President’s column – 9 October 2020

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

Tuesday’s Federal budget was one that brought home the bacon for local government.

An extra $1 billion for local infrastructure, new money ($2 billion) for road safety initiatives, and council access to a wage subsidy scheme worth $1.2 billion to employ new apprentices and trainees.

Over and above those big-ticket items, there were many other measures, initiatives, and programs (some of them dating back to July’s Economic and Fiscal Update) that will enable local government to play a dynamic, vigorous, and effective role in rebuilding our Covid-stalled economy.

For the rebuilding process to be sustained, tens of thousands of new positions will need to be created, vulnerable employment sectors (such as tourism) shored up, and existing job holders upskilled.

Local government, which employs 194,000 people and owns, manages, and maintains roads and community assets conservatively valued at $345 billion, can exert a large direct and indirect influence on job creation – as ALGA’s advocacy has long made plain.

To hear Deputy Prime Minister Mark McCormack and federal Local Government Mark Coulton repeatedly underline the importance of delivering local jobs, through local projects for sustained recovery has been heartening.

Better yet, they have backed up those words with deeds and with concrete commitments.

Minister Coulton’s letter to me on Tuesday reiterated local government’s “long history … as an essential partner in delivery Commonwealth infrastructure investments”.

“This Budget will, once again, draw on the professionalism and expertise on the level of government that is closest to the people that it serves,” he wrote.

Mr Coulton detailed the additional $1 billion that is being committed to the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure (LRCI) Program announced in May, the funding to maintain the Roads to Recovery Program, and the $2 billion investment in road safety initiatives.

He listed new investments designed the boost regional tourism and regional connectivity, support new water infrastructure provision, and subsidise the wages bill of councils and other organisations which take on new apprentices.

“I welcome your assistance in encouraging councils to look for those projects that will maximise the opportunity for workers to be retained, redeployed, and engaged,” he wrote.

With funding and endorsement comes responsibilities and imperatives, however.

All 537 councils can expect a letter soon advising them of their funding allocation under the LRCI program and underlining the importance of projects that can be got out the door as quickly as possible.

I cannot imagine there would be any council that has not prepared a list of shovel-ready community infrastructure projects designed to deliver maximum economic bang for buck – or a council that has not thought carefully about other asset class projects and how they can be brought forward.

That might not be the case, however, with road transport infrastructure projects where the Commonwealth has concentrated its spending on “congestion-busting” tunnels, bypasses, and motorways in cities and between cities.

Because the Morrison Government has made clear in this Budget that state roads funding – some of which will flow to local government to deliver bridge upgrades – will be withdrawn if it is not spent in the time allotted, councils must be ready to act quickly.

The new “use it or lose it” provision will affect the $2 billion road-safety program, which will “apply lifesaving treatments predominantly to rural and regional roads, as well as to protect those most vulnerable in urban areas, including cyclists and pedestrians”

Shoulder-sealing and audio-tactile line marking, centre line treatments, and barriers to protect against roadside hazards – and projects in urban areas that focus on greater protection and separation for vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists – will all be eligible for funding.

The take-home message for local government from this year’s Budget? Rejoice, but get your skates on.

David O’Loughlin,
ALGA President