President’s column – 11 September 2020

Image shows President David O'Loughlin smiling in front of a black background

Australia is in recession and about two million Australians are out of work. If we really care about our communities, what is the role of Local Government in driving recovery? And why?

The “why” is obvious. Those two million Aussies are our locals. They are our first-jobbers, family-starters, mums and dads, the middle-aged, the “wiser and more experienced”, and the retirees whose  plans have been set back.

They are locals who have lost their jobs through absolutely no fault of their own, from pilots to waiters, from shop assistants to travel advisors.

They are us.

It’s also because we are the most connected level of government. We know our local businesses, we use their services, we know their people, we celebrate their successes and we share their failures. We know our main streets intimately, our industrial estates, our CBDs, our home businesses, our shopping centres, and our employment hubs.

Anyone wanting to step up from a home office to the main street, or from a back yard to an industrial estate, will likely talk to their council –and the good ones will be with you for every step, providing case management, networking opportunities, digital literacy and marketing training.

Every council across the nation has an economic development plan, whatever it might be called locally. We know where growth could go, we know what it should be, we can see the impacts first-hand, we have the ideas, we have done the research and promoted the opportunities.

And now, our local people, our local businesses, and our communities need us more than ever. Thankfully, we are not on our own.

The Commonwealth, states, and territories are providing subsidies, grants, tax breaks, and considering industrial relations law changes.

However only local governments can provide support at the grass roots, connecting businesses to programs, amplifying our business training and networking activities, promoting or hosting employment training and readiness programs, and connecting locals with locals.

There is much more Australia’s local level of government can offer in terms of job-creation too.

Take procurement policies. If we consider not just the lowest quote on offer but whether a bid will have a broader effect on local economic activity then we can have a powerful influence on local job creation.

Look at our financial leverage. If we have reserves, now is the time to spend them on projects that are needed, that are long lasting, and will employ locals. The cost of debt has never been lower.

It’s time to challenge our conservative selves, consider prudent borrowing, and invest in long-needed improvements that will serve future communities very well, because they will be paying off the debt – just as virtually every Australian has done at some stage for a home, business, car, or major investment.

Still not sure your council can play a role? For inspiration, check out the City of Mandurah in WA.

Its Entrepreneurial Capacity Building Program has created an estimated 80 full time jobs and around 300 part-time jobs, as well as adding $6.51 million to   gross regional product – making Mandurah a well-deserved winner of a 2020 National Award for Local Government in the category of “contributing to regional growth”.

It is a great example of localism, an issue I spoke about at the Australia Together National Community Recovery Summit in July.

The Cambridge dictionary defines localism as “the idea that people should have control over what happens in their local area, that local businesses should be supported, and that differences between places should be respected”.  

Far from local, National Cabinet had two clear roles, fight the health crisis and create jobs. Big tick on item one, but squabbles over colonial border controls are weakening its authority and distracting them from developing a clear focus on job creation.

Border re-openings will help, but they are unlikely to be a boon for jobs. Extending welfare is necessary, but there are no jobs in it.

Stimulus funding is much more important, because it creates additional activity, or pulls forward projects that will inevitably be back filled with others in time.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack’s $500 million Local Roads and Community Infrastructure program is bang on the money. With 95 percent of the nation’s councils already signed up, real jobs will flow within days and run for months, helping to fill the huge gap in current employment prospects.

State and territory governments are also hosting stimulus programs, as are most councils. Estimates put council-funded stimulus measures at well over $1 billion to date – no small effort from the most constrained tax collector in the country.

The next opportunity  for economic recovery is firmly in the hands of the Morrison Government when, on 6 October, they hand down a budget they’ve confirmed will include “significant new spending” on infrastructure projects – with water supply a particular focus.

Let’s hope they also fund ALGA’s request for disaster mitigation (job creation and risk management), further Infrastructure spending (jobs and backlog reduction), road safety spending (jobs and lives), and our calls for local employment programs and training (local jobs).

Working together, leveraging our local expertise in partnership with focused and funded governments, we can do this.

David O’Loughlin,
ALGA President