From Hansard, House of Assembly 4 August 2016
Appropriation Bill 2016
Adjourned debate on motion:
That the proposed expenditures referred to Estimates Committees A and B be agreed to.
Mr GRIFFITHS ( Goyder ) ( 15:59 :34 ): I actually enjoy estimates. I have been doing it now for a long time, as have many other people in this chamber. I find it enlightening from the viewpoint that the process allows any member to obtain information about how this state is managed. It is not just the financial implications of the policies, but what the detail of the policy is, so it is a lot of work. I completely understand that. I am a person who actually appreciates information, as are many other members.
While they are long hours, and it is a lot of review to get to a position to question a minister in detail about portfolio issues, and you have to know your own portfolio to be able to do that, it demonstrates the one time when collectively the most information exists among staff, ministers, opposition and, by association, the community at large, in the information gained about how the state is to be run over the next 12 months. It is an important exercise, and I am pleased that it takes place. It could be improved, no doubt about that. I like it when I see ministers who stand up and are confident in giving responses and who do not necessarily refer to long briefing papers because I think that is a mark of those who actually understand their brief.
In the two days that I sat in on estimate sessions, I had the opportunity to be with the Attorney-General and Minister for Planning. The deputy leader was questioning the Attorney quite strongly for a long time on a variety of areas. I am not sure whether the deputy leader is going to like this, but I sent a text to my wife saying that they were getting along swimmingly. It shows that when there is an attitude of respect and both possess the high level of understanding that they need to get information out, and each has an incisive mind that knows when to ask follow-up questions, information flows from members and ministers who actually have some knowledge on the area. It worked quite well.
It was interesting later that same afternoon when I came into this chamber and took part in the member for Stuart's questioning of the Minister for State Development. I am advised that there was a bit of tension in the room earlier that day and it flowed through to some degree in the conversation in there, not to the same level though. It just shows a bit of spirit. It reincarnated the position held by members who are no longer in this chamber when they came in and the level of arrogance they had when it came to answering questions.
I want to pay some respect to you, Deputy Speaker, in chairing the committee, and the member for Little Para in chairing committee B. It is a long time, I can appreciate, and it takes a high level of concentration. The member for Little Para is the person I sat with for a longer period, and I was grateful for the fact that when I asked questions on the local government area the member for Little Para gave me some leeway.
There has to be a connection back to the budget papers, and I said quite strongly at the very start that, because local government only had a page and a quarter in the budget papers in total, much of my questioning was going to be related to the lines at the very top which said that the Office of Local Government provides advice to the minister. I presumed that was on everything, so I thought there was a connection and it was allowed, so I am grateful for that.
I commend the shadows for the way they have asked the questions. It demonstrates that they want knowledge and because, by association, it will ensure that they are better placed in the short term to take over a ministerial role and know how their department operates and to be in a position to make recommendations on where improvements can be made, it is a worthwhile exercise.
To focus on the portfolio areas, the first one is planning. I questioned the areas initially focused on the planning legislation which has only just gone through, not only in this chamber in late November but also through the Legislative Council in March. It is an immense piece of legislation, with over 400 amendments; 208 of those were accepted; and it involved an enormous amount of negotiation.
While royal assent has been given to it, it has not yet come into force. I believe it was in May when assent was provided for it. My first question to the minister was: when does it actually come into play? He said to me that it depends, because more subsequent legislation has to come through there will be a timing for when that commences, and a timing when portions of the old Development Act of 1993 are removed. So, it becomes a situation where we have potentially two bits of legislation, one is an improvement on the other, but when does the second one come into force? The timing, implementation and how it is implemented are key.
The minister and I completely agree on the fact that the appointment of a commissioner is the vital part. The planning commission will undertake a significant role when it comes to the development of charters for community involvement, the design codes and every sort of rule on how things are to operate, and that is the key appointment to make. I must say that I was very disappointed to be advised by the minister in a question that he has not put a time frame in place for the appointment of a planning commissioner until March 2017.
Given that the legislation went through in March 2016, you have to question why it takes so long. Why is it taking so long? Indeed, they have not even advertise for the position. I have asked the minister if it is a matter of headhunting, a matter of identifying those who would have the skill set and experience to be able to do it, a matter of advertising or a matter of volunteers coming forward who might be considered, but still we have to wait for now some seven months before the end time frame is put on when an appointment is to be made.
Without that commissioner being in place, nothing else flows yet. The commissioner will be involved in the determination of who will be on the planning commission. The commissioner and the commission will be involved in the development of the charter, the design codes and the 43 different areas of regulations that will be developed under that piece of legislation, so why is that key appointment taking so long? That is where things have to occur.
The flow-on from that question was that the department controlled by the minister, on the basis of a significant additional workload being required to not just deal with planning matters as they have currently been arising under the 1993 act and development plan reviews that communities and councils from across all of South Australia are desperate for in many cases but to design this new system and to put in place the collective knowledge of how it is going to operate, should involve more staff. I respect the fact there are going to be costs associated with this, and it is nearly $25 million over the four-year period of the forward estimates.
We then look at the fact that—I do not know if it is an efficiency dividend or what it is—the number of full-time equivalent staff within the department has gone down 134.7 to 130.9. I am not sure how hard the minister is going to crack the whip on things and how he is going to flog people to actually get the work output there, but I would have thought that more staff were required, particularly in these first two years or so, to get the information and positions in place for everything to work from there, but that is not the case.
The estimates session also made me very aware that, while I knew there was, as part of the budget papers, an intention for a levy to be charged to councils to assist in the recovery of the costs of the e-portal, which will be the electronic version of planning and how it will be dealt with, the minister for the first time has announced that it is going to be $4,000 per council, which is interesting, given that the value and the number of applications that each council deals with on a yearly basis is very different. The minister has seemingly determined to charge a flat fee.
The next question therefore became: how long is it intended that this fee be in place for? It is 13 years. The councils are going to be paying for this for 13 years, and that is on the basis of a cost recovery. I asked the minister if that included the cost of recovering the interest lost, of the payment up-front and the time to recover that, and the minister was not quite so sure on that question. So, that is going to be another cost upon local government imposed by a minister of the Crown that the local government, through either its association or individual councils, has not been involved in. The Minister for Local Government was seemingly not aware of it either, because I asked him a question yesterday in the estimates sessions with him.
Development fees are also going to be increased to assist in the recovery of the cost for the e-portal. I know the minister has a high-level group set up to deal with the implementation of this and that it does involve those from the development industry. Importantly, I put to him that it needs to involve not just those from local government but also those from community groups who provided feedback to all of us when it came to the debate on the legislation, but that will be an additional impost.
No detail could be provided on whether it is a percentage, a dollar figure or an additional transaction cost associated with each development application that might be received, but it will be interesting to see what that is because I think that is an example of something the minister and the government do not know yet. They have put in place a principle for what has to be collected, but do not know yet how to do it. I do not know if that is going to be part of the work that the commission and the commissioner does, or if that is going to be a decree made by government after they have seemingly had the time to consider what it needs to be.
I also spoke to the minister about the environmental and food protection areas. There is a significant difference of position between the Liberal Party and the government on that. We, the Liberal Party, do not support that. The government proposed it very strongly and managed to convince one member in the upper house to change their position from the first vote of being against to subsequently voting in support of it and getting it through by one.
Flowing on from that is the great challenge in getting land use conflicts that exist in agricultural areas sorted out. I asked questions about the negotiation that is occurring between PIRSA for Primary Industries and the Department of Planning: who takes the lead role? The minister tells me that, and I understand this completely, his staff are not experts in the agricultural pursuit—I completely understand that.
PIRSA, though, is supposed to be that group. PIRSA is also the group that should come up with what needs to be the policy to ensure that issues can be dealt with from a planning viewpoint so that you do not have a situation whereby a use occurs on an adjoining parcel of land from a broadacre area of land, but the practices that occur on that alternative use make it impossible for the management principles on the broadacre use to be undertaken.
It impacts on revenue, it impacts on equity, it impacts on viability, and it impacts on the long‑term transfer to subsequent family members. The minister and I are both very aware of people who are impacted by this already. While retrospectivity is a challenging thing, politically, to deal with, there needs to be a set of rules in place so that it gives those who determine uses of land the knowledge on how they should be treating this and what issues they have to consider.
We also spoke about land supply and the 30-year plan. At last year's estimates the Minister for Planning talked about the 30-year plan starting 'soon', I think was the term used. Twelve months later it has not started. There were similar questions about it and the reply to me was 'within weeks'. I have asked for a briefing on that, hopefully in the week starting in the middle of August. The minister's staff nodded their heads to me, and I took that as a formal yes. It is an important issue and I know there are many people across our community and industry development groups who want to be involved in the negotiations and discussions about the 30-year plan and the review, given that the current one is five and a bit years old now, because it is an important area to get right.
It talks about population growth; it talks about housing starts. I was disappointed when the minister talked about the fact that the previous 30-year plan had a target of 8,500 new starts per year, when I have a very clear recollection of being told by the development industry that in past years they have desired it to be around about 10,000 new dwellings to be constructed per year. Even more so, I was frustrated by the fact that the minister referred to that, in the five years since the 30-year plan was implemented, they have done some reviews and the five-year average is as low as 7,420. I think that is symptomatic of the challenges that are faced in our construction industry when it is a significant number below what the real need is, from an industry perspective, for viability and profitability. It shows that there is a lack of demand. That is part of the economy. From the Liberal Party's perspective that is what we stand up and talk a lot about, is to make the economy work because that drives opportunities in all of these areas.
The next area in which I questioned a minister was the member for Frome, the Minister for Local Government. Even though I was asked by other committee members not to talk about rate capping, I did, because I think it is a key thing. In linking it back to the budget papers and the reference that the Office of Local Government provide to the minister, I asked: has the minister been advised on that? He said, yes, he had. I would love to see initiatives that the Office of Local Government and the minister have put forward in a legislative sense or a regulation sense or a policy viewpoint sense that helps ensure that cost-of-living issues are being dealt with, but it is not.
While I am critiqued by many on the basis of rate capping as something that local government does not like, I look at the fact that it is $1 billion in revenue per year and I need to ensure, and I believe the Liberal Party is strongly supportive of this, from a cost-of-living pressure that all families are dealing with, that all individuals are dealing with, that we do all we can to keep that cost-of-living pressure down. I think rate capping is a strong area of that, so it is something that will remain.
I asked the Minister for Local Government questions about his level of advocacy on behalf of councils and, by association therefore, communities when it came to things like increases in the natural resources management levy and the solid waste levy, and I did not refer to this but the emergency services levy from two years ago, and last year, also. That is, the example of the natural resources management levy and the solid waste levy, and particularly the solid waste levy where the decision was announced by the government before the state budget was released. I think the Treasurer and minister announced it on 29 or 30 June.
It impacted upon councils in particular because it is an additional cost that they have to pay when, in some cases, councils had already determined their budgets. Therefore, they are being charged for something else without being aware of it as part of their own budget deliberations. While I want councils to be efficient, I want information flow to occur with councils too. It disgusted and disappointed me in so many different ways. There was no level of contact about it and suddenly there was an implication of $64 million over the forward estimates, and councils were told, 'This is what you are paying.'
Local government has come out and said, quite rightly, that no review has been undertaken. There has been no consideration of how the solid waste levy works, or what level should be provided for grants, initiatives and programs to actually reduce waste going into the waste stream. We just have additional costs, a significant amount of which goes to Treasury and disappears into the pit of funds to be used in a variety of areas.
I also asked the minister questions about local government boundary changes because he had flagged some time ago the intention to put in legislation on how to deal with that. The minister alluded to the fact that it was about to occur, and I appreciate that immediately after question time today the minister came to me and said it would be released today. There is an eight-week consultation period, then legislation will be tabled into the parliament probably around October, and then there will be subsequent debate on that.
I also asked questions of the minister about the community wastewater management schemes (CWMS) which are particularly important in outer suburban and regional areas. This is because there has been $4 million in funding available per year, but that funding, which I think is a nine-year agreement, expires 30 June next year. The minister had appointed a review group and he had signed a document with the president of the Local Government Association about that being undertaken.
I have not seen the report from the review group, which was meant to be completed by the end of July. The minister confirmed with me that he has that, and I hope the outcome actually gives councils the ability to ensure those funds continue. They do not pay for everything, but they certainly help in the investigative work that is undertaken for wastewater management schemes. They are important in many areas, and particularly in coastal areas, where the effluent discharge to the marine environment can potentially be quite harmful. I also asked the minister a question about the Street Renewal Program, but the minister did not know what I was talking about.
The Hon. L.A. Vlahos: That is a good one.
Mr GRIFFITHS: Other members are indicating that it is a good one, but it is $1.5 million to one council only, as I understand it. I have put in an FOI request on this, and I know one particular council which has received a benefit from it (the City of Tea Tree Gully), but I do not—
The Hon. L.A. Vlahos interjecting:
Mr GRIFFITHS: Well, it might be a slightly different program, but the one I am talking about is targeted to one area only, and that upsets me. The minister did not know about that one; no doubt he has a briefing now. I suppose it comes down to the level of frustration I felt about it, and it was symptomatic of the discussions about the solid waste levy and NRM levy, given the level of information the minister has—the briefings he is provided by his staff and the briefings he initiates to ensure that he is informed.
I will give you another example. There was some media scrutiny in InDaily in recent months about public street lighting. There were concerns about the Eastern Region Alliance and the collection of local governments that were intending to put out a contract. They had questions raised about that. The councils have gone through a prudential review twice and have decided to withdraw for the time being. I met with the acting CEO and chair of the Eastern Region Alliance and I really appreciate the information they provided. The minister had not been involved in a discussion with them, and I think that is an example of where councils are joining together on projects which will have a significant benefit, on the basis that it will one day come into fruition, but the minister needs to understand it too.
It shows, from my perspective, that portfolio responsibility does not just extend to the easy conversations. Portfolio responsibility has to extend to the difficult conversations where, in many cases, you are providing the community, service groups, organisations the department works with or departmental staff the real challenges of saying no, or 'That's not good enough; you have to improve,' or, 'Yes, that is fantastic.' It is a mixed bag and it cannot just be totally focused on the positive words that come from the minister.
My final message on this is to ensure that, from a local government perspective, the minister is involved in a fulsome way about the challenging subjects and not just the easy ones, and that the benefit as a whole is much better than it has been for the last two years.