ABOVE: Room half full or half empty – the small turn-out for the mayoral Q&A suggests the town’s flagging interest in all the talk. A few more than shown did arrive. Councillor candidate Matthew Campbell in the front row is not sleeping – in fact he was the first to arrive – we just caught him during a blink. BELOW RIGHT: Mayor Ryan and challengers (from left) Steve Brown, Eli Melky, Samih Habib Bitar, Dave Douglas.
By KIERAN FINNANE
Alice seems to be getting sick of talking. Last night’s mayoral candidate question & answer session was a lacklustre affair and poorly attended. If candidates’ family and friends, councillor candidates and media had been removed, the Andy McNeill Room would have been three-quarters empty.
The five candidates outlined their campaign message with no surprises. Steve Brown, candidate for mayor and councillor, was the one to come closest to making a speech intended to inspire, nominating the town’s biggest single issue as “social inclusion” – a term usually coming from those who would count themselves as his opponents.
To offer residents of remote communities and town camps a way into our community is the “burning issue” for Alice Springs, he said. He said the situation where there would be children “unfed on the streets tonight” was “not good enough”. And all that has been done so far hasn’t adequately addressed the situation.
The only way to build inclusion is to have one set of laws for everybody to live by, he argued.
In his allocated five minutes he didn’t have time to detail what he would do to achieve this but he acknowledged that it would be “very complex”. In his brief conclusion he emphasised the need for a new youth club or centre, a point also made in his campaign materials.
A future biennial festival, Yeperenye style?
Mayor Damien Ryan in his five minutes said creating community events makes the community more “inclusive”, and that council is not given enough credit for its program of events. In its next term council should work on having more, he said. In collaboration with Indigenous elders they could include a biennial Yeperenye-style desert festival, which could be taken to world tourism markets.
In his speech Alderman Samih Habib, running for mayor or seeking return as a councillor, had criticised (mainly for causing the loss of local jobs) the move of CCTV monitoring to Darwin. Mayor Ryan defended the move, saying that it had led to more convictions in the first two months after the move than it had in the preceding 14 months while monitored in Alice Springs. Mayor Ryan said CCTV needs to be extended and particularly to have wireless capacity so that it can focus on hot spots where they spring up.
He mentioned the development of the Regional Waste Facility as a key achievement of the 11th Council.
Asked from the floor about recycling of wine and spirit bottles, which are excluded from the NT Government’s Cash for Containers scheme, Mayor Ryan said they can be recycled at the landfill now and his aim is to have collection receptacles for them placed around town.
Mayor Ryan promised “good governance” in a future council he would lead, stressing as a final remark the need for people to “work together as a team”.
He was questioned from the floor by councillor candidate Aaron (Charlie) Dick (pictured) about his plans for future youth programs. Mr Dick said he was “very disappointed” by council’s work in this area over the last year.
Mayor Ryan referred to the youth forum three years ago “which didn’t go a long way”. But renewed interest in forming a youth council has come from young people involved in the Desert Knowledge youth leadership program, he said.
Ald Habib Bitar said the town must fight centralisation of government functions and jobs; he said government funding should be on a per capita basis – this would be “fair”.
His claims regarding law and order were certainly broad brush: the police “in this town” have “no power and no resources” and “we pay the price”.
Ald Eli Melky, also having a tilt at the top job or seeking return as a councillor, said council can do more than implement by-laws when it comes to law and order. It could be better addressed with the relevant bodies including the Chief Minister. Council has not been doing this to “maximum” effect, he said.
His position on a “bedtime curfew” for youth had been misrepresented as “ripping them off the streets and throwing them into gaol”, he said without going into further detail.
He was given the opportunity to return to this theme by Paul Lelliott who, from the floor, questioned the effectiveness of the numerous government agencies involved in the youth field.
Ald Melky highlighted the problem of youth services being unable to detain a child if the child wanted to leave and called for the consolidation of services: funding should be channelled to reputable services who get better results, he said.
Mayor Ryan on this issue pointed to the effectiveness of the calendar of activities in the recent summer holidays, organised by youth services and supported by council. The Community Action Plan, which he co-chairs, is pushing to have such a calendar for every school holiday period, he said.
Council must talk with youth
Councillor candidate John Reid said council must talk with youth, not just about them and pointed to the way Port Augusta council has been able to involve its youth in decision-making.
Mr Brown said council has to take a “central role” in youth issues: “Alice Springs has to take ownership of its own children.”
This shouldn’t be left to a bureaucrat in the NT Government, he said, taking a broad swipe at youth services and police juvenile diversion programs.
Ald Habib Bitar harked back to the days of Aranda House when it was a place where vulnerable youths could spend the night. He wanted to know how many beds are available at the Youth Hub.
Ald Liz Martin, who is seeking re-election, said from the floor while the meeting was on this theme, that the reality is that council will need “to deal more and more with our remote communities”.
“We must embrace that for our future. If we fight it, we’ve got no future,” she said.
Ald Melky in his introductory speech said the pressure on ratepayers needs to be reduced, while council needs more resources to keep up with things as simple as keeping the verges mown.
Judy Buckley (pictured) from the floor challenged the suggestion that rates could be cut, saying she is stunned at what council achieves with its $31 million budget, comparing it with the $33 million budget of Victoria’s second largest high school where she worked before retiring to Alice.
Candidate for mayor and councillor Dave Douglas painted a picture of a much safer Alice 30 years ago when he first came to town. You could leave the Stuart Arms and walk down the street “with no trouble at all – now you can’t do that”.
This was challenged from the floor by Graham Buckley, referring to headlines from the period that showed the same concerns about anti-social behaviour existed then. Kel Davies from the floor made a similar point.
If he were mayor, Mr Douglas would not take “second best from Darwin”. He also complained of government centralisation, with Alice left behind as the “very, very poor cousin”.
He spoke of getting a lot more recycling happening, including of industrial waste, and of having “a go” at getting a second airline into Alice. But he returned to the safety of citizens and visitors as his main concern: you give the squeaky wheel the most oil and he’ll be “squeaking like hell” to government for the funding to ensure more effective law and order.
Tackling alcohol-fuelled violence
Ald Melky was questioned from the floor by councillor candidate Chansey Paech about his stance on alcohol restrictions – he advocates their removal – and how he would fight the violence fuelled by alcohol.
Ald Melky says he starts at home by not drinking alcohol himself but he can’t accept the restriction on trade of a legal product and claimed it does nothing to reduce consumption.
At the same time he acknowledged the problem of alcohol-related crime and said “give me a solution”.
Mayor Ryan in his concluding remarks emphasised the importance of the Todd Mall redevelopment, specifically of council obtaining the funding to proceed with the second and third stages.
Mr Brown urged that voters keep in mind that this election precedes the Legislative Assembly election in August. The lead-up will be an important time to lobby government, he said, to redress the neglect that Alice has suffered.
Ald Melky stressed the importance of elected members raising awareness of issues in the community as they can rely on council’s administration to effectively run “roads, rates and rubbish”.
Mr Douglas said he wants people to get behind the town which he’d like to see prosper and grow to a population of 50,000 over the next 10 years.
Ald Habib Bitar said he likes to be “part of the people and being on council you are” as council is “the voice of the people”: “If the voice is not strong enough, we get nowhere.”
The biggest round of applause for the night was reserved for Kate McMaster (pictured), a teacher and 5th generation Territorian, speaking from the floor. She said teachers must deal with negative behaviour in the classroom quickly and firmly, but their focus remains on positive behaviour, building it up with endless feedback. She urged candidates in tackling the issues to start with positive as “it’s poisonous out there at the moment”.
Councillor candidate Edan Baxter had also urged some perspective: Alice is a town of less than 30,000 people, he said – “we’re not rebuilding Iraq”.