With more whispering behind hands than a year ten formal, on Tuesday evening the Lismore City Council chambers hosted a belated March sitting.
The meeting, which began at 6pm, stretched out until after 11.30pm with councillors visibly exhausted by the end – some having spent the recent days and weeks recovering and repairing their flood-wrecked homes or helping others.
After what appeared to the viewer to be a lot of time-wasting by certain councillors, it wasn’t until almost five hours had passed that councillors needed to be on their game to understand and vote on a motion involving the Lismore Floodplain Management Committee.
Cr Electra Jensen’s motion
When Cr Kreig announced item 15.2, the Committee Recommendation that: the minutes of the Lismore Floodplain Management Committee meeting held on 17 February 2022 be received and the recommendations contained in the minutes be endorsed, Cr Electra Jensen was on her feet.
It appears that during the Floodplain Management Committee in February a motion was passed that amongst other items: the Floodplain Management Committee Reference group be discontinued.
Cr Jensen, who is chair of the Floodplain Management Committee, proposed an amendment – that the Reference group be paused. ‘I just like to put forward – pause Floodplain Management Committee and any proposed amendments to the terms of reference until such time as the CSIRO report has come out.
‘And also, the updated Floodplain Risk Management plan being undertaken by Engeny Water Management is paused until the time the details of the CSIRO studies as well – which may only take a month and we’re not due to meet until May, but given the fact that we are waiting for CSIRO to give us that information, it’s probably not worthwhile us doing two things at one time.
‘So it’s only pausing, it’s not getting rid of the committee or suggesting that, just putting it on pause until we get that data back from CSIRO.’
Cr Darlene Cook asked Cr Jensen, as chair of the committee, what was the purpose in disbanding the community reference group?
Cr Jensen said ‘We just decided it was time to refresh the committee. And see whether we had any other interested parties that come into it and get some more potentially expert informational people to join the committee.’
Cr Cook asked Cr Jensen that in the light of it being Cr Jensen’s very first Floodplain Management Committee and Cr Rob’s first Floodplain Management Committee meeting: ‘You have decided that the people who have been sitting on that committee, who have been working with Engeny on the floodplain risk plans, have discussed the engineering solutions, have been discussing the way forward – but you felt in your experience that you needed the whole thing to be refreshed?
Cr Jensen: ‘Yes.’
Cr Elly Bird said that she wanted to speak against the motion. ‘I was at the Floodplain Management Committee but unfortunately had to leave before the resolutions in the minutes were adopted. And as a member of that committee, I didn’t get the chance to speak in that debate or to vote on that amendment. So I do want to make my position known.’
Doing away with Community Reference group ‘ill-advised’
‘Firstly, I think that the decision to do away with the Community Reference group, given what we’ve just experienced, is ill-advised,’ said Cr Bird.
‘The community has a huge interest, obviously, in what’s going to happen in flood mitigation going forward. I do note that I was incredibly disappointed by our local member’s [Kevin Hogan] statement to the community that “the debate is over”. The debate is only just beginning!
‘Our community has a very strong vested interest with a different understanding of that phrase as it is usually used. And this is not the time to be closing down community awareness and community participation in floodplain management, floodplain risk understanding and floodplain mitigation options.
‘So given that it was before the flood, I appreciate why that decision may have been made, but I do think that any further decisions around the terms of reference with the Floodplain Management Committee should include adequate provisions and opportunities for the community to participate and attend meetings as the however that might happen.’
Cr Bird said she was also a little concerned about the process around the revision of the terms of reference to the Floodplain Management Committee. ‘I would be very keen to ensure that that process is done properly.’
Cr Bird said she would reserve her comments on the CSIRO flood mitigation study until it’s seen. ‘I do hope that it comes quickly because again, we have significant community interest, but I do want to register that I’m opposed to the original decision. And as Cr Cook has flagged, we had community members on that committee with five years of expertise and experience in understanding the mitigation options that were before us. And to throw all of that experience away, I don’t support.
’In terms of this particular motion I’ll be voting against.’
Opportunity to reapply welcome
Cr Jensen wanted to clarify that the opportunity for people to reapply and go on to the committee was welcome.
It was then established that given that the committee members have been dismissed, the Terms of Reference would need to be revisited prior to any community members reapplying, so the current Floodplain Management Committee, including Councillors Jensen, Rob, Ekins and Bird, without other committee members would determine the new Terms of Reference.
Cr Vanessa Ekins moved an amendment on one point. ‘My interpretation is: we pause the committee; we’re pausing recruitment for another thing, and; we’re also pausing the terms of reference. So there’ll be no committee meeting at all. I understand what you’re trying to do here, I’m a little bit concerned by the words of: “at such time as CSIRO is understood” and “as until such time as the details are provided”, that it’s not very specific, it sort of puts a committee in limbo land,’ said Cr Ekins.
Real technical expertise in the committee
‘My other reason is that, as Cr Bird said, we’ve been working for five years on understanding the model of the catchment. ‘We’ve got some real technical expertise in that committee, but at the moment, we’re in the middle of consultation with our community about the six options that were identified as feasible and as Cr Bird said, I don’t think this is a good time to shut down discussion about floodplain. As you know, those mitigation options, one of which is to raise the levee to the 100-year flood level, which will really impact on North and South Lismore, so there’d be a lot of interest in discussing that.
‘The other one is removing the lowering the riverbank south of Albert Park like happened outside Bunnings. There’s a lot of interest in what happens for downstream communities; widening the causeway under the Bruxner Highway; removing the railway viaduct at South Lismore – we already talked about that tonight, and the other one was; raising the south Lismore flood levee which farmers upstream are really concerned about, the dam effect.
‘You talk to anyone in South Lismore they’ll tell you about how that water came over that floodway and created a tsunami that spun houses around in South Lismore and created all that destruction we’ve seen around Engine Street – that was created by water coming over the flood levee.’
Stopping process very dangerous
‘So these are the these are technically feasible, potential options that are currently on public display, talking with our community about,’ said Cr Ekins. ‘Now to just stop that right now, I think Cr Jensen, is very, very dangerous.
‘We need to keep those communication items open. I can see what you’re trying to say there about not progressing with the floodplain risk management plan. I think that’s wise, because as a committee we need to meet, we need to explore the terms of reference we need to recruit a new committee – community members – and we need to revisit the entire mapping for the floodplain. We need to do that. And as a committee, we should start doing that now, we shouldn’t stop and wait for a broad scale report from Tweed to Grafton. We don’t know when that will happen or when they’ll announce that they could be six or 12 months before they’re ready to even start doing that.
Cr Ekins said the Floodplain Management Committee was in the middle of a process now. ‘We’ve got technical expertise, we’ve got models, we’re consulting actively with our community. Now is the time to get that engagement and talk about what floods look like. We’ve got a new benchmark – this is not the time to shut it all down and put it on pause.
Not repeating work
‘We’re not repeating work – anything that we do will be useful, any engagement that we get with our community now is really, really important – so I’m really concerned about what message this sends.
‘As the chair of the Floodplain Management Committee, I would urge you to call a meeting very soon, so we can start framing how we have that discussion going forward. I’d say that was a matter of absolute urgency, and in fact, I’d like to put there a second point to my amendment that we move the attachments and that we urgently hold a meeting of the floodplain committee.’
Cr Jensen again clarified her motion. ‘We weren’t going to get rid of the report at all. We were just going to pause it until we hear from CSIRO. We were thinking that the CSIRO details might be out within the next month.
Apology for lack of detail
‘I do apologise that there’s not that much detail in what I’ve put up. We’re certainly only pausing and not getting rid of any information that we already have,’ said Cr Jensen.
From there the meeting seemed to slip sideways. In an attempt to right the ship, Deputy Mayor, Cr Peter Colby added his opinion, in particular his views on a suggestion that the community be informed via the media. ‘I sort of tend to err on the fact is it doesn’t matter what you say, it’s not going to be the right message at this stage. I think that we need to be able to go forward with it.
‘If you put out a media release that says that we are going to pause this, everybody will look underneath it, they won’t look at the message. They’ll look underneath the message.
‘And I think that we need to go back to square one and basically reevaluate whether we should actually pause the committee during this next three months period, because at least it shows people that we are still interested and shows that the council is still interested in it, and we are prepared to move forward, upcoming with the CSIRO report and work with them,’ said Cr Colby.
A bad optic
‘My personal view of this is it’s a bad optic at this stage to actually go back and say we’re going to pause the committee until we find somebody out of the corporate world, or CSIRO, who are going to come up with a better plan.’
Cr Colby said it wouldn’t matter what was said in a media release. ‘People are going to look underneath and say “well, why did they do it?” and “why did they put the plan out there to start with?” and “why they were sending us a message that basically says that we’ve done this?” My position is, that I believe we should withdraw this whole approach and go forward – continue on with the Committee until we get some further view of where the CSIRO and everybody else is with this. That’s my position.’
For the next 15 minutes or so things got very jumbled – there was a lot of whispering between councillors, and the GM and the Mayor, amendments and foreshadowed amendments and points-of-order as things got more and more confused, and everyone grew more tired.
Ok people, it’s 11.30pm
Cr Adam Guise got to his feet. ‘Oh councillors. We’re here at 11.30 at night and we’re debating whether we want to be relevant in the flood debate. I mean, this is absolute bonkers. Absolute bonkers!
‘I absolutely concur with Councillor Ekins and what she says, I concur with what Cr Colby has said, we need to be in the room for this, people. We need to have a voice, we need to have a committee, we need to have councillor involvement. To walk away from this is to walk away from our community. Because Kevin Hogan stands up and says the debate is over, we decide to walk away from our committee. That’s just absolutely bizarre.
‘We cannot abandon our community to a $10 million study by government bureaucrats or scientists or engineers who do not live in our community, who do not pick up the rubbish off the streets and who do not rebuild broken lives. We can’t do that to our community. We need to be in the room every step of the way, fighting for our community. We don’t delay it for terms of reference that may not come that cover the entire catchment – they’re going to look at geoengineering solutions on scales that are bonkers? Are we going to geo-engineer the entire catchment is going to take decades if ever? While we bat away every climate change event that attacks our community?
‘We can’t do that to our community, people. We have to be here leading the debate every step of the way. We can’t absolve ourselves of this responsibility. There’s no way I’m giving this away to a person who says we live amongst the gum trees, who insults our community and says it’s our fault for living here. Half of our population live on the floodplain, let’s be realistic about that. The Northern Rivers is the Northern Rivers. Half of our population live on coastal areas subjected to tidal waves and coastal inundation, half our population live on steep slopes and forests. We’re all in this together with climate change.
‘We can’t let government bureaucrats just wipe us off as some backwater community that does not matter,’ said Cr Guise.
We need to be relevant
‘We matter and we need to be in the room and we need to continue this discussion in this debate and not walk away from this committee. We need to make it relevant, we need to involve the people in the community, really intelligent, involved passionate people in our community. And we do not need to give it away to experts that go back to their lives and insulate themselves to what’s happening here on the ground. And so please people let’s continue this community committee. Let’s involve all of us and let’s involve our community.’
Cr Andrew Bing reminded Council that the legally required amount of speakers had had their say and it was time to vote.
Cr Big Rob wanted to ask ‘just a quick question’. ‘I’m not sure if councillors who aren’t on the committee or who haven’t been reading their emails. The efforts on the terms of reference have increased the size of this committee that’s going to be in place and it is included. So it’s got five experts still on there. It’s got all the councillors on there. And we’re looking at adding two more community members, one is an Indigenous member and one is non-location specific. So that’s going to come back to us. So we’re trying to inform this committee as much as we can.
‘Those five experts – we’ve got technical specialists from Lismore City Council, Rous County Council, Southern Cross Uni, we’ve got a representative from DPE, and a representative from SES. So we have the experts there,’ said Cr Rob.
Advisory group: ‘No one was doing anything’
‘We have the community members there, and the advisory group was disbanded because the staff told us that no one was doing anything – they were just emailing or popping up. These meetings are open to the public, we can fill the room with people. And you know, and I’m sure through the chair, they can ask questions and no one’s gonna say “no” to anyone.
‘So please don’t think that we’re running back. This committee is not a seat at the table. This is us. We’re not going to get Commonwealth and State people coming to our meetings. We need to get the terms of reference, work within the whole framework, and try and stop wasting money on one little thing here and there, and try and get aligned with the state and the federal. That’s our hope people realise that’s what we’re doing.’
After almost an hour the motion was tightly passed with Councillors Krieg, Hall, Jensen Rob, Gordon and Bing for, and Councillors Colby, Ekins, Guise, Bird and Cook against.