Slings and Arrows: Adelaide’s Lucrative Boards and Secretive Council

Ash Whitefly casts his critical eye over the composition and compensation of Adelaide’s lucrative boards, and reflects on secrecy at Adelaide City Council.

The end of civilization?

Within Adelaide’s CBD towers reside a bureaucracy of boards: statutory, business and regulatory authorities, trusts, panels and committees, at whose boardroom tables are parked some of our town’s finest buttocks, the property of some of South Australia’s most prominent commercial and (formerly) political minds.

Get a gig on one or two of these and the fees are useful in helping smooth the sharp edges of the kids’ private school bills, defraying the lease costs on the 4WD Beemer, or assisting with the beach house mortgage. Because even if you miss a few meetings through double-booking, or are held up painting the beach house on the day of the meeting, the fees still get paid.

It’s a convention to which the top end of town has long become accustomed. Way back in 2007, state cabinet adopted a framework setting out the pay rates based on board category, and recently the Rundle Mall Management Authority (a subsidiary of the city council) determined where it fitted in the scheme of things. But part of its review brought it into contact with its own charter, which insisted that payment of fees depended on attendance. From now on, no show, no dollar flow.

If news of this practice gets out, and other chair persons follow suit, it could mean the end of civilization as Adelaide knows it. Fees based on regularly showing up and paying attention could upset a lot of people. Next they’ll be insisting that members actually read the board papers ahead of the meeting. Administrative hari kari.

Tough love

Back in 2014 Jay Weatherill’s boys came up with a list of things to do to indicate that, as times got tougher, so would the bean counters. They announced a root-and-branch clean out in which boards and committees not achieving much and seen to be nothing but red tape would get the chop. A big saving was predicted. Numbers were culled from 418 in 2013–14 to 237 in 2015–16. Clearly the politicians meant business.

But as with so many aspects in the political pond, the money matter didn’t turn out so well, with savings of only $2m ($12m cost fell to $10m). While the 2014 chest-thumping (symbolic posturing) paid political dividends, it appears that two years later (when the state budget is actually deeper in the red) Jay’s team appear to have lost enthusiasm for slashing and burning in this particular paddock, despite the fact that 237 government boards still cost taxpayers $10m annually.

Half a year

Behind the 2014 posturing was also another agenda – taking better control of political risk. A good example was the axing of the Motor Sport Board, which always ran the risk of appointing future members who might be less likely to parrot the standard government line about the critical importance of lavishly funding one of Adelaide’s most financially cushioned events via mountains of public money, the total of which is never clearly declared.

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Even today the real cost of running Clipsal 500 remains one of Adelaide’s carefully guarded secrets.

On 1 July 2015 the board was swallowed up by the SA Tourism Commission to create ‘The Motor Sport Group’ – a curious title implying a board of independent, non-government members. Next year’s 500 has demanded full control of access to public land (fully fencing the Vic Park park lands racetrack venue) for a few days shy of six months – 26 weeks. Melbourne’s Grand Prix only demands 10. That’s Adelaide red tape for you.

Defining the boundary

The great board purge of 2014 also led to a few cockups. One of those put on the chopping block was the Boundary Adjustment Facilitation Panel, which made recommendations without financial disadvantage to anyone. Its role was handballed to the Local Government Minister, who (in the great Weatherill tradition) directed the Office of Local Government (OLG) to work with the Local Government Association to review the laws about boundary reform. In other words, do the work of the former Panel.

Recently the OLG spat out a paper about a new bill on council reforms, amalgamations, composition and the very delicate matter of council boundaries. The bill also looks to who might do the hands-on work. Ash is therefore surprised (not) that, according to the city council, it proposes formation of “an independent Commission (replacing the minister) to undertake the initial assessment of proposals and to make recommendations to the minister.” Sounds very much like the former Panel’s duties.  This Commission would recover investigation costs of brilliant ideas from departments that recommended them.

It gets worse. “If the submission is initiated by the public, costs would be recovered from a responsible person nominated by the group of eligible electors.” In other words, if well-intentioned tax-payers come up with a clever, practical proposal, what happens? Answer: get rewarded with an invoice from a government body. A double government bonus – red tape and pay-as-you-go! Ah Jay, you’ve done it again.

Not a whisper

Finally… good news! While Adelaide’s city council remains one of the most secretive local government bodies in South Australia, its people are not averse to reviewing their obsession with secrecy. In early September it reviewed a six-page list of secrets – scores of confidential motions passed in recent years (which sent the contents of the motions – calls for reports, financial summaries, and responses to speculative bids by various Adelaide carpetbaggers seeking cheap loans, etc – direct to the ‘secrets vault’).

The result? Sorry, can’t tell you. The summary was immediately declared a secret under the Local Government Act.

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