Matt Pinnegar had only lived in Canberra for six weeks when he found himself caught up in the ACT’s COVID-19 Delta variant outbreak. Like thousands of Canberrans, he’d visited an exposure site – a cafe near work – that sent him into two weeks of social isolation.
Matt had recently moved to the nation’s capital to take up his new role as Chief Executive of the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA). When we spoke to him, he was eight days into quarantine. His days were full of working from home, unpacking his new house, doing personal training sessions via Zoom and breaking up fights between his cat Lulu and her neighbourhood felines.
“I haven’t got out much,” says Matt, who moved to Canberra from the more temperate climes of Adelaide. “Everyone kept telling me it was cold, and they were right.”
Government impact on local communities
Matt believes local government is well-placed to help Australian communities deal with the unique set of challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Local government knows what’s happening on the ground,” he says. “It has the capability, the infrastructure and the reach to make real and quick impacts on communities.”
He points to the support councils have provided communities during the pandemic. “We saw local government defer rates, adopt zero rate increases, waive fees, introduce business support packages, deliver food to vulnerable people and keep libraries open as safe refuges for people who needed them,” he says.
Local government collects less than 4 per cent of the nation’s taxation revenue, which means the future of initiatives like these depends on funding from state and federal governments.
“That’s why financial assistance grants, which is an untied grant that local government receives from the federal government, is essentially a lifeline for many councils,” says Matt. “It enables continuity of employment, and enables councils to plan for the future and develop workforce capability to make sure we can do the things that need to be done.”
From business success to starting over
Matt grew up in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, “a proud graduate of Salisbury High School”. At university, he completed a degree in Communications Studies, majoring in Economics, with the intention of becoming a journalist or politician.
While Matt did end up in politics, his career trajectory didn’t follow the traditional path. While studying he worked at a pizza bar, where he met a Syrian migrant who worked as a delivery driver. The pair opened their own pizza restaurant together. Matt’s stepmother and father, who was on a pension after working at General Motors-Holden for two decades, mortgaged their house to help fund their son’s business.
When Matt finished his degree, he sold his business – which had grown to three venues – and went overseas, spending four months travelling through Europe and Zimbabwe. He returned in the early ‘90s while Australia was in the throes of the “recession we had to have”, in the infamous words of former PM Paul Keating.
“I went from owning three shops to not being able to get a job,” says Matt, who recalls receiving more than 40 rejection letters. “It was a terrible time for a lot of people in Australia around employment.”
He soon returned to university, studying law as a mature-age student. “I got lucky that year,” he says. “The law faculty increased their intake of students and I managed to get in.”
At the time, Matt was working part-time in the office of Lea Stevens, Member for Little Para in the South Australian House of Assembly. Independent Rory McEwen, whose portfolios included State/Local Government Relations, Industry and Trade, Regional Development, and Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Forests, then offered Matt a ministerial advisory role. “I ended up studying law full-time and working full-time,” he says.
Matt’s biggest career influence
Following his degree, Matt became a ministerial adviser for Patrick Conlon, the Belfast-born Labor Party member who represented Elder. Matt climbed the ranks in Conlon’s office, eventually becoming Conlon’s longest-serving chief of staff and overseeing his transport, infrastructure and energy portfolios.
Conlon was “the biggest influence on my life”, he says. “He had what he called a ‘culture of excellence’. He encouraged everyone to do the best they could, and trusted you to do your job.”
After deciding against pursuing politics, Matt became BP’s External Affairs Manager, serving as the principal contact for the Great Australian Bight Exploration Program. Then, in 2015, he applied for the newly vacant CEO role at Local Government South Australia (LGASA).
“It was a job I’d always had a lot of interest in, given I’d been an adviser in local government at one time, so I applied for it and was successful,” he says.
‘We see ourselves as partners in government’
Matt’s time at LGASA coincided with a state government push to introduce rate capping – a controversial policy to limit the revenue councils can collect from the community to fund local services. With the backing of 68 South Australian councils, Matt spearheaded the public campaign against the proposal.
LGASA ultimately won the fight against rate capping, a “failed policy”, says Matt. “Other jurisdictions struggled with huge maintenance backlogs and maintaining key community infrastructure with high levels of debt because of rate capping, whereas South Australia had a financially strong local government sector that could partner with state and federal government to get things done.”
Matt left LGASA earlier this year to assume the role of CEO at ALGA. He says his priority is strengthening the relationship between local and federal governments. “We see ourselves as partners in government and part of the solution to a whole range of challenges that Australia faces,” he explains.
Matt believes associations such as ALGA and IPWEA play an important role in public debate and policymaking, identifying critical issues in their respective sectors and raising them with the nation’s key decision makers.
“An association is only as strong as the input and commitment of its members,” he notes. “Evidence-based policy and advocacy relies on the everyday on-the-ground experiences of the members being represented.”
The end of lockdown – when it comes – and the arrival of warm weather will see Matt out and about in his new city. “I’m looking forward to the spring, which everyone has told me is magnificent in Canberra,” he says. “Getting out and meeting some people face-to-face and starting to form some relationships with the key decision-makers in Canberra.”