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"Covert" political ties prompt push for local government reform

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A glut of council candidates with formal ties to political parties has ignited a push for a law change to force local government hopefuls to declare their allegiances.

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Several dozen of the 1374 candidates running for council seats are members of political parties, with many having run for this year’s state election.

SA Best MLC Frank Pangallo says he wants to amend the Local Government Act “so that all council candidates must disclose political affiliations [and] union memberships”.

He said he raised it in discussions over a Labor-led local government reform bill tabled in parliament last week, and believes there would be broad support for the change which he will pursue after the current council election has concluded.

“I think it’s important when people assess a candidate who they’re going to be voting for, that they know whether or not they have any political affiliations or memberships, or union memberships,” he told InDaily.

Successful candidates must declare party memberships on an online register but Pangallo says “I think it’s important to make those declarations before the election”.

“It gives voters an idea of what they stand for, and what policies they support,” he said.

He also wants candidates to be forced to declare “whether they are working for a sitting member of parliament”.

“There are some who have nominated who are linked to sitting members and I think it’s important people know that,” he said.

“It just seems SA is now moving down the path of the eastern states, where it’s beginning to be politicised [and] political parties are starting to assert their influence in the selection of candidates.

“This is all about being open and transparent.”

Several of Pangallo’s SA Best colleagues who ran for the Xenophon-led party in March are trying their luck in local government, including John Illingworth, Andrew Stratford, James Sadler, John Noonan and Giles Rositano, along with several who were already elected to councils before they ran for parliament.

ALP state secretary Reggie Martin said he did not want to see SA adopt a system where parties played a formal role in local government elections, which would force the organisations to spend resources preselecting and endorsing candidates.

“I do see a trend toward more political people getting involved but I don’t think political parties should be involved in local government elections,” he said.

“The problem I see when people have to state their membership, the perception would be they’re an endorsed candidate when that’s not the case.”

But Labor’s local government spokesman Tony Piccolo said he was “not opposed” to Pangallo’s push for greater disclosure.

“We’ve said that after the [council] election we’re happy to discuss with him some changes to the electoral act for local government,” he said.

Liberal state director Sascha Meldrum did not respond to inquiries.

Local Government Association spokeswoman Lisa Teburea said the LGA supported early disclosure of party affiliation “as part of our reform agenda”.

She said the move was about “creating a level playing field for disclosure of information”, given incumbent councillors’ party memberships are publicly declared while first-time hopefuls’ are not.

“That should apply to all candidates prior to the election,” she said.

“It’s about creating that consistency and a level playing field.”

She said the LGA had to “work with the government on the mechanics of bringing that about” but “we certainly think there are reforms that are necessary to make sure there’s consistency”.

“We’d certainly like to see electoral reforms happen before the next election,” she said.

However, she said any reforms had to avoid formalising political involvement in campaigns.

“I think there’s a lot of people who’d be concerned about the politicisation of local government to the extent that it exists in states like NSW, and we’re certainly not advocating that,” she said.

“We’re just making sure voters have information about affiliations that do exist.”

Greens MLC Mark Parnell says he backs pre-election disclosure.

A number of Greens members are standing for councils, including former senator Robert Simms and the party’s SA director Dominic Mugavin.

Parnell said while there is “nothing wrong with people who are members of political parties running for local council” he favoured greater transparency about it.

“[Local government] might not be overtly political, but it’s covertly political,” he said, noting one metro council with 75 per cent of its members affiliated with political parties.

“The big question is whether we can transition from a covert system,” he said. “

“But if we’re going to go to a completely overt system, there could well be a backlash from people who have this notion that local government isn’t political.”

Parnell pondered whether not just party membership, but union and even religious affiliation should be declared.

“I’m just going to put it out there,” he said.

“I think the more information that’s made available about candidates, the more likely people are to vote… and the higher the turnout, the more democratic the result.”

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