By Council Magazine Editor, April Shepherd
Every year the nation’s executive local government staff, councillors and mayors congregate in Canberra for the Australian Local Government Association’s (ALGA) National General Assembly (NGA), featuring numerous exhibitors, keynote addresses, panels and most importantly, networking opportunities. This event allows the sector to problem solve, collaborate and share ideas and solutions to build more inclusive and productive councils, and in turn, more functional communities that are prepared for future challenges. At this year’s NGA Council Magazine Editor, April Shepherd, sat down with ALGA President Councillor Linda Scott to talk about future challenges, championing First Nations voices, and what the NGA’s 2023 theme of ‘Our Communities, Our Future’ means to her personally.
Every June the streets of Australia’s capital city fill with a different group of government professionals – the local government sector – with representatives from Australia’s 537 councils converging on the city for the NGA. This year, the event featured a timely theme of ‘Our Communities, Our Future’, highlighting how the sector must work not just together with fellow councils, but with all levels of government.
This year’s event, held at the National Convention Centre from 13-16 June 2023, kicked off with the Regional Cooperation and Development Forum; with the official NGA program beginning on the 14th. The event featured addresses from the following influential people, offering insight into the theme, their communities and how councils can face future challenges together:
- Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, the Hon Catherine King MP
- His Excellency Vasyl Myroshnychenko, Ambassador of Ukraine
- Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Peter Dutton MP
- Comedian Jimmy Rees
- Brendan Moon AM, Coordinator General, National Emergency Management Agency
Many mayors also presented and weighed in on panel discussions with the following panels showcasing a variety of opinions and thought provoking commentary: A Conversation About the Voice, Cyclones, Fires and Floods, Australia’s Affordable Housing Crisis, Cyber Security and Local Government and The Future of Local Government, to name a few.
The program also included some comedic relief from comedian Jimmy Rees, who first became famous from his decade-long stint on the children’s television show Giggle and Hoot, and now is a well-known social media entertainer and influencer.
Q&A: President Linda Scott on the sector’s future goals
What do you think is the biggest challenge the sector will face in the next 12 months?
We brought together the nation’s 537 local governments to share innovation and allow us all to take home ideas to our local communities about the work of other councils. We also want to be able to speak with one voice to the Prime Minister and the Federal Government about the things that local governments need to support our communities for the future.
Our sessions are on everything from the provision of affordable housing to climate change, the Voice, and cybersecurity. And, of course, we hear from the Federal Government and the Opposition on a huge range of opportunities for councils to share innovations.
Like our communities under pressure from rising inflation, local governments are being asked to do more with less – so for the future, sharing innovation and seeking more support from the government are our real priorities in the face of that really significant financial challenge.
How do councils use collaboration and partnerships to undertake practical work to help their communities?
We see councils working together in so many ways, such as to jointly procure or provide services across a region in a way that’s very collaborative – such as a shared library network. So something that’s worked for one coastal council to prevent a disaster may very well work in another coastal council on the other side of the nation. We are seeing councils being given awards by the Federal Government – a whole smorgasbord of great ideas that other councils can be led to.
What does the 2023 theme of ‘our communities, our future’ mean to you personally?
I’m very proud to represent my own community in the City of Sydney – which makes me realise that the Governor General’s description of local government as the level of government that ‘looks people in the eye’ is very accurate. Like all councillors, I get stopped by my community and neighbours who ask me for support to get a new tree planted, rejuvenate a playground, build a new skate park or improve our City of Sydney library services. Every day, my community is very engaged with me as a councillor and I find a deep sense of reward from undertaking that work at a local level.
What goals are on the agenda for the next 12 months?
Nationally, our goals at ALGA over the next 12 months are to ensure that all councils can be sustainably funded to be able to support our communities. We know as families face increased cost of living pressures from inflation, they will come to rely on the free or low cost services that councils provide more.
We saw in the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, many councils resorted to feeding communities, providing Wi-Fi access and ensuring people had open spaces to play and exercise.
These activities that are free or subsidised by local governments become even more important in the current economic climate. It’s our goal to ensure that the Federal Government is supporting local governments to be financially sustainable enough to support our communities through these times.
How is the ALGA trying to champion first nation voices in the next 12 months?
ALGA is very proud to be a signatory to the Closing the Gap agreement with the Federal Government and the states and territories.
Many councils have their own Closing the Gap plans or reconciliation plans with a huge series of proactive actions that local governments are taking, whether it be to increase Indigenous employment, or to increase procurement from Indigenous businesses.
This, for example, could ensure that our pools in remote and regional areas are able to support Indigenous healthcare needs, allowing children to swim at a low cost regularly, to have fun, swim and prevent ear infections. There’s a huge amount that councils are doing to play our part in Closing the Gap.
We acknowledge, like every other level of government, that the progress on Closing the Gap targets is not acceptable. The gap between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians is not closing fast enough, and in some cases it’s headed in the wrong direction. – Linda Scott, ALGA President
So like every other level of government in Australia, we understand the deep responsibility to look intently at what more we can do to close the gap.
One final question; fast- forward to nga 2024, what do you hope to see the sector’s achieved?
The Federal Government made a commitment at the last election to fair funding increases for Financial Assistance grants. Seeing those delivered by the Federal Government is a real priority for ALGA, and that will be a key message that councils are pushing for.
At the Australian Council of Local Governments, we have celebrated being given a seat back at the National Cabinet, at the Council of Federated Financial Ministers and all the treasurers. We’ve celebrated the reestablishment after more than a decade of the Australian Council of Local Governments.
It’s great to have a local government truly back at the table working in partnership with the Federal Government. But to truly collaborate and succeed as governments, we need to see fair funding increases to financial assistance grants delivered to ensure councils are able to support our communities in the way that we need.
We have a council in Western Australia that is 97 per cent dependent for their income on federal assistance grants. We have another council I met recently in Western Australia, literally crowdfunding for their airfield. We have councils trying to support incredibly marginalised communities in very remote parts of Australia with a very small rate base.
We have councils in New South Wales and Victoria rate capped, and the increases in their expenses are in no way keeping up with inflation and the caps that are being placed on rates. As we look to the future, we hope a stronger partnership with the Federal Government and a fair funding allocation of Financial Assistance grants will be able to be delivered.