Local government

  • by

I am pleased to make a contribution on the ministerial statement on local government. As a former councillor in the City of Banyule, I certainly understand and recognise the great contribution that local government makes as the third tier of government. Councils provide services and accountability to people in the Ivanhoe electorate. Can I also say, taking into consideration the contributions of previous speakers on this matter, that it is important to reflect on some of the commitments and work that has been done to get us to this point and the reflections we have of people in local government and the work that they do.

The coalition made commitments in relation to local government at the last election, particularly commitments in relation to the greener street lighting program, which was about reducing carbon emissions. That is an important aspect of my portfolio as Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment. The former Minister for Local Government and former member for Shepparton axed that program, even though it was an election commitment of the previous government to support and fund that better street lighting program in local government. That program was about trying to reduce costs for local government, and it was very disappointing that the previous government broke that commitment.

There have been some comments by the shadow Minister for Local Government around cuts to local government services. The point that he missed was in relation to the cuts around the Commonwealth Grants Commission — that is, the federal government’s cuts to funding for local government. That has been a cut in local government grants to Banyule in my electorate. Through its cuts to grants commission funding, the federal government cut between $180 000 and $250 000 per annum from the City of Banyule’s funding. A 1 per cent rate increase in Banyule amounts to about $400 000, so what we are talking about across a four-year council term is a compounding cut of something in the order of a 2 per cent rate increase. Banyule City Council now has to find that money or has to somehow find a way to cover that cost or cut services accordingly because of the substantial cuts from the federal government for services through those grants commission processes. These cuts have been far more substantial for other councils, particularly rural and regional councils, but I know that this does affect councils in my electorate of Ivanhoe.

Yesterday I was pleased to meet with my good friends at the Australian Services Union (ASU) and have a discussion with them as representatives of those who work in the local government sector. That union’s desire is to ensure that its members are rewarded and also protected and valued in the work they do in providing services to the community. Banyule City Council employs some 1000 staff, including casual, part-time and full-time people across the municipality. A significant number of people provide a number of services, including maternal and child health services and services in relation to parks and gardens, and of course waste.

The minister is doing important work delivering on the government’s very successful election commitment in relation to rate capping, which resonated in the community of Ivanhoe. Rate capping is about providing accountability to councils. Banyule has had record high rate increases. The council likes to say that its rates overall are lower than those of other councils, but the fact remains, as has been reported in the Age and other media, that up until this year Banyule City Council had continually recorded in recent years the highest year-on-year increase in rates across metropolitan Melbourne.

It is funny that just as the Andrews government’s plans for rate capping are coming in for next July, Banyule has had a substantially lower increase in rates. That it is not to say that Banyule did not have an increase in rates, but the increase was significantly less — and it did not make headlines as having one of the highest increases in rates in its budget for this year. That is about the council starting to do a lot more self-reflection on the services it provides to the community, the accountability it provides and the rate increases that it foists upon people in my electorate.

There have been very significant rate increases across Eaglemont and Ivanhoe, and I have never had a response to an election commitment policy like I had in East Ivanhoe, Ivanhoe and Eaglemont. The people in those suburbs are not always known for their great enthusiasm for some of the policies of Labor governments, but they were very quick to add their voices to support accountability and rate capping and get better value and better transparency on the rates they pay. Already we have seen a less than average increase from Banyule council in the lead-up to that rate-capping policy.

In talking with my friends at the ASU, it was pleasing to hear that the matters they will raise in their submissions to the Essential Services Commission (ESC) pick up on issues they think are important. These include issues around executive salaries, consultancies and councils that choose to have a human resources manager or director but then contract out all their work to Freehills or other legal services rather than doing the work in-house. We need to understand how many top-heavy executives there are who are not actually delivering the work when it is being outsourced to others. Why are they not doing that work themselves? Why do we have so many of these fat cats if they do not have the capacity to do the work?

As the minister has pointed out, it is important that there is a focus in the ESC’s work and the rate capping policy around how councils are kept accountable for the services they provide and making sure that they are able to detail that very regularly. In my community it is important that there is a good working relationship between local government and the state government. Part of that is the relationship we have with the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV), and I think the MAV needs to reflect very carefully on the way it engages communities and provides value to local councils. This is the case particularly in recent times, given its engagement with the Auditor-General and the way in which it governs itself.

I know many of the board members at the MAV, including Cr Melican from Banyule City Council, and mayor Helen Coleman at Nillumbik Shire Council. These are good, fresh and new people who are coming onto the MAV board, and they will provide great input and direction. I know that they also welcome the work mentioned in the ministerial statement and the actions that the minister has been taking in putting forward a clear vision to work with local government and work with communities to make sure that we get the best value at that level of government that many of us in this chamber have experienced ourselves, but she is also making sure that we have a clear policy direction about where the government wants to take local government services. It is not just about delivering on a very successful rate-capping policy; it is also about the performance of local government, integrity and good governance. I know the minister has further announcements to make in that space that relate to election commitments that we have made.

It is important in local government that we work together around holding the Abbott federal government accountable for the cuts it has made to federal grants that affect local government. That has had a flow-on and cost-shifting effect that in many cases councils have had to pass on to ratepayers. There has effectively been a cut of a couple of per cent. It is hundreds of thousands of dollars and is ultimately equivalent to, say, a 2 per cent rate increase in the council in my electorate. That has serious consequences for local government in Banyule.

I am also looking forward to the work and responses we get to the ministerial statement from key stakeholders, and I will engage Banyule City Council on those matters. I commend the minister’s forward thinking in relation to local government. Labor governments have a strong history of working closely with local government, of valuing their work and encouraging them to represent their communities and achieve great results in partnership with the state government. We know what work to do, and there are improvements that need to be made. We look forward to supporting the government in that work.