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Op Ed - Andrews Government abandoning local communities facing increased disaster risk

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Now, more than ever, it is critical for governments of all levels to work together to support local communities staring down an increase in the risks posed by natural disasters.

Bushfires, coastal erosion, flooding, and storms continue to devastate Victorians every year. Climate change is predicted to increase the frequency and intensity of disasters.

From small towns to regional cities, suburbs on the fringes of Melbourne to the inner city, local communities are rightly worried, as are the 79 Victorian councils who serve them.

Councils play a critical role in emergency management. They are the tier of government closest to community and have an intricate understanding of local needs.

Before emergencies strike, councils facilitate local emergency planning, work hard to reduce disaster risks, and help build the resilience of their communities through proper planning recovery processes.

Once impacted, councils coordinate immediate relief, and support communities to recover over the longer-term. Their vital role cannot be underestimated.

Despite this, the Andrews Government appears steadfast on ignoring community and council concerns about being prepared for when disaster strikes.

For six years, councils have been explaining the immense pressures they are facing, and the risks that poses for local communities. Urgent funding increases to train staff, deliver hazard reduction works and build the resilience of local infrastructure is needed, yet it largely remains unfunded.

Communities and councils are now at the point where this lack of State Government support has councils asking themselves ‘have we been set up to fail?’

The $4.9 million the State provides to councils (an average of close to $75,000 for each of the 64 supported councils) only provides at best a third – and more often around a quarter – of the funds councils are now obliged to spend each year to fulfill a complex range of emergency responsibilities.

Further almost none of these funds make it into hazard reduction which is critical to reducing the risk to communities over time.  In short it is ratepayers who now carry the can for most of the State’s emergency management responsibilities.

At the same time the state continues to blur the lines about who is responsible for what, and to move responsibilities to local government. The list is 94-suggested-responsibilities-long for councils in emergency management – far beyond the core roles councils have had for decades.

There is an unwavering determination by the Andrews Government to centralise and complicate decision-making in emergencies. The recent move to Emergency Recovery Victoria, replacing the former Bushfire Recovery Victoria agency, leaves significant confusion in the minds of communities.

This state level attention on resilience, relief and recovery is welcomed, but greater centralisation of decision-making and concentration of resources away from local communities cannot be allowed to happen. Communities need to be supported through their council to deliver support to their local communities. Duplicating roles serves no one.

Last year, hundreds of thousands of Victorians in suburbs and towns across the state were impacted when storms ripped through. Lives were lost, electricity was out for weeks, and some lost everything.

Communities turned to their councils for support, who were only too happy to help. While their incredible efforts were welcomed, chronic underfunding by the Andrews Government meant relief efforts were hamstrung.

The official government response was to send in the state bureaucrats to take charge. The efforts of staff on the ground were undoubtedly well intentioned. However, this ‘captain’s call’ ignored the critical connections councils have with their local communities, and the years of experience they have in supporting the needs of their residents and businesses.

Local government has been working in good faith with the state for six years in an attempt to improve arrangements. Our work even led to the government’s own Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions releasing a report highlighting the lack of funding and major gaps in council capacity and capability. Sadly, the State refuses to act.

Ahead of this year’s budget, the MAV worked with state agencies on a fair increase in resourcing for council emergency management responsibilities. Once again, this work and advice was ignored.

Both Federal and State Government love spruiking the disaster recovery funding they provide, however it’s not what you allocate that counts.

Behind these big promises is a system of administration designed to deny the legitimate requests of council to rebuild roads, replace guard rails and clear trees after storms.  Disaster arrangements are in place because councils have limited financial resources. If today’s current rules for disaster funding were applied to the 2010-11 floods, almost every rural council in Western Victoria would be bankrupt, as the repair bill from that event was around 4-5 times annual capital expenditure.

The support of the state is critical in communities where recent natural disasters and the pandemic have wreaked havoc on local economies. Distressingly, most funding packages are for a maximum of two years and today the State is saying to bushfire communities from the 2019 black summer, if you haven’t spent the dough, you need to give it back. Genuine recovery takes much longer than that.

Councils have had enough. In just three years, they have been stretched by bushfires, floods, storms, the pandemic and more. They pushed on – knowing how important their role is to so many Victorians. But they expected more than the lacklustre support provided by this State Government.

Councils will do what it takes to protect the livelihoods of their residents and businesses. They are ready and willing to work alongside the State Government, but the State must be willing to also.

Now, more than ever, Daniel Andrews and his ministers need to get serious about supporting councils in their work with communities. Abandoning them now is just too much of a risk.

Cr David Clark
Municipal Association of Victoria