Although recent local government elections across the Northern Rivers were dominated by the surge of right-leaning candidates, state-wide there was a very successful result for The Greens, with 67 councillors elected (up from 56). Two of these new representatives are in Ballina, Ward C’s Simon Chate and Ward B’s Kiri Dicker.
The Echo caught up with this dynamic duo at Victoria Park this week to find out what they are hoping to achieve in Ballina Shire.
Simon Chate has been living in Alstonville with his family for over twenty years. He’s a musician, choir director and music educator. Although this was his first tilt at council, he was comfortably elected. Was he surprised?
‘Yes and no,’ he said. ‘The odds looked good for me. I’m quite well-known within the community through Rous Unplugged, and through the school. And so I thought I was in with a decent chance. I’ve spent ten years thinking about it, though!’
Cr Chate said he was inspired to get involved after talking to former Councillor Alan Rich. ‘He said, “When I retire, there’s going be no one here for the environment.” So I wanted to take a seat at the table on behalf of the environment.’
Kiri Dicker has been in Lennox Head since the late ’80s, and loves the area. She stood as an independent previously, in 2012.
‘When [Ballina MP] Tamara [Smith] asked me to contest the ward on behalf of The Greens, I said, “Okay, I’ll do it as long as there’s no chance I’ll get elected!”
‘And then as the months went by, I realized that it wasn’t unwinnable. So I wasn’t surprised [that I won], because I was out there in the community, and there was no one else campaigning until the very end, really, until the close of nominations. We had a long lead time, Simon and I have been working together for six months,’ said Cr Dicker.
Cr Chate added, ‘The thought behind that was, let’s get ourselves out there. Let’s say we’re running for council and just keep being in the public eye. I started doing Facebook ads early as well.’
How important was social media in the campaign?
‘Social media was a big thing,’ said Cr Dicker. ‘We definitely took a hit with COVID, we weren’t able to do very much fundraising at all. So we were running on the smell of an oily rag. But I was out there.
‘Social media is a great compliment, but it’s never going to win you an election. You need to get out there and talk to people…
‘The Sunday before the election, I went door knocking, which is the most intimidating thing that any political candidate can do. But it’s a great exercise, because sometimes you get stuck in your bubble, right?’
Cr Dicker works as a consultant, monitoring and evaluating social development programs. She’s also a gender-based violence prevention specialist, which should be good preparation for local government.
However Ballina’s two new Greens will face an uphill task in the new chamber, with progressives outnumbered by conservatives (although it can be hard to see what the conservatives are conserving in a council which green-lights so many DAs every month).
The duo told The Echo they were dismayed at the use of misinformation and fear-based campaigning such as the pro-dam ‘toilet to tap’ rhetoric employed by some of their opponents, but are determined to keep things positive as they move forward.
Environmental and other issues
Cr Chate said,’ Within our ward, people have been talking to me about not wanting the buffer zone to be built out between Alstonville and Wollongbar. They want to maintain two separate villages.
‘I need to learn a lot more about this. I’m well aware that I’m the new kid on the block, so there’s a steep learning curve ahead of me.’
With this in mind, Cr Chate has already spoken to former Councillors Sharon Parry and David Wright. ‘I’ve known him for a long time.’
Cr Chate shares the former mayor’s passion for koalas, and is keen to get more koala plantations up and running. Other pressing issues include getting a skate park for Alstonville, and increasing cycleways and footpaths around and between the villages, where he’s aware there are currently many safety issues, especially for children and older people.
In terms of the contentious movie studio issue in Alstonville, he says, ‘The most important thing that I’m seeing… is people want to feel included in the conversation rather than just being told about it.’
Regarding the new plans for the quarry, Cr Chate said, ‘from what I’ve heard, the concept looks great’. He sees it as a chance to revitalise the area environmentally and create new opportunities for young people in the area.
Kiri Dicker says people from her ‘very diverse’ community have a range of concerns, starting with development and infrastructure.
‘The problem is that a large amount of land was released for development, and it’s taken a long time for the houses to be built,’ said Cr Dicker. ‘Now they’re all being built because of the economic climate, with the pandemic being like the nail in the coffin.
‘So there’s rapid and excessive growth. Instead of happening in a staged way, which maybe they anticipated, it’s all happening at once. So it’s really hit people like this tsunami.
‘It’s gotten to the core of people’s identities because Lennox has always been a beachside region, you know, real surfing culture, and people. But now there’s the growth and the housing crisis combined. So you’ve got a lot of people that just feel completely pushed out of their home and their community.
‘I’m a renter, a single parent, and a lot of my friends are single parents who rent. Every week, someone’s having to move and it’s completely devastating. It’s really tearing at the social fabric, and there’s this wealth inequality, which means businesses just can’t find staff, and they’re having to move further and further out.
‘So not only are they on minimum wages, it’s a highly casualised labour force and they’re not getting paid when they’re getting COVID. They’re now having to drive further to work and paying more for petrol,’ said Cr Dicker.
‘That’s why I contested the election, because I really want to see a council that is for everyone, you know, and that is fair and equal. And I felt that with the current makeup of councillors that lived experience probably wasn’t there.
‘We’re not seeking any dramatic reform, you know. Ballina is a good council. It’s exemplary in many ways. But the equality is something that really drove me,’ she said.
‘We are representative of the community,’ said Cr Chate. ‘We’re certainly ready to make noise!’
Former mayor David Wright has advised the newcomers to get to know the council staff, which is their next priority.
As for seeking to bevome involved with Rous County Council, they said they will be deferring to Jeff Johnson as the more experienced progressive councillor.
And can they work with the other councillors?
Cr Kiri Dicker told The Echo, ‘I’m very personable and I have good relationship-building skills. An example is Eoin Johnston and I, when I told him at pre-poll I played rugby for Wollongbar, we were like, best mates, we got along so well, and I think he’s absolutely great.
‘We have completely divergent political views. But he’s a really fair guy, and I’m absolutely confident we can work together.’
Simon Chate echoed these sentiments.
What about the Dunoon Dam?
With underground water used as a divisive issue in the Alstonville campaign, where does C Ward’s new councillor stand on the dam issue?
‘It’s now going to the CSIRO for appraisal and comments. So we’re going to have to wait and see what happens on that,’ said Cr Chate. ‘I feel like we’ve got to try other stuff. We’ve got to try everything else before we start putting more dams into this beautiful area.’
Both the new Greens councillors said they were keen to meet stakeholders and do on-ground research about the water issues facing the region.
Cr Dicker said she was also going to be working to help get Mandy Nolan elected for the Greens in Richmond, with the next federal election facing up to be one of the most crucial in Australia’s history.
She believes there are an increasing number of progressive voters moving to the region, which will be reflected in future polls.
Cr Chate says he’s heartened by the fact that younger voters tend to have a much more social and ecological focus. ‘The research shows that once people vote Green, they often become lifetime Greens,’ said Cr Dicker. ‘Whereas people often swing more between the other parties.’
Both councillors are planning to continue using social media to keep people informed and engaged with what’s happening in Ballina Council, and happy to engage with their communities face to face too.
‘I’ve spoken to Richard Campbell from L.J. Hooker about setting up a table once a month in Alstonville Plaza,’ said Cr Chate. ‘I’m really keen to find out what’s important for people and seeing if I can do anything to help out the local community at that really personal level.’
‘My number one goal, aside from any sort of policy stuff, is to prove to my community that they made the right choice, because they took a gamble,’ said Cr Dicker. ‘It’s about how you use your voice.’