Current Issue #488

Montefiore: Park lands or profit?

Montefiore: Park lands or profit?

A modest city council 2018 pay rise for park lands board members was later followed up by a government green light to build a modest 128-room hotel in Adelaide’s protected park lands – one the board never saw coming, never discussed and never approved.

One of the many reasons why Sir Monty remains in Adelaide is because of its enviable new reputation for being the hotel capital of the world’s small cities. Ever since state Labor’s 2012 planning revolution, city high-rise hotel construction has boomed. There can’t be enough concierges and bellboys in this plucky little metropolis. True, most of the rooms remain empty once ‘mad March’ concludes, but the towers look good in the tourism brochures. So good, in fact, that there’s going to be addition of another 128 new bedrooms, in Adelaide’s newest, $42m hotel. It’s to be built in Adelaide’s park lands. The home of the possum and the lorikeet is instead to become the home of concrete, steel and glass. December 2018 confirmation that the state government had fast-tracked approval, after an agonising delay of only 28 days from first announcement to development approval (which paperwork only took nine days), illustrates that Adelaide has set a new land speed record. Never before in the history of its park lands has such a major development (this one to be fixed to the eastern walls of the Adelaide Oval stadium) been approved so rapidly.

One reason was that the approvals process completely bypassed the attention of the jaw-boning, policy probing, procedural hunger of the 10 good men and women who sit on the board of the 11-year-old Adelaide Park Lands Authority. It also bypassed any preliminary discussions or application for landlord approval by the city council, the ‘custodian’ of the park lands since the 1850s.

Sir Monty rarely pays attention to the business of boards. But he recently noted that the Authority’s members are to get a tasty pay rise when sittings recommence in 2019, the enticing aroma of which Sir Monty’s picked up as he promenaded past Town Hall recently. This prompted him to seek a seat at the board table. It is a modest pay rise of only 49 per cent. It came as a surprise to him that inflation was running so hot, but Sir Monty is prepared to pocket the fees – with his usual due modesty.

A rainbow lorikeet, one of the park lands' current non-paying overnight guests (Photo: Shutterstock)
A rainbow lorikeet, just one example of the park lands’ current non-paying overnight guests (Photo: Shutterstock)

The 2018 paperwork discussing the pay rise from $51.50 per hour to $76.80 indicated that, thanks to something called a State Government Remuneration Framework, board members should expect to be paid for “three hours’ meeting preparation time … in addition to actual meeting time”. Under the old money, at $51.50 per hour, members only raked in $257.50 for simply turning up, but under the new arrangement they’ll take home $384 per session. Sir Monty searched for evidence of any audit function as to whether board members would have to prove that they’re spending those three hours interrogating the paperwork. None could be found.

One impetus for the pay rise relates to an amended charter, which mid-2018 Authority papers revealed “involves a modest increase in responsibilities such as preparation of a strategic plan and an annual general meeting”, but didn’t confess that these modest contents would be all prepared by an executive officer who earned a modest $130,331 in 2018 and will continue to work hard (full-time) on behalf of the board, presenting members with a ready-to-endorse plan or AGM agenda, complete with background briefings. So, in 2019 there shouldn’t be much for board members to prepare at home or at the beach house or at the cricket as they await the allotted 5.30pm timeslot for their physical appearance in the soft light of the exquisitely refurbished Colonel Light Room. Sir Monty is attracted to this arrangement – extra pay, even though someone else is doing – has always done – much of the preparatory work. And in terms of the new park lands hotel, no need to do any preparatory work, because nothing crossed the Authority’s board table.

He also noticed that ‘Meetings of the board’ charter rules had been changed. Each member is now annually allowed to be not present in the boardroom for at least two of the 10 annual meetings and instead just phone in. New rules stated: “Each of the board members taking part in the telecommunications meeting must at all times during the meeting be able to hear and be heard by each of the board members present.” This was sound advice. It might be useful to hear the opinions of others, for example, about building multi-storey hotels or something similar in the park lands. However, for the oval stadium concept, no opinion was sought.

The new charter also demands that the Authority business plan “must identify the performance targets of the Authority and set the performance measures…” A quick check of the targets indicated that there was no reference at all to commenting on park lands development concepts similar to a $42m, 128-room hotel, which suggests why Authority members were never briefed. But actually there was a much simpler explanation. When the sudden November development announcement was made, the Authority had ceased sitting for the year. What could the government bureaucrats do, given that everyone had gone on holidays? They approved it themselves. Of course, there was no time for public consultation. There was far too much urgency for that.

Sir Monty can’t wait to meet the first-term premier at his club. There’s more than 700 hectares of park lands. Now that they’re under new management, via access to no-equity, cheap government-endorsed loans that may never get repaid, Montefiore Investments Ltd’s least preferred asset class, property, has suddenly assumed new, profitable respectability.

What do they say about Adelaide, ‘Australia’s city in a park’? Location, location, location… Verily, 2019 is off to a very lucrative start.

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