The old cliché ‘God’s waiting room’ could once have been coined for Ballina, where the River Street Woolies once boasted a broad range of products aimed at the elderly.
But the demographic of the shire is changing. Spurred on by the growth in development along the coastal fringe and the comparatively higher prices commanded for real estate in neighbouring Byron Shire, Ballina is undergoing its own sea change.
The last election saw Ballina elect its first-ever Greens candidate in Jeff Johnson. And the Greens have upped the ante in this election by standing a ticket of candidates in each of the three wards.
At the same time, popular middle-of-the-road mayor Phil Silver has retired, leaving the door open for a broader-scale change in the shire.
Jeff Johnson has made a play for the position, as have Sue Meehan, Sharon Cadwallader, Keith Williams, David Wright and Ben Smith.
It has to be said that despite being the youngest candidate, Smith doesn’t have the greatest of chances. He was elected last time on around 10 per cent of the C-ward vote because Silver, who was top of the ticket, got the mayoral berth. With many more candidates in C ward this time, there is a question mark over whether he will even be re-elected as a councillor, let alone mayor.
David Wright teaches talented children at Alstonville Public School and has a popular following up on the plateau. He has been a councillor for 25 years, mayor twice and deputy mayor for nine years. A strong supporter of Silver, Wright is clearly positioning himself as the ‘safe pair of hands’. There’s no doubt he has a strong chance but clearly people voting for change in Ballina will need to look further afield.
Keith Williams is the head of Australian Seabird Rescue and has previously worked at a high level in local-government bureaucracy. He is passionate about the shire, and particularly the state of the Richmond River, which he has promised to restore. He would make a great councillor. But Williams’s great liability in the mayoral race is that never having sat on council he has not had time to learn the ropes, position himself or build alliances.
Sharon Cadwallader boasts that she is always accessible to her constituents, and she has certainly worked hard on local issues in the recent term. Cadwallader is a National Party member but, hastens to add, not an endorsed candidate. While not tarred with the same brush as Nationals in other north-coast councils, she did see fit to have herself photographed with premier Barry O’Farrell in a local newspaper yesterday. This will no doubt be seen as an asset by conservative voters. The same can’t be said for progressives, who might want to distance their council from a government that has rolled back environmental provisions and foisted on them the massive Cumbalum development that most did not want.
Sue Meehan is clearly a capable candidate. She is on more boards than you can poke a stick at. She is smart, articulate and moderately progressive, as you would expect from a special-needs teacher. But she has mostly supported the development push on council, with the justification that not to do so would see the state government come in over their heads, taking away council’s ability to seal a deal on roads and amenities.
Jeff Johnson has positioned himself as an agent of change. He has taken a stick to Silver’s pet project, the funnelling of council money into commercial real estate projects, many of which Johnson says have failed to produce reasonable returns.
Johnson projects the council has a $20 million black hole, based on projects it has already approved but not properly funded. He has promised an independent organisational to refocus council on delivering community infrastructure and services.
He would do this in part by taking money out of under-performing assets, matching with state and/or federal funding and embarking on a program of infrastructure renewal.
The plan has of course been derided by fellow councillors as ‘lunacy’. But Johnson has a keen ally in Vince Kelly, a former banker and financier who told Echonetdaily early in the campaign, ‘the majority of Ballina councillors and management have lost sight of Council’s core functions… the provision and maintenance of community infrastructure and services’.
If a hard-nosed financier like Kelly thinks it is time for change in Ballina Shire, perhaps voters will as well.