BAW Baw will continue its advocacy-only role in public policy development under new mayor Debbie Brown.
Above: Deb Brown speaking at a Women in Gippsland event. Photo: William PJ Kulich.
First published in the 12 December 2014 edition of the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen.
Cr Brown’s leadership is set to keep the council running in a similar vein to the conservative, back-to-basics agenda set under former mayor Murray Cook, who held the position since he and a majority of present councillors were elected for the first time in 2012.
The presently conservative-dominated council has a markedly different attitude toward public policy to that of the previous council, which introduced Baw Baw’s smoking bans, took the first steps toward more sustainable public lighting and implemented other progressive policies.
The 2012 council initially rejected public lighting changes and, as its first action, restored the start of meeting prayer which the previous council had recently removed.
When Baw Baw introduced the smoking bans it was the first council in the state to do so, but not the last. A number of other councils have implemented similar policies and the actions of the pioneering councils has prompted more serious discussion of a state government-enforced smoking ban.
According to Cr Brown, that is where such big, new policies belong.
“We’re doing what we should be (advocating) instead of us taking the lead foot which we have no way of being able to fund,” she told the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen.
“I’ll take the smoking ban as an example. It’s great to be an innovator and say ‘yep, we want to ban smoking, but we only want to ban smoking in particular areas of the council’.
“But it’s sitting there. We just haven’t got the funds to enforce it. Let the government do the banning.
“Our innovation comes in the way of advocating on the behalf of this community. If that’s what they want, the no smoking, then we will definitely advocate the strongest we can to the state government for that to happen.
“We’ve got to be financially responsible, and let’s be realistic about what’s going on.
“It’s no different with the kinders, for example. We can’t afford to be building kinders, but we’ve shown that with very good advocacy… we are able to provide and hence we’ve got the funding to do the one in Drouin.
“To me that is being innovative.”
Cr Brown said Baw Baw needed to tread carefully and focus on its essential roles.
“It is a growing community and it’s not going to slow down, so we’re going to have to be doing more advocating and not take on things that are not our role to do at a local government level.”
“We can’t continue to just build kinders or make policy, and that’s one of the things you will find with our new performance reporting that we have to do from this year.”
“Quite simply, if we’re going to make policy we’ve got to be able to show that we can fund it.”
Cr Cook agrees.
“I can only speak as an individual and I’ve stated it before that I believe you work within your means,” he told the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen.
“As a medium-sized rural council it isn’t our place to lead the pack.
“We are in a position where we are well situated to keep our eye on new things that happen [closer to Melbourne], take those ideas, modify them for our use and hopefully improve on them.
“We haven’t got a lot of money to do a lot of new development-type work.”
Cr Cook said the no smoking areas policy, while well received, was a good example of a policy the former council should not have implemented.
“The new council had the opinion that it was up to the state government to take it up and do it on a state-wide basis. They have the money to do that whereas we haven’t,” he said.
“The state government had been gradually working toward that decision, and there was no need really for individual councils to take it up and spend ratepayers’ money.”
One of the progressive members of the former council was Warragul ward’s Julie Grant, who argues the present councillors do not understand why the former council pushed into new territory.
Ms Grant told the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen councils have a responsibility to look after the people, whether that meant being the first to introduce a new policy or not.
“Councils have a lot of things in common [and] one of their responsibilities is to administer those services delegated to them under the Local Government Act of the state government,” she said.
“At the same time every community is unique. All those councils across Victoria are not exactly the same, so you can assume needs in each community are going to be a little different.”
“The language of the act certainly suggests you’re not just there to administer state government services and laws and whatever, but also to look after your community.
“The smoking bans were a matter of public health policy. It’s really foolish to argue that you can’t do anything unless everyone else has done it first.”
“If you’ve got evidence that there is a public health need, you have high smoking levels and high obesity levels, [you do something.]
“There are councils over in western Victoria for example that have recorded some of the highest obesity levels in the state. They are putting in active programs to try to address that. Should they just sit back and wait until a city council does that? That would be really silly.”
The 2012 council is now half way through its term, and looking back Ms Grant said many of its actions so far have been reactions to changes made by the previous council.
“It’s a reactionary council,” she said.
“They came in and tried to undo all the work the previous council had done.
“They initially made a real boo-boo with the whole lighting strategy, and they recounted on that. They started off saying ‘they’re not our poles, why should we pay for it’ – a pretty blinkered little narrow view.
“But there was a deliberate mind-set of reacting to the previous council because it was more progressive. It was also more science-based, this council seems to make its decisions based off how it’s feeling and their attitudes, they don’t seem to have great arguments for their decisions.
“Coming in and reinstating the prayer was just a knee-jerk reaction – Murray wanted to show how different the new council was going to be from the old council, which was a nice little conservative thing.”
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