By OSCAR PERRI
Mayoral candidate and current Councillor Jimmy Cocking has a vision for Alice Springs to become a “vibrant and safe cosmopolitan regional capital”, but first council needs to restore its relationship with the town.
If elected, Cr Cocking says his priority will be to engage a diverse range of groups and organisations that make up the town, as well as the NT government, to continue his efforts to create a “master plan” to direct the coming decades for Alice Springs.
Despite requests from the Alice Springs News for detail and corroboration of his claims Cr Cocking responded mostly with generalities.
In our request for an interview we asked him, as we have all candidates, to provide, in each case: Where did he get the idea from? What does the public think about it? Cost and budget? Schedule – how long will it take? Proof it will work (e.g. research of similar efforts elsewhere, or reliable experts, preferably people who can be named, who have given it their tick).
How will it be handled by the council, especially given the frequent counter-productive five-four split in the past?
How should the council act as an advocate for the town, vis-a-vis governments and big investors? How will you be allocating your preferences?
Cr Cocking says the master plan will be a six to 12 month process at a cost of around $250,000, for a yet to be established dedicated regional development unit to develop the plan, with the goal of being ready to go in time for the next budget.
He says the quarter million figure is based on an earlier proposal for a master plan, which was intended to be partially picked up by the NT Government.
“At the moment, we don’t have a vision, and we don’t have a master plan for the town, which brings together all the different areas from our economic development to our social needs.
“If we don’t get that plan right, if we don’t get the buy-in [from stakeholders and the community], then we’re going to continue on with this town being led by pet projects and not developing in a cohesive framework that brings the community along with us.”
Cr Cocking says he has been in conversation with NT Government representatives and Centrecorp (which has the Central Land Council, Aboriginal Congress and Tangentyere as shareholders), whom he identifies as key stakeholders, and expects them to be at the table when the time comes.
He is yet to speak with Tangentyere Council, Lhere Artepe Council, Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Central Australia and other groups that he says will need to be a part of the process to develop a successful master plan.
From conversations with members of the general public, Cr Cocking has seen an appetite for a strong sense of direction from the next council. He says they currently see council as “rudderless”.
According to Cr Cocking, the Mayor’s role in this is to bring stakeholders to the table, ensuring that all voices are heard and encouraging collaboration.
He doesn’t have any firm figures for costing on any of the projects suggested to bring to the table, saying that the mayor and elected members’ role is to facilitate rather than instigate.
“That’s what we pay Council staff for, anything that I put forward is going to have to go through Council anyway.
“The idea is to have a range of shovel ready projects, so when the opportunities come for grants from the Federal government, or potential investment opportunities arise, we’re ready for them.
“We can go along and have a real sense of what the town needs, whether it’s a youth centre, upgrades to the hospital, flood mitigation, a new skate park, library expansion, how the national Aboriginal Art Gallery fits into all of this, how we get accommodation and purpose built transitional accommodation.
“This would be something that would set us up for the next 10, possibly even 20 years, so that everybody who lives here has a clear sense of where we’re going, and we can identify those priorities and needs, and be able to direct that investment.”
He says it is important that recognition of Arrente people is “permeated” throughout the plan as well as a focus “to invest in a cleaner, safer future with renewable energy, we’ve got to reduce that waste going to landfill. And we’ve also got to make sure that we’re prepared to meet the challenge of climate change.”
He does not explain what he means by “permeate” except to say he wants an Arrernte cultural advisory committee and a multicultural advisory committee.
In 2017 a then newly elected Cr Cocking introduced a motion to initiate work with the NT Government on a master plan for Alice Springs which he had promised to do in the lead up to the previous election.
Since then, there’s been little movement in regards to bringing the plan to life. In 2018 council moved to approach the NT Government for support, and a 13 page briefing document was developed to assist but little came of it.
The arrival of Robert Jennings as CEO had hopes raised again for the master plan, but since there has been no more than update requests or a mention in council chamber discussions.
Revitalising the CBD is high on Cr Cocking’s list of needs for Alice. He wants council to work to open currently vacant shops up for business again, encouraged by rates or rental incentives from council, and introducing shade structures and “immersive art installations”.
He says: “The place is looking tired, we need to work with the local businesses there as well to ensure that we’ve got a vibrant CBD.
“But we need to make sure that our suburbs are also benefiting through that process, whether that’s more trees or cleaner streets and parks, more shade, better playgrounds.”
Cr Cocking says that the council has enough cash in the bank “to get started with some of the smaller projects and the master plan,” but will need to look to Territory or Federal Government to finance bigger projects.
This month Cr Cocking stepped down as CEO of the Arid Lands Environment Centre, a role he has been in for the 13 years he’s lived in Alice, to focus on his election campaign and listen to Alice Springs residents on what they want to see from council.
Integral to an effective council is good lines of communication with the people, and Mr Cocking says he has heard that council needs to be better in this regard by seeking contact with residents rather than waiting for them to bring their issues to council.
The loss of the Centralian Advocate as the town’s last print newspaper significantly impacted council’s community engagement, claims Mr Cocking, and council have not found new ways to reach the public since.
“A lot of people I’ve spoken to have also expressed the concern that they’re not finding out about these things, because there isn’t a local newspaper anymore.
“Rather than expecting people to come to our website or see a Facebook post from Council, we need to look at ways in which we can better engage with people.
“Otherwise, we miss out on the really valuable knowledge and wisdom that comes from our community.”
Alice Springs News editor Erwin Chlanda says: “Surely Cr Cocking has informed his unnamed sources about the role of the News in the community, that we have a fully searchable story archive of seven million words, including detailed coverage of the Town Council over more than 26 years so far.
“Does he ignore the 26,000 published comments from our readers, and the professional news coverage of his own activities within the council and elsewhere?
“In the past 10 years the Council has boycotted the locally owned and operated News, spending ratepayers’ money on advertising in the overseas owned Murdoch Advocate, violating the Council’s own purchasing policy,” says editor Chlanda.
“We’ve made comprehensive submissions on these issues and Cr Cocking should be fully aware of them. He shares responsibility as an elected member.”
Cr Cocking says one solution is the formation of “hyper local” resident groups to bring the needs of small areas around town to the attention of council and working with a wide range of groups and organisations to support better community engagement.
Cr Cocking says if elected he will be “a listening mayor”.
Among other issues he’s already heard a need for more public toilets, a bigger meeting space than the Andy McNeill Room, an increase in bike services, and a need to address illegal dumping and recycling, and to advocate for a solution to the lack of affordable housing in Alice Springs.
He provided no costings, even ball park, of any of these measures.
He says the Mayor’s job in fixing these problems is to hear what the community wants and make sure the right people are involved and working well to find a solution.
“One of the key things that I’ve got to offer is that I know how to do collaboration. I know how to get groups working together. And I know how to get the best out of a group of people.
“Investment needs a long term outlook. And so we’re looking at Federal government investment projects or laying down plans to be able to demonstrate to private investments that we’re ready for those developments.”
UPDATE July 31, 7.20am
Cr Cocking has informed us that he did not say the Alice Springs Town Council is rudderless, but that the Alice Springs town is. We regret the error.