Senate debates

Monday, 21 June 2021


Hallam, Mr Greg, AM, PSM, Queensland: Local Government

10:17 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This morning, I was fortunate to attend the Local Government Association of Queensland breakfast. It's the opening salvo for the Australian Local Government Association. I rise to congratulate the many local councils, particularly the smaller councils, of my home state of Queensland for the extraordinary amount of work they do to provide critical, grassroots services, under financial pressure that increases every year. However, before I do, I want to acknowledge a gentleman who has given a significant part of his life to the Local Government Association of Queensland. Mr Greg Hallam has been the CEO of LGAQ since 1992—that's 29 years—and he has become synonymous with advocating for this critical level of government.

Greg is no stranger to hard work, having been a dairy farmer in an earlier life. He breeds racehorses. He has given generously of his time, volunteering as a parish finance committee chair and as an elite-level accredited athletic coach for 23 years, including 20 years with the Sporting Wheelies. His contribution to Australia in these fields has been recognised by his being awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 2018 for his contribution to local government, sport and disaster management, the Public Service Medal in 2000 and the Centenary Medal in 2001. Greg has also received the Olympic Council's Merit Award, in 2005, which was personally presented to him by the IOC president, as well as Roads Australia's John Shaw Medal. Greg is the only local government employee to receive that honour in its 40-year history. In 2012, Greg was the proud recipient of the National Emergency Medal for his work in Queensland's 2011 natural disaster response. In a few short months, Greg will retire and his shoes will be filled by Alison Smith. All I can say is all the wonderful people who represent their local communities will miss Greg and his enthusiasm for local government. I salute you, Greg Hallam.

Many local councils and regional councils face the constant battle of maintaining service provision across vast areas with small populations while trying to keep rate rises to a minimum. There are grants outside of the long-established FAGs that councils access for specialty works on roads, bridges and community infrastructure. One example of this is the Building Better Regions program that has delivered infrastructure into local government regions across the state. These extra funds go a long way towards helping councils keep rate rises to an absolute minimum, but costs are rising all the time.

Infrastructure built regionally costs materially more in regional centres, more than double the cost of the south, in northern Australia. On top of the regional roles councils play in roads, rates and rubbish, they also look after water supply and treatment, planning and even disaster management. At the same time, the Queensland Labor government, to its great shame, continually tries to heap more responsibilities on local councils, such as managing cemeteries, state lands, stock routes and major roads. This appalling situation is set against the backdrop of an underspend of close to $6 billion by that government on regional roads. To local councils' credit, they are continuing to find ways to manage, to adapt to these changing circumstances in order to make their regions more liveable for their communities. I've visited council run childcare and aged-care centres and they do an outstanding job providing the services that are normally provided by bigger organisations in the cities.

According to the Local Government Association of Queensland, the sunshine state is the most decentralised in Australia, and its councils are responsible for providing more services than councils in other states and territories. There are 77 Queensland councils. Seventeen of them are First Nations councils, 32 are reef catchment councils, and 45 are rural and remote councils. There are 41,829 council employees, which cover 294 occupations. The LGAQ reports its councils manage $150 billion worth of community assets and 153,000 kilometres of local roads. They manage $10 billion of spend on providing services for communities on 53,000 hectares of parks and playgrounds, or more than 74,000 soccer fields, and they have 2,800 bridges in their care. They do more. They spend $25 billion in water and wastewater assets. They have 314 water treatment plants and 76,000 kilometres of water and sewer mains. They have greater planning autonomy and authority, and they are the front line for disaster-planning responsibility and recovery.

Councils are also taking upon themselves the role of tourism promotion. One example from North Queensland is the Hinchinbrook Way campaign that has been credited with boosting the population of Ingham just north of Townsville after some years of decline. In Boulia, Mayor Rick Briton is immensely proud of the council run Min Min Encounter exhibit, which treats visitors to a mechanised sound and light show based around the mysterious Min Min lights that are found in the area. Of course, we can't forget the famous camel races of Boulia.

Winton and Longreach both boast world-class tourism assets. Further along the Dinosaur Trail, Richmond has a terrific centre. And spare a thought for Karumba—a population of 531 permanent residents that explodes to 4,500 people over winter, and the council has to provide the services, like water and sewerage, for that expanded population. Unlike those opposite, we don't need a photo opportunity in order to get out to the bush. We believe in our councils, big and small. A tangible way that we have demonstrated that is the establishment of the $10 billion reinsurance pool in North Australia. Whether it be insurance for a country market, insurance to host a major street parade or even just insurance for assets, the cost of premiums is a crippling burden that is passed on to ratepayers and diverts funds from the essential services that councils provide. Everywhere I travel in regional Queensland, this is one of the main complaints from councils and businesses—that insurance costs have become crippling. Some estimates have put the expected drop in premiums from the introduction of the reinsurance pool at as much as 50 per cent. This would be an extraordinary outcome.

But imagine if the Queensland Labor government also halved or even abolished the stamp duty it charges on premiums. The ACCC reports that the state government raked in $65 million in 2018-19, from North Queensland alone, in stamp duty, which adds between nine and 10 per cent to premiums. From this, the state government allocates only $11 million a year in grants to help people make their homes more cyclone-resilient—in effect treating North Queensland like a $54 million cash cow. The stamp duty increases with insurance premium rises and delivers no increase in services. Sadly for people living in North Queensland, their elected Labor representatives have maintained a head-in-the-sand approach to stamp duty issues, and they're quite happy for businesses and residents to continue to pay up. The worst aspect of high running costs for businesses and councils is that the costs are passed on to average consumers. Therefore they're not only paying their own exorbitant, artificially inflated, Labor-sanctioned premiums; they're paying more in rates, and for goods and services, to cover councils' and businesses' high insurance as well.

The Queensland Labor government's treatment of its councils is nothing short of contemptuous, but I'm glad I'm part of a coalition federal government that unashamedly backs our councils. I was once told that council bashing was a national sport, and I suspect that's right. However, being a local councillor, while a tough job, is an important one, and I congratulate every councillor across Queensland and Australia. I'm very proud to call these councillors and mayors my friends, and I commend my coalition colleagues for taking very seriously their role as the councils' voice in Canberra.

Senate adjourned at 22:27