By KIERAN FINNANE
Alderman Samih Habib Bitar, the Town Council’s longest-serving member, has not ruled out running for Mayor against incumbent Damien Ryan. Nor has council’s newest member, Alderman Eli Melky. Ald Habib Bitar will, however, definitely run again as alderman, while Ald Melky may not.
Ald Habib Bitar would not say what will influence his decision on the mayoral contest, but Ald Melky, returned in a by-election in March last year, was quite clear: whether he runs for mayor or simply as an alderman, he wants to see who else is going to put their hands up.
“I don’t want to spend the next four years being shut down by the numbers,” he says.
This is what he sees as having happened to him in his 12 months on council. He says it would be misleading to tell voters that he could change things if that were again to be the situation.
This is potentially more likely with the new council, given the change in the way votes will be counted in the up-coming elections. The new counting system favours greater diversity, so unless there is a strong cohort of like-minded candidates with high profiles, the town could end up with a very mixed group of aldermen – representing “small interest groups”, says Ald Melky.
“This opens up a whole can of worms and could be very tough on the town. There’ll be no team work, no direction, everyone will be fighting for their one-off agendas.”
Ald Melky says the only reason he wants to be on council is to be “productive”.
“As the town is in such dire straits, if I can’t be part of the solution on the inside, I’d rather be part of the battle on the outside.”
He is appalled that council refused to discuss the local law and order situation on Monday (see separate report), preferring to focus on roller derby “when businesses are shutting down one after the other!”
He says he dodged a brick being thrown at his car on Tuesday night and was harassed by a group of drunks when he was running on Head Street oval at about 8.30pm. He was also appalled to see large numbers of young Aboriginal people, many of them drunk, on the street at 11.30pm as aldermen left Monday night’s meeting. He believes any tourist walking by would have felt highly intimidated.
“People says I shouldn’t refer to them as being Aboriginal, but that’s who they were – they weren’t white, they weren’t African, they weren’t Indian.”
He was disgusted on the same occasion with the amount of rubbish on the ground around the council chambers.
He says the role of mayor has great potential to be productive, a potential he sees as having been “hardly tapped” by Mayor Ryan.
He gives Mayor Ryan “an A+” for his exercise of the ceremonial role and for “talking up the town”, for example in his role as vice-president of the Finke Desert Race committee, but on the “hard issues, a D-“.
What are the hard issues, in his view?
Ald Melky doesn’t hesitate:
• “transparency” – too much council business is discussed in confidential;
• “engagement” – not enough is done to unify the council and the community; and,
• “standing up against opposing views” – of “minority groups”, the Police Commissioner, the Chief Minister.
“Why is so much done in confidential?” he asks. “Why is there so much disunity? Why don’t we get our fair share of attention from the police, the NT Government, and the Federal Government?”
He zeroes in particularly on the NT Government: “They have the resources to ensure law and order, land release, to stimulate business and tourism.
“If I was the mayor, and the NT Parliament sat here, I wouldn’t go inside during the protests outside and have a cup of tea with the Chief Minister and take him a gift, I’d stay outside and expect the Chief Minister to come out and meet with me and the rest of the people.
“I’d be asking him, why do we have 10, 15, 20 businesses closing in Alice Springs? Why is land release so limited? Why is there no growth here? Why are we talking about housing infill? Why is there so much red tape in the way of new projects? Why is the start price for a piece of dirt $300,000? Why in a tourist town do we have liquor restrictions?”
He hastens to add that he does not drink at all, a personal choice.
“These are the questions that the local government principal has to highlight,” says Ald Melky.
Sounds like he’s ready to campaign, but Ald Melky says his hesitation is genuine. “It would be a very expensive exercise. I estimate you’d need a $50,000 purse to campaign against Damien, taking into account loss of income from the time you’d have to take off work and the money spent on advertising.
“To get your brand up in the six to eight weeks we’ve got left, door-knocking wouldn’t do it. And if you think it could be done with $5000 worth of advertising, you’d be dreaming!
“I’m in the fortunate position where I’ve got the resources but I would be doing the wrong thing by the town if I went back into the environment that I have had to face in this council.”
For an explanation of the way the former “exhaustive preferential” system favours blocks and works against more isolated or independent candidates, see Alex Nelson’s comment, published in the lead-up to the last local government election. The system that will be used this time in all NT local government elections is known as “single transferable vote proportional representation”. Its benefits for multi-member electorates where there is social diversity have been argued for by Dr Will Sanders of the Australian National University. See our past coverage of his views here.
The new system, says Dr Sanders, will mean “that any candidate who can get more than 1/9th of the vote across Alice Springs ( 11.1%) will now get elected as one of the eight alderman, as opposed to the old system under which all eight had to attract over 50% of voters. I suspect this will mean a broader-based council, possibly including someone with strong links to town camp interests”.
In the coming weeks the Alice Springs News Online will bring you interviews with aspiring aldermen – they won’t include 8HA talkback host Adrian Renzi, who has decided against running – and any mayoral candidates that may emerge.
Ald Melky is pictured above, addressing the rally outside Parliamentary sittings in Alice Springs in March last year.
Mayor Damien Ryan responds to Alderman Melky’s comments:
I am at a loss to find any input that Alderman Melky can claim as his achievement since joining ASTC in March 2011, although he has always been quick to provide media headlines while others in council have got on with real actions.
Alderman Melky continues to show his lack of understanding of the Local Government Act: The CEO determines what business is placed in the confidential section of council and at all times the elected members have the power to bring this discussion into the open section. After due diligence the elected members vote to have these decisions moved to the open section of Council.
ASTC has very clear legislative responsibilities and these do not include NT Police, Law & Order or Alcohol Restrictions: the Alice Springs Town Council works with all sections of the community and all NTG Departments.
An example of this was the introduction of CCTV developed by ASTC and now managed by the NT Police. The CCTV has become a useful tool in curbing anti social behaviour in the CBD.
During August 2011 the ASTC resolved a motion to request the Chief Minister of the NT and the NT Police Commissioner ensure that Alice Springs receive the same level of police resources and focus as experienced in our town during March 2011 be in place for this summer to ensure we did not experience the same crime and anti social behaviour as last summer. The outcome from this resolution was the creation of the Alice Springs Community Action Plan which provided a summer holiday program to engage the youth of our town and also provided the successful Police Operation Thresher.
Sadly Alderman Melky likes to Talk the Talk but goes missing when its time to action the Talk as shown in his decision to oppose this.
Alderman Melky should explain to the community why he voted AGAINST the motion.
As Mayor of Alice Springs I have worked tirelessly and with success to obtain many Federal and NT Governments grants for our community.