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Paul Bell speaks with Kerry O'Brien -

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Paul Bell speaks with Kerry O'Brien

Broadcast: 17/11/2008


KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: Local government in Australia has been used to being the poor relation at
the national table most of the time when it comes to financial handouts. In fact, it's not even
officially recognised in the Constitution, an oversight the Rudd Government has promised to fix.

So what are Australia's 565 shires and municipalities looking for?

A short-time ago, I spoke with Paul Bell, the president of the Australian Local Government
Association who hails from Emerald in central Queensland. He was in our Canberra studio.

Paul Bell, what sort of a wish list will the mayors and shire presidents of Australia be presenting

PAUL BELL, AUST. LOCAL GOVERNMENT ASSOCIATION: Well, Kerry, it's significant. What we're looking
for is support for, particularly, community infrastructure. It's the things like town halls, it's
the pools, it's the meals on wheels areas, it's the things that have really affect a lot of the
activities of communities - parks and gardens, it's, you know, the child's - childrens' playgrounds
that ... I go to communities now where the old see saws are still in action, compared to the new,
you know, types of equipment, which is really critical for safe play areas. It's those sorts of
pieces of infrastructure that have, I suppose, fallen apart over the last 50 years in the areas
where we haven't seen strong growth, that need to be replaced, repaired and fixed.

KERRY O'BRIEN: That all sounds fairly small beer. I'm sure you'd argue that it's not unimportant.
But is this the sort of picture you're talking about through regional and rural areas as well as
the big cities?

PAUL BELL: Well, look, in the metros, certainly there are places like the arts galleries, the
halls, community centres. And those places, again, that we built in the '50s and '60s that are now
virtually getting at the end of their useful life. The swimming pools - all those places we had
pools built in the metro areas around our country so that every child was gonna learn to swim after
the '56 Olympics. They're at the end of their life as well. And now they're in the, you know, sort
of the millions and millions of dollars to replace. Local government just has been deferring this
expenditure, not for one year, but for about 15 years now. The whole total of that's about $15
billion worth of deferred expenditure on this sort of community infrastructure. And it's
everywhere. It's in the metros, the high growth areas, the sea change areas and the rural and
regional places right throughout Australia.

KERRY O'BRIEN: So, it's not so much about nation building but fundamental, basic maintenance?

PAUL BELL: As we work with developers and building new places throughout our towns and our cities
in our urban and regional areas, we put new assets there. It's the places that have been left
behind now, it's the older regions, the older parts of cities and towns, metropolitan areas that
are really feeling the pain and need to have an injection of capital. As I said, most of the
original capital came from, you know, federal and state governments. We need this injection now to
help us get over what is a significant hump in council's ability to fund these assets.

KERRY O'BRIEN: How quickly would you be able to spend this money and how clear is it that it could
actually be used to help stimulate the broad national economy and help stave off recession?

PAUL BELL: Well, the beauty of the types of assets, you know, that we're talking about here, is
that we can spend the money tomorrow. Most of the areas that I've described have been part of local
governments' planning and design and wish lists now for five to 10 years. We've got the plans in
the cupboard. We're ready to go. But we've had to defer this expenditure because when it comes to
us allocating expenditure each year, we're saying, "Well, this is a must, this is a must, this is a
must." But, yeah, look, the upgrade of the arts centre or the swimming pool or the meals on wheels
facilities, well we can defer that, we'll defer it. And each year, local governments across
Australia are deferring $800 million worth of asset expenditure on this type of community
facilities. As I said, from the parks and gardens and pathways, right up to the major community

KERRY O'BRIEN: What practical outcome do you want from constitutional recognition? Is it about
direct funding from the Commonwealth, bypassing the states?

PAUL BELL: Oh, look, constitutional recognition to us is about getting a proper seat at table of
the Federation. I sit on COAG and have done for four years. And I sit on three other ministerial
councils, members of the ALGA sit on another ten ministerial councils. But we're there at
invitation, we're there as an invited guest, we're not there because our sphere of government that
now, you know, in itself raises $24 billion a year, owns $180 billion worth of these assets I'm
talking about, is not there in its own right. We're not there because our forefathers, I think, got
it wrong. It is a mistake that the - that local government wasn't included in the Constitution.
It's unfinished business for us in local government. And we need to be at the table of Federation
in our own right.

KERRY O'BRIEN: When you talk about deserving your place at the national table by right, do you
acknowledge that perceptions of local government are not always flattering, the "rats in the ranks"
syndrome, for want of a better term, the image of corruption exemplified by the Wollongong Council
scandal recently, or alternatively, even the sense of small town, parish pump governance?

PAUL BELL: Look, we see, you know, less than one per cent of the 570 local governments, you know,
during their terms, probably exposed to those types of activities. Look, we are a very mature
sphere of government now. We're a sphere of government that, yes, sometimes things go wrong and we
can't defend and I wouldn't try to defend that. But where you see in the majority of cases
throughout Australia, local governments performing 24 hours a day, the services that their
communities deserve and need in the 21st century, working in the new areas like in our place where
we provide free-to-air TV to our communities that state and federal governments have forgotten
about, where we see, you know, communities now getting into broadband activities and providing
those things where state and federal governments have forgotten. Where we see, you know, local
governments being part of a climate change agenda for the last 10 years - and that's just new for
state and federal governments - we see that we have got a very sphere of government, one that
deserves its place at the table of the Federation. And one, I think, that, you know, would only
improve the efficiency of the Federation. The Federation would be a better place with us there, in
our own right, being able to be a deliverer of services directly to the community on behalf of the
national government.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Paul Bell, thanks very much for talking with us.

PAUL BELL: Thank you, Kerrie.