The Perth lord mayoral race has highlighted the issue of financial accountability and state policy on the third tier of government.
THERE was one key ingredient missing when Perth Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi announced her commitment to free internet coverage in the central business district if she is returned at this weekend’s local government elections.
Her initiative earned a highly favourable headline in the Sunday press in her campaign to win a second term against her only challenger, businesswoman Anne Bontempo.
And Ms Scaffidi also indicated she would like the service to be extended into both East and West Perth. With increasing numbers of people using laptops in coffee shops and in the city’s open areas, her promise certainly won’t do her re-election chances any harm.
As just about every tourist knows, finding computer ‘hot spots’ in hotels is very important for checking and sending emails, whether for private or business purposes. So to have that service available at all points of the Perth CBD would be attractive.
Certainly computer guru Mal Bryce, a former deputy premier and WA’s first minister for technology back in the mid-1980s, is impressed.
“We don’t charge people to walk on our footpaths or drive on our roads,” he says. “Nor should they be charged to get access to the internet – the information ‘super highway’.
“Turning the whole CBD into a hot spot would be a great initiative and emulate what is already happening overseas, especially in cities on the east coast of North America and in Europe.”
So what’s the missing ingredient? Put simply, Ms Scaffidi hasn’t had her commitment costed. She can’t say just yet how much ratepayers will be up for if, as expected, she is returned.
Mr Bryce says it’s wise to phase in the new service to control costs, as a prelude to the ‘hard wiring’ of the city through the federal government’s National Broadband Network.
But the lord mayor would have been better advised to unveil her initiative complete with an estimate of the cost, to ensure voters are as informed as possible to decide who will lead the city for the next four years. ‘Where’s the money coming from’ is a frequent cry at federal and state elections; council elections should be no different.
As the third tier of government, councils tend to fly under the media scrutiny radar. Even so, councillors are regularly accused of spending too much on entertainment, and are even able to charge up certain costs associated with clothes and grooming, which are allegedly linked with their public office.
There are plenty of instances in the current round of elections where hopeful candidates have highlighted alleged wasteful spending. One involves the Perth City Council’s decision to replace light poles in Kings Park Road at a cost of almost $1 million. The council, of course, insists the new poles provide superior lighting and banner carrying capacity.
Some mayors see their role as virtually a full-time job and claim the maximum mayoral allowance of $60,000. But Premier Colin Barnett was unimpressed when one mayor said he was standing down because the allowance was inadequate, and should reflect that fact that he had been working virtually full time in the job.
Mr Barnett said councils had chief executives to run the administrative side, and there was no need for mayors to think they had to be full time.
And the CEOs are handsomely paid. According to the Salaries and Allowances Tribunal, the chiefs at Perth, Stirling and Wanneroo qualify for a maximum salary of $327,034. A further 13 council bosses can earn up to $300,081.
To put that in perspective, the premier’s own salary package is worth $325,522. Ministers, whose tenure often depends on the efficiency of the officers in the departments they lead, get $252,560, which is still well below the rates for more than 30 local government chiefs.
The state government has had a prickly relationship with the third tier, mainly caused by the unprompted decision of Local Government Minister John Castrilli in 2009 to press for council amalgamations in the quest for greater efficiency. Mr Barnett lent his support, expressing confidence that the number of councils would drop from 139 to fewer than 100 within a few years as the merits of consolidation became better understood.
It has been a case of fine in theory, not so good in practice. Progress on the amalgamation front has been laboriously slow. Councillors have been reluctant to vote themselves out of a job. There have been cases of councils contemplating merging getting cold feet, and even the threat of legal action in the mooted joining of the Nedlands and Subiaco councils.
The government’s strategy has appeared ham-fisted at best; and with just 16 months to the next state election it’s unlikely that Mr Barnett and Mr Castrilli will be going out of their way to irritate the councils further, even if they still would like to get the number of councils below the 100 mark.
Nevertheless, the continuing prosecutions initiated by the Corruption and Crime Commission over alleged illegal activity within councils must be of great concern to the government.
Earlier this month the CCC announced that the uncle of a former City of Stirling building coordinator had been charged with seven counts of corruption, linked with gaining work valued at $1 million from the council while ‘hiding’ the association with his nephew. It’s also alleged that more than $273,000 of the work, for which the council paid, was never done.
“As a result of the commission’s ongoing investigation, five people now face 23 charges with the value of contracts involved totalling about $2.8 million,” the CCC said.
In fact the corruption risks faced by local government around planning and procurement activities are considered so prevalent that they will be probed at the Australian Public Sector Anti-Corruption Conference in Fremantle next month.
With all these issues swirling around you might be excused for thinking that voters are lining up in droves to cast judgment on the effectiveness of their representatives, many of whom meet in such well-appointed council chambers that state MPs turn green with envy. That’s not the case, however.
With postal voting now widely used to try and maximise participation, only 18 per cent of eligible voters had returned their completed ballot papers last week. Mr Castrilli said the turnout ranged from 7 per cent for one council to as high as 44 per cent in another, and is hoping for a late voting surge.
But he is unlikely to heed the advice of Perth City Council candidate Sandra Liu, who wants compulsory voting as already applies at the federal and state levels. If voters remained apathetic, it could be a very costly and time-consuming process demanding abstainers ‘please explain’.
Nevertheless, Ms Scaffidi’s uncosted promise of free internet coverage for the CBD looks like a winner among inner-city residents. And that’s where she’s expected to get most of her support.
It could be a case of vote now, pay later.