BILL: Local Government Review

Today Mark outlined the Greens' position on the Government's Local Government Reform Bill, and explained some of the key issues. 


The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: The workload before us is not extensive today. I know that some members dread the idea of a lengthy speech from the Greens, and myself in particular. I do not have a long speech today, but I do want to put a few things on the record in relation to this bill. The first thing I would say is that as legislators it can be difficult when a bill stays on the Notice Paper for a very long period of time and undergoes many iterations before we actually get around to voting on it.

I looked through my archives—I think that is the best word for it—on this bill and I found that the submissions that I have received and the notes that I have made go back for 12 months. A number of members have put amendments on file, so I think the bill that we ultimately pass will vary a fair bit from what the government put out last year.

What I would say at the outset is that a large number of reforms are proposed in this bill. Some of them go to the way councils conduct themselves and conduct their meetings. There are issues that go to how we as a community choose who should represent us on local councils. There are a range of issues that go to accountability, in particular financial accountability. I do not think it is helpful for me to go through every one of those in detail now, because I suspect that the committee stage of this bill will go for a fairly long while.

There are a lot of amendments on file, and I suspect that there will be more to come. In fact, within the last hour, I have received a lengthy submission from the Local Government Association entitled 'Summary of ALP amendments' and the LGA's response thereto. In the last hour, I have not had a chance to go through those, obviously. That is what the committee stage of the debate is for. That is what we will be doing when we get to that point.

I want to touch on a couple of key issues that have been raised with me over the last little while, and I suspect with all other members as well. The first issue I would like to raise is the question of how many councillors is the right number, because the government's bill is proposing to cap the number of elected councillors at 12 per region. That raises a whole lot of issues. There is no shortage of theoretical writing about the ideal number of people to make decisions, whether that is the ideal number on a company board or the ideal number in a national legislature. There is no shortage of thinking on that, and the results, I think, are wide and varied and all need to be taken with a grain of salt.

A good example would be the so-called cube root rule, which suggests that for the lower house of a bicameral parliament, or in fact for a unicameral parliament, the number of elected representatives should ideally be the cube root of the population that it represents. If you apply that—I am not sure whether any members' mental arithmetic is up to the task of calculating cube roots; my iPhone is—for South Australia that would suggest 120 members of state parliament.

If you want to add the upper house to the lower house, we currently have 69, but that rule suggests 120 is the right number. On the other side, I think people in government have suggested that when it comes to local councils maybe what we should look at is the ideal size of a corporate boardroom, and maybe that is what should be our target for local council elections. That would give you, say, between eight and 12 members, and the government has settled on 12.

I do not think either of those analyses helps us very much. My preference, and the Greens' approach to these things, has always been that in a democracy those people who are to be governed should have the primary say over how that government should operate, and that would include how many representatives they think they need to do the job properly. That is currently how the system works. Councils, effectively, can decide for themselves how many elected members they want.

Certainly, there are some parameters and there is a process that needs to be gone through. But my view, and the Greens' view, has been that we would basically leave that alone. We would leave it to local councils to decide for themselves how many councillors they should have. I will note, for example, a couple of submissions.

The Local Government Association points out that with a cap on the maximum number of elected members there are 14 councils that would be impacted by such a cap. The LGA's official position is similar to the Greens'. They would leave it to the local government sector—individual councils and the people in those councils—to determine how many elected members they want.

However, they have put forward an alternative which involves the representation review process but leaves the door open for larger councils to have a larger number of elected representatives. I also note a submission that I received in October last year—so this bill does go back a little way—from the City of Salisbury. They say this is generally in relation to the bill. This is a letter to me from Gillian Aldridge OAM, Mayor of the City of Salisbury, who states:

While I appreciate that many of the difficult proposals have either been diluted or withdrawn by State Government through its own amendments to the Bill, the proposal to limit the number of elected members of a council to 12 and removing the current Representation Review clauses strikes at the core of the fundamental relationship between the elected local representatives and their constituents in the local government sector. This will be particularly true for bigger councils across the State.

To illustrate the point, a comparison between the City of Prospect and the City of Salisbury with populations of 21,000 and 138,000 respectively—

and that is from the 2016 census—

shows that a councillor in Prospect will be representing roughly 2,000 people, while in Salisbury a councillor will be representing the interests of roughly 12,500 people.

So that is the difference in representation if you have an arbitrary cap and if every council goes to 12 members. I think that very neatly sums up the dilemma, particularly of those big councils. If we want our residents to be properly represented, then we do need to have enough representatives to do that job. I thank the City of Salisbury for their submission.

Another issue that is raised by the Local Government Association—and I think this is also the subject of some amendments that are before us—is the eligibility to vote in council elections. That is quite a vexed issue because I think most of us accept that when it comes to voting for our national representatives, or even for our state representatives, it is quite reasonable that the pool of voters be comprised of citizens. Citizens are people who are either citizens by birth, because they happen to be born here, or citizens who have become citizens through a process of migration and a citizenship ceremony and all the rest of it. So only citizens can vote at state and federal elections.

Not quite uniquely, but almost uniquely, South Australia at the local government level does have a much broader franchise where you do not have to be a citizen. In fact, I do not think you even have to be a permanent resident. All you have to have done is lived in the council area for one month, so technically I suppose that pool of overseas students, if members cast their mind back to when we had overseas students pre-COVID, could vote in local government elections. My understanding and experience is that they do not. They are here to study. They are not engaged enough. I do not think anyone has ever had the wherewithal to go out and try to recruit the overseas student population for voting in local council elections, but technically they could.

I know there are amendments, and other people who have not filed amendments have had similar sentiments, that maybe we should limit local council elections only to citizens. I do not accept that view. I think there is a case to be made for a much broader franchise at the local council level.

Just to give an example, I was approached some time ago by an elderly person, who has only lived in Australia for coming up to two years. She is a regular user of the buses. She is in reasonable health but not overly confident on her feet and does not like standing up for long periods, but she is a big user of Adelaide's buses. She was asking me the other day, 'Can we do more about shelters at bus stops? Can we get more seating put in for bus stops?'

I am thinking, yes, I can raise that issue in state parliament. I can ask a vicarious question of the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, or you could just go and talk to the local council because if it is a bus stop on a local street then presumably the local council is going to be looking after that. If people do not know how the system works, if they do not know that they can engage with their level of local government, then they probably are not going to do that.

It just seems to me that the services that are provided by local councils impact the whole community and therefore, at that level of government—and I will confine it to that level of government—I do not have a huge problem with having a broader franchise. It should not be as narrow as citizenship. Maybe it should be broader than it currently is. It would certainly include visa holders with permanent resident status—absolutely it would include those people.

I think it would include other people who have a connection with the community. Maybe it needs to be longer than one month, but certainly I would not be confining it to only citizens voting in local council elections. I note that the LGA does not have an endorsed position on that issue, so that is something that we might have to deal with when we get to the amendments.

When we first had this bill many months ago, there was a deal of hostility, especially around what many in local government saw as a backdoor approach to rate capping. Those provisions are now pretty well gone from the bill. The most recent communication I have had from the Local Government Association is they say the bill should now be progressed.

Whereas previously the Local Government Association's position might have been to oppose the bill, now I think there is enough common ground that they are keen for the bill to go forward. However, they do want some of these additional amendments that they have outlined. There are other issues that they acknowledge could be held over for a future reform process because they do require more consultation and more research.

Another submission I received, again last year, was from the City of Onkaparinga. This one, I think, will be contentious, as it always is. It is the issue of corflutes in local government elections. We have another bill before us which deals with corflutes in state government elections. Various people have said that whatever the rules are about corflutes they should be consistent between federal, state and local government. That is hard for us to manage. We do have some control over the federal regime through our town planning laws and control of local streets and roads. I do not think corflutes are in the bill, but Onkaparinga is keen to get rid of them, so they have written to me asking for support for that proposal.

I also received a range of submissions from the City of Adelaide. One thing they put to me was that, because they have the advantage of having their own act of parliament, there are a range of local government reforms that could be trialled in the Adelaide City Council area whilst not necessarily being introduced broadly across the whole of South Australia. Two of those issues are compulsory voting and online voting, both of which we have discussed here in different contexts many times.

The idea of compulsory voting is obviously much harder when your franchise is much broader than the citizenry. Certainly at the federal and state level voting is compulsory, or at least attendance at a voting place is compulsory, whether or not you formally mark your ballot paper is not something that anyone can police in a secret ballot system, but you have to turn up and either vote or appear to vote. However, at the local council level it has always been voluntary.

Because the franchise is so much broader and includes, as I have said, people who might have only lived in a council area for a month, I think it would be close to impossible to have any regime of compulsory voting. It is a little bit dim now, but my recollection of working as a lawyer for local government in Victoria in the early 1980s is that I think they had compulsory voting back then. As well as issuing dog infringement notices, one of my jobs as the junior solicitor was to issue notices for people who had not voted in the local council election.

The letter sort of went like this, 'Dear sir or madam, it seems you didn't vote. You need to have a good excuse not to vote. Please turn over for a list of possible good excuses: (a) I was heavily pregnant, (b) I was dead, (c) I was out of the country.' It was quite farcical and I do not think anyone actually ever paid the $15 fine or whatever the penalty was. I am not saying that no jurisdictions have not had compulsory voting for local council elections, but we do not have it here, I do not think it would work here and I am yet to be convinced that it is a good idea here.

Another thing the City of Adelaide think could be trialled in their jurisdiction is online voting. Again, that is something I have raised with the Electoral Commissioner. It is an idea whose time will come, but whether we are there yet is obviously a matter of some contention. Within the Greens as a political party, we are converts to online voting and we conduct all our preselections with an electronic voting system.

It has had the advantage of greatly increasing the participation rate because again—this is stating the obvious, I guess—if all you have to do is click a few buttons on your computer that is a lot easier than filling out a ballot paper by hand, putting it into an inner envelope, which you sign and maybe you write your membership number on, you put that in an outer envelope and then you have to go and find a postbox somewhere. Electronic voting is certainly easier.

The main objection people have had to it is: can we guarantee its security? Even in those jurisdictions that have had fairly secure processes, like the United States, you still have the outgoing President who basically says it is all a fraud and nothing can be trusted. I think we will eventually get to online voting. Whether that is something that could be trialled in the City of Adelaide, we will see. I do not think there are any amendments before us. I have not yet determined whether I will be putting one out there, but I make the point that the City of Adelaide has suggested that is an option.

Another suggestion the City of Adelaide put forward, which I do not like but I will put it on the record that they have asked for it, is that they wanted to be able to allow their ordinary meetings to start from 2pm rather than from 5pm. The reason for that is that they have gone to monthly meetings apparently, so their meetings last a very long time and they go until after midnight. It seems to me that an alternative to starting at 2 o'clock would be to have an extra meeting and have two meetings a month rather than one. You then have twice the amount of time to fit in the available amount of work.

There is no particular magic in a time, whether it is 5 o'clock or 2 o'clock, but what I think we need to realise is that being a local councillor is not a full-time job. They do not get a full-time salary, unlike members of parliament. I will be critical of members of parliament who moonlight, take other jobs and have extra paid work outside their parliamentary duties, but as a member of a local council, unless you are a very frugal person, the $10,000 to $20,000 stipend that—

Members interjecting:

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: We are having a bidding war here, Mr President. It might be as little as $8,000 per year. We know it depends on the size of the council. Some councillors get paid a little bit more, but none of them are a full-time job, with the exception perhaps of mayors. A mayor's pay is modest but is a full-time wage, but local councillors are not full time. Therefore, the assumption is that, unless a person is retired or a person has independent means, chances are they have a day job.

Whilst not every day job is nine to five, that is still a fairly standard indicator of working hours. We know that workplaces start before then and after then, and in the retail industry shops are open later, but nine to five is still recognised as standard office hours, so the idea of a council meeting starting at 2 o'clock is problematic for people who work day jobs. I understand that quite a few country councils routinely have their meetings during the day. It is more common for the people on those councils to be farmers or to be self-employed, and perhaps it is easier for them to attend daytime meetings, but I think it would be a travesty to our democracy if the meeting schedule was a major disincentive to people putting themselves forward for local council elections.

The Local Government Association also had comments to make about behaviour, and we will deal with this in detail when we get to the committee stage of the bill. Various councils have put forward various options: the sin bin, where a disruptive member can be put aside for a little while. One councillor's submission that I saw was that three strikes and you are out, like for good! There are some problems with the democratic process when a councillor's presiding officer or perhaps the councillor's peers decide that they are no longer to be part of the council. That has some difficulties for the democratic process, so I am not sure that is going to fly, but we will get to these behavioural issues when we get into the committee stage.

The Adelaide City Council raised the issue of meeting electronically. I know that is an issue that has been on all our minds, because during 2020, being the year of COVID, in this parliament we passed many laws to enable things that would normally be done face to face to be done electronically. The question for us would be: once we are in the post-COVID era, is that the new normal? Do we have provisions so that people can participate in meetings electronically, regardless of any health status, any pandemic, because that is the new normal?

I understand that from the City of Adelaide's point of view they have a number of councillors who travel, and it would be convenient for them to participate in a meeting from, for example, a Parliament House office in Canberra, rather than have to attend the Town Hall in King William Street. I have an open mind as to how that would work, but I think my starting point would be that face-to-face meetings are the way to go, and I would like electronic attendance to be the exception rather than the rule, so we will see. I do not know if there are any amendments on that topic, but we will see whether it comes up in the committee stage as well.

There are a whole range of issues, and I should also say that, as well as naming three councils that have written to me, many councillors have contacted me as well, many with similar ideas, others with very different ideas. I think the real reforms proposed by this bill have largely been resolved through negotiations with the LGA and its members and with the state government. My feeling is that the bulk of this bill should sail through with multipartisan support, but we still have some of these sticking points, which we will deal with when we get to the committee stage of the debate.

With those brief observations, the Greens will support the second reading of this bill, and we look forward to the committee stage, which I suspect might be in the next sitting week. Whilst today might be a fairly light legislative workload, my expectation is that the next sitting week, if we have the electoral bill, the local government bill and the Coroners bill, all with lots of amendments, then I think members should bring in their nightcaps for that sitting week, even if this week is fairly light on. The Greens for now will support the second reading of this bill.