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The local government champion who made pollies sit up, take notice

Insights

One of the most prominent figures in Queensland’s public life for nearly 30 years, Greg Hallam, has called it quits, writes Craig Johnstone.

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This month marked a significant turn of the wheel in local politics, not just for Queensland but for all of Australia’s 537 councils, really.

One of the sector’s best advocates, Local Government Association of Queensland chief executive Greg Hallam, has retired after 29 years in the job.

The former econometrician (don’t ask him how that differs from being an economist, let alone how you get to be “classically trained” in the field) is leaving the LGAQ a much bigger and more powerful enterprise than when he arrived.

Hallam has built this outfit from what was little more than a letter writing club to an organisation with a $50 million annual budget and the heft to provide a range of vital services to councils, from insurance and procurement and IT to training and professional development.

In the meantime, it has waged some monumental political battles, from council mergers to industrial relations reform, and made sure its members got the help they needed to recover from cyclones and floods.

In a recent interview, Hallam described building up the LGAQ from the minnow it was to the whale it has become as iterative.

“I knew we could do a lot more to help our members in terms of advice and assistance, but also in terms of giving us the wherewithal and financial backing to become a serious advocacy policy player,” he said.”

“So that was really the journey from representation and policy to advocacy.”

There have been some lost battles: the aforesaid council mergers and a doomed attempt to convince state-owned energy companies to see the value of streetlights to the digital economy are two that immediately come to mind.

But successive state premiers have come to know they treat the LGAQ poorly at their peril. There are also some who relied on Hallam’s advice when the crunch came, particularly during natural disasters.

Through it all, Hallam has maintained his enthusiasm and love of local government, and a “realpolitik” approach to the job.

He has often said to mayors angered by some decision in William St and preparing to do battle that a “six-shooter beats a popgun every time”, a reference to the power of the state vis-a-vis local councils.

His care for the welfare of his staff was typically over the top. If a thunderstorm threatened, he would walk around the office telling everyone they’d better pack up and go home early to escape it, leaving his managers with heads in their hands.

Managing a peak body or any membership organisation is a tough gig. Not many of their chief executives stay for three years, let alone nearly 30.

Hallam has spent an average of 60 nights a year away from home to deal with councils in the most far flung parts of the state or “seven years of my life”, as he puts it.

A former Treasury officer and economic adviser to Whitlam and Hawke government minister Tom Uren, Hallam’s first council job was town clerk at Esk Shire, followed by a stint at Townsville City Council.

He arrived at the LGAQ a week after his 33rd birthday in 1992, heading up a staff of 10 and presiding over a $3 million budget.

Today, the LGAQ is the envy of comparable peak bodies interstate, some of which are not much different from the letter writing club he inherited 29 years ago – or are so riven with internal politics their impact as a council lobby is barely existent.

But for all the entrepreneurial ventures he has taken the LGAQ into such as data analytics and the internet of things, his most satisfying achievement is a surprise – roads reform.

“I remember from my days at Esk and Townsville, it was like a stand-up street fight once a year with the local main roads person, and then it would escalate to the regional guy, and then the minister… it was an abomination,’ he said recently.

“When we looked at the road network in Queensland—main roads and secondary roads, the council’s primary roads—they’re the same set of roads but the punters didn’t give a stuff what road they were on, they just wanted to get from A to B in one piece.”

The changes he and various bureaucrats pushed through gave councils certainty over their road building budgets.

“That was doing something people said couldn’t be done and I think in the history of Queensland that will be the most enduring piece.”

Hallam attended his final LGAQ annual conference as chief executive in Mackay last month. It should be quite the party.

Craig Johnstone was media executive for the LGAQ for nine years.

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