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Slings and Arrows:
Torrens management risks running its banks

Torrens River
Daniel Toh / Shutterstock

A history of administration chaos over management of the Torrens continues as a river board contemplates a plan for a new body – a project guaranteed to be the equivalent of herding cats.

“The core issue facing the Torrens is that no one individual or organisation is accountable for the quality of the river. … In general, the river and its health does not appear to be a central concern or priority for many of the managing authorities.”

Such an extract is bound to engender a warm and happy feeling [not] among residential property owners across Adelaide – folks who have no choice but to pay a separate Natural Resource Management (NRM) Levy when they pay their rates bill. That extract comes from a consultants’ report that floated to the surface very late last year. Now, as holiday makers return from the beach to face 2020 business, the report and its highly topical contents could prompt fresh angst.

That pesky levy could increase as a result of work this year likely to become the basis of a future episode of ABC’s Utopia. TV writers should start taking notes now, because the saga is going to be fascinating.

The NRM levy has existed since 1995 when the Liberals ran things. In 2005, when Labor ran things, the body that depended on it became the Adelaide Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resource Management Board (AMLR NRM).

Unless you were inside the bubble, a member of a river-edge council , or an employee of five state agencies, you wouldn’t be aware that, behind the scenes, there’s been a reign of not-my-responsibility buck-passing.

“There is no shared vision for the river, a lack of clarity about who is responsible […] Current governance arrangements are reactive, ad hoc, and do not effectively integrate environmental, economic and social values into outcomes, nor do they deliver multiple benefits for all […]”

New model proposal deserves bravery award

As a way of acknowledging this, the AMLR NRM board did a review, then commissioned a creative team to imagine a new model. It bravely recommended a round table, to include 17 council and state-agency folks, plus two Kaurna people (one man and one woman), and five ‘independent’ people chosen because they have ‘no skin in the game’. That group should be fun to convene. The current mob don’t much admire each other’s work anyway, and collaboration appears to be as muddy as the river. Quote from the creatives: “There is considerable finger-pointing when issues or problems arise.” (Remember: your NRM levy payment, over many years totalling tens of millions, has paid for this.) River-edge management comprises many fiefdoms, from the hills to the sea, including all of those local councils managing their bit of Linear Park.

The creatives reckon that a new body could be formalised under draft legislation, perhaps as a statutory authority via a new Act. A convenor would chair, but have no veto powers, and perhaps report directly to a minister or at least report as a sub-committee to another new board (more below). That sounds like fun. It’s not mentioned, but obviously if it reported to a minister, that minister would not only have veto powers, but would control this herd of cats like an RSPCA inspector with a stun gun. So why the necessity for a whole herd of cats? Is the AMLR NRM board unworkable? No one wrote that, but that’s the implication.

Next – the round table budget. A convenor, employed full time, would need a tempting salary package to manage a herd of cats. Who pays? Could be equal contributions from the organisations currently represented around the table. Could be unequal contributions, depending on the size of the catchment area represented. Could be all from the AMLR NRM board! You can imagine the reception for that idea, funding a round table that threatens to make you redundant. Whoever manages to lock down the funding agreement would need the skills of a Beirut diplomat.

New law for old problem

Under proposed draft legislation (last year it was a Landscape South Australia Bill 2019), a new ‘Green Adelaide Board’ might replace the old AMLR NRM board. (This replacement approach also occurred 14 years ago. That delivered no solution, either.) Who’d be on the new one? No one is saying, but presumably all of the respective councils’ and agencies’ people currently on the AMLR NRM board. They’ll insist on a place, if only to protect their bit of river-edge turf. And there are many turfs – 17 river principalities. A convenor would need a permanent in-house psychotherapist to treat likely stress. So too would a new chair of the Green Adelaide Board. Both would have to like each other’s company, because if the Bill becomes law, Green Adelaide is to shoulder an additional mandate. Urban Waterways would be added to the load. More principalities. More watery turf. More likely participants.

By the way, if you’re interested in the mechanics of herding cats, consider how the creative team suggested the five independent members ought to be chosen. Either: 1. Agencies might select (you can imagine the competition to get their choices elected). Or: 2. “Random invitations sent to residents of Adelaide metro area”, with the agencies sorting the applicants. Stand by for an invitation. Is it like empanelling a jury? How will the agencies detect the hidden agendas? Remember – dogs have owners, but cats have staff. And even if you’re elected, there’s no hint that you’d get a discount on your NRM levy. This thing will cost more, not less. Progress always does.

Ash Whitefly

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Ash Whitefly is Executive Director of the Adelaide Whitefly Institute of Diplomatic Studies.

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