In the first of a two part series, the Greens MP for Ballina, Tamara Smith, talks about some of the big issues in her electorate.
Riding a wave of anti-CSG sentiment, Tamara Smith was elected to represent the NSW electorate of Ballina, which includes Byron Bay, in 2015. Showing the benefits of strong community engagement, she was re-elected with an increased majority in 2019 (with the assistance of ALP preferences).
She is one of three Greens in the lower house of the NSW parliament.
This week Echonetdaily caught up with Ms Smith at her electorate office in Ballina to talk about what’s been happening recently, particularly in the southern part of her electorate.
With many local streets and public places closed for film production recently, and Alstonville’s Cultural Centre about to be handed over to Byron Film Studios by Ballina Council, how does she feel about Ballina’s newest industry?
Ms Smith says she has has some concerns around the licence arrangement for the temporary Byron Film Studios. ‘The long term plan is the industrial area and that’s 100% appropriate,’ she said.
‘But a lot of people have reached out to me about the library being moved, and it’s quite an iconic space in Alstonville. It’s surrounded by residents. So what is that going to look like with a functioning sound studio and all of that in the middle of Alstonville?
‘I’m very supportive of new industries in appropriate places, that are zoned for that. But I think it’s been quite rushed. We’re just starting to get people reaching out, so hopefully I can work collaboratively with whoever’s managing it so that they are communicating to residents about their hours, and noise levels and things like that.’
Ms Smith notes that people in that part of Alstonville have also been badly affected by the Boral Asphalt Plant, for decades. ‘On the wrong day, I’ve been there to a resident’s home where my eyes just stung with the stench – it’s like fuel in your eyes.’
There’s now a timeline for that plant to be closed within three years, but she says that experience has made residents of the area wary of further infrastructure, with a need to tread carefully.
Beyond Alstonville, film and TV production permits have also led to beaches and streets being cut off around Ballina. Will this be a good thing when the novelty wears off?
‘I’m on the local traffic committee for both Ballina Shire and Byron Shire, so we’ve seen I would say 150% increase in requests to close roads for films,’ said Ms Smith. ‘We think it’s really exciting for the region, in terms of new jobs, film industry artists, it’s gorgeous, however we want to make sure that it’s coordinated.
‘What worries me is that it’s case by case, and I know that Ballina Shire Council have expressed to me that they are quite overwhelmed with the number and the frequency of requests. And of course if the weather changes then there are new requests.’
She said the quick decision making and agility required for this is not second nature to councils.
‘What we probably need to look at, I’d like to know how much money council makes? Before I’ve seen really daft things where the whole of Clarkes Beach was shut, for an event, and council made almost nothing. But the disruption to the ocean swimmers and the public, that’s just not worth it.
‘So we’re watching carefully for crazy requests. I want to be in there and supporting it and making it work, but I think that if there’s enough revenue, both councils should designate someone to manage it, perhaps for one day a week.’
The hope remains that the film and TV industry will bring new jobs to the region, for young people in particular. ‘Yes absolutely,’ said Ms Smith.
‘You will never ever see me saying no to the film industry coming here, and films being made here. It’s like creative heaven here. However my goal is to make sure it’s not at the public’s expense. What’s always hard is no one’s overseeing the macro.
‘They might go, oh that’s fine, the whole of Newrybar’s going to be shut on that day, but they’re not necessarily putting together that hang on, there’s a marathon the next day, that’s closing the whole of Lennox. Those cumulative impacts need to be considered,’ she said.
‘And then you add roadworks, then you add all our congestion areas. So I’m very keen that both councils can have a macro look at it.’
Ballina’s growth, and the Dunoon Dam
With development in the Ballina area growing at record levels, how does Tamara Smith feel about the implications for infrastructure and the environment?
‘For the record, I made a strong submission to the Rous Future Water Project, and spoke very stridently against a dam, and also against any increase in water mining,’ said Ms Smith.
‘I expressed personal support for recycling, reverse osmosis, because both Water Commissioners have told me that’s the way to go. Then you’re future-proofing. But the major focus needs to be on water-saving, at the home and elsewhere.’
Noting that Ballina is already becoming a leader with purple pipes (recycled water), Tamara Smith would like to see Ballina lift its sights higher.
‘I’d like to see us become beyond sustainable; regenerative and completely off the grid,’ she said.
‘The endgame is that we want to reduce emissions dramatically, but meanwhile we’ve got to prepare ourselves for life on a warmer planet. How do you future-proof?
‘To me, reverse osmosis makes sense. There’s issues we need to think about like ocean outflows, and the cost, and I’ve given a detailed submission on that.
‘In terms of development, Byron always seems to take my attention, because the push is so strong, and the land values are so high. Its like there’s a frothing at the mouth for developers, I feel, in Byron.
‘Ballina is a slow cook. The residential growth in the five years I’ve been in office is phenomenal. And it’s still growing.
‘I’m always advocating for constituents, and people should be given the proper consultation periods, so they know what’s happening. Ballina Council are very good at that. Byron Council’s very good at that too, most of the time.
‘What’s hard is the state government said five years ago, in the Draft Regional Strategy, that there should be no new development east of the highway. But unfortunately vast tracts of land were already re-zoned, and already slated for development, so that’s what we’ve seen.
‘Up there at Skennars Head, that whole site, Lennox, North Ballina, and then you keep going and there’s other anomalies like West Byron.
‘So, I find it very disturbing when we know, environmentally, there needs to be limits in these areas because of acid sulphate soils, and over-development, and that was before any of those massive residential developments.’
Ms Smith said she doesn’t want to be saying no to things, but ‘we’ve got to be very careful, because Ballina’s 100% in a flood zone, what we’ve seen with coastal erosion is real, and we also have double digit youth unemployment.
‘So yes we want it all, but we’ve got to be very careful about how we’re protecting ourselves for the future, and making sure we can sustain this level of population.’
National Party playing games
No one attending events and openings across Tamara Smith’s electorate can fail to notice the constant presence of the Nationals Ben Franklin MLC, the Parliamentary Secretary Energy and Arts in the NSW Government, although he failed to win the election for her lower house seat.
Sometimes the elected member is not invited at all. ‘I think people just instinctively don’t like it,’ said Ms Smith.
‘I’ve always said that if the Nationals were going to play games, they would have been better off to kill me with kindness. They would have been better off to have me at everything, because they’re the ones with the big cheques. But what they’ve done instead is try and one-up me.
‘I’m grateful to have any local MLC working hard for our community. That’s fantastic. I’m not begrudging that at all, and I think any MP that’s living here should be working hard for the community. To me though, It’s a bit disrespectful around the democratically elected MP.
‘A lot of the ministers do check in with me, but the local Nationals guy ran against me, so it’s not rocket science that things get quarantined with councils for him to announce them. We’re just used to it now.
‘What is good about having someone so desperate for the limelight, is that we’ve focused on constituents and the environment here. I was criticised a bit in my first term by my own party, in some quarters, for being overly constituent-focused, but I’ve maintained that belief that we are primarily here for constituents.
‘So, three quarters of our time and energy goes into that. I feel that people do get that, that’s I’m actually here for them, I’m not here to play games,’ she said.
Another thing that’s clear when meeting people across the Ballina electorate is that Tamara Smith has found broad support and respect from her diverse community, even from those who don’t agree with her politics.
‘We don’t ask people if they’re voting for me when they come in here,’ said Ms Smith.
‘I will work to help anyone. So that ethos means, people might be saying “thanks Tamara for helping us,” but that doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for me, and I couldn’t care less.
‘That’s the job, and we enjoy that, because I use the office to make a difference.’
It appears that many people can see that with the seat no longer being taken for granted everyone benefits from the extra support.
‘To me that’s the value of marginal seats,’ said Ms Smith. ‘There’s two ways you can go. It’s very cynical, because in my world we would have needs-based funding for communities. It would have nothing to do with who’s in power.
‘But that aside, the realpolitik is that you take a seat from a major party, and they will either starve you to death, or they will drown you in funds. Fortunately for us, we’ve had the latter,’ she said.
‘We’re up to about 48% increase in spending in this electorate since 2015, since the Greens took the seat.’
South Ballina beaches
This is another issue close to Tamara Smith’s heart, with the destruction from 4WDs ongoing. Echonetdaily asked Ms Smith what could be done.
We’ve got a meeting scheduled when I get back from this sitting,’ she said. ‘I’ve reached out to a number of councillors and they’re all quite supportive of a permit system for South Ballina.
‘What needs to happen first is that Ballina Council becomes the authority of South Ballina Beach, so I’ve got a meeting with the mayor and general manager to say, can I go ahead with requesting that from the state government? They’ve already got control of Lennox.’
If this happened, would the absent landlord Crown Lands no longer be the relevant authority for the dune area? ‘Yes exactly,’ said Ms Smith. ‘Then it could be amazing, because the permit system would just be for residents, Aboriginal people, those who take down the elderly, and so on.
‘What I’m hoping for is Aboriginal tours, eco-tourism, the sort of things Eli Cook has been talking about.’
Ms Smith spoke about the three main Aboriginal groups across her electorate, the Arakwal, Yaegl and Nyangbul.
‘Wouldn’t it be gorgeous if anyone who comes here, that’s what they’re immersed in, that’s what they see? When they go to these sacred and beautiful places, there could be cultural education and tours.’
She fully supports the proposal of a Bundjalung Cultural Centre in Ballina. ‘Yes we’ve been working with Eli on that, I’ve committed to that and also the one in Byron. We’re progressing both of those.’
Ms Smith said that like most Greens, she’s not in politics ‘for any other reason but for the environment, and for people.’
The conversation continues with Tamara Smith MP in Echonetdaily on Monday.