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HomeIssue 1Local government: A lot of action beyond the 3Rs

Local government: A lot of action beyond the 3Rs

24107 Murray The Station Pic
24107 Brenton Lewis 130By ERWIN CHLANDA
People who are saying local government should do more than “rates, roads and rubbish” can point to the Rural City of Murray Bridge for a shining example.
With a population of 22,000 that local government area is a little smaller than Alice Springs and so is its budget, $30m.
But the Murray Bridge council plays a leading role in the economic development of SA’s south eastern region. It heads up the tourism promotion for that part of the world in collaboration with other councils.
It has full time staff and facilities for young people (photo at top), is currently developing two major industrial precincts and manages the town’s revitalisation, which in The Alice currently is being driven by the NT government.
Mayor Brenton Lewis (above, right) says the region has learned “a valuable lesson during the horrendous 10-year milliennium drought when the Murray River fell by two meters” and government funding was grossly inadequate.
“To this day we are still scarred by it. The lessons learned were capacity and resilience in times of trouble. We’re a fairly tough community.
“It brought us together. We don’t live on handouts.”
But in collaboration with the SA Government, Mayor Lewis gets a chance to join the Premier’s trade missions to China. The Murray Bridge council is in advance talks about Chinese investment in aged care, retirement facilities, food processing and manufacturing in the river town, with outward traffic of goods equally keenly sought.
24107 Murray Bridge cattle OKMayor Lewis says the region wants to attract Chinese tourists, and direct flights by South China Airlines several times a week to Adelaide he expects will help serve that purpose.
“Once tourists land in eastern states it’s very hard to get them to go somewhere else,” he says.
While Alice remains in awe and reliant on Darwin, 1600 km away, Mayor Lewis clearly thinks the South East needs to set its own agenda, with help as required from Adelaide, 70 km away.
Pride plays a big part for Mayor Lewis who entered local government for the first time in 2014 after a major national role in agri business, including starting his own business “which became very big and got gobbled up by corporate”.
This was followed by a job in regional development where he ended up the chief executive for 13 years. He ran for Mayor under the motto “Murray Bridge proud, safe and progressive”.
He says the region is very prominent in processing and manufacturing of agricultural products, despite a diminishing role in production, specifically dairy.
The policy is “looking at the bigger region” and sourcing the agricultural raw materials for its businesses from an ever growing area, including interstate and even cattle from the NT.
Mayor Lewis says Murray Bridge is now the largest lamb exporter in Australia. It grows 50% of all the onions in SA. It has the largest mushroom production, processing and packaging in SA, one of the top two in Australia.
“We’re huge in chickens and have the second largest if not the largest pork abattoir in Australia,” says Mayor Lewis. “One ch24107 Murray Sixth Street 450icken hatchery produces a million chickens a week.”
He says the town turns produce with a farm gate value of $450m into processed and manufactured food worth around $1.3 billion.
Grain for stock feed comes from all around the region. There are two major stock feed plants, and a new one is being built for $40m. The intensive animal industries, feedlots and animals processed in the region are forming “a closed loop”.
The immediate region has about 25 “active, strong” dairy properties. “Fourteen years ago we had 160,” says Mayor Lewis. The drought killed most of them off.
But despite the drop-off in production the two milk factories “are still here and viable because they bring in milk from western Victoria, SE South Australia and elsewhere”.
Cattle come from NSW, Victoria, NT, and sheep from every state of Australia.
“Thomas Foods (photo above) kill 1200 to 1400 head of beef a day and 14,000 sheep a day, every day.”
What role does the council play?
“We fund Regional Development Australia which playes a vital role in bringing together the Murray Lands Food Alliance,” says Mayor Lewis.
“We work very hard to assist with planning, trying to lift planning constraints. We assist with advocacy for infrastructure from state and Federal governments, apart from what we need to do ourselves.
“We created a brand new precinct called Flagstaff and a second one, Monarto Intermodal. We’ve done all the planning for those. That will enable ongoing value adding of agriculture. That’s expressly what they are being developed for.
“We are also very proactive in promoting migration into our region. As the Mayor last year I swore in 200 new citizens, the majority from other countries who have come here to work. They brought their families here.”
The town is expecting a 30% population growth to 30,000 by 2025. “At our current growth rate that’s conservative,” says Mayor Lewis.
But boosting business isn’t the council’s only objective.
“We’re re also focussed on social – especially youth – and environmental issues – the river.”
The Station, the former railway station, is council managed, getting funding from the Federal government’s Headspace, and is used by 500 young people for gigs, activities, fellowship and events, “somewhere they can go, where they are understood,” says Mayor Lewis.
It is open every business day, and during school holidays has weekend events as well. There are two full time council staff, plus events funded through council.
Managing Regional Development Australia costs the council around $100,000 a year plus in-kind support, through event sponsorship. Murray Bridge is one of eight councils cooperating to fund and manage RDA, the largest council and the largest contributor.
To promote tourism four councils have “decided to pull out the fences and operate as a collective” –  Murray Bridge, Mid Murray, Coorong and Alexandrina.
“This cooperation feeds into other activities as well, such as education and health.
“We founded the Murray Lands Tourism Alliance. Murray Bridge in itself is spending $400,000 on events promotion and events.”
This could well be a template for the Town Council of Alice Springs whose major tourists attractions – the West and East MacDonnell Ranges – are in the areas of the Central Desert and MacDonnell regional councils. (Cooperation between Alice Town Council and the regional councils is mooted.)
Mayor Lewis says the problem in Murray Bridge has been the lack of quality accommodation, “but we are hoping to hear an announcement” about a new hotel complex with an additional 100-odd rooms, up to five star,” he says.
One motel was built in the last three or four years, with 23 rooms and a restaurant. The total number of tourism beds is currently about 360.
This will aim to get people to stay over night for events: The motor sport park at Tailem Bend, due to come on stream in 2018, will be a “massive boost for the region”.
The story about the Sixth Street beautification (street scene above) is bound to have Alice locals ask: “Now, where have I heard this before.”
24107 Murray Bridge delegation OKMayor Lewis makes it clear it was the previous council which instigated the proposal, spent “a couple of hundred thousand dollars” developing the business case for it, enough to get the attention of the SA and Federal governments, and attract $3.4m in about equal parts from each.
The end result, says Mayor Lewis, is “really good” but he described the process initially as an “interesting journey”, including the disruption of trade in Sixth Street for nine months that was “rather horrendous”.
Traders suffered throughout “the long life of the project, ripping up streets, blocking off streets, disrupting their traffic, their business pattern.
“It was a horrendous time for them. They bled and there are some terrible stories out of that.”
But Mayor Lewis says the council learned valuable lessons, soon to be applied to the next re-development, for the main drag, Bridge Street.
“Do you start at both ends and hold everybody up or do you get one bit done and then move on?” says Mayor Lewis.
24107 Murray Bridge mushrooms OK“We’ve learned not to disrupt business unnecessarily. We’ve learned not to stop the whole street at any one time, with foot traffic barely allowed.
“We’ve learned to do it in sections, and over a time frame that enables business to continue to trade” with a disruption for each business that is “absolutely minimal and bearable, whereas in the past in Sixth Street a lot of businesses suffered badly, very badly. We can’t repeat that.”
How can that be done? “It’s a management function. You block off sections.” A lesson for the imminent Mall and CBD work in The Alice?
He says the management plan needs to spell out in the beginning the traffic restrictions, unloading zones, use of facilities, hours of trade, opportunities for using footpaths, signage.
“All those things need to be in black and white, not after the event, which is what we’re still doing.”
PHOTOS: Rural City of Murray Bridge website. Abattoir and mushrooms: Primary Industries and Regions SA.


  1. The Murray Bridge Council certainty makes the Alice Springs Council look stupid and very backward.

  2. Fred, Alice Springs has far more pressing items than Murray Bridge to deal with though. Such as, what flags to fly on Anzac Hill.
    After all, the flags will have a major impact on closing the gap and reducing the rampant law and order issues.

  3. @ Interested: If we want to close the gap, we need to all be under the one flag and common law for all to abide by.
    You cannot compare Murray Bridge with Alice Springs as Murray Bridge is a very progressive town with a progressive council.
    Yes they do have the same issues as Alice Springs, they just handle it in a more professional manner.
    Also, Alice Springs has very poor facilities compared to Murray Bridge. As I was visiting last week, I was very impressed with Murray Bridge. The Murray Bridge Council has sought industry. What has the Alice Springs council done? Alice Springs biggest tourist attraction is the Todd River, but it looks like a great big rubbish dump.

  4. Two big differences to consider would be that Murray Bridge is 70 kms away from Adelaide while Alice is 1600 kms away from Darwin, and Murray Bridge is on the edge of the agricultural and industrial heartland of Australia while Alice is on the edge of a desert.
    It seems that our population numbers are similar, but I cannot think of a single other similarity.

  5. @ Hal: So what. Murray Bridge does not ride on the back of Adelaide when it comes to work or what the council does.
    Alice Springs also has agriculture land around it. Houses are 1/2 price to Alice Springs – I do not understand why they are so exp expensive in Alice. Footpaths are like Billy goat tracks in Alice.
    You do not see Indigenous people lying around drunk in Murray Bridge. Alice Springs needs to lift its game and get industry and stop riding on the back of government money just so people can get rich.
    Supermarkets in Alice are also dirty compared to other states. The issues in Alice is what has been created by the people who live there because they are too gutless to do anything about the issues.

  6. “What role does the Council play?” is a vital question that needs to be addressed urgently by the Australian community in the most over-governed nation per head of population on planet earth.
    With councillors around Australua zipping off on “professional development” trips to China hand in hand with State politicians, councils have become platforms to launch political careers and to pursue social engineering agendas way beyond the letter and spirit of council charter.
    Our daily lives are being micro managed by
    Looney Tune councils down here in Mexico a la Darebin, Moreland and Yarra, preaching social engineering philosophies that are moralistic, intrusive and extreme nanny state.
    I hope the good people on the Alice Council resist the the heady drug of self-appointed greatness and power beyond their charter and stay true to the ideals of first class delivery of roads rates and rubbish collection that aren’t glamorous but serve the town best and keep the people happy and safe.

  7. Alice Springs councilors need to go and visit some successful councils to understand and know what to do for their town such as Pt Augusta, Coober Pedy, Murray Bridge, Mt Gambier.
    Mt Gambier is a thriving town with population of 24,500 people.
    It is the council of each town which stimulates the town’s progression and future. Housing is also cheaper.

  8. Fred and Hal: Do either of you have any knowledge or experience of the town of Broken Hill? Seems to me that this similar sized town; arid zone; declining mining industry; um, very blokey town … has been quite successful at reinventing itself as an arts hub and tourist town. What do you think?

  9. @ Leigh Childs, Posted December 18, 2017 at 8:05 pm: Yes, but not for some years now. And I agree that Broken Hill’s size, history and location make it a much better fit for comparison to Alice than does Murray Bridge.
    What I remember is an interesting town on the road between east and west (Alice is between north and south), a hub for the surrounding area, a sculpture park on the top of a hill, the uncanny familiarity of nearby Mutawintji National Park, and marveling at how the local government managed to build all the infrastructure even a small town needs with steep hills and a hard rock base to work with, at least in the central area.
    Good point. They seemed to be in the process of reinventing themselves in the years when I was passing through, and it’s good to think they have kept going.

  10. @ Leigh Childs (Posted December 18, 2017 at 8:05 pm): I’ve never been to Broken Hill but am certainly aware of that town’s approach to solving its problems, courtesy of Erwin Chlanda’s report published five years ago –
    It’s perhaps not surprising that the National Road Transport Hall of Fame is considering its options in relocating from Alice Springs to Broken Hill.
    Another place worth checking out for its efforts to rejuvenate its fortunes is Albany, WA, according to an article I read about three years ago.
    More recently there was a very interesting report by Kieran Finnane about the effort being made to re-invigorate Katherine ( by that town’s CEO Robert Jennings, who I understand did make a presentation for the Alice Springs Town Council attended by some of our councillors.
    There’s also the example provided by Domenico Pecorari about his home town of Petritoli in Italy (
    There appears to be lots of examples of how towns of similar size to Alice Springs have or are succeeding in improving their economies and liveability.
    However, for some reason Alice Springs, which has been wrestling with these issues for some decades now, seems peculiarly resistant to learning and adapting from all these other examples – but, crikey, we sure do like to argue about it!

  11. Even Broken Hill is a far better town than Alice Springs, cleaner, Indigenous issues handled far better. Broken Hill at least has industry. Even with the hard times in mining, it recovered. Alice Springs is a very dirty town compared to Broken Hill.

  12. Forty years ago Alice Springs was presented with a choice – a national museum about outback life in Australia, or a casino.
    We lost the opportunity for the former but the NT Government, and many in the business community, thought a casino would be a great asset to complement The Alice’s then burgeoning tourism industry.
    There was also considerable local opposition to the casino but the NT Government over-ruled these objections.
    So Longreach ended up with the unique Stockman’s Hall of Fame – “nowhere else has one” – while Alice Springs got Australia’s first mainland casino (Tasmania got Wrest Point in 1973), quickly followed by Darwin and then every other capital city in the country, all of which (unlike Alice Springs) are serviced by international flights.
    Once again we are confronted by a similar situation. We’ve got the National Road Transport Hall of Fame (nowhere else has one) but this major attraction for our town is on the verge of leaving, with a number of other centres reportedly clamouring to host it.
    Meanwhile, even as we face the prospect of losing this major attraction, the NT Government is pushing ahead with a “National Iconic Indigenous Art Gallery”.
    However, there is nothing to prevent all the major capital cities of Australia following suit with similar attractions, built at greater expense than we can afford for ours and far more readily accessible to visitors from overseas.
    The current NT Labor Government is in grave danger of repeating history, making exactly the same kind of decisions that the new CLP Government made at the beginning of Self-Government 40 years ago, and leaving us with the bitter after-taste of missed opportunities and bungled priorities.
    Nothing has changed.

  13. @ Alex: Well said. It is a pity we do not have someone like you in council, someone with common sense.

  14. @ Fred the Philistine: “Alice is a very dirty town.” Easily solved, on the face of it. The obvious solution is to make council cleaning services a major priority. Hire more street sweeping machines, sanitation workers, public toilet attendants, commit major budget funds. Go the whole nine yards.
    But the wider issue that stares everyone in the face, and was apparent to me as a city kid when I stepped off the Fokker at Alice Airport in 1967, is the public health and hygiene issue arising from the cultural divide in the traditional Aboriginal community.
    A tricky situation. A tricky sensitive situation to which there seems no ready made solution.

  15. @ Fred the Philistine re Murray Bridge Council: The Alice Springs Clown Council does not need any help from Murray Bridge nor Mt Gambier councils. They can stuff things up all by themselves.

  16. @ Concerned Citizen: I would have to agree with you. The Alice Springs council is a bit of a circus.
    I am still amazed on how it costs $70K each year to put up the town Xmas tree, when they could get the service groups, such as the Lions Club, Rotary Club etc to do it free of charge!

  17. Sadly it would appear that Murray Bridge has just taken an enormous hit to its economy, with the news of a major industrial fire taking hold in the town’s abattoir.


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