Report to Council – January 2021

Hi all. Each month at the public council meeting, a councillor gets to give a longer report to council. This is mine from 25th January 2021.

I want to start my report with a small anecdote which I think helpfully opens up a few of the opportunities and challenges of council over the next few years.

I had a request from a resident in the Whipstick Ward – let’s call him Rob. Rob lives in an older house right next to a relatively new housing estate. Thus, the new asphalt roadside, and kerb and channel which the developer had been required to build, did not extend to his property, nor to the sweeping bend of road beyond the estate. Just a gravel edging was left. Rob contacted me with 2 concerns: a pothole was developing where the new and old road met. This was annoying for Rob as he backed out of his driveway, but he was also concerned about cars sweeping around the bend and losing control on the gravel. I visited Rob, put a request into the Council for information, and pretty soon Rob reported that someone from council had been out to assess the situation and hopefully action would be taken soon.

I think this small snapshot of a councillor’s life shows a few things.

First, the simple things we do as councillors can have a large impact on people’s trust in local government. Rob told me that he was so impressed by the quick response of council that he would be telling all his friends about it. It’s by these small actions and large that we can begin to rebuild the trust that so many of our citizens seem not to place in council.

Second, I have been impressed by the professionalism of council staff, and their hard-working ethos. I know everyone will have a story about being disappointed by council, but disappointments always speak louder than the everyday work that council staff put in to make our city a better place.

Third, we have a serious issue in Bendigo regarding the tension between population growth and liveability. Apparently, we will grow to about 200,000 people by 2050, made up of infill development but also many new housing developments. We need to be asking whether that is an outcome we want, and whether we can implement the kind of measures needed to ensure our city remains a healthy place to live.

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On a day to day level, I have really enjoyed the first few months of being a councillor. The everyday issues that people contact me about may seem mundane from the outside – parking issues for their business, safety of road crossings, noise issues, pool opening hours, an idea they have for their local area. But these small things, along with the larger things, are what makes a neighbourhood tick. It’s a privilege to try to help get a good outcome.

In particular, I have really enjoyed the listening posts Ward councillors have conducted – they are invaluable for allowing ordinary people to talk about what is important to them. I also look forward to our ward meetings this year which will allow people to come together for deliberative discussion and decision making on the issues that concern their area.

As a big picture thinker, I have relished getting my teeth into council strategies, and to putting my mind to future plans and priorities:

  • for the Peter Krenz Leisure Centre development
  • for a comprehensive walking and cycling network around Bendigo
  • for giving local people a voice through community plans in places like Long Gully and smaller towns
  • for a wide-ranging vision for how we work with young people in our city
  • the necessity to keep our eyes open when it comes to the real poverty in our city.
  • for the difficult and thorny issue of swimming pools across the municipality.

I must also thank my fellow councillors for the way in which we have melded together as a group so far. The more experienced ones among you have been so generous with your advice and guidance, which has made my landing into council very smooth. I hope our current ability to work together continues into the future despite the inevitable disagreements that will come.

Lastly, I want to keep encouraging all my fellow citizens to positively contribute to our civic life in whatever way you can. Join a local club or committee, object to a planning application, come to councillors with a great idea for your local area, call up a councillor to ask us to explain a decision we’ve made. It’s only by contributing in small and large ways that we will make our neighbourhoods and our city as a whole a better place for all of us.

Bendigo Council Mayoral Election 2020

Part of my intent in keeping my campaign website going is to discuss issues in our city, but also to inform residents about the democratic processes of your council. This time: the mayoral elections. I’ll look at my principles for how I will decide who I will be voting for, a few interesting details about the process, and how voting works.

This week, your elected councillors will be electing one of our number to be Mayor, and another to be Deputy Mayor. Currently, there are 4 councillors who have said they will nominate for the position of Mayor: Cr Alden, Cr Metcalf, Cr O’Rourke and Cr Fyffe, who all served as councillors. You can read a little about the position of mayor here, however essentially their role is to chair all council meetings, be the principal spokesperson for the council, and the public face of Greater Bendigo. They have no more power around the council table than the other councillors, though in cases where there is a tied vote, they have a casting vote to break the tie.

Given the ballot is secret, I will not be revealing who I vote for, either now or later. However, here are some criteria I will be using to decide my vote:

  • Do they have a comprehensive understanding of the wide range of needs of our municipality?
  • Do they display the qualities necessary to chair productive meetings of council? Things like: collaboration, being an excellent listener, fairness, independence.
  • Do I think they can maintain a positive and fruitful, yet independent, relationship with the CEO?
  • Do I think I can work with them productively to make progress on the priorities I campaigned on, for the good of Whipstick Ward and the whole municipality?
  • Do I think they understand the particular challenges Bendigo faces right now?
  • Would I happy for our city to be represented by them in all kinds of settings? For example civic and ceremonial gatherings, regional meetings, political settings etc.

When I look at the current prospective candidates, there are no red flashing lights according to these criteria. I will making an “on balance” decision about who I think best meets these criteria. I have also spoken to a number of community members to get their view, not on who would make the best mayor, but on what qualities and skills they believe are crucial for Bendigo’s mayor at this point in our history.

A few things about the process:

  • Councillors have already had a conversation about the mayoral term, as it is possible for us to elect a Mayor for a 2 year term. We have decided a 1 year term is appropriate.
  • Council does not have to elect a Deputy Mayor, but we have decided that we will elect one. This will also be for a 1 year term.
  • Although the official election is on this Thursday night, a provisional decision is usually made at an informal meeting of council earlier in the week. Councillors will hear presentations from each of the candidates and we will ask them questions to help us decide how to vote.
  • Then, on this Thursday night, the official election takes place. Usually, the Mayor-elect is the only nominee and so takes their place. However, it is possible for another councillor or councillors to nominate on Thursday night, in which case a vote will be held. This is extremely rare.

So how does the voting work at the informal meeting?

  • A candidate must get 5 votes to become the Mayor-elect.
  • The voting is by secret ballot
  • Councillors write their choice of candidate on individual pieces of paper
  • In the first round of voting, if no candidate gets 5 votes, the candidate with the least votes is cut from the race, and then another round of voting takes place. This continues until 1 candidate has 5 votes. Hence, it is possible to vote for 1 candidate in the first round, and then others in subsequent rounds.

Installation Speech

On the evening of Tuesday 10th November, the council of Greater Bendigo was installed. This was the short speech I gave.

First, I thank my family and friends and all those who contributed to my campaign, especially my wife Kylie, who encouraged me into standing for council. It is no small thing to be a local councillor, and I am grateful and a little overwhelmed by the support I have received.

Second, I hope that the coming term of this council will be characterised by a healthy democratic spirit, formed by democratic habits like:

  • collaboration
  • respectful disagreement
  • leadership as servanthood
  • listening closely to those we serve
  • principled decision making
  • robust compromise
  • receiving loss graciously

I first learnt these habits in sporting pursuits and debating teams. And they were strengthened around the dinner table of my large and noisy family, through being given leadership responsibility in my childhood church, and seeing my parents and extended family involved in the civic world.

So I encourage all those in our wider community to get involved in our local democracy.

That doesn’t have to mean running for public office, but it does mean getting involved with others for the good of our city in small and large ways. Join a committee or club, write a letter, meet your local representatives, talk to your neighbours about local issues, get on the school council. Don’t leave our democracy to the professionals, or just those people who get elected.

Finally, I look forward to representing the Whipstick Ward and working for the good of the whole of Bendigo, and hope that I can honour the trust that the people of Bendigo have placed in me. Thank you.

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If you would like to watch the video of this ceremony, the link is here.

Remembering those doing it tough

Bendigo sees itself as a “go-ahead” kind of town, with an entrepreneurial spirit born of the gold rush. You can see this in the shared workspaces, the dozens of cafes, mushrooming housing developments, and the “only in Bendigo” art gallery exhibitions. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this focus on success. However, it can create a blind spot.

This week, which happens to be Anti-Poverty Week in Australia, we need to remember those who are not “succeeding” – those who are existing on the knife edge of survival. We tuck them away where we can’t see them. We forget them if we can. But if you take the time to talk to any of the leaders of welfare agencies in this town, you’ll see that there is a larger than expected number of people who are struggling with homelessness, unemployment (especially amongst young people), mental health, having enough food and money to get through the week, as well as children in foster-care.

As a former high school teacher and current community worker in some of Bendigo’s economically disenfranchised areas, I can personally attest to these realities.

Is there anything that council can do? Or is this one of those areas that must be tackled by state and federal governments? Certainly, there are some actions that can only be taken by higher levels of government, such as raising the Jobseeker rate or supplying more public housing.

But councils can, and must, do something about poverty. Here are a few ideas – feel free to share yours:

  • Continue to support Bendigo Foodshare as they supply emergency food relief to dozens of agencies across the region. In particular, help them to locate a larger long-term facility.
  • Explore how to change our planning scheme so that new housing developments include higher percentages of social and affordable housing.
  • Provide outreach versions of council services into neighbourhoods that are facing poverty.
  • Partially fund youth workers in neighbourhood centres in areas that are facing poverty.
  • Ensure that health care card holders and pensioners receive discounts on all fees, rates, registrations, and other levies.
  • Play a co-ordinating role amongst agencies to ensure they are all pulling together, advocating on issues on concern, sharing information, and not unnecessarily duplicating services.

You might also be interested in this Facebook interview with Ken Marchingo, head of Haven Home Safe, where we talk about housing in Bendigo.

(Image credit: “Homeless” by Thomas Benjamin Kennington, Bendigo Art Gallery)