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Reforming SA's council elections

Opinion

Local government elections in South Australia are ripe for reform, writes Port Adelaide Enfield deputy mayor Matt Osborn.

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Enjoy the serenity, South Australia. We’re about halfway between the state election and council elections and all is right with our stobie poles.

In around three months, the Electoral Commission will begin mailing out ballot papers for local government elections, which almost 70 per cent of us will promptly file in our recycling bins.

But given the erosion of the trust, legitimacy and authority of South Australian councils following the much-publicised troubles at Onkaparinga Council, we might well see a higher turnout this year.

Something in the order of a 10 per cent increase in participation would match the high watermark of just 40 per cent set in 2000 – as David Washington recently observed – when the Crows’ back-to-back premierships were just a recent memory and the Baha Men’s ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ dominated the charts.

South Australians deserve more than a temporary spike in participation, motivated by outrage but lacking in real change. The whole of local government in South Australia is ripe for reform – to enhance its grassroots credentials through fair representation, to enhance legitimacy through higher voter turnout, and to cut unnecessary costs.

There are plenty of ways we can strengthen local government, but here are just three. And no, I don’t believe rate-capping is part of the solution.

Instead of capping council rates, the government should consider legislating a cap on political campaign expenditure for local government candidates. The March state election was the first to be run with spending limits enforced for parties and individuals, with a ceiling between $75,000 and $125,000 per candidate.

This bipartisan reform was intended to create a more level playing field, limiting those with massive war chests from flooding the electorate with paraphernalia while also allowing smaller players to get into the game.

There is no good reason why a similar spending cap shouldn’t be imposed on council election campaigns.

We simply shouldn’t accept that those with deep pockets can essentially lock other candidates out of the democratic process, particularly at the level of government that prides itself on being closest to the people.

On the basis that mayors’ allowances are four times that of councillors, I propose a $20,000 ceiling for mayoral campaigns and $5000 for councillors’ campaigns.

These dollar figures may seem surprisingly high to some, but it is not unheard of for candidates to be splashing up to $60,000 on suburban council mayoral races.

Secondly, serious consideration should be given to moving the date of local government elections into line with the state election.

Council elections are expensive exercises. The Electoral Commission has calculated the cost of conducting postal ballots for a large council such as Port Adelaide Enfield to be $5.31 per elector, swelling to $6.92 for the smallest councils in South Australia. For comparison, the cost back in 2014 was only $3.40 for each elector in my community.

This is in large part due to Australia Post’s regular mail service being far slower nowadays, meaning that ratepayers indirectly pick up the tab for priority postage, whether or not they decide to vote. Priority mail costs 50 per cent more than the regular service.

Given that the 2014 council elections cost $4.79 million to run, it’s not unreasonable to estimate that we’ll be forking out between $6-7 million in 2018.

But we don’t have to continue down this path. Moving the 2022 council election forward by seven months would allow elections for the state parliament and local councils to be held concurrently. The cost savings by moving away from postal voting and duplicating the counting process make this an appealing idea.

We need to get serious about the huge discrepancies in the ratio of councillors to residents across our councils.

This would also supercharge the level of participation. Instead of filling in two ballot papers at the polling booth, under this proposal voters would have three to complete (or deface, if that’s your thing).

Finally, we need to get serious about the huge discrepancies in the ratio of councillors to residents across our councils.

At the smallest end of the metropolitan councils, there are 7550 residents living in the Town of Walkerville who are represented by eight councillors and a mayor – fewer than 1000 people per councillor.

Compare that to the 166,766 people living in Onkaparinga Council, who will be voting for a mayor and 12 councillors later this year. That’s almost 14,000 people for every councillor.

No two councils are the same, but the diversity of communities across metropolitan and regional councils doesn’t account for this gulf in representation. The wild variation between the smallest and higher ratio of councillors to residents is due to the review of these arrangements largely being led by… you guessed it, the councils themselves. This is a flaw that needs to be fixed, with an independent body empowered to transition councils to a more equal footing.

This issue may not seem as urgent as others facing local government. But we shouldn’t dismiss the implications of unequal democratic representation.

The workload of councillors with comparatively more residents, roads, parks, playgrounds and libraries can be heavy, particularly for those balancing council duties with their family, day job, and other responsibilities.

Maintaining the status quo restricts the likelihood of people within some communities having their voices heard and limits the extent of their influence on local decision-making.

The three proposals I’ve set out would greatly enhance trust and engagement with local government as well as cut expensive postal voting.

I’m sure there is a bunch of other ideas out there too that I hope will be debated robustly as we count down the days to the council elections. The local government sector desperately needs to embrace reform to retain its grassroots focus, to improve democratic participation while cutting costs of postal voting, and to ensure that everyone is represented fairly.

Matt Osborn is the deputy mayor of Port Adelaide Enfield Council. The views in this article are his and not expressed on behalf of the council. He is a member of the Labor Party.

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