Coalition promises direct funding of local government

Leader of the Nationals, Warren Truss.
Leader of the Nationals and shadow minister for local government, Warren Truss.  Image: Eddie Misic.

By Angela Dorizas

The Coalition has promised to create a $600 million program to repair and rebuild ageing and decaying bridges across Australia, in a shift towards the direct funding of local government, Leader of the Nationals Warren Truss has announced.

In an address to the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) National General Assembly in Canberra, the shadow minister for trade, transport and local government said the federal contribution to the proposed Bridges Renewal Program would be $300 million over four years. That funding would be matched dollar for dollar, and on a case by case basis, by local or state governments.

Mr Truss said the issue of decaying bridges had been brought to his attention by local councils on a number of occassions.

“It’s been an issue identified with us by councils, especially in the eastern states…and we felt it needed some kind of special initiative to be able to try and address that problem,” Mr Truss told Government News.

 He said the existing Roads to Recovery program allowed for funding to be spent on bridges, but in local government areas where there were multiple ageing bridges the money did not go far enough.

“There are places that have got up to a hundred of them and many of them are unable to carry heavy loads anymore and all of them require significant maintenance,” he said.

“The Roads to Recovery money is provided under a particular formula that doesn’t actually give them really any proper kind of weighting for the fact that they might have a lot of bridges, so this is a special program directed to that task.”

Earlier this week, ALGA released its 10-Point Plan for local government, seeking commitments from both sides of politics on a number of policy areas. Top of the list was local government’s demand for a greater share of tax revenue.

Mr Truss said that would not be possible until the federal budget was returned to surplus.

“We’ve got to appreciate that at the present time the Federal Government has a $41.8 billion deficit,” Mr Truss said.

“They’re out there borrowing $100 million a day, every day, to pay for programs that they are spending, but haven’t raised the money for.

“Whilst I’ve always acknowledged the wish of local government to have a more reliable growth tax I don’t know that that’s going to be economically possible in the short term.”

Mr Truss indicated that the Coalition may be more willing to concede on local government’s request for ongoing community infrastructure funding.

“We certainly will be wanting to continue to fund local projects and we’ll be saying more about those sorts things in the weeks and the months ahead,” he said.

Constitutional recognition

Mr Truss said a Coalition government would support constitutional recognition of local government, so long as the question put to the public was likely to succeed.

“I suppose everybody puts that caveat on it,” Mr Truss said.

“I don’t want to support a referendum or put the tax payers to the expense of having a referendum that might fail.”

Mr Truss said constitutional recognition had failed twice already and a third defeat would be a “step backwards".  He suggested that pursuing direct funding of local government would be the best approach.

“We need to have a question that will be likely to be supported and I think one surrounding, and assuring the legitimacy of, the Commonwealth funding direct to local government is one that is most likely to win support,” he said.

“That would involve inserting the words ‘Local Government’ in the particular powers section of the Constitution and I think that that’s the one that has the best chance of success.

“Personally, I would like to go further than that, but if we put up a question that is one bridge too far for the public then we have lost the opportunity to make progress.”

Shift towards direct funding

In an address to the ALGA assembly, shadow minister for finance and debt reduction, Andrew Robb, announced that a Coalition government would pursue direct funding of local government.

Speaking on behalf of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Mr Robb said putting money directly in the hands of local government would avoid the “state middleman”.

“We will continue the reforms we began between 1996-2007 which gave local government unprecedented recognition and direct funding to fulfil councils’ core responsibilities,” Mr Robb told conference delegates.

“The shift toward direct funding will be part of a broader policy to place local government on a more sustainable financial footing.”

Without the inclusion of local government in the Constitution, direct funding of local government would be at risk of being challenged in the courts. But according to Mr Robb, that would only increase community support for local government campaign for constitutional recognition.

“If it was challenged it would deny local government lots of money,” Mr Robb told Government News.

“It would lead to increased rates and people may then value the constitutional change more than they have when it’s been put to them twice in the past.”

Mr Robb used the occassion to defend his position on the future of Roads to Recovery, countering claims by Local Government Minister Anthony Albanese that a Coalition Government would use the $1.75 billion program to duplicate the Princes Highway near Melbourne.

“We remain 100 per cent committed to the program. In fact we are going to go further than just maintain Roads to Recovery, we are going to expand it,” he said.

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