The question has crossed my mind as to why you (Bass Coast Shire Council), or for that matter any organisation, would accept a resignation from two volunteers of the Friends of Wonthaggi Cemetery, who are senior citizens, and well respected in the Wonthaggi Community given in response to a strong sense of frustration on their part that they were not being listened to at recent Wonthaggi Cemetery trust meetings by the trustees?
And why would you then double down and refuse their letters withdrawing the resignations, and re-confirm that they would stand, on a weak argument that you planned to re-focus the Wonthaggi Cemetery Friends group in some new direction?
And why would you take the action – confirming their resignations, when members of local community and the Wonthaggi RSL had encouraged these people to submit the withdrawal?
The Wonthaggi RSL had provided that encouragement following a, what we thought, was a positive meeting held with the CEO and the Mayor to discuss our concerns over Wonthaggi Cemetery issues and our long-held plans for a project to install a ‘Veterans Graves Directory Wall’ at that place.
A project first suggested to the RSL by Renee Loeckenhoff, the wife of a veteran, and Noelene Lyons, as a suitable Centenary of Remembrance Day Project because of the very large numbers of veterans buried in the Wonthaggi Cemetery, many in unmarked graves. That project relies entirely on information gathered from the grave identification work undertaken by these ladies at Wonthaggi.
As Secretary of the Wonthaggi RSL, I have asked these ladies, who are members of the RSL, to continue to undertake their important work identifying graves under the auspice as an RSL volunteer.
As part of that request, the RSL required updated information about the progress of their work to date and hours they have expended on that work.
I will not elaborate here but their work covers many thousands of hours spend over three and half years covering over 6000 burials, with survey work yet to be completed in part of the Old Congregational, Roman Catholic and Anglican sections of the Wonthaggi Cemetery. It would have made sense to let these people finish this important task.
So why the Wonthaggi RSL interest in the Wonthaggi Cemetery?
First, the sub branch has had a long past association with this cemetery. Some of our first sub branch meetings were held there in 1919.
Our past members maintained the cemetery for many years and paid for, and installed, the stone cairn and bronze cemetery map plaque located at the cemetery entrance back in the 1930s.
Our ANZAC Dawn service was always conducted at the cemetery until recent times when it was decided that the cemetery condition was too dangerous to hold those services in poor light at dawn. I must check if that memorial is included in the Wonthaggi Master Plan.
Second, survey work showed that Wonthaggi Cemetery is a significant Region Veterans burial place. Over 500 veterans have been identified to date as interred there, including 15 Prisoners of War and 50 plus Commonwealth War Graves, many of these veterans lie in unmarked graves.
Hence in part, our support for the installation of crosses in recent times on those graves – work that is now on hold from instruction from the Cemetery Trust. I should also point out that many grave markers were destroyed when the then Wonthaggi Council put a fire through the Wonthaggi Cemetery in the mid-1960s in response to a request from this sub branch if they could do something to clear the then long grass.
So, there is very long term interest, and of course in recent time the project to install a Veterans Grave Directory Wall.
With respect to this project the sub branch submitted a grant request under the Victorian Government’s ‘Victoria Remembers’ grants program in 2018 which was unsuccessful.
The grant failed because we only had “in principle” approval from the Wonthaggi Cemetery Trust, cum Bass Coast Shire and were advised that in “principle” approval for project grants on Crown lands did not provide clear project ownership for the applicant. So, it’s now back to square one.
Much of what transpired in this sorry saga could have been avoided if clear documentation, or if fact any documentation was in place to govern cemetery management.
I wrote to the Cemetery trust on the 30th March 2019 when the dispute arose surrounding the pre-approved work by the Friends of the Wonthaggi Cemetery to install white timber crosses on unmarked graves.
The timber was donated by Bunnings with our many thanks, and the crosses made and installed by a Wonthaggi RSL veteran member. I requested a specification for the preferable design, materials and installation for memorials, any safe work procedures covering people working in the Wonthaggi Cemetery, and policy guidelines for managing volunteers.
I don’t believe that such documentation exists at this time, and certainly no documentation like the Narromine Shire Council Cemetery Policy, or the Towong Shire, Corryong Cemeteries Trust Charter, Plaques Policy, or complaints management document, mentioned here by way of example.
And while the Victorian Cemeteries Act provides a broad scope for Councils to administer cemeteries, which was confirmed by my inquiries to the Senior Policy Manager, Cemeteries, DHHS, who has apparently kindly kept Bass Shire informed of my contact – so much for confidentiality in government.
I do observe that the current is adversarial and bureaucratic model adopted by Bass Shire to manage the Wonthaggi Cemetery by way of committee meetings and now some kind of special council meeting designed to keep people quiet, does not meet the spirit for cemeteries management as recommended in the Management Guidelines issued by the Government for B Cemeteries which suggests a less formal corporate board like structure. It doesn’t have to be a special council meeting folks.
There is something like 540 cemeteries in Victoria, about 20 are run by councils or shires, of those, three councils run closed cemeteries, and one is moving to hand back the cemetery management to its community.
The Bass Shire needs to investigate a better, more proactive structure for its cemeteries, even consider getting out of the cemeteries management which is not exactly its core business today.
I not that Michael Giles, Managing Director of the South Gippsland Sentinel-Times, suggested something similar in an article published on March 27th, 2018 (Comment, ‘Shire should call time on Wonthaggi Cemetery’).
At least consider an incorporated board like structure composed councillors and community members reporting once a year to the council. Mildura Shire may have way forward.
Rod Gallagher, Wonthaggi RSL Secretary.