It has been two decades since the Naracoorte District Council and Lucindale District Council merged together to create the unified council that we know today.
But history shows that it wasn’t without its controversies. In this three part series we will be tracing how the merger came to be; how it impacted communities (in particular Lucindale’s); and how stakeholders in the event still feel about it in the present.
In the first part of this series we will be going back to the beginning of 1998, when imposed structural reforms from the State Government meant that councils were being amalgamated across the state.
The Will of the Majority
Let’s start at the beginning. In January 1998 the Premier of South Australia was John Olsen, and the Liberal Party was in power. In MacKillop, Mitch Williams had declared himself an Independent to ward off rival Dale Baker, winning back the seat off of preference deals.
The decision to merge councils wasn’t one made quickly, or lightly. Small councils had been swallowed by larger ones since 1890, and a Royal Commission into local governments in the 1970s even recommended having only 72 councils in SA.
In the early 1990s there were calls for more boundary changes in local government, for reasons related to functionality and financial reform. The Local Government Reform Board was established in 1995, and began consulting with local councils about amalgamation procedures.
In preparation for a possible merger, in late 1997 the Lucindale District Council had asked their community whether they would like to voluntary merge with the newly expanded Naracoorte District Council.
(There used to be two Naracoorte councils – the Naracoorte Corporate Township and the District Council of Naracoorte. They had been merged the year before).
Almost 66% of citizens within the Lucindale council had answered ‘stand alone’ on their surveys.
But the SA Local Government Boundary Reform Board proposed – again – that Naracoorte and Lucindale should merge. In response, 285 submissions from Lucindale were sent to the board, expressing concern.
In contrast, less than 10 submissions had been received from Naracoorte residents.
In response, board chairman Annette Eiffe stated that the board would consider two studies. One study would focus on the socio-cultural impact of a merger, and the other on an economic impact of a merger.
During this time of upheaval there was also a Lucindale-based activism group, The Stand Alone group.
It was chaired by Geoff Robinson, who told the Herald that when the SA Local Government Boundary Reform Board decided to not pursue an amalgamation of Victor Harbor and Yankalillas’ councils, it gave them hope.
“It does look encouraging… (the board) will listen to the majority of the people.”
The board would still have to hold public consultations with citizens though, something which could go either way considering the Limestone Coast was a powder keg. As well as the Naracoorte-Lucindale merger row, Robe and Lacepede councils were also resisting amalgamation.
Things were so volatile that even Mitch Williams weighed in:
“It (the board) should step back, allow things to cool down.”
At What Rate?
One of the key issues about whether Lucindale should merge with a council, and if so, which council – came down to money.
In the February meeting the Lucindale District Council suggested an investment prospectus on the district be prepared – earlier they had put in a proposal to the SE Economic Development Board, which had $4000 up for grabs.
But the Lucindale council also had to match it.
The problem was that the population was declining, and rates were rising. This had caused some unrest in particular among the Hundreds of Fox, who were considering seceding from the Lucindale council and joining Wattle Range Council.
Many Fox residents shopped in Millicent and the Wattle Range Council rates were 20-30 per cent lower, after all.
Lucindale District Council at that point in time had the second highest property rates in the state (coming second only to the City of Adelaide). They definitely had the highest rates per capita.
This had also caused some talks of revolt from the Hundreds of Coles and Spence, and Woolumbool. Their geographical proximity meant that they were at risk of being snapped up by coastal councils, leaving Lucindale with even more population woes.
To break it down in numbers, the average council rates in 1998 were $375. In Lucindale, they paid $843. In 1995, the Lucindale council district recorded a population of 1395.
By 1998 it had dropped to 1175.
This prompted representatives from the Lucindale council to hold informal talks with Wattle Range. The investment prospectus wasn’t a guarantee, and rates were soon going to be rising – again – thanks to additional fees for kerbside collection.
The argument to merge with Naracoorte came up again at the March meeting. The argument for Naracoorte pointed to escalating land values around the district, particular for viticultural purposes.
The argument against was that Lucindale, for all of its high rates, was simply a more efficient council. Operating expenditure was only 63 per cent of Lucindale’s total income, compared to Naracoorte’s 78 per cent.
So, Wattle Range was considered a good alternative choice. The problem was, Wattle Range weren’t that keen on Lucindale.
Wariness from Wattle Range
Wattle Range were hesitant to engage in merger talks with Lucindale primarily due to ‘infighting’ between the councillors.
And when only a four person delegation from Lucindale was offered for a public meeting, hesitation began to harden into suspicion.
“We should invite all their councillors to come and discuss it or not at all,” Cr Sue Wheal of Wattle Range stated.
“I don’t think it’s our place to get involved.”
What didn’t help matters was that the Lucindale delegation was comprised only of members of the structural reform committee (Chairman Chris Johnson, Cr Jim James, Cr Bevan Philips and CEO Warren Reimann).
A delegation with a clear agenda raised such alarm bells with Cr Wheal that she would later state:
“Are we going to waste our time while they are infighting? Our place is to look after the Wattle Range ratepayers.”
Cr Wheal’s reluctance to engage with Lucindale may not have been baseless. Council meetings had become fraught, with Cr Kevin Smith calling for an apology after the authenticity of submissions to the reform board was questioned.
Cr Bevan Phillips also accused the Stand Alone group of ‘belittling’ others who disagreed with their views, and said that they had “nothing to whinge about”.
Before the year was through, the fighting that fractured the council would go on to divide not only one, but two towns.
In the next part of this series, we will be looking deeper into the split of the Lucindale council, even before there was the final vote to merge with Naracoorte.