Ward boundaries

It’s not often that a local issue galvanises the Adelaide Hills Council community, so it’s refreshing to see the sparks fly at a council meeting that doesn’t involve dogs.

This time the issue is the wards structure and whether to abolish them altogether.

Based on the outcome of last week’s meeting it seems wards are staying – largely on the back of a huge public backlash against abolishing the current system.

Nearly 800 people signed petitions and more than 70 people wrote submissions supporting some kind of ward structure.

There were seven submissions in favor of no wards but the response was overwhelming and it would have been a brave council to defy such feedback.

As it was there were only two councillors out of a pool of seven known supporters of no wards who were persuaded to change their minds. That says something about the depth of conviction of the no ward supporters.

Their reasoning had some merit and during the council meeting debate they were brave enough to explain to a hostile crowd why they were voting “yes”.

They wanted to lift voter participation at council elections from 34% to something approaching 50%, and the evidence they had was that abolishing wards could do that.

Abolishing wards gave voters more choice and gave candidates more scope to attract voters. The fear is this could bring in the influence of political Parties and the council could go the way of local government in the eastern States.

Maybe it would, but the ward system hardly prevents political Party members from entering local politics now.

The idea of opening up the council, according to some councillors, was that other interest groups and individuals passionate about issues such as youth or the environment might have sufficient support across the district to reach a quota of votes, and thus create more interest in council elections.

However, according to some residents who spoke up in favor of wards, special interest “pressure groups” are the last thing the Hills council needs.

They fear that the heavily populated areas around Stirling will dominate the council with their issues. Given the size of the council and its distinct geographic areas, that is a real concern.

One resident argued that the “Senate-style” voting system of no wards would make these smaller areas “everybody’s responsibility and no-one’s”.  And that’s a valid argument.

Several weeks before this issue came to a head Cr Ian Bailey told his colleagues the community wasn’t ready for such a radical change and he proposed a compromise of three wards.

Perhaps that was an opportunity lost.