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Northern Australia Agenda Select Committee
15/12/2020

MANNING, Councillor Bob, OAM, Mayor, Cairns Regional Council

MASASSO, Mr Nicholas (Nick), Executive Project Officer, Cairns Regional Council

CHAIR: I now welcome representatives of the Cairns Regional Council. In a moment, I'll just invite you to make a short opening statement, and then we'll have some questions. But, before I do so, can I just check with the committee: we've got a media officer from Senator Green's office. Is it okay if he takes some photos of that just for social media purposes? He'll take the right side of us all! That's okay.

Councillor Manning : If anybody wants a photograph of me, they're welcome!

CHAIR: Very good. Over to you, Mayor.

Councillor Manning : Thank you, Mr Chairman. Mr Masasso will speak to a submission that we made to you some little time back. There are a fairly broad range of matters there, but we welcome the opportunity then for a Q&A. I think there are some matters that we would like to address.

As an opening statement: I was standing adjacent to the Prime Minister when the Northern Australia policy was first announced down at the Shangri-La Hotel. I thought at the time: 'What a great idea this is. What a resetting of the books, a strengthening of the balance sheet where it should be strengthened.' But in the time that's passed since then I can't really say that I've ever got much joy out of the northern Australia paper. I think it's been a disappointment in so many respects, when it was an opportunity that should have been made to happen.

Mr Masasso : In relation to a submission, Cairns Regional Council did not make a formal submission in its own right but did contribute to the FNQROC submission that was made to the inquiry. We certainly had some input into that submission.

There are just three key points that we would raise in relation to the northern Australia agenda. Looking forward, I think the importance of investment in infrastructure to truly develop northern Australia is not to be understated. I think that there should be continued and sustained investment in the core areas of infrastructure—roads, water, telecommunications and ports. Those are really the economic enablers that unlock our regional economy. Those are the areas in which we see direct investment from all levels of government as being important.

We acknowledge the NAIF. The NAIF provides a funding stream for certain types of infrastructure. Ultimately, though, those loans have to be repaid, and that impost generally falls on the people that are living and working in those communities. From a council point of view, we look at probably the single biggest infrastructure project Cairns Regional Council has in its 10-year capital works program—a water treatment plant, about $215 million. That's a key piece of infrastructure that unlocks our population growth potential but also supports our economic growth and our continued reputation as a visitor destination as well. It's those types of projects that we see as important for that direct support and direct level of investment to help support that growth as well.

On infrastructure, insurance is another one that has been highlighted as a key cost of doing business in northern Australia. The ACCC is undertaking an inquiry into that, highlighting the cost differentials for insurance and the significant increases in percentage terms over the last decade for northern Australia versus the rest of the country. We understand the reasons for that. I think the final report from the ACCC is yet to be released, but it appears that it's not a market failing. There are costs and risk profiles associated with northern Australia that are driving those increased premiums. But, certainly from a business and a resident perspective, the cost of insurance is an inhibitor to growth. It's an extra cost and impost on business. So that's an area that certainly warrants attention for our particular region.

The final of my three points in opening is the level of engagement with local government. We acknowledge that each region has its own unique priorities, challenges and opportunities. When we look at the Office of Northern Australia there's an opportunity for more direct engagement with individual local governments and the ROCs of their regions as well, to say, 'Okay, let's work a little bit more collaboratively on the particular priorities, whether it's infrastructure policy or other things, that would really help unlock your region in terms of growth for the economy and for the population as well.'

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator GREEN: Thank you very much, and thank you for being here today. It's not often that senators get a chance to ask questions of their own mayor and of the council that they pay rates to. It is very interesting to be on the other side of this table.

I want to start off by asking you if you can explain something to the committee. When COVID hit, Cairns identified very early that this would be a place that would be significantly impacted economically. You and your council brought together all three levels of government to deal with the immediate impact of COVID and how we were going to cope if there was an outbreak here in Cairns but also to start thinking about the recovery. Could you explain to the committee a bit about the process that you went through and what some of the outcomes were of those committee and subcommittee meetings?

Mr Masasso : One of the things that we got right at the start was to realise that we were going to be severely impacted and perhaps more severely impacted than most, because we're not a huge centre. With metropolitan areas, there's an ecology there and they can survive within that. We can't; we've got to trade. For us, one of the main items we trade in is tourism, which is a wonderful export industry, and we were mindful of what the impacts would be for us.

We were tickled pink with the quick response of the federal government, particularly with JobKeeper. I was sitting with the chairman and the CEO of Tourism Events Queensland for breakfast this morning, and we were saying that if it were not for JobKeeper, heaven knows we where we would be now. We have the ability to come out of this because we have retained so much of the skills and resources that we need to be able to pick ourselves up and get moving again. Really the attitude of the government was to leave no one behind, and we embraced the disaster management approach that operates throughout the state.

To start off with, we met once a week with the federal and state government and the local council. I and my officers met weekly to start off with to report back to what was termed the local leadership group, and then there'd be a press conference straight after, for no reason other than to make sure that the information was getting out to the people Cairns and that they had a clear understanding of how we were responding and what we expected to get from that. We also had a team of people who were working on the ground. These were very much the foot soldiers, who were working with various agencies and groups that help with street people, people sleeping rough or people who were doing it really tough. This was all dealt with by committees and subcommittees to get the maximum impact on the ground. That seemed to work very well.

Some of those actions that were initiated or taken then are continuing on at the moment. The state government was very good in some of the things that it did. I think the council was very good in some of the things that it did. We immediately moved to make sure that people didn't feel threatened in any way—like who's going to pay off the house, who's going to pay the rates and what will happen if the garbage doesn't get picked up? The idea was to take away the fear and the uncertainty and for people to be as relaxed as they possibly could in all of this, not knowing where it was going to end or how badly it was going to end.

I suppose if we look back through it all now, we probably got through things a lot better than what we originally thought we might—not to say that there is more to come. I know it's something that's often raised by people. They will make a comment, 'Thanks to the council for what you did.' A couple of times someone's referred to the fact that nobody got left behind and that everybody was being helped no matter who you were.

Senator GREEN: Sorry to interrupt you, Mr Mayor. There was a subcommittee, I believe, that was looking at what the next steps were in terms of economic recovery and that identified a list of projects earmarked for either federal or state funding, whether that funding has been committed yet or not. I was wondering how that committee is progressing in getting a conversation happening with the state government or the federal government about those projects that we believe or the subcommittee of the council believes could start generating some jobs growth when we really need it.

Councillor Manning : Nick chaired that committee.

Senator GREEN: Great.

Mr Masasso : The body of work in terms of our recovery was embodied in a formal recovery plan. That encompassed two elements. It encompassed the human and social recovery and also the economic recovery. From an economic point of view, it certainly identified the immediate support measures, which included the wage subsidies and the deferral of land tax and those sorts of things, but in terms of the medium to longer term the focus was on those infrastructure priorities.

In terms of the infrastructure priorities, in terms of water we've highlighted that the Draper Road project is the main one from a Cairns Regional Council point of view. We're recommencing those discussions on that particular project, having secured external funding for it at this stage. Certainly in terms of roads there were some announcements through the state election process, particularly around the Cairns Western Arterial Road, which had $60 million allocated for its duplication. That's an important connector road for our region. It provides part of what effectively would become a ring road with the Captain Cook Highway to the north. A series of projects around universities were also identified. One of the key ones for the diversification of the economy is the expanded campus for the Central Queensland University. They're at capacity in their existing campus, and enabling that university to grow is important at this stage. I don't think that has secured external funding. Their hospital—there were some announcements during the state election on the hospital as well.

One of the other key enablers is the seaport. There is a key opportunity to not only diversify the economy but leverage existing capabilities and capacity from both a legacy infrastructure and skills point of view. The town obviously has a significant ship manufacturing and maintenance heritage. The increased naval investment that we are seeing in the Port of Cairns, with the upgrade to the HMAS Cairns wharves in readiness for the offshore patrol vessels and its designation as a regional maintenance centre, creates a real opportunity for our city in terms of that particular industry. It's one that the city's got a proud heritage in and that has the potential for growth. There certainly have been some investments announced, both federally, from a defence and HMAS Cairns point of view, and from the state in the most recent budget cycle around the marine precinct development. So some investments have been announced. We'd obviously welcome whatever else we can get that aligns with the plan.

Senator GREEN: I'll probably have to hand over to other senators, but I have one last question. One of the previous witnesses mentioned that either that subcommittee or another one had recommended to the federal government that JobSeeker be extended. I want to understand what the position is at the moment around that. As you know, it's going to be cut back in December, in a week or so. We don't know at the moment whether there'll be a permanent increase going forward, but it's likely to get cut back again. What was the position coming out of that subcommittee around JobSeeker?

Councillor Manning : I don't know that the subcommittee got to that point. But the position of council regarding the tourism industry and the tourism bodies is that JobKeeper needs to be carried through, maybe to June or beyond June next year. Nobody is too sure. Once we get to the end of January and we step into February, we generally step over a cliff. From February through to June, there's very little activity. We used to get international activity, which had lower numbers but higher spend, which was helpful for a business to remain operational and even profitable. What could happen here is that we get to February and find out that we're going into a big black hole and we remain there until possibly May or June. We could start to lift out of that with the beginnings of our normal winter activity. If that were the case, a number of operators would not get through that. JobKeeper has really been what's kept a lot of people involved in the industry—maybe not at a profitable level. JobKeeper has been one of the great success stories. There's the idea of just pushing it on. At some point, the kid has to be taken off the teat, but to do that now could be counterproductive. I was with the chairman and the CEO of Tourism and Events Queensland this morning for breakfast. That was a matter that was discussed then. It's probably worse for us. This is worse for us in Townsville, Mackay and Rockhampton than it is for the metropolitan areas, where, as I said before, they have a big ecosystem and can live off each other, and the economic activity is broad and deep enough to be able to be spread it around. We don't have that.

Senator GREEN: Thanks, Chair.

CHAIR: Could I just ask one question? I'm conscious that post GFC, Cairns went into a bit of an extended slump as well on the back of reduced international tourism. There's obviously a risk that we will see something similar in the next few years. Do you think there are any lessons on how we dealt with that post-GFC environment—either good lessons or bad lessons—that we can adopt to make sure that Cairns doesn't face several years of economic trouble?

Councillor Manning : If Cairns faces several years of economic trouble, then there's going to be a lot of other people—people out west, people north of us and smaller operators in the tourism industry. For a city of our size, we're a pretty fair player at the moment. In fact, looking at the Google inquiries on Cairns, if you take out Sydney and Melbourne, we're riding at No. 3. This is like the old days. We were the flavour. Whatever pent-up demand there is at the moment, Cairns is certainly front of mind. I experienced the GFC and I experienced three airline failures, including Ansett, and a number of other crises that came out of Asia, and it seems to me that, every time we went into a crisis, we always came out steeper. There's what is generated out of a crisis like that. There's pent-up demand for travel and being able to go somewhere, get away for a while and hide from all the gloom and doom. We always seem to come out on a steeper line than we went in on.

I think that'll be the case here, barring another wave or two waves or whatever it is. This is all so unsure, about the future. But I think the one thing that's for sure and certain is that the more gas we can burn now, in getting things done, making things happen, the faster we can come out of this. That gives us a better chance of being able to get to a cruise level sooner. This couple of rough sets of figures that I saw this morning indicate that's what's happening for us at the moment. It would sure be sad if, in plotting the path, we lost courage and started to pull back a bit. The last thing in the world we want to do is pull back too soon.

Senator McDONALD: It's incredible to hear you talk so positively about the future when you're in the middle of such difficult times, Mr Mayor. I think it's useful to reflect on your experience in previous crises. I just want to clarify your previous answer. Senator Green, were you asking about JobSeeker or JobKeeper?

Senator GREEN: I was asking about JobSeeker but JobKeeper is relevant as well.

Councillor Manning : I think I might have talked JobKeeper.

Senator McDONALD: You did, yes. I just want—

Senator GREEN: The previous witness might have got the two issues mixed up as well.

Senator McDONALD: I just want to clarify. I understand your words about JobKeeper, so we don't need to cover that ground again. I agree, it's been a terrific policy for business and to provide that certainty. With JobSeeker, we've heard evidence from other people this morning about the regional workforce shortage, particularly when you get into your regions, the fruit picking, cafes, motels, hotels—in fact, pretty well every business that you can think of. In Cairns, you've been particularly hard hit with the tourist industry and the lack of overseas visitors. What sort of feedback are you getting from businesses about whether or not they've got enough workforce to carry out their business as it stands now, given that most of the backpackers and overseas workers have gone home? What is your view on the JobSeeker package as that scales down in December and March?

Councillor Manning : I'll make a quick couple of comments and then I'll throw to Nick, because Nick's dad lives on the tablelands and they're involved in a little bit of growing, I think, still. My wife and I were recently in Cooktown. We went up for four days and lived in a little hut at the caravan park. We fished unsuccessfully down on the jetties but, although we didn't get anything, found that the RSL at four o'clock in the afternoon was always good for a couple of beers before we went to dinner. It was a lovely four days. We bumped into a young couple from Malaysia who were uni students. They couldn't get back home. They were driving around in a fairly neat kombi or whatever. I thought, either the money's coming from home or, somehow, they're picking up something here. I thought how good we are, if we're looking after them. But as far as the JobSeeker is concerned, I've never really wrapped my mind around that. I know there are issues with fruit picking. I know there are issues with it having to end at some time, but JobKeeper, for us, seems to be more relevant. Nick, what's your feeling?

Mr Masasso : Thank you, Mr Mayor. Certainly, anecdotally, we've heard some reports of businesses saying that they are struggling to find a workforce, particularly a seasonal workforce in the agricultural sector but also in the hospitality sector. It's probably a combination of a couple of factors. There have certainly been anecdotal reports that JobSeeker hasn't helped there—it hasn't provided an incentive for those to go in and get those jobs. That's just anecdotal feedback we've had. And, by the same token, I think it's also the issue highlighted about a lower level of backpacker and working holidaymaker visa workforce as well. That's obviously a significant workforce for both hospitality and the agricultural sector. I think that's playing a part in that as well.

Senator McDONALD: Could I ask that, on notice, you come back to this committee—or at least to me, and I'm sure the other senators are interested as well—on your views around JobSeeker? That will be debated in parliament in many iterations over the coming few months, and I'm very keen to understand Cairn's specific issues, because you are the region that JobSeeker is most talked about as being important for. But I do want to get some facts and some data around that, so that I can represent your position well. Thank you.

If we could go back to some of the broader issues for Cairns and the region, you did touch on insurance, and we know that the ACCC report is coming out. We know that the small business ombudsman report on business insurance has been tabled, and it has reflected on the insurance crisis in the north. Do you have views on potential solutions? I guess what I'm really trying to understand is, as Cairns develops a greater diversity of businesses, is the difficulty in obtaining insurance—and, subsequently, finance—something that's holding back the north Australia agenda?

Councillor Manning : In the case of Cairns—and I'm sure this applies across the other what I term regional capitals in Queensland—the tourism is very much built around a lot of people involved in small businesses, real mums and dads or a couple of people get together and kick off a small business, and some make a great success of it, depending upon the numbers and the activity over a period of time. But on insurances: we live in an area of unpredictable weather at times—whether that be cyclones or floods or fires or whatever—and small businesses can see through some of these disasters, and then go back again and then find that they can't get insurance or the insurance is much higher than it was before. We fairly recently wrote to the state government about this and suggested that the state needed to do an analysis to see if there was a place for the government to be able to back up businesses in some way, to give some relief or to maybe develop a model that could give businesses a little more certainty. It is a major issue. I point out an example—and I don't want to be a prophet of doom—which is that I've spent a few nights on Fitzroy Island, where the beach accommodation is a metre from the high tide—or, with the high tides at the moment; it would probably be less than that, in a vertical sense. So it wouldn't take much wave action, or a little bit of a surge, or if you got some wind in from the north and a bit of a blow—that would do irreparable damage to the accommodation, the hotel and the dining rooms, at that place. They should never have been allowed to build there in the first place, or that should have been taken a little bit higher up the hill. You don't have to go very high up. But for developments like Keith Williams's development at Cardwell, and on Hinchinbrook Island, and like the one down at Dunk Island—I am sure there will be some of these great island resorts that we've had over the years that will not make it back, and the reason they won't make it back is they can't get insurance. You can't insure something where it's just a matter of time before a blow or a cyclone sweeps over the island and the water damage is not repairable.

Senator McDONALD: Mr Masasso, do you want to add anything on the insurance and finance issue?

Mr Masasso : Yes, I think it is a significant cost for both residents and businesses. Usually when you ask a business, 'What are your major costs?', it's wages, energy and fuel, and insurance. I think it's the rapid increase in it, too, that a lot of businesses are struggling with. Having looked at the interim reports from the ACCC inquiry, it doesn't appear from those reports that there's a market failure in terms of inappropriate profits being made in this sector. It's a case of the risk and the loss profile. And I think, long-term—and the things the mayor has touched on there around planning—there's a role for councils and others to play in making sure that our planning schemes do what we can do to adequately protect for those risks, and do what we can do through the Building Code. But those are fairly long-term plays, in terms of when they'll influence insurance prices.

The other thing that we find is that, obviously, you've got a lower population base, so when you look at that loss or claims history, you're generally spreading it across a lower population base. And I think it's the same with infrastructure and other things. I think part of the northern Australia agenda would be to look forward into the future about what the possibilities are in terms of population in this area and what the potential population and economic growth could be. There might be a level of subsidisation that needs to happen in the short to medium term to achieve that higher level of population growth. And that higher population growth in northern Australia does ease the pressure of congestion in other parts of Australia, and so there are benefits there as well. But, yes, certainly from what we've seen, in that short to medium term, it would really come down to some form of subsidisation to offset those costs.

Councillor Manning : Subsidisation is sometimes a dirty word, but I am sure that—with my limited economics time at university—there are times when the market just can't react or it can't be trusted to react, and there needs to be some gentle guidance and steerage of that going forward. I think at the moment some of these circumstances are, as I said before, particularly with regard to the tropical islands—they used to be a feature of tourism in Queensland; these days, it's not quite so.

Senator McDONALD: Yes, my first overseas holiday was to Dunk Island, and I remember it with much fondness, and the big butterfly in the pool. I think that was 1977; there have been a few iterations since then! Would you talk to me about the port? What are your views around port access, as part of Cairns's future and the north Australia agenda—you know, cruise ships, naval maintenance. What does the future of the port hold?

Councillor Manning : Cairns has got a very modern airport, a very successful airport. In fact, it was the first major airport in Australia to be transferred from government ownership into local ownership, which was to be the Cairns City Council. The council got cold feet, and the state government through the then Cairns Harbour Board were very smart—and I think the under-treasurer drove this a fair bit—to say: 'Well, look, we'll take the airport on, and we'll run it with a local board and a local manager.' That happened. In 1984 stage 1 of the redevelopment of the airport was completed, and it became operational. The way the airport was in 1984 is where the port is now. The port has never been a big shipping port. It gets cruise ships, but not a great number. I remember staying in a hotel in Vancouver and watching five or six cruise ships leave every day. We get two in at once, and we think we're world leaders! But we did nevertheless have a very profitable cruise shipping market going through Cairns. We are on a route where we're able to take advantage of that. Also, we have a port where cruise ships can come right into the CBD, effectively; you don't get that in too many ports.

The port has, in the last few years, started to attract a lot more attention from military shipping. Originally the port had a couple of patrol boats, a few work boats and survey vessels; the two hydrographic survey ships that the Navy operates are based in Cairns, involved in survey work. But the Navy are getting the newest iteration of vessels now, on which they've got a fairly sizeable spend. The new patrol boats are in fact small ships, called the Arafura class. Four offshore patrol vessels, or OPVs, are going to be based in Cairns. That's a major increase in capacity. They're about 1,500 tonnes each. This is consistent with the step-up policy, and I think it's luck; it's not necessarily good planning. Those vessels are being built and being based here, and, given the step-up, given the issues with New Guinea and the South Pacific islands and the position being taken by the Chinese, it's very fortunate that we've got them.

We would be hopeful that the Navy would look to grow the port even more. Austal, the Western Australian shipbuilder, who have a very long and good relationship with the Australian government and the Navy, have now purchased one of the slipways in Cairns. They've got major plans for the development of that shipyard. I think that's a great thing for the city. The trouble, though, with growth is that all of a sudden you find things have been built in the wrong place, or some things have got to be cleared away to make more room for somebody else to build and intensify the use of that land. That always happens with growth. At the moment, Ports North, which has been working on a master plan for a couple of years now, is dragging the chain a little bit. That master plan is desperately needed, to make sure that the placement of any new assets occurs in the right place so as to maximise the outputs from those yards in terms of giving benefit to other businesses; a lot of small businesses are built up around the port.

I think the future of Cairns in terms of a maintenance port is very strong, particularly with the Navy. We have a fairly large fleet of vessels that operates with the reef; they are referred to as the reef fleet. We also have white boats, which are very profitable. Cairns has developed quite a reputation for being a good white-boat maintenance port. I think the future is bright. There is a desperate need for the master plan to be completed, otherwise this opportunity is going to go over the top of us and could be lost.

Senator McDONALD: Thank you.

CHAIR: I have one quick one before I go to Senator Roberts. JobSeeker, as opposed to JobKeeper, has come up a few times today, and we've had a number of witnesses refer to the sort of anecdotal evidence that they're hearing that the higher rate of JobSeeker is discouraging people from taking work. As you are probably aware, there's also evidence that other Senate committees have heard that it hasn't discouraged people from taking work. So there are different views on that. Do you think one of the other causes of the difficulty of businesses finding workers—because that seems pretty clear—is a lack of investment in training and skills in recent years, and that could be at the federal or state level? I just find it hard to reconcile that, in a lot of regional Australia, we have very high rates of youth unemployment and Indigenous unemployment and high rates in certain other sections of the community as well, but, at the same time, we've also got skill shortages and we've had to bring in people from overseas to fill roles. Do you think that we're paying the price for either not investing in skills or not managing our skills system correctly and that that's something we need to address?

Councillor Manning : Nick might want to add to this. We've been hit with a global pandemic. Nobody saw that coming. Nobody planned for it. That's changed the world. Yes, we can look back and say, knowing what we know now, that there's a whole lot of things we would have done and we might have done them differently. We may have tackled this problem differently. But I don't recall anything else like this in my life before. I wouldn't be the first to pull the trigger on someone over this. Personally, I'd feel quite proud to be an Australian—or a Kiwi, if I was—because of the way we handled things down here. I think that's a great credit to us. What we need to do now is to come out of this at breakneck speed.

CHAIR: And is investing in skills a key part of that?

Councillor Manning : That's right—and flexibility so that we can do that. We need to be, dare I say it, as light on our feet as possible and as agile as we can possibly be. We need to be able to make smoke real quick.

Mr Masasso : If I look at the agricultural sector and the hospitality sector, I think that the roles there are probably largely unskilled. Certainly the lack of what we refer to as the backpacker workforce is a big impediment there in terms of the supply of labour that would ordinarily be there. I would certainly concur with the mayor that, when you're talking about things like the potential of the port and marine development, there are potentially some very high-skilled, well-paying careers and jobs in that sector. So that would need investment not just in the infrastructure but also in the skills to make sure that the Australian workforce is able to take those opportunities. So I think it's about getting that investment in the right spot, definitely.

CHAIR: Thanks. Senator Roberts?

Senator ROBERTS: Thank you both for coming today. Mayor, I commend you for your opening comments when you said that you recall the fanfare five years ago when this was introduced but that it's been a disappointment. Could you tell us why it's been a disappointment, please?

Councillor Manning : If I could, I'd be a rich man. We're no different; we often come up with an idea or a plan and, for some reason, whether it's a lack of focus or a lack of understanding of the problem that was before us, we find six or 12 months later that that has floated away and it's gone. I remember a businessman in Cairns once saying that you need to know when your ship comes in because it might never come in again. So opportunities lost are opportunities generally lost forever. In hindsight, we all know that we could have done things better. One of the things that keeps going through my mind at the moment is that time is so limited and not to waste opportunities. I think, for all of us and for Australia, we are we are trading country and we want to be successful in what we do. I think that desire is there naturally. We're inspired by our mates across the ditch. We're a great pair with a great relationship. What do you say? As I said, this doesn't go on forever. When you're here, you need to be doing your bit.

Senator ROBERTS: Earlier today, a person commented that there was a lack of honesty and a lack of sincerity—that's my word and my interpretation—and people avoiding issues. The first witness today talked about the lack of cohesion and the lack of coming up with an integrated approach. I've sensed in other hearings that some people have been trying to discuss the major issues and others just don't want to hear about them. It seems to be—this is a nice football that people can take credit about and trot out, but there doesn't seem to be much behind it. Is that something you would share or—

Councillor Manning : My biggest problem when I was a 12-year-old was getting my parents to understand what I wanted to do, and therefore I thought I was unloved, and I couldn't get my way. I found out later on in life that everybody's got to play their part. I'm not sure what constitutes a young person anymore—somebody who's in their late teens, 20s or 30s—but one of the things I like about young people is that they say, 'I can look at a problem, and if I join all those things together, there's a solution.' They say, 'I don't need that, I don't need that, and I don't need that; now I've got the solution.' It's a lot simpler, and they get onto it a lot quicker.

Senator ROBERTS: Are you saying that we're mucking around with the frills rather than getting into the substance?

Councillor Manning : No. I think there's an adaptation, an evolution, in the way we think about doing things and I think the young ones have shown us up. They've got the use of technology that we never had, and they're using that new technology. I think that is the hope for the future. I don't like saying that because I can't match them.

Senator ROBERTS: What about local government? I mentioned it this morning and repeated the question to you. In this country, we've got a bloated central government in Canberra. We've got governments in the state capitals that have had a lot of their core issues taken from them and centralised with a lot of politicking going on. The local governments have the ideal opportunity to get things done on the ground. It's my belief, whether it be in private enterprise or government, that, if the people closest to the service provide the service, it's far better. But it seems like local government has been underresourced by state governments basically stealing assets from them, and quite often it's the federal government controlling the purse that local government use and dictating what is needed—and Canberra doesn't really know what the people in Pormpuraaw or Cairns or Wujal Wujal need.

It seems to me that local government has been gutted to some extent.

Councillor Manning : Local government always gets bashed up—when you're the smallest kid in the family, that's just the way it is. I've met some wonderful leaders and managers in local government, likewise in the state and federally. I just wonder sometimes whether we need a fair dinkum review as to how we work together, how we integrate and how we get the best outcomes. We, like those kids who can throw all those pieces away, can shorten the task that's got to be done. Why can't governments do the same thing? I've been there for nine years. Since then, we've been through a cyclone with the leader of the state government. The LNP made changes. Every day when you wake up there's another change. Then they lost government. Now we've gone through a reversal, back the other way, and you think, 'Where the hell are we going?' We go forwards, then we go backwards, then we go sideways and then we go forwards. It would be a lot easier if the federal, state and local governments could work better together or work in a different environment.

The way we work at the moment is that whoever's got the biggest fist wins. Local government struggles. It struggles with money. It struggles with power. It struggles with getting on an equal footing. It's not that we're sillier or that we don't know. We do know. Most of us know and believe in the work that we do. We know it's right. We know that what we're suggesting is right. But so often the explanation you'll get back is: 'You know what it's like when you're in state government. You know what it's like when you're in federal government. We've got to do this.' Surely the people deserve more than a half-baked effort by us, by the state and by the feds in solving something. I thought we were all working for the same society.

Senator ROBERTS: Yes, they're working for the people.

Councillor Manning : And for the nation.

Mr Masasso : Just to reiterate one of the points from the mayor around collaboration, what we have tended to see a little bit of is a transition to what we call contestable funding, where councils apply for state or federal funding and compete against other councils. If there's a particular grant program, it has this particular set of rules, and then there'll be another one that has a different set of rules. You end up trying to find a project that'll fit the set of rules when, to the mayor's point, it would be a more productive process if there were a discussion between the three levels of government: 'What are the things that would make the biggest difference for your part of the world in terms of both economic prosperity and the quality of life for your people? Let's have an open discussion about that and agree on the key parts of investment that should be made, and we'll work together on how we can fund them.' That touches on the point from the mayor about collaboration.

Councillor Manning : It's a wonderful feeling when things come to a conclusion and you look around the room and realise that everybody had a part to play in it and that without it we wouldn't have had this outcome. It's a wonderful feeling when you achieve something like that.

Senator ROBERTS: I appreciate your honesty in saying that you feel disappointment. Surely, when you look at the people, the opportunities, the potential and the resources, that points to governance. The ingredients are here, but nothing's happened or very little has happened. One of the things that I've noticed in western councils and northern councils is the lack of skills. We had Mayor Bawden this morning say that quite often he or his council has to bring in people with skills. That raises the bill, because they have to bring in a consultant—fly him or her in et cetera.

Cairns is a mid-sized council. It's not a monster like Brisbane and it's not a conglomeration of little councils like Sydney. What about your access to skills? Do you have the skilled people that you need to do your jobs—not your particular skills, but your admin and your executive?

Councillor Manning : I think the Cairns Regional Council wouldn't be skiving if it said that it was a high-performing council. I think it is. I was involved in a couple of councils before. In fact I spent seven years in Longreach and loved every second of it. I had planned to stay another year and would never have left. We'd have spent the rest of our lives there. But this council has a lot on its books. It's progressive. It's well managed. We are financially strongly. We rate against anybody in Queensland. For the last seven years, I think, our rate increases have sat at 1.5, 1.6, 1.7 per cent. We've never been over that. Financially we are a very disciplined council. It's certainly my intention, unless these blokes are able to roll us somewhere along the line, that that's how we'll go to the finish line.

We're not going without. This city is well provided with infrastructure. I think we've got some of the best infrastructure in regional Australia, especially in sports and the arts. But it's the inability of councils, and I think politics often has a lot to do with this. I find that local government politics is becoming less and less involved. It's more the people. We operate a team. We don't we don't sign anything. We're not incorporated. We just operate as a team and try to work together. Nobody's ever told how to vote. You go and you vote on your conscience and we live with the majority rules. That works for us.

CHAIR: Thank you. We're a little bit over time, so we might have to leave it there. But we really appreciate both of you coming along and sharing your views. I said earlier that the committee understand the pressure that Cairns is under and we're very keen to play our part in recommending some solutions as well. So thanks for coming along today.

Proceedings suspended fr om 15:06 to 15 : 22