The St Clair Swindle, or How Things Get Done.
Given the NSW Shennagans being uncovered by their ICAC last week, you have to wonder how many similar situations across the country exist. In South Australia we don't have an ICAC yet, and when we do we probably won't be allowed to hear what happens.
Over recent years I've been a proud supporter of a group of locals trying to save their community-bequeathed park from being bulldozed for housing in a dodgy land-swap. In that time I've seen the leader of the protesters become elected as the Council's Mayor!
Along with The City of Charles Sturt's Mayor, Councillors and members of the Ratepayers Association Committee, I was in the Stranger's Gallery of SA's Legislative Council on Wednesday to hear that Houes's (Lib) Opposition Leader David Ridgway enshrine into HANSARD his condemnation of this tale of local nepotism that bears the smell of political manipulation for developer profit:
There have been some notorious land deals in history. There was the Dutch purchase of Manhattan. In 1626 the Dutch gave the native Indians 60 guilders' worth of trade goods and $1,000 in today's currency for the whole of Manhattan Island. Later the Dutch swapped all their holdings in North America for an almost worthless lump of mangroves and some unexplored jungle in South America. The English notoriously got Manhattan from the Dutch and the Dutch helplessly got Suriname from the English.
The United States paid Russia $7 million for the whole of Alaska, not much more than a dollar a hectare. Thirty years later there was a gold rush there. In the Louisiana purchase, the United States slung France just $15 million for two million square kilometres of land stretching from the Caribbean to Canada—more than double the size of South Australia.
Here in South Australia there is the notorious St Clair land swap, under which the Labor dominated City of Charles Sturt council, in cahoots with its Labor mates in parliament, swapped a large, beautiful, popular park for a polluted scrap of industrial wasteland at Woodville in Adelaide's western suburbs. How could this have happened, you might ask. Through greed, duplicity, manipulation, dishonesty, bullying, intimidation and coercion.
Whose, you might ask? I lay the fault fully at the feet of the ALP, which should have intervened as a parliamentary party, as an organisational party and as a local government party to stop this sordid, stupid land swap which disadvantages the residents of Woodville and Cheltenham, and the people, present and future, of the western suburbs. But the ALP did not stop that land swap. It instigated it. It promoted it. It forced it on an unwilling community. Labor did not listen and sadly it still does not listen to ordinary South Australians, ordinary families living nearby, and the people who use the park every week or every day.
The park will have a road built straight through it. Another part of the park will be handed to developers, who will put up a string of flats on what were once playing fields. Like the American Indians with their 40 guilders of trade goods, or the Russians or French, the locals will get something back for having their park stolen. They have another piece of land under this swap, the site of a now demolished factory. Poisonous chemicals, leached into the ground for a century, will now be the responsibility not of the polluters, but of the ratepayers of the City of Charles Sturt.
The net usable land, taking into account the green space that has already been figured into the equation, is far smaller than the present park, despite what the council and the Labor government would have you believe. Sure, the council and the government will tell you that both parcels of land measure 4.7 hectares. That is true; they do. Except the new land includes 2,750 square metres of roads. It is also true that the roads will not be built on, but they can hardly be classified as 'open space'.
If the councillors who voted for this land swap think roads are open space, I ask them to enjoy the open space on Woodville Road. Have a picnic on the bitumen. And what is the comparative value of the two parcels of land? Roughly equal, you might be told. Again that is roughly true, but only if you value one parcel of land as open space and the other parcel as residential. One is a lamb, the other is dressed mutton.
So why swap you might ask? It was first proposed in 2003. Then, despite Kevin Foley's promise that 'They will sell Cheltenham racecourse over my dead body', Cheltenham was sold and Kevin Foley's body now lies mouldering in a political abyss—not because he opposed the sale but partly because he supported it. The no-sale position was supported publicly, at least, by Jay Weatherill and Mike Rann, and privately, they conspired for it to be sold.
So with Cheltenham racecourse sold for housing, developers renewed their push to get their hands on the St Clair park. At this time their champion was the member for Croydon, the Liberace of western Adelaide who boasted he wears handmade shirts, each worth more than some of his constituents can afford for their weekly groceries. He was the land swap's most ferocious adherent, the manipulator controlling the marionettes, the Buffalo Bob Smith to Howdy Doody, the Norman Hetherington to Mr Squiggle. Behind the scenes, Michael Atkinson, who should have been representing the interests of his electors, represented the interests of the land-grabbers.
Eventually, the issue went to the courts and the Ombudsman. The court action found that the relevant minister at the time, the Leader of the Government here today (Hon. Gail Gago) had not complied with the act. In her capacity as minister for local government, she had not considered the merits—that is, the arguments for and against the land swap—before she gave her concurrence. So she then handed the case to another minister, in this case, John Hill, who ticked it off. Now, I do not suggest Michael Atkinson had any more to do with that.
The ACTING PRESIDENT (Hon. J.S.L. Dawkins): I remind the honourable member that the member's title is the Hon. Michael Atkinson.
The Hon. D.W. RIDGWAY: I do beg your pardon. Thank you for your guidance, Mr Acting President. Now I do not suggest that the Hon. Michael Atkinson had any more to do with it than I suggest viruses cause disease. Of course they do not. They just invade the body politic and benignly mind their own business.
So the case hit the Ombudsman. He discovered that several Charles Sturt councillors had potential conflicts of interest at the time the land swap was approved. Those conflicts arose because these councillors were members of the Labor Party. Twelve out of the 17 councillors were in the ALP, but not everybody knew that until after the investigation. And not just ordinary members, these chaps. Two of them held positions as delegates at a state level. Two were employed in the Enfield electorate office of the local Labor MP. Another one, a third councillor, also worked in ALP electorate offices—and here is the real doozy—within the Attorney-General's Department. He was seconded as a ministerial liaison officer for the Minister for Veterans' Affairs.
Of course, the minister, that attorney-general, was the member for Croydon, the Hon. Michael Atkinson. He takes an extraordinary interest in the Charles Sturt council, which is just as well. Mr Atkinson told the Ombudsman during the investigation that between half and two-thirds of the complaints that came before him as a local MP had to do with the council—which was Labor dominated. Imagine a constituent going to see Mr Atkinson with a complaint against a member of the ALP. It is a bit like going to a fly to complain about the carrion.
Mr Atkinson gave advice about who should nominate as councillor and on which council committees they should serve. He organised street meetings and campaign meetings with his Labor mates on council. He advertised these in the press. He hosted a barbecue for them right here at Parliament House, where they talked about how to vote for Labor-agreed outcomes in council decisions. He gave assistance to his Labor cronies as they wrote letters to ratepayers arguing for the land swap.
As the Ombudsman's inquiry uncovered, Mr Atkinson said to the councillors, 'If you bring some paper and some envelopes around to my office and we can settle a draft, we will send out to your constituents the reason you took the decision and the benefit it will have for me and Mr Weatherill as members facing election in three months.' It did not do him much good, of course. The Labor vote collapsed in the western suburbs at the next election and many ALP councillors lost their positions at the local government elections. They were replaced by candidates who were much more in touch with their community; grassroots campaigners who knew what the ratepayers want in Charles Sturt, which is just as well. The Ombudsman came to a view about what was happening under Labor. The Ombudsman mused that:
Where councillors allow influence to be exercised over them, they place themselves at risk of not being able to exercise their functions in accordance with their statutory obligations.
Not for Mr Atkinson the gentle art of persuasion. When he felt slighted by a posting on a Facebook page dedicated to saving St Clair, he threatened the page's volunteer administrators (a man and his wife) with defamation action. A powerful attorney-general threatening legal action against a helpless, elderly married couple for helping to save their park from bulldozers. A man who under the privilege of parliament has defamed and denigrated his innocent victims. 'I'm as badly behaved as the rest of them', he said recently in a radio interview, speaking about his behaviour in parliament. 'I'm the first among sinners and it takes a thief to catch a thief.' No, Mick. It takes someone with the powers of a royal commissioner. But there is no honour among thieves and the western suburbs are disgracefully short of open space.
At the moment, according to evidence presented by the Local Government Association to the City of Charles Sturt, the western suburbs are between 10 and 20 ovals short of the required open space for the number of people who live there. But they are not the only people who will live there. The current government's 30-year plan wants an extra 80,000 people in the western suburbs, 40,000 of them in the City of Charles Sturt. There are about 104,000 people living in the City of Charles Sturt at the moment, so we are talking about a 40 per cent increase, almost half as many again, but without any more open space.
All those extra people, no extra playing fields, parks or places to rest. No green lungs for this part of town. Not that the member for Croydon could care. He said in a recent TV interview, when talking about an issue surrounding the land swap, that he does not live in that part of the electorate. In fact, he does not live in the electorate at all. The member for Croydon does not live in the electorate of Croydon, he does not live in the western suburbs. There is not enough open space there for him. He has fled to somewhere greener, more leafy. Somewhere with parks and gardens. Anywhere except Croydon.
I hope the Legislative Council will join me in condemning the Weatherill Labor government for its continual arrogance in pursuing the St Clair deal. The last development plan amendment, which will rezone the St Clair park for housing, is actually called the Woodville station development plan amendment. Woodville: you cannot see the wood for the villains. This rezoning has nothing to do with the Woodville Railway Station. It is about St Clair. It is about Labor at two levels of government not listening to the community. It is about a land grab. It is about the corruption that power brings. It is about an MP who thinks more about his rank than his constituents.
Land swaps. I question land swaps again. For a quarter of a million hectares of land where Melbourne is now, a bloke called John Batman paid local Aborigines 40 blankets, 42 tomahawks, 130 knives, 62 scissors, 40 mirrors, 250 handkerchiefs, 18 shirts, four flannel jackets, four suits and 70 kilos of flour. It was a steal. The document became known as Batman's Treaty. The treaty was declared void in 1835 by the governor of New South Wales on the basis that the Wurundjeri people did not have a right to deal with the land, which it was claimed belonged to the Crown.
The St Clair reserve is owned by the Crown, by the people. It does not belong to the council, it does not belong to the member for Croydon, or to business interests. It is the property of the taxpayers of South Australia, all one and a half million of us. I urge all members of the Legislative Council, including—in fact, particularly—Labor members opposite, to vote and support this motion.