Adelaide Rotary Club Presentation: “How Unley Road’s Pot Holes Drove Democracy into Australia”

On the 18th of June I addressed more than 100 members of the Adelaide Rotary Club in the Cathedral Room at the Adelaide Oval. The speech was recorded and is available to view below:

Here is the transcript of the speech and the :

Most of us think of Local Councils as a rather plodding and somewhat clumsy small p political system of government. We lay the residential roads, lay footpaths; take away your rubbish and look after almost every metropolitan or country, garden, library and community centre.

Indeed the range of things we seem to be responsible seems to be ever expanding and the ever increasing rates we charge seems testament to that.

And so we seem to have a somewhat sporadic but seemingly never ending debate about how over governed we are as a nation and state puts a huge question mark over the need for local government in the minds of many citizens.

So let’s look at the journey surrounding how we came to have local government… Whilst it is quite well known that the origins of the state come from the enlightened thinkings of people such as Wakefield, and that the provinces came together to be Federated, not much is known about the origins of Local Government…

The journey surrounding how we came to have the third tier of government is largely obscured by the mist of history…

As a serving Mayor I’m keenly interested in today’s systems of government and as the son of a historian about the path that led us to have them…

I’d like to help shed some light on why it is we have Councils and in doing so I want to touch on just a couple of other topics, I want to touch on the need for political reform as well as the issue of political apathy and I want to try and do this within the allotted time.

To do so, I will need to start my talk on one of the great BBQ topics, the topic of pot holes. And I’m hopeful that by the end of this Rotary Club’s 4511 meeting,  you’ll come to have a new found respect for pot-holes!!!  and indeed as you drive around over the next few days I hope that when you see them you remark at what an incredible impact pot holes have had on the formation of Australian democracy, a democracy that I hasten to add is the 4th longest continuing democracy in the world.  

Complaining about pot holes has been an Australian past time for over 150 years. So you see, the humble but incredibly annoying pot hole would be the great irritant of the Victorian era South Australian society that motivated the formation of the first fully democratically, continuously serving, elected bodies in all of Australia which would make South Australian Local Government the cradle of Australian democracy.

The first fully democratic bodies were the Adelaide, Melbourne and Geelong Councils all formed in the 1840s but they also all fell over… It would be pot holes that inspired SA Councils in the 1850s and motivate them to keep going.

Let me take you back to the first decade of the great social and economic experiment of South Australia… It’s hard to imagine in today’s society… But in 1830’s British real estate salesmen were able to entice the investors to part with money and pre-purchase 437 allotments that they were told would be somewhere along a stretch of 1,600km of coast that had been mapped by Flinders a generation earlier…

But these salesmen must have been rather good and they presold these 437 allotments, William Light worked out where he’d put the city and the steady stream of investors started arriving over the next few years to see what it was they’d actually purchased.

The land stretching to the south of the Adelaide square mile was preferred to that in the north because it was less dusty and better suited to agriculture and living.

Current day Unley was made up of 28 of those original 437 pre purchased allotments with each being 134 acres or (½ a square kilometre). Of these 28 allotments there were 4 main land owners.

Of the four main land owners one, Thomas Whistler, would subdivide one of his allotments into 144 smaller allotments which were all sold and had housing and business activity by 1850. And because Whilstler came from Suffolk he named his new real estate Undley and because Governor Gawler or his staff were sloppy, they called it Unley.

Now, despite the best intentions of the Provinces founders the states Governors had been unable to deal with the growing demands of an expanding population. The economy had stalled and many labourers and farm hands were becoming destitute.

The land owners had established their farms and market gardens on their newly pre-purchased lots in the south but it seems no one had given much thought to how or who would build the roads to bring their produce to city’s markets for local consumption or the docks to export.

Early on, the Governor had been busy quarrelling with the South Australian Colonization Commissioners, the Resident Commissioner and the Surveyor, the crown had taken back power from the South Australian Colonization Commissioners, replaced the Governor and invested power back in future Governors, these Governors were inundated with the heavy workloads that accompany the centralisation of power and accusations from the investors were thrown around of misappropriation of funds and incompetence.

Whilst these power struggles played out, no one seemed to deal with the pot holes. No one seemed to have the time to fix the pot holes. No one in authority would take responsibility for keeping the roads straight and smooth and fixing those pot holes.

These roads were vital to the investors getting a return on their investment. These investors and labourers had travelled around the world to make money and here they were with an authority that was unable to fix pot holes.

The residents in the affected areas we fed up, they were exasperated and increasingly penniless.

So what did they do? They did what and good Aussie does and organised to meet up in the local pub.

They met on the 19th of September 1851 at the Unley Inn which is the present day Sturt football club owned restaurant called Barzaar on Unley Road.

The Chairman of the meeting Mr Pickworth observed that Unley Road had been the worst in the Adelaide vicinity for some years. He noted that the inhabitants of the neighbourhood had in vain endeavoured to obtain Government funds to fix it and that is was now impassable by cart and almost so for horses and on foot due to pot holes.

Mr White moved “that this meeting considers the road between Unley and the Park Land to be totally impassable, and that it is highly expedient to draw attention to the district road board to so great an impediment to all traffic.

Mr Dawbeney moved: “The usual transit of goods upon this line of road being entirely suspended, is severely felt by the inhabitants of Unley, Lower Mitcham, the Sturt, Coromandel Valley and parts adjacent”.

Mr Martin: That the settlers located as stated, to whom the Unley Road is the direct line of communication with the City, are unable to bring the produce of their farms to market; and persons engaged in carting firewood, and otherwise dependant upon the employment of their teams, are shut out from their usual occupations and their means of subsistence rendered very precarious.”

All motions were moved, seconded and passed unanimously.

Did the Government and its district roads board listen to the people? No

Were the pot holes fixed? No

Did the residents meet again? Yes, this time in a far more determined mind set to fix those pot holes.

So after 18 months, on the 18th of February 1853 they met in a school hall with much heated debate the following motion was carried unanimously: “That this meeting considers it desirable that a district Council should be established for Mitcham and it’s neighbourhood.”

So the citizens all signed a petition which was sent to the Governor, and the Mitcham District Council was gazetted on the 12th of May 1853, but it was rather enormous, covering a total area of 108sq km. It’s representatives were democratically elected and it was democratically governed but by only 5 Councillors at large who directed where the rates would be.

It wasn’t long before dissatisfaction arose amongst the inhabitants of the town of Unley at the way the money was being spent by Mitcham Council.

You see the Pot holes were still a problem. The standard of the roads was unacceptable, there were too many pot holes for the rates that they were paying.

So the inhabitants of Unley met again but this time without those from Mitcham and this time they determined to secede. So with the required 2,000 signatures the Unleyites sent their petition to the Governor who agreed that Unley could break away from Mitcham which he Gazetted into reality on the 15th of June 1871

And so it would be that the newly formed Unley Council would see more than half its rates revenue spent on the fixing of Unley Road over the coming decade, fixing pot holes.

And so with a bit of tongue in cheek and a slightly long draw of the bow, I hope you can see how it was the humble but incredibly annoying pot hole that drove us towards democracy in Australia, which first started here in South Australia.

The original inspiration for Councils came from James Fisher, South Australia’s first resident commissioner and First Mayor of Adelaide when he asked the British Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1838 for “elective municipal institutions possessing the power of local taxation for local purposes”.

In South Australia, Councils were operating before we had a democratically elected state parliament. The Councils as you can see were brought about because of local populations being desirous of getting things done that would produce solutions to problems in a timely manner when the state was taking too long to attend to the issue.

Councils have gone through great changes in SA from almost 200 in the 1920’s to todays 68 Councils.

Councils have always been empowered by laws proclaimed by the Governor or Parliament. These laws have been written and rewritten seven times and sit currently under today’s Local Government Act 1999.

But because Councils in each state sit under the acts of parliament of their respective State Governments, councils within each state are responsible for different things are different sizes and have a range of revenue sources.

So let’s first do a quick comparison of Councils across the Nation, as you can see, there are three states with large councils and three states plus the NT with smaller councils.

Western Australia and the NT were recently considered the best economically performing areas of the nation whilst SA and Tasmania were considered the two worst. All four have smaller Councils.

The responsibility for the performance of any State’s economy rests largely with the State Government but Councils can be very proactive in making business districts attractive and in enticing businesses to move into an area.

It’s interesting to look at the staff to population ratios of Councils across the nation. This table clearly shows how larger Councils find themselves employing more people. The Victorian example shows an increase in staff over a ten year period of 22,000 or 71% compared to South Australia’s 2,800 extra staff or 34%.

In Victoria there is 1 staff member for every 106 residents compared in SA with one staff member for every 152 residents. So South Australian councils with an average Council population of 24 and a half thousand has greater staff efficiencies than Victoria’s larger Councils with their residential populations of 72.8 thousand.

Of all the state groupings of Councils, South Australian Councils are the most reliant on rates. Rates in SA equal 57.4% of revenue compared with Queensland which rates are 30.3% of revenue. SA generates just over a quarter of its revenue from the Other income and the Sale of Goods and Services compared with Queensland Councils that generate 57.4% of their revenue from Other Income and the Sales of Goods and Services. Queensland generates as much revenue from other sources as SA Councils generate from Rates.

SA Councils need to diversify their sources of revenue or alternatively cut rates.

But I ask you, why would a democratic body do something if the community doesn’t want it to?

Unley Council recently had a community consultation for our draft annual business plan and budget and we are looking to put rates up by about 5%. This was advertised in the local media and through online portals.

We had 1 person attend!

Over the last three budgets Unley Council has received less than 30 budget submissions!

Unley has a population of 38,000 people of which only an average of 10 per year write in to offer comment on the budget, that’s 0.026% of the population who are engaged.

Not all the submissions are complaints either. About ½ are complaints.

In 2004 we raised 20 million in rates, in 2014 we expect to raise 34 million in rates.

Political apathy

In 2010 Unley had 36,000 residents, with 31,000 a eligible representatives and 27,000 eligible voters

Of the 31,000 eligible representatives there were only 24 people who nominated to be a representative.

Of the 27,000 eligible voters, less than 9,000 voted.

Local government elections are approaching. I want to challenge you to at the very least vote. Local Government has developed a bit of a stigma. It’s lost a bit of it’s shine.

But it is the level of government that is still best placed to deliver practical solutions infrastructure challenges and the delivery of community services in a timely manner.

We need to find other sources of revenue if we are going to keep spending as we do.

Our society, communities, and historical remembrance of who we were is reflected in and impacted on by Councils.

We have the most stable and wonderful democracy in the world so perhaps after all, do we need to change?

It’s simple, you see, to begin with in SA we had power shared between the Governor and the 11 member South Australian Colonization Commission.

In the 1800’s the first ships that sailed to South Australia took 9 months to arrive… With today’s technologies we can travel to Mars in that same period of time…

The Governor of South Australia was therefore empowered to make all the laws for the colony. Indeed across the rest of Australia, the Governors of Tasmania, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia we benevolent dictators…

Local Government is birthed in the frustrated expression of people who could see their State Government holding them back

South Australia’s first governor

Local Government… These two simple words bring about the most amazing reaction from people…

Local Government… I wonder what these two words bring to mind for you…

I’d hazard a guess and say that for most people Local Government is this strange quazi mixture of irrelevant small minded overpaid bureaucracy that is constantly trying to justify its existence and seems intent on constantly putting up rates crossed with wannabe politicians who behave badly and have an overinflated opinion of themselves…

By now I’ve either put you to sleep or I’ve motivated you to feel irritated and annoyed at our over-government system of democracy…

Local Government… Who cares??? I mean if you looked for the definition of “Boring” or “Over-governed” in the Macquarie Dictionary they probably use Local Government as an example of what those two terms means…

Is it time to amalgamate them all… Or do away with them and have the services they are responsible for fall under a Ministry portfolio…

I’m the Mayor of the City of Unley… I love the creation story for my wonderful little city…

You see back in the late 1860s, those residents of Malvern, Fullarton, Goodwood and Parkside were filled with the first and second generation fervour that accompanies free men and women who willingly choose to travel to an unknown corner of the world… The only current day equivalent to the 1800s London to Adelaide boat journey of around 90 days would be the 150 day Earth to Mars trip… Now if you risked your life and your wealth to establish yourself in a place that is the equivalent of living on Mars, I ask you, would you want to be involved in ensuring every penny you spent was spent appropriately?

If you found yourself

the isolation of 1800’s Unleyites coupled with the financial investment relocate conspired to make them want to be self-determining.

So the local Malvern, Fullarton and Parkside populations signed a petition

I want you to put up your hand if you have ever run for office in Local Government…

Unley has a population of 38,000 of which 25,206 are eligible to vote…

So how many people voted?


That’s 32.5%…

Or if you

South Australian Local Government is the cradle of Australian democracy. South Australian was the first colony to have a democratically elected body, this was

‘It is perhaps forgotten that local government was South Australia’s earliest form of self-government, free from the dictates of the British Parliament. Indeed, South Australia originated the principle of an elected local government and was the first of the [Australian] colonies to institute it’



rel=author Lachlan Clyne

0427 132 494

Categories: Lachlan Clyne - Personal Life

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