Questions over South East council plebiscite after merger rejected

Leaders in the state’s South East have questioned the process behind the Malinauskas Government’s plebiscite on amalgamating the Mount Gambier and Grant councils, saying a lack of information influenced the community’s decision to oppose a potential merger.

Nov 14, 2022, updated Nov 17, 2022
The City of Mount Gambier.

The City of Mount Gambier.

A majority of voters in both the City of Mount Gambier and District Council of Grant voted ‘No’ on a plebiscite asking whether the state government should examine amalgamating their two councils.

Voters in Grant – a district council area surrounding Mount Gambier with a population of around 8500 people – were most strongly opposed to investigating an amalgamation, with 91 per cent of voters against and only 278 voters supporting.

Residents in Mount Gambier were more evenly split but still rejected the proposal soundly, with around 40 per cent of voters in support and nearly 60 per cent opposed.

Results for the Mount Gambier-Grant amalgamation plebiscite. Image: ECSA

A plebiscite result in favour of examining amalgamation would have triggered an investigation by the SA Local Government Boundaries Commission into the merits of a merger.

But acting Local Government Minister Clare Scriven said this was now off the table.

“Clearly there was some interest, but the point of this plebiscite was to gauge what that level of interest is,” Scriven told ABC Radio South East today.

“It was whether there was enough interest to go forward with investigating the pros and cons.

“Clearly from the outcome there’s not enough interest: that’s fine. What we wanted to know was what the local sentiment was – we now found that out.

“We wanted to do it at the lowest cost possible as well, which is why it was done with the Local Government elections.”

Premier Peter Malinauskas first canvassed the Mount Gambier-Grant council amalgamation plebiscite in early September and passed legislation in the same month enabling the Electoral Commission to hold the referendum.

Grant councillor Kylie Boston, who was elected mayor on Saturday, told InDaily that not enough information was available to voters about the impact of a potential merger.

I guess when people don’t know and it’s unknown, you tend to vote no.

“The feedback definitely for us in the Grant District Council was that the majority were going to vote no… it was what we expected,” she said.

Asked why people were against the amalgamation, Boston said: “Most of it was about the process.”

“We needed to have some facts and figures there before wanting a decision, and it was probably quite unclear the process of what was happening,” she said.

“Lots of people were asking questions like ‘well what will this mean for us?’, ‘what if that happens?’, and we can’t answer that because no investigation had actually happened, so we didn’t actually really know.

“I guess when people don’t know and it’s unknown, you tend to vote no.”

Asked if the result would have been different if the planning work was done beforehand, Boston said: “Most definitely.”

“Because lots of those questions that people were asking us, we would have answers for, so people could then make a decision about ‘is that better for me or not better for me’.

“Where it was as it stood, we didn’t have any of that.”

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Mount Gambier mayor Lynette Martin, who was re-elected unopposed, was also critical of the plebiscite process.

“I am not surprised by the result given the methodology of the Government in announcing their intention to hold a plebiscite into an investigation into amalgamation on the eve of caretaker [mode],” she said in a statement.

“The City of Mount Gambier does not have a formal position on the subject, and it was up to our community to have their say.

“Given the rigorous vote no campaign mounted by candidates in the District Council of Grant, I am not surprised at the result.”

Martin also suggested voters were misinformed about the true nature of the plebiscite.

“Unfortunately, many in the community believed the vote was binding when it was a simple question to investigate amalgamation,” she said.

Opposition leader David Speirs labelled the plebiscite an “Adelaide-based idea” and the result was “perhaps a lesson to governments in the future”.

“This process could have been done over an extended period of time, talked through with the community over a couple of years and perhaps there might have been a different outcome,” Speirs told ABC Radio South East today.

“I’m actually completely neutral in terms of whether an amalgamation or a process to look at different boundaries was a good thing or not.

“But this could have been a much steadier process undertaken at arm’s length from government for a period of time, working through this with the local community, engaging with them in a really genuine way rather than just dropping it on them from Adelaide.”

Malinauskas, when first raising the Mount Gambier-Grant plebiscite, suggested it could be a model for future council mergers.

“This is a model we’re putting forward and if it succeeds in this instance – and that’s a big if – then maybe we could look to do it elsewhere,” Malinauskas said on September 6.

But Scriven today said the state government currently has no plans for any further plebiscites in light of the South East result.

“I don’t think it prevents others approaching the Local Government Boundaries Commission to express interest and I guess there’s nothing stopping a model of asking local opinion because that’s an important part of democratic process,” Scriven said.

“But certainly at the moment we don’t have any plans to do that.”

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