Jimmy Cocking is clearly taking his pitch for Mayor and Councillor later this year more seriously than most: To gain a second term in local government, preferably as its head, he will be resigning from his job as CEO of the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC) in June, which over the past seven years he has turned into a significant local player.
But will he continue to be on the wrong side in this faction-driven mini parliament? Cr Cocking spoke with Editor ERWIN CHLANDA.
NEWS: Given the entrenched five-four split in the current council, is it not a waste of time for you and the people voting for you if you cannot guarantee that four other councillors will vote with you? Are you aiming to accomplish that and if so, how?
COCKING: Democracy is about being around the table. It’s a contest of ideas. You’d hope people vote on good ideas rather than on ideological lines.
NEWS: Have they been?
COCKING: Sometimes, but not nearly enough. There have been some good moments in council when we all have contributed to get better outcomes.
NEWS: For example?
COCKING: We got the flag on the hill, we’re standing up for Traditional Owners as part of the objection to the art gallery location, climate action plan, we have a youth engagement plan, we’re still talking about an adventure and all access playground, something that’s yet to eventuate. The recycling rates are getting better. There is a lot more to do in that space.
NEWS: Most of these things are in the future.
NEWS COCKING: They are things being developed. We need strong advocacy for our town, to lobby higher levels of government, be around the table, put forward big projects and big ideas.
NEWS: Which big projects? Where are they?
COCKING: The CEO has brought together players around CARGO, the 35 groups in the Central Australian Regional Group of Organisations, workshopping some ideas. Housing, infrastructure and roads, developing the region.
NEWS: Which housing and which roads?
COCKING: The Tanami, the Outback Way. We have a public housing crisis here, the NT has the highest homelessness in Australia. Huge waiting times for public housing. It’s not the council’s responsibility but it can advocate. Rangers are dealing with people sleeping rough and helping them access services. We have silos – council, Tangentyere and so on. There is no greater plan, greater overarching vision for the town and region that we’re all working on together.
NEWS: This is all in the future. What can the council point to in the past four years?
COCKING: There is the start of a youth program, advocacy for youth hubs, $6.2m roll out of sports infrastructure. Unfortunately we wasted three and a half years to get Cr Satour’s and Phillip Alice’s vision of a Traditional Owner Foot patrol up and now we are only just running a trial.
NEWS: What about the really big projects? Pressure on the government to provide flood protection, for example?
COCKING: In the CARGO project is a line about flood protection. Lifting of Taffy Pick and having a bridge there was part of the Flood Mitigation Plan. They are still looking at a retention basin north of the town. Neither have moved forward. The biggest issue is the width of The Gap, there is the rail and the road taking up a third. A tunnel could potentially take care of it. Or a bridge through The Gap, a double carriageway on stilts. The water would flow underneath.
NEWS: Is the council in favour of that?
COCKING: I don’t think the council has a view on it and currently, I can’t speak on behalf of council.
NEWS: The council has no view about the destruction of the major landform in Alice Springs with high traditional significance and absolutely beautiful and someone wants to put a bridge over it?
COCKING: Through the middle, yes.
The dreads will go, for charity.
NEWS: And the council has no view on it?
COCKING: Again, I can’t speak on behalf of council, but from memory we were consulted at the time, but there was also the view that this is far off into the future, like in 10 years. Council should lead on issues like that, facilitate a long term plan, as it should on other issues, including youth engagement, community safety, sustainability, buffel grass and weeds, housing, water, renewable energy – get all the players together. I also think we should have a regional development role. That means we have to invest in a regional development team within the council. We are the municipal government, the inland capital of this vast area. We don’t just serve the 25,000 people who live here. We service the 55,000 people who live in the region, and the hundreds of thousands of tourist that – hopefully – come through here. The Territory Government doesn’t have a lot of spare cash. Unfortunately they are putting a lot of focus on the [gas rich region] Beetaloo at the expense of a renewable energy future.
NEWS: Should the council have a leading role in CARGO?
COCKING: Yes, all the organisations who work in the region need to be around the table to make that happen. That way we can pool resources, we can collaborate on things, we can join up and make things happen, rather than all trying to compete for dwindling NT Government funds and competing against each other to get Federal funds. A regional deal! We need a plan, a vision for going forward.
NEWS: Why hasn’t that happened? There are people in this council in their second and third term.
COCKING: It is my first term but I’ve been advocating for a lot of this well before being on council.
NEWS: Doesn’t that mean you need a group that has the majority in council? Dealing with the old five to four issue?
NEWS COCKING: In my first three months in council, in November 2017, I put forward a motion for a master plan for the town. There was some hope with the NTG Inland Capital Committee. We did some workshops on that but it didn’t move forward.
NEWS: So why is it not happening?
COCKING: The NTG wound it up and council has been distracted a lot this term, with a majority of members – unsuccessfully, as it turned out – standing for the Federal and Territory election. There has been a politicisation of council. That needs to change. The council should work as a team, even if we don’t have to agree all the time.
NEWS: Should councillors be required to enter into an actionable agreement not to stand for election elsewhere?
COCKING: It should not be that restrictive.
NEWS: Why not?
COCKING: People have the right to seek higher office. There is nothing in the Local Government Act to stop them from doing so.
NEWS: Should there be?
COCKING: It’s a hard thing. Sometimes people feel the call. We need to work out, as a council, how we don’t lose our way in the process when people do run. More than half the councillors including the Mayor and Deputy Mayors ran in the Federal and Territory elections this term. That’s disruptive and distracting. Council could have a policy around that but ultimately it is up to the electorate to decide.
NEWS: A current disruption seems to be the split between operational and political matters. Whom does the CEO answer to?
COCKING: The councillors. The Mayor has an office next to him, but under the Act the CEO answers to Council. He is responsible to us, the councillors.
NEWS: Can ask the CEO any questions whatsoever, be it about operational or policy issues, and he is required to give you an answer?
COCKING: Definitely. We have to understand what’s happening operationally. That doesn’t mean we micro-manage. He’s got a job to do.
NEWS: Who draws the line between what’s micro-managing and what is not? If there is one hole in one footpath, can you ask him: Has that hole been fixed?
COCKING: Totally. That’s different to how it gets done. If people call me and say, hey, there is a risk or hazard or there is something wrong I pass that on to either the director through the CEO or directly to the CEO.
NEWS: If you ask the CEO a question about it, do you expect an answer?
COCKING: Yes. And if it hasn’t been done I would call him up. Generally that doesn’t happen because it gets done.
NEWS: Who draws the limits of what he can be asked, the CEO or you?
COCKING: There is no limit about what we can ask. The CEO can take it on notice. If they don’t know.
NEWS: Does he ultimately have to give you an answer?
NEWS: Is he required to give you an answer to any question you care to ask?
COCKING: Yes, that’s my understanding.
NEWS: Recycling our sewage is a big project, talked about for decades.
COCKING: Power and Water hasn’t been able to work that out.
NEWS: Could the council not work that out? Draw up a plan, cost it and present a coherent project to implement?
COCKING: This costs money. Plus there are the silos that currently exist. It is a Power & Water responsibility and the government would have to direct them to do so. In the reconstruction committee report is reference to increasing water efficiency. We’re mining our aquifer. The water gets one turn, then it’s put in the ponds from which it evaporates. Like many things here, that needs to change.
PHOTO at top: A tour of the Regional Waste Management Facility in 2019, from left, Rachel O’Leary, Jimmy Cocking, The War on Waste‘s Craig Reuchassel, Oliver Eclipse, Gardening Australia‘s Costa Georgiadis, Mayor Damien Ryan. Photo supplied.