Local Government (Public Health Emergency) Amendment Bill

Mr PEDERICK (Hammond) (11:24): I rise to support the Local Government (Public Health Emergency) Amendment Bill 2020. I acknowledge the way that parliament has started off today and thank the opposition and the crossbench for how we are moving forward in these interesting times. This bill proposes to amend the Local Government Act 1999 to ensure council meeting continuity during public health emergencies—and these are different times, Mr Speaker. To address concerns arising out of the COVID-19 issue, it is proposed to amend the act to insert a provision for the minister to have a power to make a notice for a specified period to vary or suspend provisions of the Local Government Act 1999 as specified in the notice.

It is proposed that the minister may only exercise this power in circumstances in which a public health emergency has been declared. The intent of this amendment is to enable councils to continue to operate effectively and make critical decisions during periods of public health emergencies. I think this is absolutely critical for our sector, that the government is at the ground floor in this state so that they can keep functioning and doing the right things for our communities.

It is proposed in the first instance that a notice will allow council members to participate in council meetings through electronic means, as this is currently not possible under the act. This will better position councils to meet quorum requirements in circumstances where measures to protect public health may otherwise prevent this.

A notice may also provide the minister with the ability to allow councils to transact business at a council meeting if a quorum is not present. As the intent of the proposed allowance of electronic attendance is to ensure that councils can continue to maintain quorum, it is expected that a notice to this effect would only be utilised as a last resort, where councils are unable to make quorum due to illness or other good reason and must make critical decisions that they have been unable to delegate.

The act requires councils to have at least monthly ordinary council meetings and also enables councils to have special council meetings and establish council committee subsidiaries and regional subsidiaries that also meet regularly. The act also allows for members of council committees, subsidiaries and regional subsidiaries to meet via electronic means such as telephone or videoconferencing. However, and this is the nub, this is not the case for council meetings, whether they be ordinary or special. Council members are required to attend council meetings in person to participate in decisions and to make quorum, which is half of the total number of council members plus one. Any public health measure that prevents the attendance in person by council members at meetings could affect councils' ability to meet this requirement.

To date, it has not been viewed as desirable to allow council members to participate in council meetings via electronic means, to ensure both the integrity of council decisions (through, for example, proper management of conflict of interest declarations) and the proper transparency and accountability of council actions. That is something at every level of government we must hold dear; I absolutely get that we have to have transparency and accountability. However, given that the public health measures that are now in place and that may increase in future pose a significant risk that councils will be unable to make critical decisions through lack of quorum, it is recommended that action be taken to allow council members to participate in council meetings via electronic means for a period of time.

It is proposed that a notice published under the proposed amendment will allow council members to participate in council meetings through electronic means for a specified period of time. This will mean that councils can meet quorum requirements without personal attendance at meetings. The bill also provides the minister with the ability to make a notice to enable councils to make decisions when the requirements for quorum are not met. It is expected that a notice to this effect would only be made in exceptional circumstances—and I stress, in exceptional circumstances—where councils cannot form a quorum due to illness and must make decisions that they are unable to delegate.

Section 90(1) of the act also requires councils to conduct council meetings in a place open to the public. Some councils have raised concerns that requirements regarding social distancing or prevention of public gatherings may cause them to be noncompliant with this requirement. This may also be true of other legislative requirements regarding public engagement such as the requirement to hold a public meeting to consult on councils' draft annual business plans, for example, and to make council offices open to the public.

However, councils would be expected to manage these matters utilising the powers they have under section 37 of the South Australian Public Health Act 2011 to have adequate measures in place within its area to ensure that activities do not adversely affect public health. It is expected that this would be a consistent approach to that taken by the state government where similar requirements apply to the operation of specific agencies or entities.

It is, therefore, not expected that it would be necessary to make a notice to suspend these legislative requirements. However, the proposed amendment does include the ability for the minister to make a notice related to any provisions under the act. These matters or any others that may arise through a rapidly evolving public health emergency can therefore be addressed if necessary. The utilisation of a notice to be published in the Gazette as the instrument to vary or suspend provisions of the act as needed will also enable swift action to be taken as necessary.

It should also be noted that the duration of any notice published under the amended act can only be made if a public health emergency has been declared under section 37 of the South Australian Public Health Act 2011 and cannot remain in force for a period that exceeds 28 days following the revocation of the relevant declaration. These limits provide assurance that any variations or suspension of legislative requirements on councils will only be made due to a public health emergency and will only be in force for the emergency period with a short additional time to readjust to normal practices if so required. I acknowledge that the Local Government Association has been consulted in regard to this legislation.

These are interesting times. It is a time when we must be strident in how we approach our health at any level. I applaud what Premier Marshall is doing, as well as the whole government, in tackling COVID-19. It is an unfolding scenario. This legislation will help keep local government operating. Part of what I say in my office and outside my office is that no matter what we are dealing with, we need to keep calm and carry on. No matter what is going on, as I saw in a letter to the editor in The Advertiser the other day, no matter what is happening with this issue or any other issue, we still need to live and we still need to function, and that is absolutely so.

We must take all advice as it comes in, as the parliament has with social distancing and having fewer members in the chamber with 20 fewer for however long we sit this week. I would like to again commend the Premier. I commend the state's Chief Public Health Officer, Dr Nicola Spurrier. She is doing a sterling job in trying conditions. Everyone involved in our health positions, whether they are in our education positions, people who have to work in the public sphere at any level are doing a sterling job in difficult times. We will get through this; it will take some time. It is legislation like this that helps the local government sector to keep functioning, as we all need to function, now and into the future, because we will have a bright new dawn not too far down the track. I commend the bill.