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Seeking counsel on trimming local government

Opinion

Legislation slowly working its way through parliament contains the most significant changes to councils for decades. But a move to cut the number of councillors, and its impact, warrants closer observation, argues Matt Osborn.

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For some, compromise is a four-letter word. For Steven Marshall and his Liberal Government, it will soon enable them to claim delivery on their 2018 election promise to ease cost of living pressures through reforming local government.

Rate capping is dead. Long live rate monitoring!

But the impending passage of the Statutes Amendment (Local Government) Bill through the Parliament will herald a raft of changes that go well beyond exerting downward pressure on council rate increases.

This legislation constitutes the most significant modification to local government since the mass amalgamations in the late 90s. Almost every chapter of the Local Government Act will have undergone surgery; some cosmetic, some major.

Anyone connected with councils will tell you that reform is overdue. And they are correct.

Nearly three years ago, I identified some opportunities for reform that would strengthen local government and refine its grassroots focus: bringing councils into line with state elections by capping every candidate’s campaign expenditure; aligning state and council elections to occur concurrently in order to improve efficiency and reduce costs; and addressing the huge discrepancies in the ratio of councillors to residents across our councils.

It came as no surprise to me that the first two ideas were not part of the Government’s reform agenda. But I was stunned to learn that the Government were proposing to compound the existing problem of democratic representation at the grassroots level by capping the number of elected members—councillors and a directly elected mayor—at 12.

This thought bubble did not arise from the extensive public consultation, and the Government’s own 2019 Discussion Paper merely proposed handing the responsibility to review the number of elected members to the Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission.

The problem with this proposal is that it exacerbates the democratic deficit of local government.

At the time of the last council elections, people living in Walkerville Council were fortunate to have a councillor for every 709 electors. Neighbouring residents in Port Adelaide Enfield Council had a different experience, with one councillor for 4,871 electors.

For a complete comparison, Walkerville Council had 8 councillors for its 5,674 electors whereas Port Adelaide Enfield Council had 17 councillors for its 82,814 electors. Port Adelaide Enfield councillors—including myself—had almost seven times more electors than our peers at Walkerville Council.

However, this variance pales in comparison to the hard-working souls on the Onkaparinga Council. Each of their 12 councillors, on average, had 10,323 electors to whom they answered. That’s ten times the workload of councillors in Walkerville and twice that of yours truly.

In short, some councillors work their arses off and still struggle to provide the expected level of service for their constituents, while others could doorknock every constituent over a single weekend.

We ought to bear in mind that the above ratios are based on figures reported by the Electoral Commission and do not take into account that Port Adelaide Enfield and Onkaparinga—along with another twelve councils—will have to cut councillors under the Government’s Bill.

Putting aside the reality that the Remuneration Tribunal will consider the ratio of council members to ratepayers when determining allowances—potentially offsetting any financial benefit in reducing the number of councillors in metropolitan Adelaide—it’s likely that the community will smack their collective lips at the prospect of doing away with up to 32 less local representatives (or 18, if Labor’s amendments succeed). But the consequences of this change have not yet been explained by the Government, and possibly not even fully appreciated by the Parliament.

Contrary to the arguments advanced by the Government, councils are not corporate boards. Councils are effectively made up of grassroots volunteers who represent the views of the neighbours, local businesses, and community groups. With less opportunity for a diversity of voices, ratepayers will not benefit from such richness of perspectives and experience.

Most metropolitan councillors balance their civic duties with a mix of ordinary employment, tertiary education, and volunteer duties. The increased workloads arising from having more constituents to serve may deter quality candidates from standing for election.

The brilliance of our system of local government is that the people making the decisions on behalf of their community have the same challenges balancing commitments and trying to make ends meet as anyone else on their street. This firm grasp on reality helps keep councils grounded, on the whole.

Reducing the number of elected members per council and disincentivising conventional community-minded candidates may also embolden partisan aspirants who see greater opportunities to play factional politics. This is not to sully existing councillors with political affiliations so much as it is pointing out the bleeding obvious.

Reflecting on my own experience, I am one of six councillors serving on the Port Adelaide Enfield Council who have disclosed current membership of a political party. The majority of the councillors are independent—though some are former party members and others have been candidates in state and federal elections—and would be able to constrain any outbreak of factionalism. Neither group votes as a bloc nor demonstrates any desire whatsoever to emulate the antics of Team Adelaide, but this situation could be under threat should the number of seats in the council chamber decrease.

The current arrangements in South Australia are fit for purpose on the whole—especially compared to the politically charged systems we see interstate—and I see no compelling reason to risk the stability we generally enjoy.

You may well say that my argument is based on self-interest, as I may be one of those councillors with their head on the chopping block of reform. In acknowledging this criticism, I propose my own suggestion for reform that takes into account some of the above points but would require further input from citizens across the state, both metropolitan and rural.

In my humble view, the best idea for reform with respect to representation in local government is to empower the Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission to review numbers of elected members and make relevant orders based on principles established by the Parliament. Councils are currently responsible for determining their own number of councillors, with the 67 councils reducing the number of councillors by 19 between 2014-2018, from 652 to 633.

I would argue that some of these reductions contributed to the democratic problems I have explained, and that an independent umpire is better equipped to restore some level of representational equity across local government.

If members of the South Australian Parliament are prepared to live by the boundary determinations of the Commission, why can’t local government similarly accept external rulings?

It is likely too late for the delegation of representational decision making to the Boundaries Commission to be contemplated under the current Bill, but this should be a priority for the next term of Parliament. It is only by depoliticising these issues that South Australians will have more equitable representation on their local council.

Matt Osborn is a councillor and former 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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