A minor item on Ballina Shire Council’s agenda this week blew up when Cr Rod Bruem decided to add a last minute alteration to Ballina’s investment strategy.
Item 9.2, Policy (Review) Investments, was initially moved by Cr Bruem and seconded by Cr Dicker, then Cr Bruem added another point, to bring council investment policy into line with Byron Bay, Lismore and Richmond Valley.
In practice, this turned out to mean removing Ballina’s 0.05% margin favouring fossil fuel aligned investments over fossil alternatives. Cr Bruem said, ‘It’s still a goal, but it’s not set in concrete.’
Cr Dicker then removed her support, and Cr Eoin Johnston became the seconder.
Rod Bruem’s view
Cr Bruem argued that the change was necessary in a difficult financial climate so that Ballina Council could quickly take advantage of investment opportunities when they became available.
GM Paul Hickey said he couldn’t say how many times investments had been swapped around, but with $98 million of council investments, 0.05% meant $50,000 could potentially be affected in a worst case scenario.
Cr Dicker asked for a point of order. ‘Is this process legit?’ Mayor Cadwallader confirmed that the mover of a motion could indeed change it at the last moment.
Cr Phil Meehan then spoke against Cr Bruem’s motion. Acknowledging he didn’t always vote for ‘green supporting things’, he said he had become much more aware of issues like climate change and believed the people of Ballina had too. ‘Our community is certainly evolving,’ he said.
He said there were much more straightforward ways to save money than tinkering with climate-friendly investments.
‘I must reflect upon our last meeting where we’re donating $37,000 each year for the next three years to a club which relies upon gaming machines, largely, for income.’
Cr Meehan said it was important that council demonstrate its awareness of climate change and invest accordingly, saying the motion was ‘a backwards step’.
Cr Kiri Dicker went further, saying ‘There’s an existing resolution of council to divest from fossil fuel aligned institutions and increase the amount of our investments that are in green investments.’
Noting that the region had just lived through a climate change induced flood catastrophe, she said, ‘It’s unconscionable to be making decisions in the wake of that to increase our investments in fossil fuel aligned institutions, I cannot accept that.’
Cr Simon Chate asked GM Hickey if council actually needed more investment flexibility, but Mr Hickey said the investment climate was always difficult and batted this back to councillors, saying it was ultimately a political decision.
Cr Chate then said the proposed change would be a clear step backwards, especially since Ballina had declared a climate emergency.
‘There are plenty of non fossil fuel aligned investment opportunities that can bring great results. I myself have one or two. I just think it’s weakening our environmental standard.
‘In the eyes of the public, I think this is not good optics, I don’t think the public is going to be wanting to see us weakening our environmental stand at this level. I most definitely won’t be supporting the motion as it stands,’ he said.
In response, Cr Bruem said, ‘Like Cr Dicker, I’m no financial expert at all. In fact, most of my major investments are on the floodplain at Lismore, I’ve been smashed so that tells you about my investment knowledge. And I’ll be the last person, given that, to be putting forward anything seen to be affecting our response to the climate emergency. So I reject that outright.
‘This comes down mainly to good governance,’ he said. ‘All I was seeking was flexibility. I’d certainly take the point that the atmospherics around this at this time, could look bad if you wanted to make it look bad, but that’s not the not the thing here.’
The motion then went to the vote.
With Cr Jeff Johnson not in the meeting for the discussion, Cr Bruem’s motion was carried, with Crs Dicker, Chate and Meehan voting against.
After the meeting, Cr Kiri Dicker said, ‘one must ask whether this decision is really in the best interests of the community, for the sake of a few extra dollars.’
Keith Williams’ view
The Echo sought comment from former Cr Keith Williams, who was one of the councillors who supported the original investment strategy negated by Cr Bruem’s motion.
Mr Williams said, ‘Yes I supported the original policy (prefer non-fossil fuel if equal return) and the amended version with a small buffer.
‘The advice from staff at the time was that margins between rates were so low in the last two years that the policy was not achieving its stated aim, often based on just a 0.05% difference in return. The amended policy gives staff greater discretion to select good long-term sustainable investments.
‘Although Cr Bruem ran as an independent in the elections his actions suggest he is more concerned with National Party ideological purity than the long term future of the community,’ said Keith Williams.
‘Climate change is a real and growing threat to coastal communities like Ballina. We are incredibly exposed. The absolute least he could do is stop trying to make it worse.’
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