KIERAN FINNANE talks to three candidates for the upcoming Town Council election.
Work together, get past the difficulty of differences of opinion, work with the whole community, for the good of the whole community: sounds obvious, sound perhaps soft, but it was a message delivered with convincing emphasis from all three Town Council candidates I spoke to for this article.
They are an assorted lot. Greater diversity is on the cards with the change to the way votes are counted in local government elections, and perhaps the likelihood of a diverse council is delivering candidates who welcome the opportunity of working with its inevitable challenges.
Despite their varied backgrounds, Aaron Dick, Dianne Logan and Matthew Campbell share a number of broad aims: rejuvenation of the town centre, doing what council can to stimulate business in the CBD, developing a greater connection with the river, protection of mature trees, much more shade, more activities for young people.
Alcohol policy and flood mitigation – in this, the year when the 20 year moratorium on a flood mitigation dam north of the Telegraph Station will be lifted – were recognised as thorny, perhaps the latter even more than the former.
While none wanted to comment too much on the mayoral race, all expressed respect for the way Mayor Damien Ryan has handled his role.
Aaron Dick (also known as Charlie) manages the Alice branch of the disability organisation, Life Without Barriers. Before that though he worked as a project officer for the NT Government on the development of the Alice Springs Alcohol Management Plan. He says so with a rueful smile, fully aware of what a long way we have to go to get on top of this problem. His familiarity with the issues means he’s not shy of discussing them.
He sees alcohol abuse as a national problem, experienced in a concentrated way here and particularly so amongst Aboriginal people. However, he says the community needs to recognise that Aboriginal people themselves have long been trying to grapple with the issues and that there are many good Aboriginal people who either do not drink or who do not abuse drink and want to see solutions.
Town Council has a role under Liquor Act
He says the Town Council has an important role in communicating to the NT and Australian Governments about the way alcohol issues are experienced here. Indeed the council is written into the Liquor Act as the body to be taken into account when gauging local views.
He thinks the focus of the debate on restrictions versus no restrictions is unhelpful.
“The current restrictions are workable.
“Like many Territorians, I don’t mind having a drink and if I want one, I can certainly find one.
“People are kidding themselves if they think there’s a problem gaining access to alcohol in this town.”
He supports a take-away free day and broadly the approach of the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition (PAAC), though he is not entirely convinced of the usefulness of a floor price.
He says a practical step that council can take is to help the other tiers of government work out what is actually going on in Alice Springs with people coming in from the bush.
Originally from the Western Australian wheatbelt town of Goomalling, he lived in the Kimberley before coming here seven years ago. In Kimberley towns, councils were better able to manage the influx of visitors, because, it seems to him, they came in smaller numbers – perhaps a group of 20 to 30, in contrast to “whole communities of 50 to 100 people” arriving in Alice.
“We all need to understand the actual situation. I would suggest the local Arrernte people are bemused as well about what’s happening.
“Everyone has a right to access the facilities of Alice Springs – that’s a given – and while we advocate for tourists to come to our town, we can’t be seen to be advocating against visitors from our own region.
“A key strategy for council is to work with outlying communities to come to an agreement about acceptable social norms while people are in town. With some diligent work, that’s achievable.
“It’s about what everybody wants. There’s a degree of ill-informed views on both sides of the social/racial arguments.”
He says council’s relationship with the native title body, Lhere Artepe, is not as strong as it should be, though he recognises that Lhere Artepe’s “internal issues” have been partly to blame. But the new council should work closely with Ian McAdam and the new leadership group in Lhere Artepe.
Curfew ‘not supported by youth’
He recognises alcohol-related crime as a serious issue for the town but doesn’t want to see other issues – for instance, young people out on the streets at night – bundled up with it. He rejects the idea of a youth curfew for the simple reason that “it is not supported by youth”.
“We were all young once. They’ll just say, ‘I’m going out – try and stop me!'”
He also challenges candidates who advocate a curfew to “call it what it is – an Aboriginal youth curfew”.
“We need to tease the issues out in council and look for solutions.”
These can be found, at least in part, in a youth activities program – it certainly seemed to work over the summer, particularly the well-attended police-run Blue Light discos.
The Town Council is trustee for the Todd and Charles Rivers. I ask Mr Dick for his views on council’s work in this role.
By way of broad comment, he says council should support any processes that protect the environment. More specifically though, council could better assist the community to understand the significance of the many sacred trees in the river whose protection is “important for everybody”.
There’s work for council to do to capitalise on the Todd’s potential as a river in the town’s midst: “It should be recognised and appreciated like the rivers are over in the east.”
Work in the river and throughout the CBD could “feed into improved tourist numbers”. The revitalisation process has been “extremely slow”: “The internal mechanisms of councils and governments are a mystery to the world!”
Getting cracking on the revitalisation projects “must be a primary concern for council”.
The new council should also make serious progress on a cultural centre: not just an Aboriginal cultural centre – “we have outgrown that need” – but a solar-powered cultural and historical centre for the whole community.
An an ideal place to locate it, he says, is in the new subdivision of Kilgarrif, south of the Gap: “Make it the first thing tourists see when they get off the plane.”
And while we’re at it, let’s build “the world’s biggest amphitheatre”, he urges, with a fantastic calendar of events to take advantage of our ideal weather for outdoor entertainment during much of the year.
From the macro to the micro: let’s have more trees.
Town is ‘devoid of shade’
“We need trees and shade. This town is devoid of shade, not only in the streets but in the sporting ovals. It’s abysmal!” says the keen cricketer and footballer.
And we need fewer carparks in the CBD: “There are way too many”, occupying many of the corner sites of the town centre.
Would he support a tree protection by-law, covering not only street trees but mature trees on private property?
“What could be the harm in doing that?”
When I suggest that there are some who think that nobody should be able to tell a private property owner what to do, he comments on our “culture of complaint”: “You’d give some of these people a $10 note and they’d complain that it was too crinkly!”
On flood mitigation and the possibility of a dam on the Todd he said the issue is certainly topical, with the extensive flooding that being seen in the eastern states. But here in Alice, while “it shouldn’t be an afterthought” for councillors, he says that at this stage he doesn’t have the information he needs to be able to make an informed comment.
All that in an interview with little notice, without a note, a policy paper or any hesitation to respond to questions – in short, a lively discussion with an engaged citizen.
Dianne Logan’s approach is different, perhaps because of her professional work in event organisation: she likes to be well-prepared. And on the question of rejuvenation of the CBD she is. “Let’s get it happening” is her slogan, designed to energise what has been quite a drawn-out process (dating back to mid-2008). The council’s $5m kitty for revitalisation projects at the northern end of the mall, made available by the NT Government, is only part of what needs to be done. Her focus is on the whole CBD and not so much on infrastructure works as activities to “make a place for community – the whole community, incorporating our history, culture and art”.
“We can’t go backwards, we have to work with what we’ve got.” And that’s already not bad – “Look at our weather!” – and really “we’ve got a lovely town” that needs to be restored to its status as a “premium tourist destination”.
Vibrancy can’t be a once a fortnight matter: “There have to be things happening all the time, day and evening.
“Everyone needs to work together to make that happen – there are too many groups working separately.”
The Town Council needs to work hand in hand with other groups. Such as? She names business, industry, the Territory and Australian Governments.
What about Aboriginal organisations?
“They are part of the community anyway. I don’t want to focus on divisions.
“Let’s draw on the ideas that have been successful elsewhere, like the Renew Australia movement, and let’s make this successful for our town.”
“My town”, adds the born and bred Alice Springs woman.
She sees beautification of the Todd River as essential to the rejuvenation of the town centre: shops, cafes, activities need to face the river to bring it into the CBD.
She sees models for the development of the river banks in the sections along Sturt Terrace in Old Eastside and at the Gap.
Her ideas for a town-wide “Adopt a park” scheme could perhaps be extended to sections of the river.
‘Work with what we’ve got’
As for council’s management of fire risk abatement and the protection of trees, again, “work with what we’ve got, work within the guidelines, it’s not that hard”.
And generally, more attention needs to be given to keeping the town looking tidy – street and footpath maintenance could be improved.
She is reluctant to comment on liquor issues, seeing them as a minefield: “If I get onto council, I’ll have to do a lot of research and work with other councillors to see what could be done.”
On law and order, a perennial topic for council at least in regard to its lobbying power, she wants to see more police but also feels that a more vibrant town centre would take care of some of the problems.
It would be “a bit sad” to see a youth curfew: “I grew up here, we had issues in those days but we never had a curfew.
“I wouldn’t be pushing for it.”
On the other hand she would push for a community centre with a focus on youth and recreation.
As for trees, she loves them and hates to see them go.
“We have some experienced arborists in town who can show us how to protect our trees in public and residential places – let’s work with them.”
On flood mitigation, she’ll wait to do more research.
Matthew Campbell has done his research on the history of putting a dam on the Todd. Once the moratorium is lifted, the key to going forward is to work with Traditional Owners, he says.
“Given the incredible importance placed on those sites by custodians, we can’t hope to come up with a good outcome for the town without working with them.”
It may come down to a values balancing act: weighing up the costs to social cohesion and cultural heritage as opposed to the potential costs of a destructive flood.
To work through such a debate it would be “important to have the values out in the open”, says Mr Campbell.
A research officer for Charles Darwin University, he works in the area of community engagement and conflict resolution – certainly relevant for council business. An insight he has gained from his work is that conflict has a better chance of resolution if it is tackled early: “When the seeds are there, that’s the time to do something about it. Once it’s fully emerged, it’s almost too late.”
He hopes the new council can start afresh with its relationships, going well beyond an attitude of “for me to win, you have to lose”. If the approach to decision-making is “how can we all be winners”, then the decisions have a better chance of being “implemented, owned and sustainable”.
“I’d be prepared to try and work with anybody,” says this committed member of The Greens, “but I’ll have to wait and see if that’s achievable in the real world.”
Social cohesion – the prism for all decision-making
His emphasis on good decision-making processes and relationships is not just idealism. Working towards “social cohesion” is written into the Local Government Act as a key role for council alongside the delivery and maintenance of facilities, infrastructure and services, resource allocation, working cooperatively with the other tiers of government and providing a “voice” for Alice Springs. That all needs to be done “well and collectively”.
Mr Campbell, originally from country Victoria, near Benalla, where his family still have a beef stud, has lived in the Territory since 1999 and in Alice since 2005. He’s the father of two young children and this town is the place where he wants them to grow up. That’s another reason for him to set a premium on social cohesion: “Everyone wants to feel positive and safe in their town. Council needs to look at alcohol policy through that prism.”
In principle, he doesn’t support a youth curfew but again, council would need to thoroughly examine all the issues and make its decision “through prism of social cohesion”.
He’s all too aware, at this time of his life, of the issues surrounding child care (he’s active on the Braitling Child Care Centre management committee) and this area together with youth services and activities is thoroughly deserving of council’s attention and long-term planning.
If he were elected to council he’d be having a good look at council’s masterplan for its sporting facilities. He plays sport himself – football for Pioneers when he first came to town, tennis still. The town is well-endowed with facilities and they provide important venues for people of all backgrounds to come together, he says.
This is also how he sees the town centre: it needs to express the town’s sense of itself as a vibrant place for people of all cultures and ages, where “the things that unite us are stronger than the things that divide us”.
Linking the town centre to the river is “a really good idea”: “As long as the town faces away from the river there is no great incentive to look after it.”
The centre also needs better connection with the suburbs. The revitalisation vision already talks about better connection to the three hills; spreading out from there, especially via a network of bike and walking paths, would also foster greater vitality.
Looking after trees needs a strategic approach: council needs to make decsions based on technical advice, taking public safety seriously but recognising also that “shade is incredibly important”.
Mr Campbell is one of two Greens candidates in this election (the other is Jade Kudrenko). He feels that The Greens is the political party that best reflects his world view. If a situation on council brought him into conflict with the party in any way, he would hope to apply a good decision-making process to that situation: work out what the values at stake were, as well as the objectives and the criteria on which a decision was to be made.
“The Greens are not telling me, or Jade, what to do. We’ve been through a pre-selection process and from there they trust us to be good spokespeople and representatives.
“The main motivation for me in standing for this election is be involved in participatory democracy.
“If I were elected, I’d see the most important part of my job as talking to people, all sorts of people and agencies, to find out what they are thinking and take that into the council decision-making process.”
Pictured, from top: Aaron (Charlie) Dick – we need more trees and shade throughout the town, and fewer carparks in the CBD! • Dianne Logan – “Let’s get it happening!”, she says of rejuvenation of the CBD . • Matthew Campbell – as long as the town turns its back to the river, there won’t be much incentive to look after it.
How can we all be winners?
KIERAN FINNANE talks to three candidates for the upcoming Town Council election.