Local government (rate oversight) amendment bill 2018

Mr DULUK (Waite) (16:24): Thank you for your great management, sir. It gives me a lot of pleasure to also make a few remarks about the Local Government (Rate Oversight) Amendment Bill 2018, and I am proud to say that those on this side of the house do support this legislation and we do know what our position is.

I found the contribution this morning from the member for Light once again very, very interesting and exciting, because I would have thought that, by now, the member for Light—a good man that he is, a very earnest local member and someone with a long-time interest in local government who it is good to see back in the shadow ministry—would have been able to convince the Labor Party what its position would be on this bill, whether it is to support it or to oppose it.

It is fine to oppose the legislation if that is the will of your caucus, but if you are opposing it let us know. If you are going to support it, let us know. It is not as if the position of the Liberal Party and now the government is news to the Labor Party or those opposite. In fact, I believe my predecessor as member for Davenport, the Hon. Iain Evans, first mooted in 2013 Liberal Party support for rate capping, and we took this policy to the 2014 state election.

So those opposite, and indeed the people of South Australia and those who support common sense and responsible fiscal management by levels of government, know that supporting this rate capping legislation is a good piece of legislation. The Liberal Party, in the lead-up to the 2014 election, had this commitment. In the lead-up to the 2018 election, this was a very key platform of ours and one which the LGA spent a lot of hard taxpayer funds opposing. I notice they spent a lot more money on its campaign opposing rate capping than they did against the former Labor government's hard waste green tax on councils, which essentially they rolled over on because I think that, at the time, the mayor of Prospect, mayor O'Loughlin—of course, a former Labor candidate for the seat of Adelaide—was just doing the bidding of the Labor Party through the LGA.

It is incredible that the shadow minister does not have a position in his contribution to this debate, and I just think it speaks volumes on where the Labor Party is at the moment. We saw them today in question time on the most bizarre line of questioning from the member for Kaurna. They do not have a narrative. The Leader of the Opposition has actually gone into hiding. He thinks that the winter break has come a bit early. He does not know that there are another couple of weeks of sitting.

The Hon. V.A. Chapman: You are not allowed to reflect on people not sitting in the chamber.

Mr DULUK: Indeed, thank you. I have barely seen a press conference from the Leader of the Opposition in recent weeks.

The Hon. D.C. van Holst Pellekaan: He's keeping quiet.

Mr DULUK: He's keeping quiet. I see a lot from the member for West Torrens. He is pretty active. He has cleaned up his act. He has taken off his beard. He is enthusiastic. I know what his position is on rate capping, and I suppose this is a debate that is happening right now within the Labor Party. So, it is intriguing that we are having this debate. The minister (member for Schubert) has presented to the LGA, and all I can surmise from this is that the Hon. Frank Pangallo from the other place is pulling the Labor Party every which way on this position.

If the Labor Party is not careful, we are going to see SA-Best making policy on behalf of the Labor Party, and I do not know whether that is the position that the Labor Party wants to see. I would like to see between the houses the Labor Party come out with its position. I would love to see what some of the other members of the Labor Party actually think about rate capping. I would like to hear what the member for Reynell in her contribution—when she makes it—and the member for Kaurna think about how Onkaparinga is serving its constituents at the moment, and I think that is really important.

However, I am afraid the Labor Party does not want to be involved in this conversation because all I can think is that they do not really care about the people of South Australia. Those opposite do not care about cost of living because it reflects on their 16 years in government where they constantly put up rates and taxes for South Australians at every level, whether it was through local government with their green tax, whether it was through rates and charges on services and utilities, or whether it was delivering the highest energy prices for South Australian consumers. It is in their DNA to charge and to charge because they believe that the big arm of government knows best.

We on this side of the house sensibly went to the election with a broad-ranging, common-sense approach to rate capping. There has been a big fear in the community that rate capping by this government will be some big blunt instrument, but that is not what we are doing. Through the mechanisms that we are establishing, there will be an opportunity, especially through ESCOSA, for councils to apply rates obviously within the band that ESCOSA set and then of course for there to be additional discretion.

The fear that council projects or reinvestment in ageing community infrastructures, such as community centres and sporting facilities, will not be achieved under a rate capping regime is complete and utter nonsense. Those in the LGA and some councillors across this state—some are in my good council of the City of Mitcham—are peddling a line that if we have rate capping councils will have to cut services. The situation is quite the opposite.

One thing that rate capping will do is sharpen the focus of councils and the way that councils spend their money. That can only be a good thing. If any arm of government is forced to focus its attention, and to be sensible and prudent in the way it spends its money, that is only a good thing, and that is the standard that I know this government is holding itself to. I know that Treasurer Lucas is particularly keen to see financial discipline and sound management of the Treasury bench because that is what we do on this side of the house.

Those South Australians who believe that government at all levels should always act in a responsible manner should have nothing to fear from rate capping. I urge those members opposite to really thrash this out in caucus over the next couple of weeks and come to a position because I think that will really help the parliament. Ultimately, the question is: when this bill goes to the other place, what is the Labor Party going to do? What position will the member for West Torrens convince his caucus to have? Is it going to be one that actually supports the will of the South Australian people, or is it once again for the Labor Party to be obstructionist and difficult and to stop good government?

Ultimately, that is going to be the question should the Labor Party choose not to support this legislation in the other house. I can only assume they are not going to support it in this house. When we get through the committee stage, we will know if there is going to be a division on this bill and then see the way the Labor Party vote later on. It will be interesting to see what they do as we pass this bill through the house and if there is a call for a vote, which will be intriguing. Nevertheless, when it gets to the upper house, is the Labor Party going to support the will of the people?

For two elections now, the Liberal Party has taken this policy to the election and said that a Marshall Liberal government will introduce this legislation. Everyone has known about it. I have to say that it is probably one of the most well-supported policies in my community and across the board. The question really will be: does the Labor Party believe in democracy and does it support the values of the principles of the mandate of the government? It is a pretty interesting question.

In relation to the specifics of the bill, there are three key elements. One is determining the cap that applies to council revenue recoverable from general rates and providing for its calculation on an annual basis for all councils, classes of councils or, indeed, particular councils. Of importance is that there is plenty of discretion. The second point is that the bill will set out provisions that enable councils to apply for a variation of the rate cap by demonstrating engagement with their community on a variation and that a variation is necessary within the context of the council's operations for long-term financial planning. This allows for a council to come and say, 'We are looking at this particular project.' For example, it might be the Port Adelaide Enfield council looking to build a new community swimming pool in Enfield near the member for Enfield's electorate office, and we know that swimming pools are quite expensive pieces of public infrastructure that cost many millions of dollars.

If the City of Port Adelaide Enfield was to go to the commission and say, 'This is a pressing need for the community,' and over the term of the project it will require an extra 0.25 per cent on rates over the next five, 10 or 15 years to fund that community project that may be desired by the people of Manningham and Enfield, then there is plenty of scope for that to happen within this legislation. I do not think we are going to be in a situation where we see people missing out on important government services.

Another aspect of this bill is setting out provisions that allow for monitoring and reporting on the rate oversight system. This will ensure compliance and understanding of the effect of rate oversight on councils. The rate oversight system would be managed by an independent regulator, not by the government or the minister. ESCOSA, the respected independent regulator, will be responsible for making rate-cap determinations, receiving and assessing applications from councils for variations on the rate cap, and reporting on compliance and the outcomes of the system to the minister on a regular basis.

I suppose the question is: why are we doing this? In my view, rate capping would be a positive step towards reducing some of the financial pressures confronting the people who have elected us to serve them. It is certainly my view, and that of this government, that we need to govern in the best interests of the state and ratepayers. I believe there is no doubt that rate capping is a very good way to help South Australians with cost-of-living pressures.

It is my view that rate capping would make councils more efficient. I think it will streamline much of the budget processing that happens in councils at the moment, and it will create consistency across the board. As I said, we have a commitment to reducing the cost of living in a range of areas. This is one of them. Reinstating the remissions on the ESL on 1 July is another way of reducing cost-of-living pressures, and I know that the Minister for Energy (member for Stuart) is doing an outstandingly diligently important job in ensuring that power prices are coming down in South Australia and heading down that path. We have seen unacceptable energy prices in this state, particularly over the past four years.

There is no doubt that we are overgoverned in this state. We are completely overgoverned in South Australia. There are, in my view, constitutionally two very important arms of government: the federal government and the state government. Local councils play a most important role at the civic engagement level, but I believe that, at times, they overstep the mark of their responsibilities. By bringing in a rate-curbing mechanism, I think we have an opportunity to have a new debate about the role of local government and the services they provide to the people of South Australia.

There is wideranging evidence to support rate capping measures to help deal with the increasing cost-of-living pressures, and that is what we are here to do. It is pretty important. Over the past 10 years, local government rate revenue has increased by 67 per cent, compared to a 31 per cent increase in the local government price index over that same time, which is really interesting. People always ask, 'What do I get for my money?' from all governments, but particularly local government services. A common complaint people make to me is that they feel councils have moved away from their traditional role of footpaths, rubbish collection and maintaining parks. At times, I wish that was what local councils actually focused on, as that would be more important.

Instead, many local councils get on board agendas. Some of them get on board quite a lot of what I would call left-wing agendas and ones that are not reflective of the broader community. I think you have plenty of councillors who get onto local government to make a bit of a play for one issue or another, and to me that is not the role of local government. Local government should be about grassroots services for people. In my electorate, in a metropolitan context, the role of local government is very much about footpaths, ensuring that we have good reserves and good bushfire management.

The role of local government is not having debates about whether we should have a Jamie Oliver garden patch or what flag we should be flying on what day. These are not debates that local government should be having. Of course, the most recent one was local government, at the LGA conference, having a whole debate on whether or not we should celebrate Australia Day. You wonder why people get sick of all politicians, including local councillors, getting off topic. It is not the role of local government to decide whether or not we celebrate Australia Day. It is completely outside their remit. Anything we can do to focus councils on what is their core business is what we should be doing.

That is why I believe that the opposition will ultimately support this legislation. I know there are sensible people on that side of the house who also do not believe that local government should interfere in social policy in South Australia, and of course Australia, and instead should just focus on what they do best. I think that common sense will prevail and that ultimately the Labor Party will support this legislation in the other place. I hope they do because they know what is good for the people of South Australia—at least, I hope they know what is good for the people of South Australia.

It has been widely reported that councils have been caught wasting ratepayer money on golf memberships, luxury cars, Apple Watches and, in some cases, unnecessary international travel. We have some mayors in some councils who think it is appropriate to spend money outside what the community feels is appropriate. I reiterate the point that I hope that, by bringing in a rate capping regime, this will start a conversation about what is appropriate.

Obviously there has been some opposition to rate capping and, in particular, most recently from the LGA in the lead-up to the state election, where they took a pretty dogmatic approach to where we were looking to go. I think sanity has prevailed. I commend some mayors who have been supportive of rate capping legislation. They know that well-managed councils with good CEOs are important. The vast majority of CEOs are very diligent, and I look at my own council, where the CEO is very diligent and has good business acumen. The Mayor of the City of Mitcham has been on the record supporting rate capping because there is nothing to fear in the City of Mitcham. It is a well-run council, so there are no dramas. It is only going to be those councils, those elected members and some of those overzealous CEOs and staff who think council is some little pet project for them, who will have something to fear with this proposed legislation.

We have to look at what is happening around the country as well. New South Wales has had a rate capping regime for many years, and their councils are still there and pretty active. In more recent times Victoria has looked at bringing in rate capping as well. We took this key piece of legislation to the last election and said that we would introduce it within the first 100 days. Of course, the minister introduced this legislation to the house within our first 100 days. It is about getting more value for money for the taxpayer.

Mr DULUK: Once again, the member for Light interjects. I just want the member for Light, as the shadow minister, to come up with a position for the Labor Party. He is going to have plenty of time in the committee stage that is coming up to indicate whether the Labor Party support this clause or that clause.

The Hon. V.A. Chapman: Have they reached an agreement?

Mr DULUK: I do not know if they have, Deputy Premier. One can only assume that maybe they will over the course of the afternoon. There is plenty of opportunity during the committee stage for the shadow minister to call a division if he does not agree with certain aspects of the legislation. It will be really intriguing if we go through the whole committee stage without a single division or a single amendment being moved in the chamber while we are debating this piece of legislation. All of a sudden, we are going to have a completely different regime in the upper house. I think that says spades about where the Labor Party are at the moment and where they are in opposition—and long may they stay there.