Koalas, coal-seam gas (CSG), council finances, the Local Environment Plan (LEP) and political affiliations were among the stronger concerns at Lismore’s well-attended meet-the-candidates forum last night.
Among the more contentious election platforms were the abolition of the Koala Plan of Management (KPM), the privatisation of the Goonellabah Sports and Aquatic Centre, the potential sacking of art gallery staff, the issue of fluoridation and the involvement of political parties in council.
Hosted by the Lismore Community Action Network (CAN) at Lismore Workers Club, the event gave voters an opportunity to quiz candidates standing for the September 8 local-council elections.
Bill Goldie chaired the event and claimed that only two other councils have more nominating councillors than Lismore, whose 60 candidates include organic farmers, accountants, mechanics, real estate agents, media personalities, a high-school student and wives of sitting councillors.
National Party mayoral candidate Neil Marks said he had nothing to do with head office when it came to council matters.
Another conservative councillor, Graham Meineke, said as mayor he would repeal the city’s Koala Plan of Management and derided the current council’s focus on ‘airy-fairy stuff’.
Councillor Gianpiero Battista told the crowd he had resigned from the Liberal Party over the issue of CSG.
Current mayor Jenny Dowell admitted the issue of water fluoridation was divisive, even within her own group, but said on balance she supported it.
Ratepayers Association mayoral candidate Greg Bennett said council needed to rein in expenditure and proposed privatising the Goonellabah Sports and Aquatic Centre and moving the art gallery to a ‘volunteer model’.
Mayoral candidates’ responses
The first of the five mayoral candidates, current councillor and well-known radio presenter Neil Marks, warmed up the microphone for the night. Cr Marks acknowledged that we are in tough times, especially the business community.
‘Generally we have a lack of confidence… council has something to do in picking up that business confidence.’
Cr Marks was questioned about his National Party affiliation. He responded, ‘I have nothing to do with head office when it comes to anything the council has to do’.
Creating the opportunity for youth to access employment is important for Cr Marks and his team.
Increasing population in the area is also welcomed.
‘We already have the infrastructure for this. For 70,000 people we don’t need to build another sports centre, another swimming pool etc.’
On CSG, Cr Marks declared that his media role has shown him strong views from either side.
‘The truth is in the middle somewhere and being conservative it has to be “no” until we know the truth. I don’t know where that will come from. I am a member of the National Party and in a meeting with the director and other members we brought forward directly the disgust from our area.’
Current two-term councillor Graham Meineke was the next mayoral aspirant to address the group. Cr Meineke stressed that he has no party affiliations and has no future intentions of changing that. With 17 years in his role as a town-planning consultant Cr Meineke says he understands frustrations from ‘both sides of the fence’.
Cr Meineke mentioned that council ‘has been on the state government’s “watch list” in the recent past because of poor financial performance and reporting’.
‘On my watch, council will not go again on this watch list. We will reduce delays for development and show red carpet to developers and not red tape.’
Cr Meineke said he believed ‘council should be run like a business. Councillors are like the board of directors. That doesn’t mean we cut out all the airy-fairy stuff, it means when we do things it will be in a businesslike manner. Things should be done once and once only. We shouldn’t have to build roads then go back and repair them a few months later.’
An audience member asked Cr Meineke if he could interpret what he meant by ‘airy-fairy stuff’?
He responded, ‘Community services and things like that. If it is run like a business, we won’t be getting rid of them, I can assure you.’
Cr Meineke was further questioned on how he would balance what is good for business and what is a council’s social responsibility?
‘Our social responsibility is to ensure job security as far as I am concerned.’
When pressed on the issue of CSG he informed the audience, ‘while there are uncertainties with CSG, I don’t support it’.
He was then pressed on the Koala Plan of Management (KPM).
‘I will repeal the KPM covered by the State Environmental Planning Policy 44.’
Gianpiero Battista from ‘For the Love of Lismore’ group, who currently sits as a councillor in Lismore, began his mayoral candidacy address by focusing on the community, rather than himself. He feels that more respect needs to be shown to the community when drafting policies. Even though he does not particularly disagree with the KPM and LEP, ‘the respect for the community wasn’t there when the decision was being made’.
Cr Battista is also concerned about projects being held up and not delivered.
‘As an example, the lift for the Historical Society has been waiting for ten years. I want a council that when they promise something to you, they will deliver.’
Cr Battista was also pressed on the issue of local markets and encouraging small business yet trying to disband council’s Lismore Business Promotion Panel (LBPP).
He responded: ‘Three years ago I tried to get council to agree to a place where local farmers could pull up with their trucks on the side of the road and sell produce. Still nothing has happened in regard to that.
‘With the markets I was one of the original ones supporting them but nobody tackled the issue of food selling and coffee selling in a market that was originally a farmers market.
‘I want to disband the LBPP because I believe the Lismore Chamber of Commerce is the rightful organisation to look after businesses.’
On CSG, Cr Battista stated, ‘only if aquifers can be protected, I don’t see why we can’t use this natural resource’.
However, Cr Battista gave up his party affiliation over this issue.
‘I resigned my membership with the Liberal Party in January exactly because of this issue. I am still conservative and align more with the National party as they have a stronger stance on this than the Liberals.’
Current Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell spoke next, stating that she has pushed for transparency in decision making in her term. Cr Dowell expressed her pleasure in the many variations of the role, as well as its challenges.
‘As a mayor I represent my council’s decisions whether I agree with them or not.’
Cr Dowell made it clear that she works very closely with the general manager (GM).
‘We meet weekly to share information to and from the GM. We work together to give guidance about how things are going within council.’
A member of the audience expressed his vehement opposition to political alignment on the council and asked Cr Dowell if she could convince him that this connection is not destructive.
‘I am honest about my affiliation,’ Jenny responded. For eight and a half years I have run under the Country Labor banner. I have declared it everywhere.’
The audience member asked for further clarification by asking why does the candidate benefit at all from the affiliation.
‘Nowhere in my years on council has the Labor Party ever directed, guided or influenced my decision. There are three Labor Party members on council who all vote differently so we don’t have binding caucuses. I’m proud of what Labor stands for so it is your choice.’
Echonetdaily asked Cr Dowell if she could declare her stance on the addition of fluoride into our drinking water.
She responded: ‘The decision of fluoride came up in council around 2006 on a previous council. It has come up three times and has been voted in favour.
‘I am in support of fluoride. I come from Melbourne where there has been fluoride in the water for 50 years. My background is in child health and education, particularly speech and language development.
‘Amongst our team, we are divided. There are three people in support of fluoride and three people who are against. That is the division and that is what I mean about non-binding votes. We all have different views.
‘What I did in the previous term was propose a poll, which was defeated. If a poll came back around again I would support it. I believe it has passed on many years ago to Rous Water who made the vote and the Health Department gazetted that fluoride will be added.
‘To my mind, unless there is a major turnaround at state level then it has passed council. Three councils out of four voted to add fluoride.’
Greg Bennett, president of the Ratepayers Association Inc, spoke as the final mayoral candidate. He became closely involved with local council as a result of the lack of consultation he received from the local council over the LEP.
‘Council had not intentionally informed anyone of these changes as they did not wish to unduly raise concern in the community. This is not how a council should behave,’ Mr Bennett claimed.
Mr Bennett was asked from the audience if he could give his definition of business, bearing in mind that a lot of this area is made up of farms.
Mr Bennett responded: ‘I believe farmers are business people. I am a farmer and I am a business person.’
An audience member raised the concern that not all residents are ratepayers and asked if Mr Bennett would represent that part of the LGA.
‘As president of the Ratepayers Association I represent ratepayers. If I were elected mayor then it would be everybody.’
Mr Bennett shares the same concerns as the state government over council’s financial situation. He claims that his team has some credible financial solutions.
‘We have a reverse-auctioning purchasing system that can save around six million dollars in council’s yearly operating expenses.
‘Loss-making businesses will be reviewed. The aquatic centre currently loses around eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year. We will partially privatise it. The art gallery loses five-hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year; it will be moved to a manager-volunteer model. Our goal is to halve the losses of these businesses.’
On CSG, Mr Bennett has been to a number of meetings from both sides.
‘So far,’ he said, ‘Metgasco cannot provide an answer which would satisfy me that they can protect aquifers.’
Council candidates’ responses
Kate Olivieri leads the Girls in Government (GIG), a new election group for Lismore, that wishes to create a greater gender and age balance in local government. Footpaths and other access initiatives through Lismore and its villages received a mention by Angela Matthews from GIG. She speaks from experience as she has two children of her own with disabilities.
Ms Olivieri stated that all of her team oppose CSG mining in the northern rivers.
Vanessa Ekins is a current Greens councillor and brought up footpaths and cycleways immediately.
‘Our council is planning to build a new road that runs parallel to the Bruxner Highway in order to alleviate congestion from commuters coming from the coast to Lismore every day. But each year council is approached by families in this area who cannot safely walk their children to school.’
Cr Ekins suggested that council could offer rate reductions to ratepayers who use solar power and hot water as well as rebates for the installation of rainwater tanks for toilet use.
‘This would increase our sustainability and reduce our load and demand on infrastructure.’
‘Rous Water is currently planning a two hundred million dollar dam at Dunoon. If every house had a ten thousand litre rainwater tank plumbed into their toilet (as this is the largest consumer of water in the house) we won’t need a dam.’
Habitat was mentioned as another area of concern for Cr Ekins.
‘We would like to see habitat corridors throughout our urban and rural areas.’
Sue Stock, also from the Greens, said CSG was ‘socially and environmentally irresponsible. When you look at the results from Queensland, I am appalled and don’t want to see that here.’
David Yarnall is another sitting councillor who is re-running. Cr Yarnall prided himself and the current council on their focus on community consultation over this term.
‘Bureaucracy is like a big ship that takes a long time to turn around and I believe we are doing that.’
Cr Yarnall cited the following challenges to Lismore: maintaining itself as a regional centre, asset maintenance and sustainable development.
On CSG he added, ‘I originally supported a moratorium, but now firmly believe that we do not need CSG mining in our area. This poll at the upcoming election will show that.’
Current councillor Simon Clough spoke on behalf of his group, Our Sustainable Future (OSF). Cr Clough said he initiated the installation of energy-efficient street lights, which saved $200,000 a year and saved 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere.
‘These are some of the changes that I want to see in Lismore. We can encourage a move away from CSG and towards renewable energy. It is not enough to just say no to CSG, we need to encourage employment in renewable energy in this community.’
Cr Clough was also instrumental in the KPM and biodiversity plan and believes that we cannot assume that koalas and our land will look after itself.
‘It won’t, and we need to protect it. Koalas are on the brink of extinction. We also need to take into account the landholders’ rights.’
Cr Clough also stressed that council ‘needs to look at sustainability financially. To say that council can be run like a business is just not the case. We need to provide services for the whole community. They will never make a profit. It is about striking a balance.’
An audience member claimed that on record Cr Clough has said that landholders ‘don’t have rights to their land and that the community does’.
Cr Clough responded that he ‘is not aware of saying that. Landholders do have rights but we have commitments to the community as a whole, so we must respect that.’
Mathew Scheibel is the leader for The New Generation Leaders, which is made up of six young business people. Business is a major focus for the team with an added focus on land releases to support development. Mr Scheibel said the LEP had impacted on farmers and their land values. Part of his group’s intention is to ‘reduce red and green tape’.
‘We don’t want things getting too tied up in council; we want to ensure smooth general transition for people looking for approvals and people trying to run a business.’
Mr Scheibel was asked for his position on the KPM.
‘I don’t think there needs to be a plan of management for it. I think that goes too far and money could be better spent than enforcing more restrictions on landowners.’
On CSG, Mr Scheibel said he was not yet convinced that it is safe with current scientific information available.
A former LCC councillor made the final presentation. Peter Larsen served on council from 1991 to 1999. He has been in Lismore for 52 years at the same address and has returned to the election field to ‘keep them honest’.
‘Fixing council’s debt’ would be his first priority.
He expressed concern about the electoral groups campaigning for council.
‘Groups are not the answer. They are an injustice [against] this council and the people that vote. A group of seven will make promises but may only get one vote in the end.’
In relation to the KPM, Mr Larsen believes land has devalued.
‘I love animals, but this will kill a farmer’s desire to protect the animals and you will do worse by them every day.’