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Notes on Adelaide

Libs leave exile to sweat | Knoll's hits and misses

Notes on Adelaide

In today’s Notes On Adelaide, the Libs leave their exiled MP to sweat, while an outgoing former minister calls for public service reform – as new research suggests SA dodged a bullet with the Government’s failed council reforms.

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Libs not Wilde about Fraser

We’re suggesting a track for high rotation on sort-of Liberal MP Fraser Ellis’s Christmas playlist.

It’s that ‘80s number by Kim Wilde that goes: “Set me free, why don’t ya babe… cos you don’t really want me, you just keep me hangin’ on.”

Which essentially sums up his relationship with his (sort-of) former party, which has deferred a decision on what to do with his Yorke Peninsula seat of Narungga until the new year.

Ellis, of course, has been sitting on the crossbench since suspending himself from the Liberal party-room in February after revealing he had been charged with inappropriately claiming parliamentary entitlements.

In October his long-awaited trial was pushed back until June next year, prompting the first-term MP to demand his (sort-of) party “confirm that I remain the endorsed Liberal Party candidate for the seat of Narungga”.

“Given I am presumed innocent I hope that the Party will confirm my endorsement and allow me to stand as a Liberal candidate at the election,” he said at the time, reconfirming that if they didn’t do so “I will nominate as an independent candidate and seek the support of my community directly”.

But if he had hoped this gauntlet-throwing exercise would sting the Libs into action, he was sadly mistaken.

Ellis was left hanging for the remaining few sitting weeks, during which time he was generally conspicuous as the only crossbencher to back the Government in a series of contentious votes (including whether to ban sort-of Attorney-General Vickie Chapman from parliament for six days).

But now that the lower house has risen for the year, it was expected the party’s state executive would confirm its position on Ellis, who remains – technically – the party’s preselected candidate.

That decision is widely expected to involve choosing an alternative candidate, although as with Sam Duluk in Waite such a move would be complicated by the fact that the local branch would rather stick with the incumbent, who diplomatically says that it “doesn’t matter what colour shirt I’m wearing come March because I’ve got a track record of delivering for Narungga”.

Liberal state director Sascha Meldrum told InDaily this week “the party has deferred a decision on whether to open preselections for Narungga until early next year”, but did not respond when asked the reason for the further delay.

It seems likely, however, that the party will be saying to the local branch (in the words of Kim Wilde): “Let me find somebody else.”

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

The expenses scandal that led to Ellis’s standoff has wreaked havoc across the Liberal camp, with its highest-profile casualty Stephan Knoll bowing out of politics altogether at the March election, despite the ICAC opting not to pursue a case against him.

The former Planning, Transport and Infrastructure Minister farewelled parliament last month with a typically thoughtful and unusually candid valedictory speech.

He spoke of the impact of the expenses scandal, when he quit the ministry after repaying around $30,000 “given the ambiguity around the definitions provided [by] the Remuneration Tribunal” – citing media intrusions on his family home and his mother’s work as moments that clarified his decision to leave politics.

“I am someone who has been extremely lucky in life, and I have worked hard to make myself as lucky as possible – so the events of July 2020 came as more of a shock than they otherwise would have,” he said.

“At the time, it affected my mental health much more profoundly than it might otherwise have [and] the very people I had been neglecting to undertake this heavy ministerial task were the same people who helped during that time.”

Knoll also noted “an erosion of the conventional norms” of parliamentary life, “even over the short period that I have been here”.

“There are so many political incentives to drag the tone of debate lower, the perception that we can win votes that way, to advancing one’s career in front of your colleagues, to getting even for some real or imagined wrong, to be seen as tough and strong and a good political performer in the eyes of the media,” he said.

“I myself have been guilty of these things on occasion.”

He also pondered the various successes and failures of his brief tenure and offered some suggestions for future reform.

“The public service is one of this state’s greatest assets [and] I genuinely believe that providing better structure, flexibility and accountability to the public service is the highest-returning micro-economic reform we could undertake,” he said.

“Good public servants are stuck in an all-too-often inert and risk-averse system, unable to achieve their full potential and in turn the state’s full potential.”

He argued recent controversial changes to the state’s ICAC Act  were “are a good step in this direction” but believes “changes to the Public Sector Act are needed to further cement cultural change”.

“Unfortunately, one of the few tools left to government for creating change and innovation are through budget savings tasks, necessity being the mother of all invention,” he said.

“These are blunt instruments that can throw the good out with the bad.

“Instead, we must create room for risk and creativity and accept the short-term failures that result as necessary for long-term positive improvement.”

Of course, Knoll wasn’t averse to employing that “blunt instrument” himself, forced to U-turn on planned public transport and Service SA cuts – which he also addressed.

“I am also proud of the most difficult reforms, the ones that did not succeed in their full form—changes to Service SA and bus timetable changes,” he noted, adding: “As I watch my colleagues around me cringe!”

What a load of cap

Not succeeding in one’s full form appears to be a generous euphemism for failure, but it’s fair to say some policy pursuits succeeded in fuller form than others.

“Reforming the local government sector was a true labour of joy,” Knoll reflected.

“To work with engaged and willing councils towards a common end and to see that Bill passed after two-and-a-half years of toil – even if rate-capping did not make the final cut – is something of which I will always be proud.”

Capping council rates was, of course, a major election pledge for the Libs when in Opposition – something, indeed, for which Knoll had advocated when he was but a humble backbencher writing a semi-regular missive in these very pages.

But the legislation fell foul of Labor, the Greens and SA Best in the Upper House, and ultimately went the way of the right-hand tram turn onto North Terrace.

Which, according to new research by the Australia Institute published this week, might have been for the best.

The think-tank – variously described as ‘progressive’ and ‘left-wing’ – argues the Victorian Labor Government’s council rate-cap has cost that state’s economy 7425 direct and indirect jobs in 2021-22, and reduced GDP by up to $890 million over the same period.

“The costs of suppressed local government revenues, and corresponding austerity in the delivery of local government services, will continue to grow with each passing year if the policy is maintained,” it found.

“The rate cap policy, imposed by the Victorian state government on local governments, interferes with the mission of service delivery and expanded, secure employment.”

It argued that the policy “becomes more, rather than less, restrictive as the overall economy slows… since the rate cap is tied to inflation indexes which tend to slow when the economy is weak”.

“The rate caps act as a brake on recovery and growth by embedding a dynamic of self-fulfilling fiscal restraint and austerity,” the report argued.

“Rate caps are an arbitrary policy which ties growth in overall rates revenue to price indexes which have nothing to do with demand for services or democratic accountability.

“It’s not even the case that ratepayers necessarily save any money as a result of the rate cap. There has been a shift to other forms of revenue-raising that are less progressive and socially equitable.”

Sliding doors

One of the great ‘sliding-doors’ aspects to the whole expenses scandal and its fallout is that it likely led to the downfall of Deputy Premier Vickie Chapman.

For, had Knoll not been forced to step down from the Planning portfolio, the sort-of Attorney-General (pending an ongoing Ombudsman’s inquiry) would never have been in the position of deciding the fate of that Kangaroo Island timber port in the first place.

Knoll’s farewell tour took on Farnham-esque proportions this week when he sat down with ABC Radio Adelaide’s fill-in presenter Simon Royal for an expansive chat, in which he was asked whether he would have approved the $40 million port proposal.

While he diplomatically declined to offer a straight answer, his response was still telling.

“We were heading down a pathway of dealing with the major issues [and] you never have an opinion on something until you have made your decision,” he said.

“Apprehension of bias is a real issue and so I made a [point] of never having an opinion before the fact.”

He noted there were “two key issues that I felt were still outstanding – one in relation to biosecurity and one in relation to turbidity of the water”.

“Those two issues I know were being worked through at the time that I stepped back,” he said.

“And had those issues been dealt with I could have seen that happen, but having said that – I didn’t have, and didn’t have available, the information that Vickie Chapman had to make that decision and so… I can’t say I would have approved it, but…”

That ominous conjunction prompted Royal to note that it in fact sounded rather like he could say he would have approved it, but sadly the former minister reverted to his political training and diplomatically declined to do so.

Notes On Adelaide is an occasional column telling the inside stories of Adelaide people, politics, institutions and issues. If you have information that you believe should be noted in this column, send us an email: editorial@solsticemedia.com.au

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