Image for Huon Valley Guessing Games: Politics of division

Politics of division and discrimination — a consequence of an executive decision by “non-political” mayor Robert Armstrong — surfaced again at Monday evening’s (November 21) special meeting of the Huon Valley Council.

What could have been an exercise in conciliation and council harmony was, instead, reduced to a cynical process of exclusion of the always constructive and creative Greens faction (councillors Liz Smith and Rosalie Woodruff).

Mayor Armstrong, meagre as usual in his utterances, summed it up this way: the terms of reference for the council’s new Governance Committee required him to make a “recommendation” — so he had made one, and that was that. That his recommendation left in tatters the spirit of the terms of reference seemed of no consequence to him.

The salient sentence in the terms of reference re the appointment of members to the Governance Committee reads thus:

“The mayor is to undertake an assessment of the nominations received and provide recommendations to the council for the appointment of members.”

If the mayor had acknowledged that this authorised him to choose three of the five nominees as members of the Governance Committee, it would have presented him with the dilemma of possibly being seen as discriminatory in his selection. To be even-handed, he would have had to face the prospect of providing the Greens faction with as close to proportional a representation on the Governance Committee as the size of the committee (four members) would allow.

Huon Valley Council, as it now stands, has two, possibly three, factions:

— The five-member Futures Team (this faction’s name varies from election to election and, as the mayor frequently insists, it is “non-political”).

— The two-member Greens faction.

— And the two “independent” councillors — Mike Wilson and Peter Pepper. These two may see themselves as a faction; or simply as two independent councillors; or even as sort of “associate” members of the Futures Team.

(It is not always easy to see Wilson as independent. He was re-elected as a councillor in 2009 as a member of Mayor Armstrong’s group, which was then describing itself in advertisements as the “Huon Valley Team”. And though, in the October election this year, he campaigned for mayor as an independent, on a platform of “It’s time for a change” and “Your only independent candidate for mayor”, in Monday’s Governance Committee vote he clearly got strong support from the Futures Team.)

Irrespective of how the independents view themselves, any fair allocation of membership of the Governance Committee would give them one seat.

However, a proportionally fair Governance Committee — two members for the Futures Team, one for the Greens and one for the independents — seemed not to appeal to Armstrong.

With at least 30 of the 54 secret-ballot votes to be cast by his five-strong Futures Team, and with the support of possibly nine of the 12 votes of the two independents, a much better outcome (“non-political” of course) would be a total lockout of the “opposition” Greens. That way, the Greens would not be privy to the deliberations of what is, in effect, the council’s board of management.

And that’s how it turned out: Wilson, independent, topped the poll with 18 votes; newly elected deputy mayor and Futures Team member Gary Doyle came second with 17; and Futures Team member Tony Duggan third with 13.

With the mayor automatically chairman of the committee, this gave the Futures Team (which has five of the nine elected councillors) three-quarters of the membership of the Governance Committee; the two independents a quarter; and the two Greens no representation.

The also-rans of the five nominees for the committee were the Greens’ Smith (six votes) and Futures Team’s Rohan Gudden (no votes).

Although the voting pattern will forever remain secret — the mayor’s recommendation that ballot papers be immediately destroyed after the count presumably having been carried out, thereby rendering it impossible for even a handwriting expert to examine the anonymous voting slips at some time in the distant future — some aspects of how votes were cast are fairly obvious.

For example, it is reasonable to imagine that Smith got her six votes as a combination of her own three and Greens colleague Woodruff’s three.

The no-vote for Gudden had an enigmatic quality. Did he not feel himself worthy of his own vote? Was his nomination frivolous? Or did he simply follow party instructions? This will never be known unless, of course, he (or some other member of the Futures Team) chooses one day to blow the gaff on his party’s machinations. (Because all nine councillors were able to cast six votes — 3, 2 and 1 in order of their preference — there was no difference in the weight of votes between nominees and non-nominees.)

More intriguing about council’s brief special meeting on Monday evening were comments after the vote.

General Manager Glenn Doyle — who has worked his guts out over the past two or so years to bring some semblance of functionality to this sad council — observed that the process of establishing the Governance Committee “could have been done better . . . any new process is going to have flaws and faults”.

Peter Pepper (elected to council last month and with experience years back as a valley councillor before the 1993 amalgamation and later with the HVC) observed that “we are all equals”. And followed this up with the suggestion that, because the term of office of the committee was two years, its members might consider rotating during that period with other councillors. This enlightened suggestion was met by Tony Duggan’s response that it was a “learning scheme” and council should wait to see how things panned out.

Mike Wilson’s observation rang with a lovely touch of irony: he called for an effort to bring gender balance into the council. This after a secret ballot in which the only six votes for the only female nominee had presumably come from the two women on the council (don’t forget, it was a secret ballot, so we can’t be absolutely sure).

But perhaps all is not lost on the gender front: now that he has uttered gender-specific words, Wilson may yet be ready, in one way or another, to put his money where his mouth. That would be a great leap forward for council.

The mayor’s decision to recommend a secret ballot (rather than make a decision off his own bat) got me to thinking about a public meeting in Cygnet nearly a year ago, a meeting stemming from a heavily supported petition calling for the saving of a huge peppermint gum standing sentinel at the southern approach to the township centre. On that occasion, the “fors” and “againsts” (a small but decisive majority resting with the “againsts”) sat apart in the Cygnet Town Hall.

For half-an-hour, Mayor Armstrong — who had voted for the destruction of the tree in council yet was chairing the public meeting — allowed members in the dissenting ranks to heap contumely and vilification upon the tree’s defenders (mostly newcomers to the community who happened to want to protect an icon of the township, thus conserving an attractive feature of its character) for “trying to change the town”. Some of them were demanding that “We want our town back”. A blank wall of resistance met polite entreaties by the “fors” that the last thing they wanted to do was to “change the town”.

Not once did the mayor seek to cool the old-family anger. Not once did he urge a speaker to stick to the topic of the meeting. Not once did he intervene to suggest that an idea offered up that, if the tree did have to go, it might be a great opportunity for a local chainsaw sculptor to work his magic and carve a symbol of Cygnet’s history from its remnant stump.

Just a couple of hundreds metres south down Mary Street stood the tree in question, already badly ringbarked by some psychopathic vandal who, one can only presume, still didn’t want his town changed even if he didn’t want the tree kept!

The result of that sad event in Cygnet late last year was that the votes of about 40 dissenters at the public meeting prevailed over the wishes of the 700-or-so people, most of them residents of Cygnet and surrounds, who had signed the petition.

Farther north up the street, in Loongana Park, stands a perfectly adequate public toilet that needs only bringing up to present-day health standards. But council, as is so often the case, is keen to get rid of the old and to spend probably $200,000 to replace it with an “historic-style” new structure in an entirely inappropriate position in the park.

Lester Spinaze, a relative newcomer to the Cygnet area, earlier this year had no problem collecting well over 500 signatures of valley residents on his petition urging serious consideration of refurbishment of the existing toilet block. He has yet to lodge his petition with council though it is certain the signatories are still assuming he will do so.

Mayor Armstrong, an advocate of demolition, sees much more merit in the wishes of a majority of the seven-member (including the mayor as chairman) Cygnet Township Committee to replace the toilet block. One member of the CTC, an advocate of demolition, was shocked to notice that “even Asians” were signing the Spinaze petition.

The dysfunctionality that has long been transparently obvious across the full spectrum of Tasmanian governance has become even more obvious in recent times.

In the past week, for example, it has been alleged that the bureaucracy has worked to make it impossible for a corruption commissioner to even start work on eliminating malpractice in the state.

It might not be corruption that is the problem down here in the Huon Valley at the bottom of the state’s political heap. It’s much more a question of a dysfunctionality and discrimination that is not being helped by a mayor who, by his own admission, believes secret ballots are an improvement on even-handed and conciliatory leadership. I can’t agree with him.

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. He makes no secret of the fact that he is a friend of Huon Valley Greens councillors Liz Smith and Rosalie Woodruff. He assures readers that both councillors are not among his sources for the material he publishes. Almost entirely, the information he uses is derived from the council’s website. The views he expresses are formed almost entirely as a result of attending council and council-associated meetings.