I thank the member for Gippsland for this motion. Like him, I recognise the important role local government plays in rural and regional electorates like ours. Councils aren’t just responsible for roads, rates and rubbish. They provide so many more vital services to communities: health and aged-care services, transport, libraries, pools and parks. I’m pleased that the Standing Committee on Regional Development Infrastructure and Transport, which I’m a member of, is currently undertaking an inquiry into local government sustainability. This will help us understand the challenges local governments face in providing community services and explore the ways that we as a Commonwealth can better support them.

Challenges faced by regional, rural or remote councils in particular stem from the fact that they have fewer ratepayers than metropolitan councils. Despite this, they often have just as many, if not more, services and assets to provide and maintain for their populations. Rural and remote councils, for example, look after thousands more kilometres of road. In my electorate, Indigo Shire has 1,500 kilometres of road. The rural city of Wangaratta maintains 2,000 kilometres of road network. On top of this, after recent flooding events rural roads are eroding before our very eyes. Councils are struggling to find the funds to repair them, let alone build them back better to withstand future natural disasters.

Earlier this month I met with the managers of the Breakaway Twin Rivers Caravan Park in Acheron, on the banks of the Goulburn River, where the community is still waiting for the Breakaway Bridge to be replaced following significant flooding in October 2022. It’s no mistake that this bridge has this name. The community desperately need their bridge replaced, but limited federal funding prevents the council from building back better and decreasing the likelihood of the bridge being swept away in the future. There are many bridges like Breakaway Bridge across rural Australia where councils need more federal assistance to build back with greater resilience.

That’s why I was pleased to see some additional help for councils through the increased funding for the Roads to Recovery Program under the budget. This will now rise from $500 million to $1 billion per year. This funding directly impacts the quality of our local roads, allowing potholes to be filled and repaired and culverts to be installed so we can all get home safely. This new funding for roads is welcome, but, like the member for Gippsland, I can’t see much more in the budget for local governments in regional and rural areas.

In particular, I was disappointed not to see more funding for the government’s signature Growing Regions Program and for the Regional Partnerships and Precincts Program. These programs are some of the only government policies truly dedicated to regional development. Local governments in my electorate applied for these programs to fund projects for recreation facilities, art galleries and community hubs to name but some. I want to see these applicants succeed because I want to see regional communities succeed, and I know many other members in this House do too.

I’ve been asked many times, actually, whether advocating for these projects in my electorate is pork-barrelling. Pork-barrelling is a practice in politics and in the allocation of grants that I want to see end, but, in a fair system with good rules, guidelines and processes, the best projects are funded not because of who advocate the loudest but because they have merit and address community need. In a fair and robust system, members of this place could advocate loudly for projects in their electorates, knowing that the rules would still ensure a fair process, irrespective of whether they’re in a marginal electorate.

The Growing Regions Program and the RPPP have clear guidelines and selection criteria and robust processes, and I congratulate the government on that. The biggest problem, though, with these programs is they aren’t big enough to respond to the need. Applications to the Growing Regions Program totalled more than $1.7 billion, and we also know, from Senate estimates, that 311 projects were deemed suitable for funding, with the total amount applied for under those projects at $1.4 billion. This program has only $600 million to distribute over two rounds of $300 million. Under the first round, the government funded just $207 million, which is less than what the budget allocated. As we can see, it’s a fraction of what the department deemed suitable for funding. It leaves $93 million unspent in a program that is clearly oversubscribed.

I don’t understand this. There is a clear demand from local councils for more federal financial assistance. I urge the government to add more money to the Growing Regions Program and the Regional Precincts and Partnerships Program to help our councils better deliver their infrastructure. I urge them: spend the $93 million that’s still there.

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