First-term Town Council member and Deputy Mayor Matt Paterson sees no conflict between local government dutifully doing its Roads, Rates and Rubbish bit while while robustly acting as a pressure group for its ratepayers on issues that firmly sit with the Territory and even the Federal governments. He spoke with editor ERWIN CHLANDA for our Big Council, Small Council series.
NEWS: Are you a Big Council man or a Small Council man?
PATERSON (pictured above, at left, with Cr Eli Melky): I hate to sit on the fence but I think we are in a good space at the moment. We supply all the Rates, Roads and Rubbish which a small council does. But I also think we lobby the government and have a working relationship. As the government closest to the people we provide good opportunities for the public.
NEWS: Does this go as far as coming up with ideas, researching them in detail, formulating business plans which are costed, and then say this is what you should do, government, and we won’t take no for an answer?
PATERSON (pictured): There is probably a point in the middle, putting a proposed business plan to the government, and saying this is where we are at, what have you got? This is what we would like to work with you on, having a cooperative approach.
NEWS: What if they say no?
PATERSON: Sometimes you have to use your elbow. We’re pretty tight on land in our CBD, we have some land that we own, some of it is private, some of it is NT Government land. So it’s about working together to create the best outcome. If they say no we ask their reasons why and we go back to the drawing board.
NEWS: In terms of promoting such an idea, do you think the council should go as far as taking a political stance during elections, now that the council and Assembly polls are a year apart, for example, saying that if you don’t do as we politely ask you, we’ll campaign against you?
PATERSON: Not as such, but what I think [is] having an infrastructure plan, or shovel ready projects, that councils have ready, and say to the government, this is what council wants. What can you commit to? And make them accountable for their actions. We can say we want this, this, this, this. It’s an election period. You are a candidate. What can your party deliver to our infrastructure plan?
NEWS: Give me some examples where this has worked.
PATERSON: One I put forward is the community outdoor space. We’re in discussions with the government. We have a working group. Other things are heat mitigation and a carparking plan.
AT LEFT: Cr Paterson during his 2012 Alice to Melbourne charity ride.
NEWS: Where is the masterplan for the town at? It has been promoted by Cr Jimmy Cocking over the period of the current council. Who is backing it in the council and who is not?
PATERSON: There have been a few motions and councillors supported them every time. We have a briefing document and we are waiting to go to the next step which is producing the masterplan. It’s all good to have a masterplan but you don’t want it to be a barrier to progress. You still want to be able to produce results.
In fact the lead-up to the masterplan encourages serious doubts about its independence – and usefulness – as it is a joint effort between the NT Government and the council, especially as the government already has its own plans for The Alice.
The “city 2050 Alice Springs Master Plan 2050 Briefing Document” released by the council in November last year firmly joins at the hip the Alice Springs Town council and the NT Government: The document wants both the NT and the Commonwealth Governments to “financially invest in the preparation of a Master Plan,” says the document.
The council will “seek political and financial support from the NT Government to initiate the project as a joint venturer” to “jointly create” a process “shared by the council and the government … to ensure ongoing ownership, maintenance and execution of both the 30 year Vision and 10 year Master Plan.
“It is envisaged” the plan will … both be prepared and owned collaboratively” by council and the NT Government.
NEWS: When it comes to the town’s big issues, does the council feel constrained to sticking with the ones that are its direct responsibility, or should it become involved in those which are Territory and Federal functions and act as a lobby or a pressure group?
PATERSON: Local government in the NT doesn’t have town planning powers. But I think the Outback Way is important for Alice Springs. It makes it easier for tourists to cut across east-west through Alice Springs, that’s going to be better for our economy. The council should be involved in that. I think with big projects we certainly [appreciate] being approached for a formal position.
NEWS: You can be consulted till you are blue in the face and nothing might happen.
PATERSON: You can over-consult. I agree.
NEWS: And you can under-react. Take the $24m rail overpass south of town. Nigel Scullion was behind that. It is clear that money could have been spent much better. In the context of a small community, which the NT still is, could the council not have said to the Senator, Nigel, mate, this is nonsense. Give us the $24m and we’ll seal 75 kilometers of the Outback Way?
PATERSON: There are all sorts of legalities, it’s a Federal road, that needs to be up to a certain standard. But it goes back to having shovel ready projects, and saying this is a list of projects we desire, this is what they cost and this is what they will do for the economy instead of spending $24m for an overpass. It comes down to have an infrastructure plan in place that they can take to the other two tiers of government.
NEWS: What should the council be discussing in confidential sessions, excluding the public?
PATERSON: Tenders that are not yet let, certain points of personal matters. Finances used to be in confidential and they are now in open and that’s a good step. We don’t have very long confidential meetings. Sometimes things are given to us from third parties or governments or private businesses, if they’ve asked for them to be in confidential then we need to respect that.
NEWS: That makes it very broad, doesn’t it?
PATERSON: Sometimes you are bound by the Local Government Act. You want to discuss it in the open but you can’t because it is in confidential.
NEWS: But it’s the council that puts issues into confidential. This is a circular argument.
PATERSON: Or if a third party asks us to put a matter into confidential.
NEWS: It could surely be pointed out to such a third party that the elected council is dealing with issues in the public interest, spends public money and has an obligation to be transparent.
PATERSON: At the end of the day you do want to be accepting. If an issue is commercial in confidence then it should stay in confidential until the issue is discussed.
NEWS: What’s on your agenda for the second half of this council term?
AT RIGHT: Cr Paterson in with Starlight Foundation children after his 3000 km bicycle ride in 2012, raising $20,000.
PATERSON: The community outdoor space for our youth in the CBD, probably at the river end of Parsons Street, catering also for people with a disability, an all access environment, rather than having just one disability swing in the Eastside. A space for everybody. I did a pushbike ride from Alice Springs to Melbourne in 2012. I raised $20,000 for the Starlight Foundation. I got to see some incredibly young kids, doing amazing things, who have disabilities. It was a real eye-opener.
NEWS: There is frequently a five vs four voting split in the council. You’re part of the five. Is that a good thing?
PATERSON: On certain topics you have different beliefs. And that’s OK. Sometimes I’ve been on the side of five, sometimes of two. You have that robust discussion. It’s a democracy. Once that decision is made I accept it and work to deliver what’s been agreed on by council.
NEWS: What else in the next two years?
PATERSON: I’m not running in the 2020 NT election. I have not been approached by anyone. I don’t really have a political side. I like both sides of politics. I might run in the 2021 council elections, we’ll see. My wife and I are expecting another child in January. I’ll have two children under the age of two.