President’s column – 29 May 2020

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

National Cabinet has proven useful in tackling Covid-19 head on, and it could expand to take on job creation, population and infrastructure planning, freight productivity, recreation and sport, culture and arts, social cohesion, aged care, childcare, ending domestic violence – and many more areas where local government plays a key role and therefore must be at the table.

In a case of “never let a crisis go to waste”, the Federal Government has announced it wants to broaden National Cabinet’s focus beyond managing the Coronavirus pandemic into a more general consideration of national economic and social recovery.

In short, the Morrison Government wants to begin instituting a permanent ongoing role for National Cabinet – even perhaps to the extent of having it replace the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) as the “peak intergovernmental forum in Australia”.

National Cabinet was established on 13 March – just as Covid-19 deadly impact was becoming apparent – and its regular and frequent meetings since then have been characterised by a high degree of cooperation, unity, and common purpose.

This has undoubtedly been an important factor in Australia’s extraordinary success in getting the Covid-19 crisis under control.

The comparison between National Cabinet’s solidarity and the often slow processes of COAG has not been lost on the Prime Minister – despite frequency and agendas for COAG having long been within the PM’s control.

ALGA has been a member of the Council of Australian Governments since its inception in 1992, providing the Commonwealth and states and territories with a mechanism to engage the third tier of government on national reform as well as providing local government with an opportunity to highlight the potential impact of issues of national significance on local communities, particularly outside of the inner metropolitan areas.

Three levels of government working together for the benefit of the nation.

We were not, however, included in the National Cabinet – a decision we saw as a missed opportunity given local government’s public health, aged care and childcare responsibilities in most jurisdictions and its powerful role in community education, compliance and enforcement, economic development, and business support across the entire nation.

ALGA has sought at every opportunity presented through the National Coordination Mechanism, ministerial councils and senior officials meetings, to make input into the National Cabinet’s policy considerations and implementation phases.

We have stepped up, just as every council nationwide has stepped up to play our role in containing the virus and supporting the community to minimise the social and economic impacts – in many ways we were the “boots on the ground”.

However, it could have been more efficient and effective if we were involved at the highest levels from the start.                 

It remains unclear at this time if local government will have membership of a broadened National Cabinet.

If the National Cabinet is to continue with a broader remit than the health response for which it was first established, then ALGA, as the national voice of local government in Australia, must be a foundation member – just as we are of COAG.

Federal governments over the past three decades have seen value in all three levels of government working together through membership of COAG.

Indeed, the average Australian would expect their governments to work together for their benefit, at all levels, across all topics that can improve their lives and livelihoods.

Local governments are responsible for 662,000km of road network, 75 per cent of the nation’s road length.

We provide most of the public recreation and sporting fields, cultural and arts venues, regional tourism infrastructure, and events and cultural inclusion activities.

Along with the Australian, State and Territory Governments, we are jointly involved in funding or delivering in a large number of policy areas including freight infrastructure, human services (child care, aged care), land use planning, population management, natural resources and environmental management, emergency management, public health, immunisations, sewerage and water supply, community education, and meeting a number of national initiatives including bushfire and drought recovery, and improving on-shore recycling to meet recently agreed export ban objectives.

Local governments have also increasingly taken the lead role in local and regional economic development, reflecting their on-ground presence and expertise, and filling the gaps left by other governments in recent years in business mentoring, training, networking and incubation.

In addition, successive federal governments have sought to develop a direct role with local governments over the last 20 years, trusting (and relying on) councils to deliver substantial programs like Roads to Recovery and Bridges Renewal, and a raft of programs ranging from healthy eating programs to community facility upgrades, smart city initiatives and economic stimulus programs.

Working together we have jointly delivered over 65,000 projects efficiently and effectively for the benefit of our shared constituencies.

An expanded role for the National Cabinet as the nation recovers socially and economically from the coronavirus pandemic makes good sense, particularly if it can achieve the “cut through” needed to engineer a speedy and sustainable recovery.

The practicalities, however, demand that local government be included, something we are impressing on the Commonwealth and first ministers. 

Let get on with the job, together, just as our communities would expect.

David O’Loughlin,
ALGA President