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A dangerous axeman, probably deranged, remains at large in the Huon Valley nearly 18 months after a vicious attack on an iconic Cygnet resident.


However, as a consequence of a Huon Valley Council mercy killing on Tuesday (January 17), the lurking axeman is no longer in danger of being charged with murder, though a lesser offence of causing serious bodily harm ought to still be on police books.


It is unlikely that the offender will ever be brought to justice because his offence was against not a fellow human but a magnificent peppermint gum (Eucalyptus amygdalina) that, until Tuesday, had stood sentinel at the southern end of Mary Street, Cygnet’s main thoroughfare, for about half a century.


When the ringbarking attack on the tree occurred towards the end of 2009, a petition had started circulating to save the tree. The petition was motivated by a council decision — supported by the mayor, Robert Armstrong, a Cygnet resident — to have the tree felled.


There is no information to suggest that either the owner of the land on which the tree stood, or the council itself, has ever asked the police to try discover who it was that had trespassed on private property and had inflicted such wilful damage on a tree that is said to have been put there by a member of an old Cygnet family.


Events that followed (chronicled in Tasmanian Times in ‘Cygnet, heal thyself’ on December 14, 2010 (http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/huon-valley-guessing-games-cygnet-heal-thyself/) resulted in an unpleasant Town Hall confrontation between a group of shocked and cowed township blow-ins (recent and not-so-recent newcomers) and a band of rowdy locals. The mayor, who had clearly decided he had no conflict of interest, chaired that unhappy meeting, called as a consequence of the hugely popular petition to save the tree, and did nothing to keep it on focus.


By the time of the meeting, it was too late to save the tree: the unknown would-be assassin having already hacked into its life-giving circulation system. That, ironically, appears to have been the ringbarker’s demonstration of his support for his particular old-Cygnet faction that wants to stop newcomers from “changing our town”.


When he realised he had not done a thorough enough job of assuring its death, the mad hacker soon afterwards made another stealthy attack, again under the cover of darkness. And even then the tree valiantly lingered on. On Monday this week, though its foliage was drooping and its limbs were exhausted, it stood on defiantly.


Early Tuesday morning, council contractors turned up and put it out of its agony.


Greens Councillor Liz Smith said on Tuesday she had asked council staff to consider saving a couple of, say, three-metre lengths of the trunk for possible use as furniture for the “public open space” (POS) that is to be developed on the site. The area for POS is a consequence of a condition of the subdivision that now scars acres of land stretching up the hill from the new roundabout at the junction of Mary and Charlton streets. (Our picture suggests that this request seems to have been noted.)


Pat Synge, who led the campaign to save the tree — and was thwarted in his suggestion that, when it was apparent that because of its damaged state it would have to go, five metres of its trunk should be kept for a local chainsaw sculptor to create a suitable symbol for Cygnet’s reason for being — wrote to council on Tuesday to mark the tree’s passing.


In his letter, addressed to Manager Community Services Marcia Waller, General Manager Glen Doyle, councillors and members of the Cygnet Township Committee, Synge wrote:


“Since it (the tree) could not be saved after the vandalism it will be good that it is gone since it serves as a daily reminder of the small-mindedness of some members of our community. Standing there in the open space next to the roundabout we can now clearly see how magnificent it would have looked had it been retained in good health. I was told by council staff when plans were first being drawn up for this area that this tree ‘was on the footprint of the roundabout’. This is the kind of blatant misinformation that leads to mistrust of council. The subsequent divisive wrangle that we then endured was entirely of HVC’s making since it stemmed from a lack of honest and open prior consultation . . .”


Synge went on to point out other failures, including the council’s failure to make adequate planning to take over that portion of land on the Mary Street subdivision allocated for a POS.


He observed:


“I note that you say that ‘a landscape plan will be developed for the Public Open Space and presented to the Cygnet Township Committee for consideration in due course’. Why does HVC persist in practising consultation in reverse order and in such an untimely manner? We have known that this area is to be developed as a POS for a long time and have had plenty of time, as a community, to develop a landscaping plan (at considerably less cost).”


Synge, miles ahead of council in planning vision, in October 2010 presented a sketch of his vision for the POS. In his letter to council on Tuesday, he wrote:


“I am not suggesting that it [Synge’s plan] is acceptable, and it has been overtaken to some extent by subsequent development (eg, the ‘footpath to nowhere’), but it could serve as a starting point. Others in the community would also have contributed ideas if they had been invited to do so. The committee could then have considered these and been able to give considered suggestions. This process could still be entered into but, instead, you [Waller] say that a landscape plan is to be developed with no prior community consultation.


“This sounds just like the toilet development [in Loongana Park]. Back in October 2010 ‘council staff explained that the current footprint of the toilet block is not suitable and the facility will need to be redesigned and rebuilt.’ (Cygnet Township Development Committee minutes 12/10/10). Again, more misinformation. The subsequent ‘consultation’ has had all the appearance of a process reluctantly undertaken with the outcome largely predetermined (especially when a petition signed by hundreds of Cygnet residents has not even been accepted as a valid submission despite having been lodged during the consultation period — see http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/a-temporary-aberration-surely/).


“Genuine unprejudiced consultation should be the starting point and involve the community that is to be directly affected. Consultation should not begin after decisions have been made ‘on high’ and positions adopted that, if abandoned, involve ‘loss of face’. It is hardly surprising that consultation undertaken in this manner is drawn out, expensive and divisive.


“HVC should realise by now that the community they represent will not accept being dictated to. Quite apart from anything else, I would imagine that this makes your [Waller’s and Doyle’s] jobs more frustrating and less rewarding.”


One small businessman in Cygnet, obviously unwilling to be named, echoed Synge’s lament in his own way: “The local cowboys want to destroy this town.” Another longtime Cygnet resident told me the other day that he knew the name of the mad axeman. But he wouldn’t voice it.


In this lovely small town that is such a tourist drawcard — for Tasmanian, interstate and international travelers — people are still fearful of being critical of their council. Very few are willing to publicly complain about the way things are down here in the Huon Valley.


God forbid that the mooted local government council amalgamations eventually cut all of us down here adrift from civilisation and leave us totally in the grips of power brokers that seem rooted in a 19th-century system in which the peasants and serfs, sensing that they are still captives of a feudal fiefdom, feel that they had better do as they are told and keep their mouths shut — or else!


The people of the Channel and Bruny Island must surely be equally fearful at the thought that they, too, will be cut off from their relatively benign and certainly more visionary Kingborough Council and left at the mercy of a “Greater Huon Valley Council”.

— Bob Hawkins