Canberra told to make Roads to Recovery funding permanent

By Julian Bajkowski

The electorally popular, multi-billion dollar Roads to Recovery program should be permanently funded and councils dealt into any new road-user charging schemes a pre-election list of demands issued by Australia’s peak body for local governments says.

As the federal poll date draws closer, councils across the nation have put both sides of politics in Canberra on notice that constituents expect more money to maintain vital services and infrastructure and an end to sneaky state government cost shifting.

Dubbed a ‘10 Point Plan for Resourcing Community Priorities’ the important wish-list from the Australian Local Government Association comes as federal politicians of all flavours attempt to bolster their standing on grass roots community issues ahead of a watershed election.

Importantly, the release of the list comes on the same as Opposition spokesman of Local Government Senator Barnaby Joyce’s address to the Local Government General Assembly in Canberra on Tuesday, a speech bookended by his Nationals colleague Warren Truss.

Always an election campaign favourite, roads funding has remained a hot button issue for voters because it affects the daily lives of so many people, especially in regional electorates where councils are struggling to keep enough bitumen on the road.

But while roads feature prominently, ALGA has put neutralising the existential threat to federally funded schemes like Roads to Recovery at the very top of its list to underline what could happen when there a Constitutional challenge over funding flows following two High Court cases.

“Legal advice from leading authorities confirms that these High Court decisions have created great uncertainty about the validity of Commonwealth programs that provide funds directly to local government,” ALGA’s document says.

“Such programs, including the $3.5 billion Roads to Recovery program, may be unconstitutional and vulnerable to challenge in the High Court. Loss of these funds would threaten the financial sustainability of councils and the wellbeing of communities across Australia and could mean reducing or discontinuing vital services to local communities.”

The peak local government group also wants a comprehensive review of local government funding arrangements, particularly tax sharing arrangements and the increasingly troublesome Financial Assistance Grants program.

“As with the states, local government should have access to an untied revenue stream that reflects actual costs of service and infrastructure provision, keeps pace with demand and promotes equality throughout the nation,” the ALGA document says.

Predictably, there is also a demand to put end cost shifting onto the local government sector by renegotiating the less-than-catchy “Inter-Governmental Agreement Establishing Principles Guiding Inter-governmental Relations on Local Government Matters.”

In essence that means that local governments get both a say and sufficient compensation if and when they have new responsibilities foisted upon them from above by other levels of government.

Libraries, pools, ovals and playgrounds haven’t been forgotten – ALGA wants an additional $1.2 billion over four years to bridge the funding gap in “community infrastructure” it estimates to be worth $12 billion, exclusive of council maintained roads that are valued at $200 million.

“Over a series of decades, the gap between councils’ revenue and the funding they require to deliver a broader range of services expected by their communities as well as maintain and renew the community infrastructure has widened,” ALGA said. “In 2006, this gap was found to total $14.5 billion nationally – reflecting an underspend of $1.1 billion annually. This gap has led to the deterioration of many libraries, community halls, galleries, museums, swimming pools, drainage, sea walls, and sports fields. It has also undermined the financial sustainability of 30 per cent of councils.”

On the climate change front, councils want $200 million over four years “to support demonstration projects to reduce carbon emissions including from landfills and another $400 million the same period to assist councils to implement local and regional plans to address climate change.”

An obvious question mark is over that claim on money is which way Coalition climate change policy will swing in the likely event that Labor loses the prominence of rhetoric surrounding the dumping of the Carbon Tax.

Carbon Tax or otherwise councils are clearly betting that the kind of extreme weather that has burned, washed or blown away infrastructure and assets over the last few years will not improve.

ALGA has called for the expansion of guidelines for the National Disaster Relief and Recovery Program “to specifically improve opportunities for betterment of local government infrastructure as well as to enable councils to utilise internal labour for reconstruction work.”

There is also a call for $200 million over four years “to assist councils to mitigate the risk of natural disasters on a 2:2:1 funding partnership between the Commonwealth, state and local government.”

ALGA’s 10-Point Plan

1 Constitutional power to support direct payments to local government

2 More sustainable funding to meet local community priorities

3 Better and safer roads

4 Funding should accompany new responsibilities

5 Commonwealth support for community infrastructure

6 Help for communities to adapt to climate change

7 A Coordinated approach to national biodiversity

8 Better funding arrangements for national disaster mitigation

9 Intergovernmental approach to improving online business capacity

10 Adequate funding to deliver municipal services to Indigenous communities

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