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Ross and Max to the fore: Dirty tactics key to undermining the opposition

Thirty-one years have passed since Nicholas Shand dreamed up this newspaper and gathered a band of fellow dreamers to help him make it real.

In those 31 years The Echo has grown, like a magic beanstalk, far taller than we ever imagined, and it is now a feature of Shire life.

Our ongoing series on the history of our beloved rainbow rag continues this week, written by the newspaper’s longest-serving drudge, David Lovejoy.

As the Club Med battle described in the previous episode approached its climax, the leader of Council’s conservatives, Ross Tucker, decided on a diversion.

One of his colleagues on Council, Anudhi Wentworth, a staunch environmentalist, suffered from failing eyesight. The custom was for a Council employee to help her read the agenda during meetings. Feigning indignation on the part of the public who indirectly paid for this assistance from their rates, Tucker moved that Cr Wentworth should have no ‘reader’ and his conservative majority ensured that the motion was carried.

Anudhi Wentworth enjoying a bit of gardening in her spare time.

Anudhi’s Amendment

At the next Council meeting fifteen members of the public appeared in the gallery with dark glasses and white canes to observe a rescission motion to reinstate Anudhi’s reader. One of Tucker’s stooges was absent, but he thought he would still win the vote, as on the last occasion Anudhi Wentworth had abstained. This time, however, the mayor had legal advice that, as she derived no pecuniary benefit from the matter, she could vote.

This provoked an angry personal attack on mayor Ian Kingston from Ross Tucker, an attack which roused the public gallery to furious interjections. Ironically, these were silenced by the mayor so that the bitter attack on him could continue. In the end the ballot was tied and the mayor’s casting vote saw the reader restored.

Two months later an act (‘Anudhi’s Amendment’) was introduced in the New South Wales Parliament to prevent local councillors being discriminated against in such a manner.

Kindred spirits

The aftermath of the 1991 election had thrown not only Ross Tucker into prominence. Max Eastcott had been promoted to general manager on the resignation of his predecessor, and the two were kindred spirits.

Eastcott’s local government background was in planning, and he found it hard to keep his fingers off the development applications flooding into Council, especially during the latter part of his reign when the position of planning manager was kept inexplicably vacant.

Silent stooges

General Manager Max Eastcott.

Councillor Ross Tucker spruiking for support.

Eastcott aligned himself with Tucker and his silent minions (three of the Gang of Six hardly spoke a word in Council meetings throughout their term of office) and set out to facilitate Tucker’s agenda, a job made easier when a motion passed giving Max delegated authority to approve development applications worth up to $2,500,000 without troubling the councillors.

It wasn’t only development approvals that Max dabbled in. Tucker wanted to show that the council he controlled was a can-do organisation, but his plans for new buildings, particularly new Council Chambers, exhausted the capital spending fund both for that term and the succeeding one.

It took all of Max’s financial acumen to hide this state of affairs with a kind of ‘pea and thimble’ economics, moving money from one department to another, so that the water fund, as it might be, could apparently own the library. Great was the wonder and consternation when Max’s successor as general manager called a public meeting in 1997 to reveal the true state of Council’s ruined finances.

Hand in glove

The first clue that the general manager was hand in glove, not with the mayor, his theoretical boss, but with an ordinary councillor who happened to command the conservative vote in the chamber, came with a public meeting in 1993. It was called by Ross Tucker to complain about how his policies were being misrepresented by environmentalists, and became quite a good old boys night. The Mullumbimby religious right turned up, together with developers big and small, National Party members, the conservative councillors and… Max Eastcott, who told the mob how much he admired Ross Tucker and how he looked forward to seeing the councillors who opposed Club Med interrogated in court.

Wards

Another morale-booster for the right wing was Eastcott’s plan, enthusiastically embraced by Tucker, to introduce ‘wards’ to the Shire voting system. Wards would divide the Shire into, say, five areas each electing two councillors, instead of the whole Shire electing ten. This would favour parties who tightly control their preferences and tend to exclude independent candidates. For example, under the existing system a councillor who commanded ten per cent of the vote over the whole Shire – like Anudhi Wentworth – could be elected; under wards this could not happen.

When the implications of the scheme sank in, people called for a referendum, but Tucker used his majority to block the poll. The issue became as inflammatory as the Club Med debate, and in a similar way Tucker and his supporters contended that the ‘silent majority’ was on their side and only a noisy minority stirred up by The Echo opposed their plans.

In fact we conducted a detailed opinion poll which found that 63.5 per cent of the Shire disagreed with the introduction of wards and 81.5 per cent wanted a referendum on the subject.

In the end it was the NSW local government minister who decided that Council was out of order in seeking to impose the wards system without holding a referendum first. He had received four submissions against wards for every one in support of them, and petitions with 3,605 signatures against and only 144 in favour.


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Some of The Echo’s editorial team: journalists Paul Bibby and Aslan Shand, editor Hans Lovejoy, photographer Jeff Dawson and Mandy Nolan

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