former editor of The Tweed Shire Echo, senior Echo journalist
For well over a decade, there hasn’t been a more fiercely contested council election on the NSW north coast than the one for the mighty Tweed, and the 2012 poll is no exception.
Where else in the state have almost all major political parties officially endorsed teams to contest a council poll, as with this one? Traditionally, local government was a no-go zone for party machine politics.
So it seems the battle pitching environmental and community/resident groups against conservatives and the pro-development lobby for control of the direction of the shire’s future has heated up again.
The stakes, as usual, are extremely high: in the fastest growth corridor of the Australia’s eastern seaboard, this coastal local government area is feeling the pressure from the sprawl of southeast Queensland right at its border, and much of the push to develop the Tweed comes from the north, with the major players being Queensland based.
So the makeup and control of the seven-member council after the 2012 poll has a lot riding on it. On one side, there are those who don’t want the Tweed to become another Gold Coast urban jungle and want appropriate and sustainable development, and on the other, those who feel more development brings more jobs and wealth.
For new voters to the area, it’s crucial to consider a little history of this battle for the future of the Tweed, lest it repeat itself.
The 2004 election was one of the most vicious on record, and saw a bid by developers and their conservative political supporters to win control of council and stop what they claimed was a looming green landslide.
This was backed by a slush fund of hundreds of thousands of dollars donated by major developers used to fund the campaigns of conservative candidates in various groups, which swapped preferences and gained the upper hand from the community independents and green candidates by a handful of votes.
The fund, controlled by a developer-inspired group calling itself ‘Tweed Directions’, was used to bankroll an extensive advertising campaign in local media.
Some of the campaign was vitriolic, with tags such as ‘extremists’ used against not just the Greens, but the elder statesman of the shire, Australia’s longest-serving councillor and former mayor, Max Boyd.
Boyd, a popular figure, was regarded by some older National Party/conservatives as a traitor to their cause after carving out an independent stand against over-development.
But he was to have the last laugh, as the state Labor government appointed an inquiry to look into the controversial funding of candidates, resulting in council being sacked in 2005. Boyd was then appointed one of three administrators.
Inquiry head, Professor Maurice Daly, found that the bloc members controlling the 2004 council were ‘puppets of developers’ and had represented themselves to be independents when they were pro-development candidates funded largely by developers.
Professor Daly said the strategy of posing as independents ‘essentially represented a fraud deliberately foisted on the community’.
Boyd’s political adversary on that council, the National Party’s Warren Polglase, is a current councillor and was mayor when the council was sacked.
Like Boyd, he too had a comeback, thumbing his nose at the state government that sacked him by running again in 2008, and winning solidly. He even served one 12-month term as mayor in 2009–10.
Interestingly, the Tweed is one of the few north coast shires that doesn’t have a popularly elected mayor, whereas nearby Byron, Lismore and Ballina shires do.
Is it no surprise then, that Tweed Council has had four different mayors for each year of the past four-year term of council? Here councillors elect the mayor, so there’s bound to be plenty of horse-trading and backroom deals between them, resulting in a faster turnover.
First up as mayor was the Liberal Party’s Cr Joan van Lieshout, who dropped a bombshell this week by announcing she won’t recontest the poll. She was followed in the mayoralty chair by Cr Polglase, then in 2010–11 by his pro-development ally Kevin Skinner and during the past year, Cr Barry Longland, who was elected in 2008 on a community-ratepayer ticket.
Ironically, the Greens’ Cr Katie Milne, who topped the popularity poll with her large number of primary votes at the 2008 election, was in the minority on the current council.
Prior to her election, Cr Milne, the youngest of the seven councillors, was a non-affiliated local environmental activist credited by many for her role in protecting the Tweed River at Chinderah from a huge Gold Coast-style marina development that was rejected by the Land and Environment Court.
In the past four years she has waged a tireless and at times solitary battle in council for the adoption of meaningful water-saving and recycling measures, such as dual-reticulation in new greenfield developments, which the Greens say would negate the need for any new dam works. But it was all in vain, as most councillors steered clear, not even allowing much debate on these issues.
In 2012, as they have from the outset, the National Party/conservative bloc candidates will again push to build the controversial Byrrill Creek dam, ahead of the alternative option favoured by a community working group and council staff of raising the wall of the existing Clarrie Hall Dam to boost water-supply capacity for future population growth.
Of course, many see another dam in such a biodiverse valley as just a way to facilitate present overdevelopment rather than future growth.
This election basically boils down to which candidates will maintain and improve the unique natural features and ecotourism the Tweed is world-renowned and loved for.
Council is the forum for residents to have a strong voice in guiding and shaping the future, and not just for a four-year term.
The trick, then, is to determine who are truly ‘independent’ candidates who will back their communities first and foremost and protect their lifestyle and environment, and who are the wolves in sheep’s clothing pushing someone else’s barrow.