Council costs

The SA Ombudsman’s finding that the Alexandrina Council committed maladministration by not gaining approval for one of its own projects is an embarrassing look for the council.
The recent verdict relates to a project at the Goolwa Wharf where concrete boat-mooring pontoons were installed and a length of boardwalk widened.
It was undertaken between 2009-11, however, some of the work was shoddy and the pontoons were later removed.
The project initially cost the council $447,000, but the ensuing legal battle to recover the costs of the pontoons has brought that tally up to an eye-watering $775,000.
The district’s ratepayers have covered this bill and the company responsible has gone into voluntary liquidation.
And, to add insult to injury, it emerged during the attempt to recover the costs of the sub-standard pontoons that the project lacked the council’s own legally-required building approvals.
The handling of this project would no doubt frustrate ratepayers, not just because of the waste of money but by either the deliberate decision by staff to ignore the planning rules or, if that’s not the case, then the unprofessional oversight to allow the project to proceed without the correct authority.
Any resident who wants to install something as simple as a shed must dodge, duck and dive through hoops, cut through red tape, tick boxes and pay project lodgment fees in order to be granted approval.
The rules must be applied equally – to residents, businesses and governments.
The key staff primarily responsible for this farce are no longer employed by the council and both they and the council should count their lucky stars the Ombudsman recommended no action be taken against them.
The best that can come of this sorry situation is that lessons are learned and these mistakes are not repeated.
This is a good wake-up call for all councils, which should be reminded to ensure their own house is in order to avoid risking further embarrassments and backlash.
Situations such as this only reinforce the divide between local government and the communities they are there to serve.

Corella problem

How many bureaucratic reports and inquiries does it take to solve a decades-long problem?
When it comes to the control of the overabundant little corella, it appears we don’t yet know.
For over 20 years, increasingly large flocks of little corellas have descended on the Fleurieu and, more recently, Mt Barker to wreak havoc and destruction.
They destroy private property, tear up recreation facilities and parklands, defecate in concentrated areas presenting public health risks, disrupt residents with their incessant noise and are slowly but surely killing some of the region’s historic trees.
For the first time in recent years both the Mt Barker and Alexandrina regions have recorded flocks staying for the whole year, rather than making the annual migration outside the district for the winter.
The problem is not going away.
It is getting worse.
Flock sizes are increasing to thousands of birds.
Yet it appears no-one within the State Government is prepared tO grasp the nettle.
There is no doubt that human settlement and urban development have added to the problem, making ideal habitats for the birds with open green spaces and artificial water sources such as dams and lakes.
There is also the added challenge of community perceptions that the birds should be protected because they are natives – despite corellas not being native to this region and despite the very real impact they are having on displacing locally native species and destroying the local environment.
For years councils have managed the problem as best they can.
But this has been an ad-hoc response lacking any co-ordination to achieve anything but the most temporary of solutions.
The tactics of scaring the birds away from public sites has only succeeded in moving the problem to other areas.
While there are long-term solutions such as developing sacrificial sites and landscaping public places to make them less attractive to the birds, these all take years to develop.
There is no plan for what is really needed – a Statewide control plan and a reduction in the birds’ numbers now.
As a result, communities will go on suffering unless State politicians and bureaucrats find the courage to make a hard call.

Parties to pay

News that former Premier Jay Weatherill and his deputy John Rau will quit Parliament and force by-elections in both their metropolitan seats brings to an end an era of SA Labor politics.
Both men were elected in 2002 and had significant leadership roles in the State Government’s domination of the political landscape until Mr Weatherill’s team lost office earlier this year.
The recent retirement announcements also continue a disturbingly familiar tale of politicians simply walking away from their election promises.
At the March State election both men made it clear that, if elected, they would serve their full four-year term.
But it seems being a humble Opposition backbencher just doesn’t cut it when you’ve experienced the giddy heights of power.
The cost for these expensive by-elections will, of course, be picked up by the SA taxpayer.
In this instance it is the Labor Party that should be paying.
If a politician chooses to quit mid-term for no other reason than “it’s time to move on” or to “spend more time with my family” or to “explore other opportunities”, then the responsibility should fall with their party to pay for the required by-election.
It was no different when long-serving Liberal MP Alexander Downer decided he didn’t want to represent Mayo a few months after being elected in 2007.
The estimated $250,000 to elect his replacement was picked up by the taxpayer for no other reason than Mr Downer, like Mr Weatherill and Mr Rau, didn’t have the enthusiasm for a prolonged period in the political wilderness.
That is not good enough.
Entering politics is not just about being in Government. The unpalatable flip side is Opposition, but it seems those who have enjoyed a taste of power find the alternative a bitter pill to swallow.
If a MP has a legitimate reason for resigning just after being elected – such as a health issue either with themselves or their immediate family – then it is only reasonable the cost fall to the taxpayer.
But to cut and run and brush off the considerable expense as though it doesn’t exist is a trend that must be discouraged in the strongest terms.
Making the party behind perpetrators pay for their actions would focus the mind perfectly.
It is simply

Refreshing change

The decision made by four first-term State Government backbenchers last week to oppose their party’s position and stand up for their communities is a refreshing change in big party politics.
Crossing the floor was once more common in Australian politics, but has become increasingly rare.
In the Labor Party, opposing the party’s position during a division is all but a death sentence, with rogue MPs sometimes expelled for breaking ranks.
The Liberal Party, on the other hand, allows its members to vote against party lines – but as wholesome as this sounds it can have serious ramifications on their political careers.
The actions of Dan Cregan, Fraser Ellis, Nick McBride and Steve Murray do not represent major disunity within the party, but rather highlight a conviction to stick to promises made to their rural communities.
It may not have an impact on the final outcome of the legislation review, but it will allow more discussion about an issue that has the potential to affect the livelihood of thousands of people and the economic future of the State.
Their willingness, after only a few months in the job, to potentially compromise their political careers in order to advocate for their communities is highly commendable and shows they are willing to do what they were elected to do – represent their constituents in Parliament.
At a Federal level, politics is experiencing a widening of the crossbench, with thousands of voters abandoning the major parties in favor of independents who are not tied to a party line.
This direct representation model is gathering momentum.
While there are still many who vote for the ideals of a particular party, no party’s policy can completely appeal to every sector of its voter base – such as this latest skirmish which has vastly different perspectives in regional and metropolitan communities.
This highlights the appeal to voters of an MP who is prepared to devote themselves to the interests of their electorate.
Perhaps this shift will place increasing pressure on major parties to allow their MPs to put their constituents ahead of party lines and crossing the floor may become commonplace again.

Road repair

Last week’s tragic double fatality on Long Valley Road between Strathalbyn and Wistow has reignited calls for improvements to the increasingly busy commuter corridor.
While there is no suggestion that the condition of the road had any influence on this latest accident, the Alexandrina Council has been lobbying State Government authorities for months for action to be taken on the road.
Twice the council wrote to the relevant department and twice it received no reply.
That is as discourteous as it is unprofessional.
The third approach – once again outlining the council’s concerns with limited passing opportunities, bad driver bahavior and the condition of the road’s surface – did receive a reply which Mayor Keith Parkes described as a “fob off”.
Now the community is reeling from the deaths of two local teenagers and once the pain and heartache has eased, attention will invariably return to the condition of the road.
The Long Valley Road carries over 8000 vehicles a day and is the major route linking Mt Barker and Adelaide with the booming communities of Strathalbyn and beyond.
The road has two overtaking lanes (both on hills) and has broad sweeping bends perfectly suited to the 100km/h speed zone.
One major concern is the lack of turn-out lanes for slow moving traffic which can lead to driver frustration and risky behavior on a road primarily used by commuter traffic.
Bad driver behavior can never be condoned, but the reality is that a country road which has become a major commuter thoroughfare in the past few years has different requirements to a country road of lower importance.
There are also a number of minor roads which enter this fast flowing stream of traffic at dangerous locations – Archer Hill Road, Pursell Road, Stirling Hill Road and Gemmell Road – for example.
The continuation of this road from Wistow into Mt Barker is a disgrace.
This part of the road carries even more traffic than the Long Valley Road – admittedly at a lower speed – but it is a wonder that it can be considered in adequate condition by road authorities.
The Transport Minister should take it upon himself to become acquainted with the shortcomings of this road at his earliest opportunity.

Voter participation

Falling voter participation in the Adelaide Hills Council region in the wake of the council’s decision to change its structure has come as a surprise and disappointment to former Mayor Bill Spragg.
The decision to move away from five wards was one of the most controversial decisions made since the council was formed more than two decades ago and, at times, ramifications of the debate are still felt in the chamber.
Supporters of the wardless system believed abolishing or reducing the number of wards would benefit ratepayers by giving them more choice during elections, reducing parochialism and increasing voter participation.
So it’s understandable that Mr Spragg – a strong supporter of a wardless council – is disappointed with the reduced turnout during the most recent election.
Mr Spragg still maintains that the change in ward structure has been a success by reducing parochialism and removing some associations with the former council boundaries.
But its failure to achieve greater voter participation is evident through an almost 10% drop in participation despite an increase in eligible voters.
The trend of decreasing participation is not replicated across the region.
The neighboring Mt Barker Council experienced a significant increase in voter participation while engagement in the Alexandrina Council remained consistent.
So the Adelaide Hills Council’s declining engagement cannot be blamed on voter fatigue after residents and ratepayers were forced to go to the poll twice in the lead-up to the local government elections.
The council has experienced a fairly consistent decline in voter participation since its formation in 1997, but this year’s 9% drop was the second biggest it has seen between two elections.
It may be too soon to blame the new ward structure for the decline in participation, but it’s yet to be seen whether the new structure will begin reversing the decline in future.
Voter participation during future elections will give future councils more information about the impact of the structural change.
It’s important that they use this information – as well as evidence about the other benefits or disadvantages of the change – when undertaking future structural reviews.

Council decision

When it meets for the first time next month, there will be a majority of new faces filling the chairs in the Mt Barker Council chamber.
Six out of the 10 elected members chosen by voters this month are new – and some have very diverse views on local issues.
Perhaps the first test of their ability to work cohesively will be in the management of little corellas.
The previous council endorsed the controversial decision to employ lethal scaring when the first “scout” birds arrive in Mt Barker.
It follows a season of destruction last summer which caused substantial damage to the town’s golf course.
The issue of corella control is already proving divisive within the community – and the birds haven’t yet arrived.
Newly elected North Ward Councillor David Leach has positioned himself in opposition to the council’s lethal scaring tactic by joining a protest ahead of last week’s council meeting.
He represents a section of the community concerned about the welfare of the birds and the use of shooting to kill within town boundaries.
There is no doubt that something must be done to manage the birds, or Mt Barker risks losing many of the magnificent historic gums in the town.
The birds also cause thousands of dollars of damage to both public and private facilities and are a nuisance to many who live near their chosen roosting grounds.
To some, the answer is an outright Statewide cull to reduce the numbers of an overabundant species.
To others, the solution is designing sacrificial sites outside of towns where the birds would be welcome, and redesigning public areas within towns to make them less attractive to the little corellas in the first place.
While most within the community agree that long-term measures must be taken to manage the nuisance and damage caused by the little corellas, the short-term fix remains highly controversial.
The real test for the new Mt Barker Councillors will be whether they can find a balance that can both effectively manage the problem and meet a diverse range of community expectations.

Pay our respects

At 11am this Sunday, millions of people around the world will stop and, for a single minute, remember the moment when the soldiers of WW1 ceased fire and put down their guns.
The anniversary of the Armistice of WW1 is an important day that – even a century on – deserves recognition.
Without the sacrifices of the men and women who risked their lives, our lives here in Australia may not have been as they are today.
We live in one of the luckiest countries in the world, built on the sacrifices of thousands of soldiers who gave their lives during the “war to end all war” and following conflicts.
Some of these men and women had no choice – conscripted to service and fighting wars that were not their own.
Like us, they felt pain and fear and joy.
But unlike most of us, they lived day after day watching in anguish as mates that had become like brothers died before their eyes.
They fought hour after hour with the knowledge that their time could end at any moment.
As we pause and remember the sacrifices of these Australians, we must also remember the fallen among the enemy, many of whom – like the Allied soldiers we celebrate each year – were pawns in a power struggle beyond their control.
Like the families of our war heroes, their families mourned their loss and, like our war veterans, they still live with the ghosts of the horrors of war.
In an era where there is no immediate threat to our home soil, when wars are fought thousands of kilometers away and Australian casualties are so rare they make news headlines, war can seem like a thing of the past.
But the horror of these conflicts must never be forgotten.
Throughout WW1 alone, almost 20 million families were torn apart.
Millions of parents mourned the loss of children they would never see again.
Millions of wives mourned husbands who would never come home.
Millions of children mourned fathers they would never know.
On November 11, all Australians should celebrate our good fortune to live in this country.
But we must also remember the cost of that freedom – the tragedy of war and the senseless loss of life.

Simple solution

The tragic death of Bree Nicolo in 2016 at the Bridgewater freeway interchange is a sobering reminder of the fragility of life.
Nothing can change the outcome of the accident or reduce the suffering of her loved ones. But her untimely death should serve as a warning for others and every reasonable measure should be taken to prevent another such tragedy from occurring at that site.
While the cause of the accident was misjudgment, there are many factors that play into the outcome of a collision.
The pleas for change at the intersection, made by a family whose lives will never be the same, are simple and easy to execute.
Extending the 60km/h speed limit across the entire interchange and installing a stop sign in place of a give way sign are logical ways to improve safety at the site and will cause very little inconvenience to motorists or cost to taxpayers.
Bree’s accident was not the only one to occur at the site, with two other reported casualty crashes – including one resulting in serious injury – occurring there within the decade.
The suggested measures are likely to be effective in reducing both the likelihood of accidents and the impact should they occur.
As a newly appointed Transport Minister, Stephan Knoll could have taken the opportunity to prove that his Government was efficient, logical and in touch with its constituents.
But instead, what could have been a simple, quick change has become entangled by layers of bureaucracy, while the Government waits for an investigation into an accident that occurred more than two years ago.
It is important that Governments act on evidence and the recommendations of experts.
But the State Government is fully aware of the impact speed has on the outcome of a vehicle accident, stating on its own My Licence website that a speed increase of just 5km/h can have significant bearing on a car’s braking time and the impact during a collision.
Bree could have been any one of us.
And while the changes proposed by her parents won’t bring her back, they will bring some comfort to a devastated family through the knowledge that another family may be spared from suffering in the same way.

Voter backlash

Saturday’s remarkable by-election result in the Sydney seat of Wentworth, which saw the heartland of Liberal territory fall to an independent after an almost 20% swing against a sitting government, will send shock waves through both major political parties.
There appears to be a real change developing in Australian politics as more voters take advantage of the power that democracy affords them every election day.
The major parties had better watch out – this could catch on!
More people are demanding truly representative politicians and are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with some of the cookie-cutter offerings dished up by the major parties.
To be fair, the Wentworth by-election was unusual in that the electorate was very angry at the dumping of their popular local MP and the nation’s Prime Minister.
But parallels exist with the seat of Mayo and the Victorian seat of Indi which have both elected independent female MPs after voters became disillusioned with long-term Liberal representation.
Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie has held his seat of Denison for more than 10 years while Queensland’s Bob Katter has represented his constituents as an independent since 2001, showing unaligned grassroots politicians can be very difficult to dislodge once they become established.
Kerryn Phelps could well add to that list, meaning Wentworth – a jewel in the Liberal crown – may be lost for some time for no other reason than internal politics.
Now high-profile marketing professional and social commentator Jane Caro has indicated her willingness to embrace the moment and challenge former PM Tony Abbott in the neighboring Sydney seat of Warringah at the next Federal election.
Like the people of Wentworth, the voters of Warringah prefer conservative politics but whether they feel empowered enough to tell Mr Abbott they want someone who represents their views in Canberra rather than someone who represents Canberra’s views in Warringah, is yet to be seen.
The precedent has been set in Mayo and Indi and the move has not been a step too far for many traditional conservative voters.
The writing is on the wall and the big players had better take note.
Politicians – particularly backbenchers – must better represent the views of their electorates otherwise voters will look elsewhere. How democratic!