By KIERAN FINNANE
Alone among the candidates handing out how-to-votes, Councillor Eli Melky has not allocated preferences.
His rivals have and they’re mostly putting him well down the list. Only Murray Stewart, former councillor, has put him in his top eight, at number three spot.
Cr Melky acknowledges his unpopularity, is almost proud of it: “It shows how much of a threat I’ve become,” he says.
He also points out that he was not in anyone’s top eight in the 2012 election either, but won 1298 primary votes, second only to retiring councillor Steve Brown in a field of 15 candidates.
By declining to allocate preferences he wants to demonstrate that he is not part of a block or any political party: “It’s important not to walk into council with any preconceived idea of working with a favoured group.
“When councillors vote in a block, they don’t vote for logic, for the right reasons, they vote for what’s popular and I’ve never agreed with that. That’s not putting the community first.”
But isn’t it the case that people don’t know what they’re getting with him, they can’t see where he’s aligned, not just on the basis of the how-to-vote but on his record? He is hard to predict on issues.
With the youth curfew, for instance, he told council at a recent meeting that he’d had a change of heart, he no longer supported such a measure, thought it would do more harm than good. Two weeks later he had changed his mind and once again was trying to win support for a curfew (but failed ).
In contrast, who would have thought Cr Melky would be such an unwavering opponent of fracking?
He defends first of all changing his mind: situations change, the facts change; if decisions are based on positions held 10 years ago, five years, six months ago, “that’s not good governance”.
On fracking, he says the environment is “everybody’s business”, it’s not “a green thing”.
“Polluting the water we drink will hurt everybody, no matter who you vote for. The risk is clear, fracking can pollute the water we drink.
“I’m very clear in response, I would like to drink clean water, and therefore I’m anti-fracking.”
Why hasn’t he promoted that position more?
His answer is odd in the context of an election campaign: “I don’t want to hold up a badge as though I’m touting for the green vote.”
But, just because it is not listed among his top priorities, it doesn’t mean he will be changing his position: “That would be risking my children’s health, I would have failed my wife, my family and my town which has given us so much.”
So, he’s prepared to work with everyone, but what about bringing people with him, knowing how to work in a group?
He has had some major wins, especially in the areas of financial management and transparency. Not many councillors can point to such concrete achievements.
He brought to an end the farce of finance committee meetings that reported to the community exactly nothing: there are now comprehensive financial reports on the public record every month.
His literacy in money matters and attention to detail, combined with dogged persistence, led to his eventual win in getting council to pay off its Civic Centre loan, delivering to its coffers a $100,000+ saving.
He has bucked against the tendency to consider business behind the closed doors of confidential meetings and was always the councillor most likely to resist taking debate “off line”, as was often suggested.
At the same time, Cr Melky has hung his hat on issues that have had no support from his colleagues, most recently and repeatedly, a night-time youth curfew (persistence doesn’t always pay off).
He has also not known well how to discriminate between the matters worth spending time on, even fighting for and those that are relatively inconsequential. Apart from a tendency to long-windedness (which actually has improved over time) he has often raised matters with no course of action to propose, to the undisguised exasperation of just about everybody in the chamber.
Now in campaign mode, what is his reflection on this? Is it a good idea to so try people’s patience?
He would much prefer to not annoy people, he says: sometimes it’s a choice between pursuing what he believes is important or “bowing down, falling into line”. Sometimes also it’s deliberate: “I’m trying to see where there’s a weakness in my opposition’s armour.”
It’s fairly threatening in this town to be vocal, he says: “People will stop doing business with you, isolate you, try to humiliate you, spread rumours about you, it’s not easy.”
He’s tried to take on board some of the criticism and improve his performance, while also developing a thick skin. A strength is to run his own successful business, to not be dependent on anyone, any agency or group of people.
About the issues he has failed to progress, such as the youth curfew, he sees the upside: “When I’m criticised I know I’m getting my point across.” This goes for people in the community and for the other tiers of government which he says use what’s going on in council to gauge the mood and needs of the town.
Candidate John Adams has warned against hitting “the panic button too early” over issues like crime and antisocial behaviour, arguing that it’s bad for the town’s image and gets in the way of dealing with problems. What does Cr Melky think?
He agrees that bad publicity nationwide is not good, but it is a clear indicator “of where we are now as a result of bad policy and lack of leadership, lack of resources”.
He also thinks it sends a “positive message”: that tolerance for unacceptable behaviour is zero and it must be nipped in the bud.
Apart from the obvious concerns over the recent spike in unacceptable behaviour, he says there is “a major concern brewing under the surface, more dangerous than all the rock-throwers put together”.
This is the rising cost of insurance in this “high risk town”: “If it becomes too expensive to insure your house, car, business, events that’s when you’re going to see real economic challenges.”
He cites recent hikes in body corporate insurance for unit complexes that his company manages: they have gone from $30,000 to $130,000 – “astronomical”.
This could start a “domino effect” with businesses closing, property values crashing.
“It’s not a bad thing to hit the button early to stop all of that.”
What is his answer?
“I say work on long-term planning, listen, work with the people, all the people.”
In particular, solving the town’s social and economic issues won’t be possible without the involvement of Indigenous individuals and organisations, he says. He is committed to being more proactive in developing these relationships if he’s returned to council.
He also thinks there’s scope for council to become more involved in economic development, including by easing rates on business, and become landowners, charging rent.
“We’ve got to stop treating the ratepayer like a cash cow.”
By KIERAN FINNANE