Local Government (Governance) Amendment Bill

25 September 2014

It gives me pleasure to be able to rise today and support the government's amendment to the Local Government Act 1999. I like to take any opportunity to speak about local government. It is an area in which I have a significant interest, having spent 3½ years on Marion council.

Mr SPEIRS (Bright) (17:01): It gives me pleasure to be able to rise today and support the government's amendment to the Local Government Act 1999. I like to take any opportunity to speak about local government. It is an area in which I have a significant interest, having spent 3½ years on Marion council. As the member for Hartley mentioned, he was also a member of local government as were many members of this house, and it is a place in which many people who look at serving in other tiers of government do start off their careers.

The amendments before us today are quite straightforward and I do not think Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition has any particular concern about supporting them. They seek to make some fairly common-sense changes to the act, to introduce mandatory training and development for elected members, and to increase the significance of the oath of office that elected members have to give when they enter into public office.

Having been the deputy mayor of the City of Marion, I have a fair bit of experience with the training and development side of things in local government. Often there was a real reluctance on the part of council to encourage local councillors (who were my colleagues) to partake of training and development opportunities, and there are certainly plenty of opportunities provided either by the Local Government Association or other training providers along the way. It did seem there was a real reluctance among elected members, partly because of the time and effort that was required, to actually go down the path of doing voluntary training and development. I do think it is very important for elected members to have a mandatory duty to undertake training and development, and for this to be enshrined in legislation is probably a good idea.

I will take the opportunity, while we have the Local Government Act open, to make a few other comments about local government in South Australia, many of which are connected with this idea of capacity, training and development for elected members. I note that when the close of rolls for the upcoming local government elections occurred a couple of weeks ago, I decided to go through the list of nominations. I was taken aback by the large number of councils, particularly metropolitan councils, where the position of mayor was actually uncontested going into these local government elections.

These councils include: the City of Marion; the City of West Torrens; the City of Playford; the City of Norwood, Payneham & St Peters; the City of Burnside; Mount Barker council; and the City of Prospect. Going into the regional areas, they include: the Barossa Council, Berri council, Ceduna council, Grant council, Karoonda East Murray council, Loxton Waikerie council, Robe council and Wakefield council. I think it really is a matter of concern that so many councils have had the mayoral position uncontested going into these elections.

I am not criticising the current incumbents or those who entered those positions uncontested; it is not for me to look at their capacity to do the role. I guess my problem is that these people enter this position in a highly unaccountable fashion. When you do not have an election, you do not get to lay out a vision, you do not need to communicate to your community goals and priorities for what you will actually do in that position.

Again, that is not a reflection on those individuals who have taken on the mayoral roles in those council areas but, rather, it is a reflection on our local democracy that in many councils—and there are hundreds of thousands of South Australians encompassed in those councils that I just read out. Those people will not be able to go to the polls and select someone. They will not be able to weigh up the options between different candidates for mayor. Also, they will not be able to fully hold mayors to account during the incoming term, because they have nothing to benchmark against in terms of things that those people would have pledged to fulfil if they had gone through a council election process. I think that is quite disappointing.

I do note that the Minister for Local Government is on record in this place saying that the government is very interested in introducing a comprehensive reform bill for local government in the first half of 2015. I really look forward to seeing what the local government minister and the state government opposite actually have on the table for local government. My view is that local government in South Australia, while operating fairly well as a whole, is still operating within the bounds of a 1970s or 1980s legislative framework, when actually the role of local government in 2014 is a much more complex beast: its responsibilities are much more substantial than even at the beginning of the turn of the century. I really look forward to seeing what the government has in terms of recommendations for the reform, what they will bring to community consultation, what they will bring to consultation with local governments and what they will work on with the opposition.

There are some things that I think should be canvassed. I am not saying this is my specific position and it is certainly not a position of the Liberal Party of South Australia. What I think we need to be looking at and having a discussion with the South Australian community includes the size of councils. I am not saying that we necessarily need to go down the track of amalgamations, but what we do need to look at is where can councils strategically work better together, where do councils fit neatly together and, if it is not amalgamations necessarily, it is looking at how councils can work together better and how we can get a legislative framework in place which encourages that.

I am very interested in looking at the way councils raise revenue. The Liberal Party went to the last election with quite a controversial rate capping proposal. Again, while I am not necessarily advocating for that policy, I do think the way councils raise revenue needs to be seriously looked at in South Australia at the moment.

In my own electorate of Bright, I have two councils: the City of Holdfast Bay and the City of Marion. They operate the same general rating structure, but when you drill down into the rate in the dollar, you have a very different situation. If you live in the suburb of Kingston Park, which sits very neatly in the suburb of Marino but in two different council areas, there is a huge difference in what neighbours pay in rates.

I have one resident who lives in a street in Kingston Park, whose house is probably worth around about $900,000. Next door, there is a house in the suburb of Marino. The houses are actually joined together, and that house is also worth about $900,000. The difference in the annual rates bill for those two properties is over $700, and that is a situation that I think cannot go on in my community. Not only does it create a situation of envy, but it is not practical for two neighbouring households to pay such a dramatic difference in their annual rates revenue.

I think something we need to have a real discussion about in South Australia in terms of local government—and it is not something that sits ideologically very well with me—is the idea of compulsory voting for local government elections. Normally, it is not something that I would support, but I do think when you have a situation where, in metropolitan Adelaide, local government turnout is sitting at 25 to 30 per cent, it creates a situation where local government is very much a poor cousin to the federal and state tiers of government.

How can you take local government in this state seriously when state and federal governments sit in a compulsory voting system but local government does not? It really emphasises and underpins an irrelevancy of local government. I think that is really an unfortunate thing because local government is definitely not an irrelevant tier of government but, with a different voting system in place, I think local government is suffering for the non-compulsory voting environment in local government elections.

I also have a concern about the general capacity of local government and that is going right to elected members in local government. Somebody can potentially get elected with a couple of hundred votes from the local bowling club or can get a little group of local residents around them because they have a particular gripe about an issue. In some councils, you only need a couple of hundred votes to get on local government. That concerns me, and I think if we did have a serious discussion about whether or not to have compulsory voting in local government, we could then have a discussion about capacity of elected members as well. Would compulsory voting actually enable us to have overall greater capacity amongst our elected members? I am beginning to think that that would be the case.

Then there is the situation, which comes back, potentially, to the size of local government areas in South Australia, of the economic role of local government. I often think that local governments in South Australia do not necessarily see themselves as drivers of economic development when actually I think they absolutely are and it is a very important role of local government. Elected members need to see their role as economic developers and tailor their policies and the way they work to do that. Again, that will require working across boundaries and working regionally and not just internally in our fairly small local government areas within Adelaide.

I can count at least three major projects in my own electorate that are currently held up by local government red tape. I think sometimes people blame the state government planning system for this sort of thing, but I actually believe local government can often lead to very significant delays in the start-up time of economic projects. I have three totalling probably about $150 million or $200 million in my electorate at the moment, and I think it is because local governments in my community do not actually see themselves as drivers and catalysts of economic growth, and they need to be able to do that.

Those are just some of my thoughts about local government in this state at the moment. I think we have a great opportunity, hopefully, as the local government minister has suggested in this place, to look at reform of local government in South Australia in the first half of 2015. I really hope that the government does come forward with a raft of reforms, looks at the local government excellence panel that was led by Mr Crafter over the last couple of years, looks at those recommendations and uses them as something of a foundation for reforming our third tier of government.

It is a tier of government which very much has the potential to be the best and most functional tier of government. It is the most local tier of government and has the ability to most effectively impact the lives of South Australians but, too often, because of bureaucracy and because of capacity issues, it does not fulfil that potential to be the best tier of government in this nation and, too often, it is in fact the worst.

Extracted from Hansard