THERE’S little doubt that there’s a subtext going on, below the surface, in the South Gippsland Shire Council election race.
Accusations abound of sitting councillors encouraging single-issue candidates to run as their dummies, to confuse the issue and pump up their own chances of winning.
There are claims that candidates are trying to commandeer popular policy positions as their own, on such things as coal seam gas and public transport, while seeking to marginalise their opponents on these issues in the process.
There’s even a conspiracy theory doing the rounds that a block of candidates have as one of their main aims, should they get control of the council, to get rid of the CEO Tim Tamlin.
Getting to the bottom of those claims and even nominating candidates as someone else’s stooge is fraught but Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks, a candidate for the Tarwin Valley ward, believes he can at least point to an example of an unfortunate political point-scoring exercise.
He’s not happy that his colleague on council, Cr Andrew McEwen, is using his position on the South and West Gippsland Transport Group, to try and back his opponents into a corner on the issue of the return of the South Gippsland passenger train.
At the same time, he says, he’s making himself appear to be the leader on the issue.
“Andrew has stepped down as chair of the group but the survey they have sent out to all candidates is his doing,” Cr Hutchison-Brooks said.
A former founder of the group, Max Semkin, is also annoyed that Cr McEwen is politicising the public transport issue for his own benefit.
The man standing in for Cr McEwen, on the transport group, acting chair, David Rasmus, freely admits that the questionnaire sent out under his name and the narrative that goes with it are all Cr McEwen’s work.
But he rejects the idea that he is being used, or the issue, as a political point-scoring exercise.
What’s wrong with lobbying for what you want at election time?
Nothing, he says.
A questionnaire from his group was among the first to hit the email inboxes of candidates for the South Gippsland election and he makes no apology for trying to put councillors on the spot.
“Either they are for economic development or they’re not. It’s not just the return of rail, but an improvement to public transport generally that’s wanted, which we believe is holding this area back.”
Personally, though, David’s preference is for a quality rail service.
“A lot of people won’t get on the bus as it is and spend up to three hours getting to Melbourne. Most prefer the two hours by car or they simply don’t go at all.
“It used to work very well before, you just hopped on the train and that’s what we’d like to see back here.
“We believe it’s holding up the economic development of the area.
“People mightn’t like it that we’re out there asking the candidates the question but that’s just too bad.
“We’re here to make a difference.
“All we are trying to do is get people to look at public transport.
“I’m standing in for Andrew while the election campaign is on and then he’ll step back in,” Mr Rasmus said.
The transport group has asked two questions, stipulating a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer:
1. Will you support as a priority project, the return of the rail to Leongatha? Yes/No.
2. Will you support the funding of an integrated transport plan for SW Gippsland at a cost of $30,000 to $40,000 in conjunction with four other local councils? Yes/No.
Mr Rasmus says the other four councils; Bass Coast, Cardinia, Casey and Baw Baw have already committed funding to the transport strategy plan and it’s only South Gippsland Council that’s dragging the chain.
Not happy, Andrew
Cr Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks isn’t happy with how the questions have been pitched and he believes Cr McEwen is just waiting to pounce.
“Of course everyone would like to see the return of the trains to South Gippsland. That’s already the policy position of the council,” Cr Hutchinson-Brooks said.
“But as for saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to making it a priority project for funding, it’s the wrong way about.
“It will be up to the new council, in consultation with the whole community, to say what its priorities should be.
“You can’t represent that with a yes or no answer.
“My concern is that if you don’t say yes, or you don’t participate, Andrew will try to get some mileage out of it through the transport group. It’s putting them in a difficult position, I believe.”
“We should continue to advocate for the return of rail services to South Gippsland and there’s a statement from the government I believe that they’d like to retain the rail reserve from here to Yarram for another 20 years.
“If that’s the case, they should put a rail trail right through in the meantime. They’ve got to pull up the tracks anyway because the sleepers have all rotted.
“But as for giving $30,000 or $40,000 to another study, I’m not sure that’s a priority at this stage.”
The Sentinel-Times attempted unsuccessfully to contact Cr McEwen for comment last Friday. He responded on Monday afternoon:
“I stepped aside to depoliticise it. While I had a hand in preparing it (the questionarie), the final product was David’s and Chris Cantlon,” he said.
“It’s not factually correct to say I did it. They refined and prepared the questionnaire,” he said.
Candidates’ questionnaire a massive waste of time
By Michael Giles
BACK in June this year, the Minister for Local Government, Natalie Hutchins made a big song and dance about ‘Lifting standards for Council candidates’ in a statement on June 27 about changing Local Government electoral regulations, allegedly for the better.
While we accept that dropping the preference information from the VEC voting packs wasn’t her doing, the much vaunted addition of a candidates’ questionnaire has turned out to be a massive disappointment.
Here’s what the State Government said at the time:
“The Government is giving candidates the option of supplying more information about themselves, including details of any training they have undertaken to prepare themselves to become a councillor.
“The questionnaire will also ask candidates if they have read key council publications and, if the candidate is a current councillor seeking re-election, what their attendance record at council meetings has been.
“Victorians voting at this year’s council elections will have more information about their candidates than ever before,” Minister Hutchins claimed.
“Asking candidates to tell the public about training undertaken highlights the importance of improving standards in local government.”
But oh dear, what eventuated on the VEC website late last week would certainly not pass the pub test.
Responses to the questionnaire are generally yes/no answers to questions like: have you read the Council Plan, have you read the code of conduct, are you a member of a registered political party and are you a sitting councillor.
It asks candidates to list relevant training (which is of some use) but, in general terms it’s a wasted opportunity to quiz councillors on a range of issues.
Take the responses by Cr Kimberley Brown for example.
She lists her relevant training as attending a leadership program put on by the Cranlana Programme, which is fair enough, but she also lists her attendance record at Council meetings, which means ‘ordinary’ monthly council meetings and rare special meetings of council, at better than 90%.
However a record of attendance published by the Island Standalone Group last week claims that Ms Brown’s attendance at a possible 47 councillor briefing and info sessions, since February this year, has been seven, or 15%.
Ms Brown was quoted in the Phillip Island Advertiser last week, where she didn’t dispute her attendance record but explaining that her own work priorities had stopped her from attending.
While it is disappointing that Cr Brown didn’t see her way clear to represent the people at these important briefing sessions, it illustrates the point that attendance claims on the VEC site by other candidates are equally open to challenge.
A couple of candidates for both the Bass Coast and South Gippsland elections have acknowledged they haven’t read the Council Plan. Good on them because you’d have to think that most people, other than the sitting councillors themselves, have not read it.
Local MP, Danny O’Brien agrees:
“This questionnaire does little to offer voters any extra information when choosing candidates.
“This is just a further demonstration of the spin-over-substance of State Government. They make all sorts of big claims about improving things such as council governance but then fail to deliver,” Mr O’Brien said.
“They’ve also claimed to have capped council rates but at far higher than the CPI rate they promised, at the same time as withdrawing funding from local government with cuts like the Country Roads and Bridge program that was actually delivering $1 million extra to South Gippsland Shire every year.”
So, how do you know who to vote for? The candidate statements were posted on the VEC website yesterday, there have been various articles and letters published in the Sentinel-Times, but other than that, you’re on your own.