When South Australians went to the polling booths last Saturday, 17 March 2018, they voted for change, electing a Liberal Government for the first time in 16 years. Now the votes have been counted, what does a Liberal Government really mean for councils?
The immediately obvious change is a new Minister for Local Government. The Premier, Steven Marshall, has announced the Honorable Stephan Knoll MP will be responsible for the new mega portfolio of Transport, Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning.
However, beyond the Minister responsible for Local Government, the other potential impacts for councils are, in the main, less clear.
Below we review what we consider to be the more relevant policy platforms for councils that the Liberal’s took to the election:
1. Rate Capping
Perhaps the most well publicised policy is a proposal for rate capping, which the Liberals announced as an election promise some time ago.
The Government proposes to introduce proposed legislation to the Parliament in relation to rate capping within its first 100 days. Such legislation will operate to prevent councils from increasing rates above a Local Government Price Index, which Index is to be determined based on a number of factors, including the Consumer Price Index (“CPI”).
It is, however, also to be noted that the Government has stated that “a Liberal Government will not continue Labor’s cost-shifting to local councils”.
2. Transparent Local Government
In light of recent publicity regarding local government spending, it comes as no surprise that the Liberal Government has promised to “make it mandatory for all South Australian councils to publish travel expenses in their annual report to increase transparency and accountability.”
It is said that such a policy seeks to ensure ratepayers can access information in relation to funds spent on travel for Elected Members and staff and aligns reporting requirements with State Government Ministers and their staff.
3. Public Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Hearings
The Liberal Government has promised, also within its first 100 days, to introduce proposed legislation into the Parliament permitting the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (“the ICAC”) to hold public hearings when investigating matters relating to maladministration and misconduct.
Public hearings will give the ICAC power to obtain evidence ‘in the public eye’ from relevant persons and is said to provide greater transparency and accountability. All Elected Members, employees and council contractors are “public officers” for the purposes of the ICAC Act, and accordingly, could be required to give evidence in a public hearing.
In addition, the Government has also promised to allow the ICAC to access Cabinet documents, previously denied to the ICAC by the former Government, as highlighted by the Oakden Investigation, improving transparency and accountability within Government.
It is interesting to note that one of the first acts of the Premier was to meet with the ICAC.
4. Greener Neighbourhoods
The Government has promised to “keep our suburban streets green” by providing funding through local councils.
Whilst the details of this policy position are not yet known, the intention is to increase the number of street trees and natural vegetation by implementing a ‘Greening our Neighbourhoods’ initiative, in conjunction with local government.
5. Repealing the Natural Resources Management Act 2004 and capping Natural Resources Management Levies
The Government has promised to repeal of the Natural Resources Management Act 2004 (“NRM Act”) within its first 30 days in Government and to introduce in its place the Landscape South Australia Act.
The Landscape South Australia Act will introduce ‘local boards’ (rather than the existing regional NRM Boards) which are intended to “provide for stronger local representation…by requiring that three of the board members be directly elected by the community”.
It is, as yet, unclear as to how elections to the boards will be facilitated, as well as the degree of local government involvement.
The Government has also promised to cap NRM levies, to ensure that they do not continue to increase beyond CPI. This indicates that, whilst the legislation is set to change, NRM levies, in some form, will continue to remain a feature of our statutory regime.
6. Built heritage
In addition to establishing a heritage fund of $500,000 for grants to owners of heritage listed properties to undertake restoration works, the Government has also promised to implement a comprehensive heritage policy to ensure that built heritage is protected.
Whilst, again, there is little detail regarding this policy position, we foreshadow that it may have implications for planning decisions and the interaction between local and state heritage places.
Notwithstanding the above promises, it is also to be recalled that whatever the Government might propose in the House of Assembly, it will not hold the balance of power in the Legislative Council. At last count, it was anticipated that the Liberal Party will hold four (4) seats, the Labor Party four (4), two (2) for SA Best and one (1) for the Greens.
Accordingly, the Government will be required to work with the independent members in the upper house if it wants to ensure that its “mandate” translates into amended legislation and policy in South Australia.
We will continue to keep you updated as more information on the abovementioned policies, or other proposed amendments of significance to councils, becomes available.
If you have any questions regarding the above please contact Tracy Riddle at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 8113 7106 or Michael Kelledy at email@example.com or Natasha Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.