Ahead of the budget, my electorate of Indi was anxious about which hard-won infrastructure commitments might be lost to the government’s infrastructure review. Yet, on budget night, I was relieved that months of advocacy to save our projects had paid off. I thank the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government for her commitment to meeting and listening carefully to the mayors and CEOs of the nine Indi LGAs when she was visiting Bright recently. She gave us close to two hours of her family holiday time and heard firsthand of the challenges we face.
The $80 million promised to the Albury-Wodonga Regional Deal has remained in this budget. Had this been axed, it would have been a huge blow to locals who have worked in good faith on the regional deal for years. With funding confirmed, we can start scoping out projects in health, housing and more. Also saved was $9.8 million for road upgrades in Mansfield under the Remote Roads Upgrade Pilot Program. This will deliver considerable upgrades to Highton Lane, Rifle Butts Road and the Boorolite-Chapel Hill Road to improve their safety. Our community will also keep $900,000 for the Biggara Recreation Reserve for the completion of the master plan—a huge relief for this little community that’s been through so much.
But, given the massive rain events across the eastern seaboard, it was hard not to be concerned by the lack new roads funding. Not the blockbuster announcements the member for Lalor refers to in her motion; I mean the meat-and-potatoes highways, byways and backroads that are the lifeblood of regional Australia. In Indi, like electorates across Australia, our roads are disintegrating before our eyes. Floods and rain are eroding the road surface, and the potholes—by golly, the potholes! Whether you’re commuting or doing the school pick-up, everyone knows a pothole—or a dozen!—that fills them with dread. One man told me, ‘Driving on the Melba Highway is a life-and-death journey, especially after dark and after rain.’ There was reportedly a pothole as big as a bath on the Murray Valley Highway. Worse still were the potholes on the Hume Highway near Seymour, which blew tyres by the dozen. For my constituents travelling to Melbourne on the Hume for specialist medical treatment, this was the last thing they needed.
This budget did include funding for the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program to continue out to 2025-26. Again, I thank the minister for this commitment, but I’m hearing from local councils—flat out filling potholes—that they have no hope of fixing roads without a serious injection of funds from state and federal governments. Our road infrastructure needs review, and I’m pleased to be part of the Standing Committee on Regional Development, Infrastructure and Transport, where we plan to undertake such an inquiry.
The local councils responsible for building and maintaining road infrastructure are doing more with less. In Indi, our nine LGAs provide essential services with small rate bases and challenging geography. Because of this, they rely heavily on the Commonwealth’s financial assistance grants. These untied grants allow councils to spend funds where it’s most needed: on road maintenance; maintaining community assets like sporting grounds, libraries or pools; or new enabling infrastructure. These grants make up 42 per cent of the operating revenue for rural agricultural councils, according to the Australian Local Government Association. Yet, over the last three decades, grant payments have declined from one per cent of Commonwealth taxation revenue to around 0.53 per cent. At the same time, the demands on these councils have only increased. The number one ask from Indi’s local governments, year in, year out, is to increase financial assistance grants. I took this request to the last government, and I was told that pigs flying was a likelier outcome.
Fast-forward six months, and I look across the chamber to a new government who committed in its national platform to focus on the long-term financial sustainability of local government, including fair increases to financial assistance grants. What is a fair increase? I would say that we start by restoring the grants to one per cent of federal tax revenue. This is the infrastructure funding that regions really need. I’ve been pleased to meet with the Assistant Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories, herself a former mayor from a regional community, to make this case. I truly hope that she can do better than the previous government on this issue. I’ll be keeping the pressure up. I will continue with this, so that the infrastructure our local regional communes need is there for them to thrive.