Shortly after being elected Mayor of Unley I had a vision for South Australia which I felt would give the State a competitive edge over our neighbouring Australian States and make us a beacon of best practice Government. I love the state of South Australia enormously. I feel a sense of pride when I talk to interstate and overseas visitors about our state, its innovations and ethical, egalitarian society. Reform often only occurs when there has been a catastrophic failure of the system. Like any problem, the first step is to recognise that there is a problem and name it.
The first question I ask is, do we have a problem?
Let’s look at the situation.
South Australia has 68 Councils and 69 State Members of Parliament. Each Council has on average 10 Elected Members (9 Councillors and a Mayor) and our State Parliamentary representatives are divided into a 47 member House of Assembly (area representation) and a 22 seat Legislative Council (state wide representation).
Let’s compare State Electorates to Council areas.
The Unley Council has a budget of approximately $38 million which is spent within a set geographical area (14.2sq km) on roads infrastructure, parks and gardens, community centers and services for the improved amenity of the 37,000 residents. The spending is determined through the interactive dynamic of staff recommendations made within Councillor determined strategic frameworks often motivated and formed as a result of the election process. Unley’s 170+ staff and 13 Elected Members are constantly interacting with the community and consequently have a good grasp of the “heart-beat” of the community.
State Electorates have an average size of 23,000 people but the effectiveness with which they can advocate and “do stuff” in and for their community is inequitable. Unlike a Council’s budget (Unley $38 million, Burnside $40 million) there is no set “electoral” budget or allocation of funds with which state representatives can access funds in order to improve their community.Unlike a Council’s 170+ staff, often an electorate office has only 2 – 5 staff who attempt to service the democratic needs of that entire community.
The real representational inequality which occurs at a state level can be best understood when comparing an opposition, a backbench and a Ministerial Member of Parliament against each other. When an area is represented by someone whose political party is out of office they have very little opportunity to do anything in or for their community. A backbench MP is probably best positioned to be effective with much easier access to Government funds. A Minister however, whilst influential must concern themselves with State wide issues to the neglect of their own area.
With Opposition MPs rendered ineffective and Ministers too busy with State wide issues to attend to their local communities, then, of the three “types” of MPs, (Opposition, Backbench and Ministerial), Backbench MPs are the only ones who can effectively work for their communities. Consequently we have a system of Parliament in which a minority of people are effectively represented.
So why not amalgamate the position on MP and Mayor?
The local system of government is a wonderful place in which to see local decision making having an impact on the amenity of the local area. Local Government however; is rendered impotent when it comes to regional issues. Counter-intuitively, because Local Government is so close to the community, local solutions to regional problems are often the most successful yet there is no forum for Mayors to gather with this knowledge and negotiate for a successful solution. Instead these regional issues remain the province of the State but the ability of an MP to have the same depth of knowledge on any issue is limited due to staff constraints.
The potency of party politics would also be lessened as a result of an amalgamation of these two positions. The Mayor is the spokesperson for the Council’s position on any given issue and consequently would be directed on how to negotiate the Councils position in Parliament when discussing regional issues.
In my blog I write about the possibility of amalgamating the roles of Mayor and MP. The Advertiser has picked up the story (which is always a mixed blessing). The importance of the work done by both Local and State Governments can not be ignored, neglected, diminished or thrown out. Both achieve real results in and for the community. But governments must always be looking for ways to minimise expenses whilst delivering the services the community needs. With increasing debt levels we must always seek out ways of delivering services to the community at the least expense and of ensuring our democratic system maximises the important aspect of representation by the people for the people. Whilst my idea may not be the solution, further discussion which helps to refine what we have can and should be a positive thing.