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Thank you for inviting me here to speak with you today.
Your State Conference brings together over three hundred staff from the sixty-eight councils across South Australia.
That’s quite a feat.
And the theme of your conference – Communicate to Captivate: Conversations in local government – rightly reflects the importance we must all place on the way that we communicate.
The way we communicate with our communities – my constituents, your ratepayers.
And, the way we communicate with each other – across all tiers of government – in order to deliver for our communities.
It’s a discussion which is so important in these times.
Governments at all levels are struggling to retain the confidence of their communities.
Confidence in institutions is at an all-time low.
All of us, elected and appointed, working in all levels of government, local, state and territory, and federal, must make a concerted effort to rebuild trust in our institutions, trust in our governments, and trust in our democracy.
That effort must involve close reflection of the way that we communicate with our communities.
And it must involve close reflection on the way we in government communicate with each other.
How we communicate across political divides, how we communicate across tiers of government, how we seek to build partnerships in order to address the collective challenges that our communities face.
Your work – as librarians, administrative officers, team leaders, managers, directors and Chief Executive Officers – plays a vital role in our state.
Your work – by its nature – means that your tier of government is perhaps the closest to the communities we all work to represent.
You deliver services that Australians rely on every day.
Meals on Wheels to support those in need.
Youth advisory councils to give a voice to young Australians.
You maintain the roads, the paths and the bikeways that we use to get to work and home every day.
Some of which we may not be conscious of – like stormwater infrastructure that keeps their houses safe from flooding.
In South Australia – you collectively manage some $22 billion worth of public assets.
You provide essential spaces that build community – community centres, libraries, cultural and arts venues, and parks.
You play an essential role in driving local economies both through your work, and as employers – nationally, some 200,000 Australians are employed by local government.
And, you provide essential support in times of crisis and emergency, responding to the event of natural disaster.
As a result, Australians have a strong connection to their local councils.
Communities, particularly regional communities, gain a sense of identity from their local councils.
And so it is not surprising, that in Essential’s latest survey of trust in institutions, local government performed relatively well.
Total trust in local councils is at 42 per cent.
That might be a statistic you baulk at, but it’s relatively high when compared to the other tiers of government.
Total trust in state parliament is at 31 per cent, while total trust in federal parliament is at 28 per cent.
Perhaps then – it is in the interests of other levels of government to ensure we’re communicating well with you.
The importance of the relationship between federal government and local government is something that Labor accepts – and we’ve demonstrated it in our actions.
As a part of Labor’s highly successful Economic Stimulus Plan, the Regional and Local Council Infrastructure Program provided $1.1 billion in investment, delivering some 5,000 small and larger scale projects.
In addition, Labor increased Financial Assistance Grants – an initiative first put in place by the Whitlam Labor Government – by 20 per cent.
And we boosted funding for the Roads to Recovery program substantially.
But we did more than provide funding.
We recognised the importance of Local Government and to entrenching Local Government in service delivery.
The then Labor Local Government Minister and my good friend, Anthony Albanese, convened the Australian Council of Local Government.
This was an annual event that brought together mayors, shire presidents and councillors from around the country to Canberra, giving you direct access to ministers and their senior public servants.
It was a great initiative – that ensured local government was provided a real voice in Commonwealth policy-making.
But what happens when communication fails – and there is no commitment to partnership?
The last five years provides an insight.
After coming to government in 2013, the Coalition scrapped the Australian Council of Local Government – dismissing it as a mere “talk fest”.
And, they froze the indexation of Financial Assistance Grants for three years, ripping nearly $1 billion out of the budgets of local governments across the country.
In addition, the Coalition Government has slashed federal infrastructure grant funding – the money that goes to the states, territories and local government to deliver major road and rail projects.
Annual funding will fall from $7 billion in 2017-18 to just $4.5 billion in 2021-22.
The impact of federal government cuts is exacerbated when compounded with the impact on the private sector.
Average annual investment has fallen by 15 per cent since 2013 to $52 billion.
In the case of Australia’s transport infrastructure – roads, bridges, railways and ports and harbours – the decline is even greater at 19 per cent.
The impact of that reduction in investment is felt by the other tiers of government – by state and territory governments and by local governments.
And the impact of that reduction in investment is felt by our communities.
It is a clear demonstration of what happens when there is a failure to communicate effectively.
A failure to listen to priorities, to consult in policy making, and to partner, to work together for the benefit of those we all represent.
It is a phenomenon I have experienced in my own work as a representative of my community and as a policy maker.
When Labor was elected in 2007 I had the honour of being appointed as Minister for Climate Change and Water.
It meant that I was responsible for two significant challenges facing our nation and our state.
Firstly, to lead the government’s work in mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change.
Secondly, to deliver, after 120 years of conflict between the states and territories, agreement to secure the health of the Murray-Darling Basin.
These were significant and complex policy problems.
They required clear communication with impacted communities, and partnerships with all levels of government, business, industry and agriculture – and across party lines.
Dealing with climate change meant a whole-of-economy transition to decouple economic growth and carbon emissions.
I knew that a nation-wide economic change of this scale required bipartisan commitment.
We could not afford to allow politics to interfere with reform of that importance.
To Malcolm Turnbull’s credit, we secured that agreement.
It’s unfortunate that Tony Abbott, sensing political opportunity, used the climate change debate to depose Malcolm Turnbull and take the Liberal Party leadership for himself.
His decision to walk away from bipartisan partnership for his own political interest has resulted in a decade long climate change war – with some in our parliament continuing to refuse to accept the science.
The impact of climate change is felt by all Australians.
By the farmers experiencing prolonged drought.
By families struggling with skyrocketing cost of electricity – the result of the private sector refusing to invest in new electricity generation in the absence of policy certainty.
Achieving agreement on the Murray-Darling Basin was, similarly, no mean feat. It had, after all, eluded governments for 120 years.
It, again, required intensive communication with impacted communities – whose perspectives and interests were diverse.
That diversity of interests, and the parochial approach to the management of the Basin, was precisely what put the health of the river being put at risk.
And so, resolving the century-old conflict would necessitate that same partnership between governments and with community.
As Minister for Water, I’m proud of the steps we took to securing a healthy River Murray.
I purchased nearly 1,000 gigalitres of water, on the market, to be returned to the river and our government secured an historic agreement at the Council of Australian Governments.
That led to the negotiation and agreement of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan – offering hope that we finally had secured the necessary partnership to secure the health of the Basin.
The undermining of the Plan since – by subsequent federal governments, and particularly Barnaby Joyce, but also by state and territory governments – has seen the hope that partnership offered dissipate.
Progress towards implementation of the Plan has stalled, and governments and upstream irrigators have failed to meet their obligations under the Plan.
The impact of that failure to work in partnership is again borne at the local level.
By all those who rely on the River – for their drinking water, for their livelihoods.
And, in each case, our communities recognise that it is they who suffer as a result of our failure to work together.
It is this realisation that contributes to the declining trust in our governments.
So how do we communicate with those we represent, and each other, in order to ensure we deliver for our communities and restore faith in our institutions?
We must be upfront and honest about the challenges we face.
And we must be clear about how we intend to deal with them.
To set expectations.
And once we have set out our agenda, and set expectations, we must deliver.
It is in this spirit that Labor, under Bill Shorten, has laid out our plans for government.
It is the most extensive and ambitious policy agenda seen from an opposition in living memory.
We have been clear that we intend to invest in the services that Australians depend on by:
- restoring $14 billion cut by the current government from our schools;
- protecting Medicare and investing in our hospitals;
- uncapping university places;
- investing in vocational education and apprenticeships; and
- reversing the decline in infrastructure investment
We have also made challenging decisions – and been clear about how we intend to fund the investment in services we think Australians deserve.
Policies like reforming negative gearing and capital gains tax, and ending cash refunds for excess dividend imputation credits.
These are challenging debates.
They mean we aren’t a small target.
They mean we give the incumbent government an opportunity to misinform and to scaremonger.
But these are debates we feel are necessary.
To be honest about the challenges we collectively face.
And to be honest about the way that we intend to deal with them.
They are debates we must have if we are to govern responsibly – by being honest about the challenges we face, and the way we intend to deal with them.
It is a brave step – and one that I think demonstrates the kind of government we want to be.
One that communicates honestly with Australians – and one that seeks to build partnerships with all levels of government to address the challenges we collectively face.
Congratulations on your Conference.
I trust that your discussions will ensure local government continues to be a trusted institution – and one that works constructively to continue to deliver the services that Australians rely on every day.
Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.