulus package that fully responds to the local government economy  It is understood that Treasury is collecting data about local government job loss and the impact this will have on local communities. Some individual states are also considering options to protect the future viability of the local councils.

The Federal Government has been quick to recognise the private sector as requiring financial stimulus measures, so surely it is reasonable for Australians to anticipate that comparable support will be forthcoming for our local government public sector.

Margaret Reynolds is a former councillor and Federal Minister for Local Government. She chaired the Advisory Board of the Australian Centre of Excellence in Local Government at the University of Technology, Sydney 2008-2012.

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