On the first day of spring approximately 70 people – business owners, operators and members of our local community – attended the Bellingen Chamber of Commerce ‘meet the candidates’ event. Pleasingly we had almost a full contingent of the registered candidates, so those in attendance had the opportunity to listen, inquire and challenge what was being said, offered and promised by the candidates in our ‘Q&A’ style event.
Whilst the questions were reasonably diverse, extending to mining in the Dorrigo plateau through to the construction of the Urunga Lido and the interconnecting roadways, bridges and waterways in between, there were some definite themes to the many questions posed.
Not surprisingly the finances of Council got a good working over, with the perennial issue of affordability and sustainability being the key focus – much of the discussion was on the rate rises, the Council staff wage rises, the viability of Regional Joint Organisations and the Fit For the Future status of our Shire. Lots of numbers were tossed around and I think some got lost in the detail, but the general concern of the ongoing affordability and sustainability of our Council was obvious. Whilst some candidates were more articulate than others on their thoughts about this, suffice to say that there was nothing that we hadn’t heard before….its difficult, we need to do a review, we need to look at staff numbers, etc etc. Considering the amount of material there is published by Council on this matter, how much air play it had via the FFF process, it was surprising that no team had spent the time developing a coherent ’10 point plan’ around what they would do if elected. We did try and have a ‘fact check’ process about some of the claims, but time got away from us.
A lot of discussion was on the sustainability of our environment – the damage from mining, the bad management practices of the timber felling by NSW Forests, the damage to our roads, waterways and natural flora and fauna by the excessive large vehicle traffic were all raised with sincere concern and distress for what has happened. As you would expect, all candidates pledged their commitment to the environment and to do what they could. A few had plans on the specific concerns, but surprisingly some were caught out, being unaware of significant environmental issues in their ‘backyard’.
Finally a very strong message was centered around the connection between the community and Council, with many in the audience lamenting the apparent breakdown of this over recent years. Consultation, engagement, access to Council meetings were all matters that got a good working, with all candidates committing to some form of increased interaction (eg rotating meetings between our town centres, night meetings, through to using technology to broadcast the meetings…clearly some aren’t aware of our lousy telecoms reception in the Shire as if we cant make phone calls how could we do live streaming!). We shall soon see what changes with the new team.
It is easy to be cynical and dismissive of our Council elections, with many saying “with our huge dependence on state and federal grant funds to do anything and with the complexities of local government laws and regulations controlling much of what a Council came do, but what power or control do Councilors really have?”
But the flip-side is that some regional communities who operate in exactly the same system with exactly the same constraints, can and do prosper and stand out. Under their own volition, they step up and collectively take responsibility, whether that be through elected positions like on Council, or the other avenues available to people willing to make a difference. I heard that night that many still believe Bellingen is\could be\was one of those communities….perhaps our next group of elected representatives can lead us along that (continuing) journey?
Bruce Levy (Lily Pily Country House)
President, Bellingen Chamber of Commerce