InDaily

Adelaide's independent news

Get InDaily in your inbox. Daily. Subscribe

"Golfgate" CEO a victim of "small town mentality"

Opinion

The CEO of South Australia's largest council has been under sustained media attack after it was revealed the council paid his golf fees at a prestigious Adelaide course. Political scientist Haydon Manning argues that while the council has made mistakes, the ferocity of the attack has been unfair.

Comments
Comments Print article

In recent times the City of Onkaparinga CEO, Mark Dowd, Mayor Lorraine Rosenberg and the elected councillors have suffered some incredibly bad press. The question is: could there be another side to this story?

I believe there is, as I have some inside running on “golfgate”. My wife, Hazel Wainwright, is an elected councillor: as a consequence I know something about the views and actions of some of the individuals in this story.

Here I address only a few themes, as there is much more to this complex and nuanced story.

I’m acutely aware of trying to be as objective as possible. I’ve read the reports and opinion columns in The Advertiser and believe InDaily readers need to be informed about some of the wider context and, crucially, also be offered some insight into what the council is trying to achieve.

Without a doubt, the council in general and Mayor Rosenberg in particular, have failed to communicate regularly with key journalists. Council’s “media strategy” has been pathetic. You haven’t read about it, but there is a defensible case to be made for the council’s actions in relation to Dowd’s salary packaging.

Not surprisingly, many people down south are asking why 18 of the 20 elected councillors saw no good reason to apologise to ratepayers for their decision in January 2015 to pay Dowd’s joining fee to the Kooyonga Golf Club. The payment does not appear to pass any “pub test” and if I’d been advising council my political antennae would have said “don’t do it!  You’re on a hiding to nothing because this can so easily be trumped up as gratuitous waste.”

However, I firmly believe the payment was not made out of wanton disregard for ratepayers, but the opposite – as part of a strategy to woo Chinese investment to the south.

The payment came up as part of an annual review of the CEO’s executive salary package. The key point is that this review was held in early 2015 during the initial stages of the council’s efforts to build a relationship with prospective Chinese investors.

Clearly the political price of the golf fee is huge when it can be pitched as misuse of ratepayers’ cash. But there is a wider context: just what it takes to win over Chinese investors. Again, that point is easily lost when the focus turns to questions about what components are reasonably included in executive salary packaging. This is not the place to thrash out that issue. Suffice to say, executive salaries are what they are – the market speaks its language. Dowd is remunerated within the guidelines of the Local Government Association, which published a research report on CEO salaries in January 2015.

As I understand the matter, the joining fee payment was put to elected members by the Mayor as part of Dowd’s “subscriptions” allowance of which, to that point in his contract, he’d not availed himself. The payment was supported by all recently elected councillors because, I can only reasonably assume, they appreciated that wooing Chinese investors requires networking. In fact, they were unanimous in their support for the payment. That is an important point: a group of 20 recently elected councillors did not see a huge problem here. The context was job creation.

Whether this type of networking renders solid investment outcomes I’ve no idea, but it is not an unreasonable proposition that it could be part of the picture. Dowd told me recently that one of the Chinese businessmen he hosted actually owns golf courses, so you’d figure hosting that chap, and his colleagues, at anywhere other than one of our top golf courses runs the risk of being less than impressive. Frankly, to argue that local southern golf courses are being snubbed here demonstrates ignorance of what is involved in negotiations with the Chinese investor class.

As jobs are stripped out of the state’s manufacturing base and businesses are coy to invest due in part to high energy prices, you’d figure the council’s objective of job creation might at least be noted.

It should go without saying that building trust with prospective Chinese investors is a huge task, requiring deft judgment and loads of patience.

The bigger question is whether local government should even consider a role in economic development, independent of the state and federal governments.

Onkaparinga is by far the largest council in the state with annual income of around $150 million, assets of $1.8 billion and some 700 employees. In my view, Onkaparinga has the capacity to explore economic development opportunities in its own right. The pitch to Chinese investors focuses on the wine industry, tourism and a range of business-related infrastructure projects from Noarlunga to Lonsdale.

Whether these prospects become reality is an open question but it’s hard to fault the intention. It is far easier is to find mistakes in elements of the process. But if there is fault to be found with the golf fee payment it is, in my view, relatively minor and certainly does not warrant the level of vitriol directed at the CEO and Onkaparinga Council in general.

I’ve taught in China, and I read and talk about the issue of how we go about building trust with Chinese investors. In a nutshell, I have some feel for just how much of a cultural learning curve this journey entails and I also know how remarkably hard Mark Dowd works toward building the necessary relationship ahead of ever getting to sign a contract.

Since moving down south, from the well-heeled inner eastern suburbs of Adelaide, my wife and I have both become involved in supporting local communities, and for Hazel that has become her passion. She chairs the Aldinga Business and Tourism Association and in that capacity, and paying for her own fares and accommodation, she joined an Onkaparinga Council delegation to northern China in 2014.

Hazel’s saw first-hand how incredibly hard Dowd worked, and likewise Mayor Rosenberg, at trying to build a foundation for a relationship with potential Chinese investors. This played a part in her decision to run for council in October 2014 because, like me, she believes unemployment is the root cause of most social problems.

Dowd earns his salary and in my judgment has the necessary IQ and emotional intelligence for the job. Not all execs – nor Prime Ministers for that matter – have that happy combination. As a result, I have been surprised and disturbed to read the level of public vilification directed at him.

So what’s behind this campaign? I can only conclude that it’s a combination of populism and classic tall poppy syndrome where painting the “rich guy” as reprehensible is just plain good fun.

Alas, this all speaks to a small town mentality we can ill afford.

As jobs are stripped out of the state’s manufacturing base and businesses are coy to invest due in part to high energy prices, you’d figure the council’s objective of job creation might at least be noted.

When the wider picture is presented, what on the surface  – in the pub – appears to be a weird piece of executive salary packaging may be viewed in different light.

Haydon Manning is Associate Professor in the School of Social and Policy Studies at Flinders University.

As disclosed in the text of this article, his wife is an elected member of Onkparinga council.

Comments

Show comments Hide comments
Will my comment be published? Read the guidelines.

More Opinion stories

Loading next article