TUESDAY, 7 APRIL 2020
SUBJECTS: Local Government COVID-19 support; Rent; Unemployment.
MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Good Morning. I'm Michelle Rowland, the Federal member for Greenway. I'm here in Blacktown today joined by my parliamentary colleagues the Member for Chifley Ed Husic, our spokesperson for Local Government Jason Clare, the Mayor of Blacktown Council Councillor Tony Bleasdale and Council’s General Manager Mr Kerry Robinson.
It's important to note that local councils are in many cases, the biggest employers in their local area and that is certainly the case for Blacktown Council, which is the largest local government council in New South Wales and one of the largest in Australia. The feedback that we are hearing from local councils is that issues around the Job Keeper package, issues around funding and stimulus for local government is incredibly important. So, Jason is going to cover a few of those issues today and in particular, how this impacts on this part of Western Sydney.
The other thing we would all like to do is to thank local government, thank the workers in local government who are keeping the show running. Here in Blacktown I do believe that there have been actually no job losses as a result of the COVID pandemic. It is the case that Blacktown is going to suffer like many other councils, huge repercussions financially, that will have long term implications. But in any event, councils understand that they have a very important role in the community. We saw that councils during the Global Financial Crisis for example, were very, very ready to step up with significant projects that were shovel ready and that really did keep a lot of local people employed. They understand how important their role is. So, I want to thank all those council workers who keep doing their jobs, keeping our local communities running, you are very much appreciated. And as a former Councillor and Deputy Mayor of this great city, I can think of very few more important incentives, other than to make sure that local councils have the resources they need at this time, and that the Federal Government allocates that for the benefit, not only of the council's themselves but of all our citizens.
JASON CLARE; SHADOW MINISTER FOR REGIONAL SERVICES, LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND TERRITORIES: Thanks very much, Michelle. Over the last few weeks, we've heard some shocking stories of nurses and cleaners that work in hospitals, getting abused and spat on, on the way in and on the way out of the hospitals that they work at. I said at the weekend, we should be saluting our hospital workers not spitting on them. On the weekend with Chris Bowen, we called for two things. One, free accommodation for our hospital workers to make it easier to isolate them from their loved ones and keep them safe. And also, free parking. More and more hospital workers are driving to work and one little way to say thank you for the work they're doing to keep us all safe is to make it easier for them to get to work and to park for free.
Some good news today. We see on the front page of The Daily Telegraph that the New South Wales Government is going to provide that free accommodation with hotel spaces for our nurses and doctors and health workers. That's great news. Victoria announced they’d do that on Sunday, Queensland announced they’d do it yesterday. Now we've got that happening in New South Wales. We need to make sure we get that free parking as well though and so, I again call on state governments around the country to make available their car parks in their public hospitals for free. For doctors, for nurses, for ambos, for the cleaners, for the kitchen hands, for all the people who are working in our hospitals, putting themselves at risk, to help them in a small way and say thank you for the work you're doing. Councils are doing that. On the weekend I praised Canterbury Bankstown Council that have put in place a scheme where they're giving all of the hospital workers a parking permit, so that they can park for free without the risk of getting booked if they're parking on the street. And Blacktown, Blacktown Council the biggest council in New South Wales, one of the biggest in Australia is also going to do something similar. They're jumping on board this campaign; I congratulate them for doing that.
The Mayor will talk in a bit of detail about how they're going to help out our doctors and nurses, our cleaners, our kitchen hands, our ambos. All the people that are helping to save lives here in Australia and save lives here in Blacktown. They're doing all of this though at a time when councils are struggling. We've got councils having to shut pools, libraries, community centres. Some who run caravan parks have got to shut them and some councils run regional airports too. Lots of different services that make revenue for councils and they're all shut for very, very good reason but what it means is councils are haemorrhaging cash.
Here at Blacktown they are losing $1.7 million a week. And what that's meant is that councils all across the country are starting to stand down staff. In Geelong they stood down I think 700 workers last week. In the Prime Minister’s electorate, the Sutherland Shire Council stood down 260 workers the other day. And what councils really need here is a little bit of help. A bit of help from the Federal Government and a bit of help from the State Government. The Federal Government has written to all the councils saying they want them to come forward with shovel ready road projects, and they want a list of what they can build by tomorrow. Now that's a good idea, we support it, they’re the projects that are going to help to create jobs tomorrow and right into the future. But what councils need is a bit of help right now and so whatever way the government chooses to do that, I'm asking the government to have a look at how you can help to keep some of these workers already on board because at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter whether you're a swimming instructor at a public pool or a private pool, a job is a job. One is being treated differently to the other. We need to make sure that we're helping all Australians wherever they work to keep them employed.
I'm calling on the Federal Government and the State Government to show a bit of common sense here today and help to make sure that we keep these council workers in work. Part of the deal could be that if extra funding is provided to local government, not one job is lost, and that councils work to make sure that they help to provide a bit of rate deferral or a bit of rate assistance to people in our community that are really struggling. Rates notices are starting to go out around the country right now, and there are going to be people who see that bill in the letterbox and say, “Yeah right, as if I can pay that!”. Councils need help if they're going to be able to help the local community. That's going to mean a helping hand from the Federal Government and the State Government. I'll hand over to Tony the Mayor to say a few words.
TONY BLEASDALE, MAYOR OF BLACKTOWN CITY COUNCIL: Well thank you Jason. As Jason has said we are in a very difficult position. First of all, on the parking side and supporting our health workers we believe that's a fundamental thing that we as a council can do. As you know, they are really the heroes in terms of this pandemic, they're putting their lives on the line every day of the week and we're so proud to be a part of the initiative. I know other councils have done very similar things and of course, it needs to be spread right across Australia. We need to look after those who are looking after us and those who in fact are looking after those who are most ill because of the pandemic, they really need to be given a whole range of concessions. So, I'm delighted that of course, we are going to be a part of doing that. If we have to issue permits to health workers to make that happen we shall do that, there’s no doubt.
The big picture, of course, is right across Australia, 200,000 local government workers basically being thrown under the bus. And we as a council, a city of 400,000 people are demanding and asking the Federal Government to reconsider their policies, their policies that in fact are very inequitable in terms of other large groups of Australians, like local government workers. We’re asking the Prime Minister and those responsible. We don't believe in State Government to be able to fund all of the needs of local government. But having said that, we are part of the group, we are part of the country and we are seeking that we be treated in an equitable way in terms of local government workers. At the end of the day, what do you want to do? Do you want to put them on welfare, the $1150 for two weeks or do you want to give them $1500 dollars for two weeks and have them at work, have them working away in local government? So, these are the challenges that we face and I think as a council of course at this time, we have not made basically anyone redundant in that sense. We're seeking to keep 2000 people employed and we're asking government, Federal and State to assist us make that happen.
So in terms of Blacktown, City Council, a city of 400,000 people, we need to maintain better basic services to the community, we need to be a part of, in fact, battling the pandemic and ensuring that the economy in fact, goes forward and is strengthened by government seeking to include all Australians, not bits and pieces of Australia, but all of Australians and that's what it's all about, as the Prime Minister said, “We're all in this together”. And we want to know where all the together is. That's the reality of where we're coming from in Blacktown. We are part of Australia; local government needs to be supported and I asked that those who are looking after these policies reconsider their position urgently otherwise, as you know, local services in particular in rural areas, there will be thousands of council workers be made redundant because of the lack of good policy in this regard. So, look, from my point of view as the Mayor of Blacktown City we want to be part of the fix. We want to be a part of keeping people employed. We don't want to be a part of making people redundant. So, I'm asking personally as the Mayor Blacktown City, that the government reconsider the policies going forward. Thank you very much.
ED HUSIC, MEMBER FOR CHIFLEY: Thank you everyone. Michelle, Tony and I are long term residents of this part of Western Sydney and what we know as a fact is this - that the level of government felt most in the neighbourhoods around this area are councils. So much community life is dependent on councils operating well and meeting the needs of local residents. And if local councils feel that financial pressure that I'm sure they're all going through right now, where they've lost revenue, because they've shut down facilities, they're not able to run necessarily their childcare centres in the way that they want. They have pressure to get things done in terms of roads and other services, as well. Any pressure that's felt by them will be felt in our local neighbourhoods at a time where people are spending so much time at home because we're telling them to do just that.
So certainly, Michelle and I as local federal representatives in one of the biggest councils in the country, when the Mayor of this city says that they need to be factored in, particularly in terms of future economic stimulus, that is a message that cannot go unheard. And from our point of view, seeing how councils can be engaged with State and Federal governments to ensure that at the other end of this they are back on the job and doing the things that communities rely upon, is very important. Also, very worried about all those much smaller councils around the state and the country that will have their backs up against the wall right now, that may not necessarily have the financial strength to stand on their own legs through this crisis. Michelle mentioned earlier, some councils already laying off staff, council employees which will have a big impact on their communities. So, we need to be able to ensure that all levels of government are working together and in this case, making sure that one level of government, councils continue, local government continue in their very important work, in spite of all those pressures.
I just wanted to join with Jason Clare and thank Jason for his time to come out here today. We certainly are delighted that we've got council standing by health care workers at the point that they're standing by local communities, making sure that they can do their job without having to pay the parking fees but importantly dodging parking fines so that they can get their job done in keeping us all healthy. Blacktown Council in spite of the pressure, stepping up to the plate like Canterbury Bankstown in providing that, that is a tremendous service. And I think that these are the type of things that demonstrate the importance of councils to local areas.
PAUL KARP: Jason, Paul Karp from Guardian Australia here. On Friday, Scott Morrison said that states are looking to waive land taxes for at least three months for the landlords that cut their tenants rent. Does Federal Labor have a position on whether that is enough and do you have any comment to make on the apparent hold up in resolving commercial and residential tenancy issues at national cabinet?
CLARE: Well thanks Paul. On that I think we’ve got to do two things. One, we've got to help tenants. People that have lost their job and are finding it really hard to pay the rent, we need to take steps to help them and that's why I've called for a moratorium on evictions, a freeze on evictions. The Prime Minister's promised that that will happen, that's a good thing. The next thing we need is the detail. There's lots of tenants and landlords out there at the moment saying, we know there's going to be a freeze, but we need to know how it's going to work. The second thing is we need to help landlords, the people that rely on that rent to pay their own bills, to put food on the table or to pay mortgages. Now, the banks and the building societies have helped out here - they are offering mortgage deferrals. That's a good thing. But as I said on Friday with Albo, making changes to land tax, land tax deferrals is going to be a really helpful way to help out landlords as well.
But just on top of that Paul, you ask what else can they do? Have a look at what the ACT government announced last Thursday. They said that if a landlord offers a rent cut to a tenant, they'll give that landlord a tax cut. So, if the landlord offers a rent cut, they'll get a tax cut. That's a that's a great incentive for landlords and tenants to sit down and try and work a way through this. It's a pretty smart idea. I'd encourage all states to have a look at what the ACT has done, but also to have a look at the legislation that the Tasmanian government passed almost two weeks ago. The bottom line here is, it's a good thing to put a freeze on evictions to make sure that people who've lost their job and can't pay the rent don't get kicked out in the middle of a health crisis. Where housing is the frontline of healthcare. Where we're all being told to stay at home to stay safe. Where housing, our house is not just our castle, it's our fortress. So, the quicker we get the details on how this will work, the better.
DAN CONIFER: It’s Dan Conifer here from the ABC at Parliament House. Jason, does Labor have a reaction to the George Pell decision by the High Court about an hour and a half ago at all?
CLARE: Look, that is a matter for the High Court, it’s not appropriate for me to provide any further comment.
CONIFER: But generally speaking, does Labor have a view about this matter running its course and the way that the legal system has operated over this process?
CLARE: The legal system is independent of Parliament. It's not appropriate for Parliaments to intervene and comment, regardless of what the decision is, at any level of the legal system. I've taken that approach in the past and I'll take that approach today
CONIFER: And just lastly, I might go back on local government. Are local governments in a position, why aren’t they in a position to go into deficit and to take on debt to keep their staff on during this crisis, just like the federal government is doing? Why is local government looking for assistance from higher levels of government?
CLARE: And the Mayor might want to add to this as well. But just a couple of points you know councils get revenue from a couple of places. One is rates, there's going to be a hell of a lot of people in the next few weeks saying I can't pay my rates. They also get it from the services they provide, and they've been forced to shut them down. What this means is, according to the Australian Local Government Association, up to 45,000 people could be stood down or lose their jobs over the course of the next few weeks and months. Now, that's a big deal. These are people who do the same sorts of jobs, as you see in the private sector and their jobs are at risk, their ability to pay their bills is at risk. Because they can't do their job today, like they were able to do it a couple of weeks ago, because the pool they worked at has been shut down, because the library they work at has been shut down, because the community centre’s been shut down. All we're asking for here is a bit of common sense, bit of flexibility, bit of help from State Government and from Federal Government, both of them working together to help to make sure that we keep our councils going. You know, people still want their bins collected. They don't want their local parks starting to look like national parks and in order for that to happen we need to make sure that we've got the two high levels of government, state and federal helping out local governments to be able to keep doing what they're doing. Tony did you want to add to that?
BLEASDALE: Okay, what I would say, first of all, most of our streams of income as a council have really been suspended. As you know we’ve closed all of our pools, closed all of our libraries, and other areas of council at this time. We virtually have no income in this regard other than rates of course. So, trying to keep 2000 people employed is a real challenge in terms of the future. We at this time of course we're seeking to balance the position. We're constantly looking at our diminishing revenue, which is of great concern and that's why we are seeking the intervention by the Federal Government to consider Local Government to being a priority. As I said, nationally, we employ something like 200,000 people. For example, in Blacktown City we have 26 childcare centres. And of course, our ability to continue that function is going to be really undermined by the lack of Federal Government, or State Government support. So, at the end of the day there’s a whole range of areas within the Blacktown community. We intend to maintain basic services in the community, such as garbage collections, the continuing minor construction works that we have throughout the city but at the end of the day, unless we can get this support over the next couple of months or in the immediate sense, it's going to be extremely difficult.
We do not understand why local government is being considered to be the total responsibility of State Government. This is really not the way it should be. As is being said we're all in this together and all we want is a fair go. So, we're asking the Government to understand if you want to put tens of thousands of local government workers on welfare, that’s certainly what you're going to be intending to do unless you come to the party ASAP. That's all I want to say. Thank you.
CLARE: One final point on that childcare because you know, Tony raised a good point, how many childcare centres do you run?
CLARE: 26. Who do you think, run most of the childcare centres in New South Wales? The local councils. Who do you think run most of the childcare centres in Victoria? It's local councils. And the initiative that the Government announced last week we welcomed, but the fact is it doesn't work for that local council childcare, because local councils don't qualify for the Job Keeper payment. In order to keep those childcare centres open, we need the Federal Government to find another way to help finance that. If they don’t, the risk is that a lot of those childcare centres that parents send their kids to, that are run by local councils will have to close. And if that happens, there'll be a lot of angry parents out there wondering why a private childcare centre is still operating but a public one isn't. So again, just a bit of common sense, just a bit of flexibility, a bit of time with the Federal Government talking to local councils about how to fix this, will make sure that we get a much better outcome.