Newcastle Council – One Year On

With the current Newcastle Council now about one year into their term the Newsletter chats with the two Greens Councillors, and Therese Doyle Michael Osborne about their experiences.

Therese Doyle

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Laman Street, formerly Newcastle’s most beautiful street and cultural entry point for the city, is now bereft of trees and a shadow of its former self.

What were your expectations when you were first elected?

In the first instance I was elated that The Greens would have one more voice on Newcastle Council, after Michael Osborne had just spent four years presenting a Greens perspective on his own.

In the first few months of the new council we were successful in putting up motions to defend residents’ rights in general, such as, to support Newcastle TAFE’s Art School and to the Fullarton Cove community in their battle to protect their land from coal seam gas. However the McCloy juggernaut had swept all before it and the city found itself with a developer lord mayor and four Liberal councillors.

Worse still, the two independents quickly showed themselves to be completely under the sway of the mayor.  Where before the elections, Councillor Robinson had presented himself  as “your voice in council”, and Councillor Rufo had stood as Community One  team independent for “honesty and transparency” in council they quickly changed their tune to fall into line with the mayor’s wishes. From that point onward, almost all progressive motions designed to protect residents’ rights have been lost.

Despite these obvious setbacks, being a councillor now means I can advocate in favour of what council should be doing to advance the interests of the community of Newcastle and its environment.

How would you describe Newcastle City Council in this term?

This is probably the most conservative council that Newcastle has seen for decades. Although the 2012 local government elections reflected a broad swing to the right in politics around the country, I don’t think the council we have here in Newcastle is representative of what the people of Newcastle wanted.

The Lord Mayor, who promised to “get the job done”, has slashed services, had almost no jobs done and acts like the far right of the Liberal Party. He has seen out a General Manager who was not ruthless enough for his liking and installed a new one who has a reputation for enforcing “competitive practices”, severely cutting back on permanent council staff and imposing his way on elected councillors.

The other two so-called independent councillors vote almost entirely with the mayor and Liberals. The four Liberal councillors consistently vote to shut out open discussion and to reduce debate on almost every issue. They have successfully moved that the council is unable to discuss any community concerns that are not the immediate business of council will not be discussed.

What have been some of the big issues of your first year on Council?

From my point of view the big issues have been:

  • Cycling Strategy

By far the best thing about being on Newcastle City Council is the continued support from all parties for the Newcastle Cycling Strategy.  I chair the Council’s Cycleways Advisory Committee. It has been my pleasure to help facilitate the rollout of Council’s Cycleways Strategy in the committee, which has recently adopted a variation on the original strategy, based on a network of primary and secondary cycleways, designed and presented by Newcastle Cycleways movement.

  • “Budget Crisis”

Within weeks of the new council being elected, the mayor and Liberal councillors began to whip up a “budget crisis” to justify the subsequent slashing of council services and associated redundancies of lower level managers and frontline staff. The general atmosphere of alarm created by these overblown forecasts meant that all council’s functions were placed at risk and an ill-thought out restructure was embarked on.

  • The Art Gallery

The completion of the Newcastle Art Gallery redevelopment was an early casualty of this manufactured crisis.

The entire Art Gallery redevelopment was stopped in its tracks when it became clear that the State Government would contribute nothing towards the Art Gallery Redevelopment. The then federal Labor Government withdrew its $7 million funding. Council then voted to withdraw all funds kept in reserve for the Art Gallery in December this year.

The latest blow to the Art Gallery occurred with the latest restructure, adopted by the majority on 24 September, which has abolished the prestigious senior management position of Art Gallery Director. This is a body blow, not only to the director himself, but to the whole Arts community in Newcastle.

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  • Public transport and Revitalisation of Newcastle

Two announcements in December 2012 by the Liberal/National State Government have roused public debate on the shape of the city and the best design for public transport to create a vibrant healthy city. The first was the announcement that the railway to the city would be cut at Wickham; followed quickly by the release of the draft Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy (NURS).

Public response to the rail cut decision was overwhelmingly negative. Community consultation sessions on the NURS were dominated by voices raised in defence of retaining the rail line despite instructions that no discussion about the rail was permitted.

At a public meeting Newcastle Greens the two Greens councillors and David Shoebridge (Greens NSW MP and spokesperson on planning) put forward an alternative vision for the city. We argued for a revitalisation based on accessible public transport, greater emphasis on pedestrian and cycleways, promotion of ecologically sustainable industries, solutions to the mine subsidence problems, human-scale developments as well as the enhancement of cultural institutions.

  • Council Management Restructure

Severe and detrimental cuts to services and staff have been the hallmark of Newcastle Council’s management so far this year. The restructure began in earnest when interim General Manager Ken Gouldthorpe was hired for his cost-cutting record at other councils. Park and road maintenance crews, Public pool opening hours and lifesaver patrols at beaches and the closure of the city’s award-winning Youth Cultural and Arts program at The Loft were the first casualties. The Art Gallery has since been absorbed into an ill-defined “cultural institutions” portfolio that will probably include the museum and Civic theatre complex.

  • Debate muzzled on Council

Newcastle City Council will no longer have the ability to discuss issues of vital importance to its residents. A Liberal Party motion effectively gagging the council from discussing any issue that is not in Council’s power to decide was adopted in May this year. It means that council was forbidden from hearing an address on the dangers of large-scale storage of Ammonium Nitrate in various sites close to residential dwellings; or to discuss marriage equality, or even to reaffirm Newcastle as welcome city for refugees.

  • Community Engagement (or lack of it)

Symptomatic of the undemocratic nature of this Council was the attempt to have a “Community Engagement” policy adopted by council without placing the policy on public display.

How will you use the Greens presence on Council from here??

We are in a minority on this council. Sometimes we are in a minority of only two, usually related to our attempts to have open meetings and transparency in council decision-making. More frequently we are in a minority of six with the four Labor councillors joining us in opposing the most draconian measures of this council.

We will continue to use our presence on Newcastle City Council to communicate our vision for the city and its services by talking directly to the public. We do this by holding public meetings, talking to residents in small groups and getting our voice heard through the media. So far we have been able to attract a lot of interest in and support for our cause because we continue to stand up for resident’s rights and for an open and responsive council.

Michael Osborne

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Reflecting on the last year on Council made me think of that classic phrase that entered our language from the title of the 1966 Italian epic Spaghetti western film: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. So let me re-cap…

The Good

Cycling

The size and topography of Newcastle means that we really should be the cycling capital of Australia but it wasn’t until my Notice of Motion was carried on 17 February 2009 that Council began to develop a comprehensive cycling strategy and action plan through a broad-based community Cycling Working Party. The draft comprehensive cycling strategy and action plan was formally adopted by Council on 6 March 2012. But implementation doesn’t just happen by itself and it’s a constant battle to keep things on track. After getting the cycling program included as a key community infrastructure project and $15.5 million allocated over 10 years, the program has survived relatively unscathed from the recent budget slashes.

Webcasting

After years of trying to get Newcastle Council to shift into the 21st Century and webcast the Council meetings, this has finally been achieved in the last few months (see http://councils.apstream.net/council/public/newcastlelivenew/newcastleplayer.asp and http://www.newcastle.nsw.gov.au/council/council_meetings/web_casting_of_council_meetings). This was against opposition from staff who thought it would cost an arm and a leg (it doesn’t!) and against the opposition of some councillors who were concerned that because there is no parliamentary privilege in the council chamber they could get sued for defamation (well don’t defame anyone!). My Notice of Motion was carried on 20 December 2011, money was allocated in the budget and the first “official” webcast Council meeting was on 9 April 2013.

Advocacy #1

Early in the term of this Council, the Greens were successful in getting unanimous Council support to allow residents to address Council about their concerns about CSG drilling, in getting Council support to lobby to have our national parks excluded from the Hunting Legislation and to lobby the State Government to recognise the importance of the Hunter Estuary wetlands by pushing for Ramsar listing. These relatively simple things are important to show that we are standing up for our community and our environment, but this was all to change when the post-election honeymoon ended…

The Bad

Governance Liberal-style

It wasn’t long before the “Community 1” independent Cr Rufo and the “Buman/McCloy” independent Cr Robinson started rubber-stamping the McCloy/Liberal agenda. So the General Manager’s recruitment panel was rammed through as an all-Liberal panel (that’s how we got Mr Ken Goldthorpe as Interim GM!), public land was put on the market (including areas used by the public like Glovers Lane Reserve in Cooks Hill and Torpey Place Bowling Club site in Broadmeadow) and  probably the largest grant ever received by Newcastle Council from the Federal Government of $7 million was handed back because the McCloy Liberals couldn’t convince Tim “the-money’s-in-the-bag” Owen or the Sydney Liberals to contribute to the Newcastle Art Gallery.

Council’s Budget

Using the debt-is-bad, finances-are-dire, government-services-are-about-to-collapse script out of the Liberal Party handbook (compare with the recent Federal election), the McCloy-Liberals and the rubber-stamping Independents waved through a series of staff sackings, mean-spirited council budget cuts (remember the changes to our lifeguards and the ridiculous swimming pool closing times such as closing the pools at 3pm just as the kids get out of school!) and a re-structure to get rid of anyone who has stood up to the Mayor.

Advocacy #2

On 28 May 2013, the McCloy Liberals and the rubber-stamping Independents used their numbers to shut down the democratic right of Councillors to bring issues of concern in the Newcastle community before Council. We had three Notices of Motion shut down. The first was to reaffirm Council’s commitment to valuing and respecting diversity in our community and to adopt a position of supporting the strong community campaign for marriage equality. The second was to reaffirm Newcastle as a Welcome City for Refugees (remember one of the rubber-stampers was actually a president of the Newcastle and Hunter Ethnic Communities Council and received an OAM for standing up for migrants!). The third was to receive a Public Voice on Ammonium Nitrate Storage in the Newcastle local government area and to request from the State Government that a risk analysis be prepared regarding the risks associated with the storage and transport of ammonium nitrate in the local area.

The honeymoon is over…

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Therese and Michael supporting Fullerton Cove resident’s No GSG protest

The Ugly

An equitable rating structure

Council’s current rating structure is not the most equitable option available to Council, and even though we try every year to get a more equitable option adopted we haven’t been successful. This year (as in previous years) we had support from those Labor councillors who don’t live in Merewether (not that I’d be implying that a vested interest is at work!).

Night markets for Newcastle

On 9April 2013, Council adopted the Greens Notice of Motion to look at ways Council can help facilitate the establishment and sustainability of night markets in Newcastle, including opportunities to work in partnership with Newcastle NOW and other business groupings and funding possibilities from State and Federal Governments and from private sources. However, in the meeting the motion was going to be lost with Labor and Liberal combining unless we withdrew the idea of forming a working party of community members and staff to drive the process. Since this resolution, it seems that the organisers behind the successful Red Lantern night markets have been cut out of the discussions.

Planning, what planning?

The Greens councillors have been at the forefront (and often the lone voices) in trying to moderate the worst parts of inappropriate development, whether it is to moderate the over-shadowing from a bland Islington bedsit development, or an industrial development in Carrington that all-but ignores the neighbouring residents or an intense manufactured home estate proposed for a Mayfield park. We were there fighting the good fight.

And the journey continues…

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