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"We're putting the Govt on notice": Labor, crossbenchers unite to kill bill

Politics

Bans on “extravagant perks” and independent scrutiny of local government budgets and rates are on the table as a crossbench coalition of Labor, the Greens and SA Best today confirmed a majority of the Upper House is “diametrically opposed” to the Marshall Government’s contentious push to cap council rates.

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As revealed exclusively by InDaily yesterday, Labor confirmed it would not back the Liberals’ rate-capping bill, effectively blocking its passage in the Upper House after the minor parties had already pledged to oppose the measure.

Dismissing the rate-capping bill as “an attempt to deliver a policy on the back of a slogan”, Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas declared it an “unsatisfactory approach [that] will do absolutely nothing to reduce council rates”.

In its place, Labor – backed by SA Best and the Greens – today outlined their own draft bill, which would establish a Local Government Commissioner to deal with council complaints
 and disputes, as well as enforcing “unprecedented transparency and independent scrutiny of council budgets and rates”.

Among other measures, the bill would ban “extravagant perks” for council CEOs – such as the golf membership that created controversy for Onkaparinga boss Mark Dowd – enforce a “crackdown” on interstate and overseas travel and compel council members and staff to publicly reveal expenses and credit card use.

Opposition local government spokesman Tony Piccolo today dismissed the Liberal bill as not “a system of rate-capping [but] an expensive and unaccountable bureaucratic process”.

“Ratepayers should have oversight over their rating system,” he said.

“We do not need an unnecessary layer of bureaucratic red tape.”

But Local Government Minister Stephan Knoll accused Malinauskas of “putting politics ahead of people”.

“It’s a slap in the face to the overwhelming majority of South Australians who support rate-capping and the Marshall Government’s plan to lower the cost of living,” he said.

Malinauskas, however, denied any Liberal mandate for its bill, arguing “the legislation doesn’t cap rates”.

“Their mandate is out the window – their legislation doesn’t do what it said it would do,” he said.

“What’s the cap? No-one can tell us what the cap is.”

Greens MLC Mark Parnell declared rate-capping a “flawed policy” that was now “dead in the water”.

“My call to Premier Marshall is not to go off with his tail between his legs and sulk because he’s not going to get rate-capping through the Upper House – but to get with the program,” he said.

“We can work collaboratively together and come up with a mechanism that helps put accountability and transparency on how councils spend their money.”

SA Best MLC Connie Bonaros said Labor and the crossbench parties were “putting the State Government on notice”.

“SA Best, Labor and the Greens are diametrically opposed to rate-capping as part of the Government’s proposed changes to the Local Government Act,” she said in a statement.

“The public have been sold a dud deal… the Government’s rate-capping bill is nothing more than a populist move and a desperate grab for votes at the last election.

“There is no basis for the implementation of rate-capping in SA.”

Labor said its bill was the result of “extensive consultation”, including with the Local Government Association.

But LGA president Sue Clearihan was sceptical about aspects of Labor’s bill, warning they appeared “excessive”.

“We are pleased the Labor Party, Greens and SA Best have all committed to opposing [rate-capping] in SA… metro rate increases this year were lower than CPI, and a fraction of increases to state taxes such as the NRM and Solid Waste Levy,” she said in a statement.

“Some of the reforms proposed by Labor are consistent with reforms the LGA has previously proposed on behalf of the sector… however, some of the proposals put forward appear excessive given the extensive accountability, integrity and oversight measures already in place across local government.”

She said the LGA remained “open to further discussion regarding Labor’s proposed legislation, but would need to look at the details and consult with our members before reaching a final position”.

However, others in the sector felt the proposed legislation didn’t go far enough, with Norwood, Payneham and St Peters mayor Robert Bria declaring: “I’m not sure it really goes far enough in terms of the structural reforms needed in terms of financial oversight.”

Bria, who has previously advocated for reforms to council audit committees, said the bill was “certainly a good start in terms of councils being more transparent about their payments and expenditure”.

“It’s a start, but it’s only scratching the surface,” he said, noting an “absence of any requirement for benchmarking in the Act is a shortcoming” and calling for “standardised reporting for all councils when they present their budgets”.

“Rate-capping was presented as a silver bullet but I don’t think Labor have really grasped the fundamental structural reforms that are needed,” he said.

“I want to see more reforms introduced – and I think the sector would embrace more structural reforms if they were presented.”

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