Lismore City Councillor Elly Bird is another well-known Northern Rivers figure who is up for the challenge of becoming the next mayor of Lismore.
The decision will be made at council’s meeting tomorrow night, following the departure of Cr Isaac Smith from the role.
Cr Bird said it’s been her intention for quite a while to nominate for the position. ‘If the election hadn’t been delayed for COVID, I would have run for mayor already,’ she said. ‘Given that we are now in a situation where we need to find a new mayor, I’m putting my hand up to see if my fellow councillors will support me in the role.’
Echonetdaily asked Cr Bird if her recent time on council has been bruising. She said she’s ‘always glad’ she chose to get involved with local government.
‘Fundamentally, in spite of the challenges that we’ve had to face, the foundation of it is about serving the community and working within the constraints of the organisation, to realise our community vision and try and move us all forward, as a community. I say community a lot!’
Elly Bird’s big issues
Cr Bird said her term on council was dramatically shaped by her experience in the 2017 floods. ‘When the floods hit I dropped everything and found myself managing Lismore Helping Hands – the clean-up effort out of the train station.
‘It’s been nearly four years now, and that whole time I’ve been deeply engaged in understanding disaster recovery, looking at the impact that disasters have on communities,’ she said.
Cr Bird said the flood experience gave her a ‘very deep insight’ into the issues that exist around disasters and disaster recovery.
‘So that’s shaped my term and it still shapes the way that I look at council, the way I look at what we need to do. I’ve done my best to bring that perspective to a number of decisions that we’ve made.
‘At Tuesday’s meeting we’ll be adopting our Climate Resilience Policy, which is very high level. Because council’s been financially restrained, we’re limited with the amount of on-ground projects we can roll out, but it’s important to have a policy framework around climate resilience,’ she said.
For Elly Bird, the issue is bigger than emissions reduction. ‘What do we need to do to prepare ourselves for the fact that climate change is here, now?’
She said part of council’s role is to see how the impacts unfold locally and to ‘work alongside our communities to be better prepared.’
Do other councillors see things through that big climate prism?
Elly Bird told Echonetdaily there’s broad agreement from most councillors that climate change is an issue that needs to be dealt with at a local government level.
‘Lismore City Council was an early sign-up to the Cities Power Partnership project, that the Climate Council are running,’ she said.
Cr Bird is aware of the limitations on acting as quickly as she would like to.
‘Firstly, it’s always difficult to act quickly in local government, and secondly we’ve been dealing with all the financial issues and everything else that our term has brought along. But I’m optimistic,’ she said.
A renewable council
Lismore Council was well-known on the Northern Rivers a few years ago for its strong renewables push. Is that still happening?
‘Yes absolutely,’ said Cr Bird. ‘I think it’s important to know we have a 100% renewables target by 2023, obviously we’re a couple of years off that, but we have done a fair bit of work in lowering our electricity use. We did that foundational work.’ She noted that the target is for the council organisation, not the wider community at this stage.
‘In the early years, originally that plan was looking at mid-scale renewable energy solar plants, but we’re pretty constrained in our ability to do that – for financial reasons and land reasons and infrastructure development reasons – so we’re now at a point in our renewable energy masterplan where we are looking at our electricity purchasing power.
‘Renewable energy has dropped massively in price, so we probably won’t be putting ourselves at a financial disadvantage,’ she said.
‘I’m still optimistic that we’ll be able to meet our 100% renewables target, by looking at a power purchase agreement when it comes time to renew our electricity arrangements.’
What about the big battery that’s coming to Lismore?
Cr Bird says that while the proposed battery (one of a suite of responses from AGL to the closure of the Liddell Power Station) is totally separate to anything that council does, ‘it’s going to be amazing, because the capacity of the battery will store the excess solar we generate here and build resilience into our network at a regional level, across the whole network.’
Lismore housing crisis
Elly Bird thinks the situation is ‘absolutely shocking’, and getting worse. It’s escalating really quickly. I see so many people that are in trouble, who have been told they have to move out of their rental and can’t get another one.
‘There’s many many people looking for rentals, there’s huge queues for vacancies. It’s a really significant issue.
‘Unfortunately housing is something that it’s really hard to do anything about at a local government level, especially without capital to invest in it.’
Cr Bird said council simply doesn’t have the ability or capacity to build lots of community housing which can be managed to fix the difference between the private rental availability and public housing, although it’s something that has been urgently needed to be addressed by state and federal governments for a long time.
‘They have done nothing,’ she said, ‘and it’s going to get worse as more people are moving to our region. Since COVID they’ve realised you can work from home, and people are realising they can come and have the fantastic lifestyle of the Northern Rivers but still keep their city jobs.
‘So it’s a really pressing and urgent issue. From a council perspective all we can really do – well we do have an affordable housing project that we are going to deliver, but it’s only going to be a drop in the bucket – what we really need to do is advocate and work with state and federal government to try and move it higher up the agenda.
‘Something needs to be done,’ she said.
Lismore is becoming something of a cultural mecca, particularly since the revitalisation of the Lismore Community Gallery and NORPA.
Echonetdaily asked Elly Bird if that was something she would like to see go further? ‘Yes I’m very dedicated to arts and culture,’ she said. ‘That was my background before I got on to council, other than my coal seam gas activism work, obviously. So I’m really committed to that aspect of our community.
‘I’ve been Chair of Arts Northern Rivers for four years. I’m very proud of the work that organisation does, as a body that is contributed to by all the councils in the region.’
Elly Bird has a history of directing spectacular, large scale outdoor events.
‘I’ve directed the opening ceremony at Woodford for the last four years, and I have a long term history of doing the finale for the Lismore Lantern Parade. That’s the reason I moved to Lismore, round about twenty years ago, I moved here to work on that event, and I never left.’
Cr Bird remembers, ‘I was born and bred in Darwin, and I spent some time in Queensland, did university on the Gold Coast and then landed here.
‘For me, in those early days I was travelling round the region with the lantern parade doing school workshops, at all of the primary schools, and in community groups.
‘We had so many community groups coming through the workshop, and I think I just fell deeply in love with the community of Lismore and all of the fantastic people,’ she said.
‘It’s a beautiful place and I love it dearly. I don’t think I’m leaving any time soon and I want to continue to serve.’
What about roads?
Elly Bird told Echonetdaily, ‘You can’t talk about local government without talking about roads.
‘It’s common knowledge that we have a problem. We have a large road network and we simply cannot keep up with the necessary work to meet our infrastructure backlog, which is a local government term that quantifies how much we need to spend to fix everything.
‘It’s an issue that many regional and rural councils face,’ she said. ‘In our case it’s significant and it is likely to continue to get worse unless we can find more money to put into road maintenance.
‘Unfortunately, there is no magic bucket of money. We’ve been cutting our budgets year in year out since I got onto council and well before that as well.
‘One simple solution would be for the federal government to increase the Federal Assistance Grants (FAGS) that are allocated to councils each year.
‘We need a fairer share of Commonwealth revenue, one that reflects that local government maintains the lion’s share of regional road networks, but in spite of this we have seen no meaningful increase in the revenue allocated to us for years.’
Cr Bird notes that of the three levels of government, local government has the largest relative infrastructure task in terms of asset management and the smallest relative revenue base, collecting just over 3% of Australia’s total taxation revenue.
‘We have seen a big increase in grant funding recently, which is great, but we need money that isn’t tied to specific projects as well. If the FAGS were lifted to just 1% of GDP we would receive an increase in cash that would allow us to inject sorely needed funds into fixing our roads,’ she said.
Pressure cooker council
Echonetdaily asked Elly Bird how she deals with all the pressures of being in local government in a place like Lismore?
‘When you first get on to council it’s a very steep learning curve, so I have spent a lot of my term really focusing on training myself and increasing my skills, and taking any developmental opportunities that come along,’ she said.
‘I’m in a much better position now than I was at the beginning. Admittedly I came in at the beginning with an activist approach, in 2016.’
Former deputy mayor and fellow member of the Our Sustainable Future micro-party, Simon Clough (now Chair of Lock the Gate) remains a mentor to Cr Bird.
She acknowledges it would be quite a leap to go from a training wheels councillor to mayor in under four years, but not unachievable.
‘I’m well respected in the community, I’m very balanced in the way that I deal with issues, and that’s the approach that I would continue to take if I ended up in the mayoral seat,’ said Cr Bird.
Lismore City Council is known for its fraught meetings. Does Elly Bird see herself as the right person to control that situation?
‘I would absolutely do my best, she said. ‘In any group of people there are communication skills and ways of communicating with each other than can help to de-escalate situations, and that’s the way I approach all of my dealings, with anyone. That’s how I would approach my colleagues, and the way we would work together as a group.
‘I think that we have been under incredible pressure during this last term, said Cr Bird.
‘We had the floods, we had the fires, we had the pandemic, we had the financial crises, we had the fire at the waste facility, so it’s been a cascading series of events for the last four years, and that’s added to the pressures we’ve all felt as individuals.
‘I think that we can come together and work together for the best outcomes for our community,’ she said.
Back to resilience
Cr Bird said that while her focus was very much on climate resilience, she was ‘equally committed and dedicated to things like building financial and economic resilience,’ both in the organisation and in the community.
‘Sometimes economic development can be misunderstood,’ she said, ‘the term “jobs and growth” has become a bit tainted, but it’s a really critical part of what councils can do for communities.
‘We need to support and enable small businesses, because small businesses are the engine rooms of our community.
‘So, it’s not about focusing on one thing to the detriment of another. We have four pillars that we need to really focus on; environmental, economic, social and governance sustainability.
‘We need to balance our attention across all of those aspects of government,’ she said. ‘It’s not one thing over another, it’s all four things at the same time.’
As for the next Lismore mayor, Cr Elly Bird acknowledges it’s going to be a difficult task for whoever wins the position.
‘It’s a tough gig, there’s no denying that, and I think it’s a tough gig regardless, no matter what’s going on, you know? We’re in an interesting time,’ she said.
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