THE gift horse presented to Mayor Robert Armstrong got the treatment that many of us in the Huon Valley have come to expect: he looked it full in the mouth. While it was hitched to a ring-barked gum on the development desolation that is Cygnet’s Mary Street subdivision, a couple of hundred metres away in the Town Hall, Armstrong was blowing one of the best chances yet offered to the township’s sadly divided community to heal itself.
It is doubtful the mayor even recognised the golden opportunity presented him by the 700-signature petition that forced Huon Valley Council to stage a public meeting to discuss its August decision to do away with the gum (see ‘Mayor’s rules’ HERE). The tone of the council media release advertising the rules for the December 7 public meeting suggested either total ignorance of, or stubborn refusal to acknowledge, deep Old Cygnet anger towards newcomers; or recognition of the belief of some locals — probably not very many — that blow-ins have, somehow, taken their town away from them.
In his usual brusque manner, flanked by six councillors (including three that had voted to keep the gum), Armstrong rattled off the rules for the meeting. At no stage did it seem to dawn on him that he was the one person present who, as civic leader of a fabulously beautiful valley, could appeal to everyone’s better nature to pursue harmony rather than division in this debate about a stately tree that has stood sentinel at the southern approach to Cygnet for the better part of half a century. (With hindsight, it is notable that, on the night, none of the other councillors present made a contribution to the debate.)
Armstrong knew that two motions of the most innocuous, non-confrontational nature would be presented for consideration: one calling for a register of “significant trees” on public land so that they could be subject to community consultation should they come under threat; the other for a symbol of Cygnet’s long association with sailing and boat-building to be sculpted from the remnant five-metre bole of the gum after its felling.
What possible harm could have stemmed from an appeal by the mayor for unanimous support for each motion? None that I could see. But we were watching the politics of division at work, not an offering of an olive branch for community cohesion. It was always obvious that the mayor — who, with fellow Cygnet councillor Rohan Gudden, 24, and four out-of-town councillors had voted to get rid of the tree — was not interested in namby-pamby chatter from educated newcomers about the value of urban trees. I might have expected it: not long back, an old-family Cygnet farmer told me, bluntly, “Trees belong in the bush”.
Later — when a third motion came up requesting that those councillors who had voted for the demise of the tree should publicly explain their reasons for doing so — Armstrong, surely not forgetting he was in the chair, was observed urging someone to get his hand up and be counted in the “nay” vote. With behaviour like that, one can hardly imagine that the mayor is likely to metamorphose into a community peacemaker anytime soon. (I must read up on the council’s code-of-conduct rules.)
The meeting soon lapsed into one-sided verbal aggro — “We want our town back!”, “We want development!”, “We didn’t come here to listen to this rubbish!” The last was an exasperated mutter from a woman overheard during the address by the petition-raiser, Cygnet Township Development Committee (CTDC) member Pat Synge, a newcomer with only 15 or so years’ residence to his credit. On the other side of the argument, the mood was more of surprise and despair, reflected in the moderate language of the few newcomers who had the temerity to speak up in such a resentment-charged atmosphere.
I had heard many stories over the years about Tasmania — about how the island state is so different from the mainland, how fearful people keep their mouths shut, how they do as they are told to by the unmentionable authority that has ruled since the first colonial settlement. I had never wanted to believe that, in our so-called democratic Australian society, such attitudes could prevail. Yet, since coming to live here five years ago, and especially since that unpleasant December 7 meeting, I am more confused than ever about what it is that makes the Tasmanian way so different from that of the mainland.
One newcomer of a couple of decades’ residence, and with close ties to old Cygnet, appealed to the good sense of councillors present. He suggested that if local government wanted to remain relevant, and if the community wished to retain control of its assets, council and the community had to “become an item, prepared to fight the trend towards centralised, homogenised, apersonal, corporative government”. Still no response from the chair. The mayor was in no mood for the community to become “an item”. What he wanted was for this whole damned tree issue to go away. And he was doing it in the only ways he seems to know — to barge through, or bury his head in the sand and hope it will all go away.
And so it has gone away — well, for the moment, anyway. Each of the motions was rejected by a handful of votes; the tree huggers, suitably chastised, stood in bemused groups in the main hall after the meeting; and the nay-sayers, in “we-told-’em-so” high spirits, quickly left, congratulating themselves on putting one over on those pesky newcomers. It was a battle won in a war that that should never be.
Next morning, an out-of-Cygnet councillor called me to ask “my take” on the previous evening’s disaster. I expressed sadness — and some relief that the motions had failed to get up. What if good sense had prevailed? Who knows what the reaction might have been. My councillor confidant, while saying he had no problem with any of the motions, said he saw Cygnet as a community deeply divided like no other in the valley.
With uncharacteristic mutual enthusiasm, we agreed that something — but what? — had to be done to try to heal the rift in the Cygnet community, a rift that is only exposed when there is a head-on confrontation, as occurred at last week’s public meeting. Could, perhaps, a few people from each side of the divide put their heads together in search of a solution, we pondered.
A longtime Cygnet resident, when I expressed my sadness to him that there seemed little hope of narrowing the divide, ticked me off. “Don’t be so pessimistic,” he said. “Most of the old Cygnet families I have dealings with were not there. There are at least three groups in Cygnet, not two.” They were reassuring words and cause for optimism.
I ruminated on his remarks, and got to musing about an impassioned outburst at the CTDC meeting that had preceded the tree-petition meeting by an hour. One Old Cygnet committee member had lashed out with an impassioned rave about a newcomer to the Cygnet area collecting signatures for yet another petition, this time to prevent destruction of the quaint public toilet in Loongana Park, the commercial centre’s piece of pocket greenery. He had grumbled that the newcomer was collecting signatures from everyone, including visitors to the town. Why don’t these “bloody tourists” go home and fix up their own places, he said. It was an uncharacteristic outburst from a highly regarded member of the community — but perhaps a bitter warning of what was to come soon afterwards a few hundred metres away in the Town Hall.
Last week was a week of important meetings in the Huon Valley. The evening after the rancour of the CTDC and tree-petition meetings came the Huon Valley Council’s monthly and annual general meetings. Much more sedate affairs they were, but the social and political divisions that plague the state’s southernmost municipality were still palpable in the Huonville Town Hall.
Several score forestry and allied workers were present to hear debate on a motion by their longtime industry ally, Councillor Mike Wilson. It called for council to strongly condemn any further lock-up or reservation of state native forests; to argue for local mills to have their contract and supply levels extended at least as far as 2027; and to ask state and federal governments to reaffirm their commitment to the Regional Forest Agreement.
This was populist grandstanding at its most misleading, creating unrealistic hopes in a time of inevitable industry reform. Mayor Armstrong’s contribution to the debate was to assert that it was scientifically proved that clear-felling was the only way to go. Sadly, it was 1950s science he was calling on and, as has been the practice of forestry industry promoters down the years, his dependence on that science was out of context and highly selective.
The forestry-support motion was debated in an atmosphere that called for courage on the part of the Greens councillors to speak, and vote, against it. But speak up they did. And when one of them had the nerve to quote from the recent writings of a forestry worker explaining how the intensifying unprofitability of doing business in the timber industry had driven him out of it, she drew barbs accusing her of yet more Greens hypocrisy.
A friend from an old Tasmanian family, admittedly in drink, appealed to me a few weeks ago, “You bloody newcomers, please save us from ourselves”. After the council’s timber industry debate, the tree-petition meeting and the CTDC outburst against “bloody tourists”, I found myself thinking that no one could save Cygnet from its community malaise; or the Huon Valley from the ineptitude of its controlling councillors; or all of Tasmania from its opportunistic and largely inadequate political leadership.
Yet, four days later, I found myself looking into Cygnet’s past, and rubbing shoulders with a comfortable blend of old and new locals. I felt my spirits rising. Fingering beautiful music on a just-donated ancient pedal organ was Tasmanian old-timer John Dance. Sitting contentedly at his side was an even older local, Jim Coad, who was to tell a yarn about blowing up a pig’s bladder to make a football. And looking on were appreciative workers for, and supporters of, the Cygnet Living History Museum. The occasion was the museum’s 10th birthday celebration.
The inspiration of old and new residents — particularly that of the late May Salter, who got special mention as the museum’s beginnings were recounted by speakers, including those two “hypocritical” Greens councillors — has provided the museum with a wealth of information about the Port Cygnet area’s development since European settlers, Protestant and Catholic (colonials and ex-convicts), came to the area in the early 1800s. Thanks to the generosity of the Uniting Church, the museum is housed in the small building adjacent to the northern boundary of Loongana Park.
The birthday was celebrated on a typical rainy-windy-still-sunshiny-hot-then-cold-then-hot-again sort of Tasmanian day. The reminiscences were many and, overwhelmingly, the mood was that of a happy and harmonious band of people simultaneously looking backward and (much more importantly) forward.
It was an occasion for great optimism. It would have been nice to see Mayor Armstrong and his friends there. They have a lot to contribute not just to the history of Cygnet but to securing a prosperous and co-operative future for their unique township. A gesture of sincere acceptance of each other’s place in the Cygnet community could soon lead to a mutual feeling that “We have all got our town back — and we can enjoy it too”.
— Bob Hawkins is a Huon Valley ratepayer and an advocate for transparency in all democratic institutions. He is not a member of a political organisation.
Note: On Monday (December 13), Huon Valley Council’s spin machine put out a media release headed “Community speaks at Cygnet meeting”. The text listed, without comment, the three motions put to the December 7 meeting and the margins of defeat of each. Fair enough, but it’s a shame that when council received the petition with more than 700 signatures questioning the decision to destroy the tree, its spin machine on that occasion did not put out a media release headed “Community speaks via Cygnet petition”. Odd how a show of about 40 hands easily outvotes 700 signatures! But that’s Huon Valley politics.