Proposed legislation aimed at ‘giving business a voice in local elections’ by the NSW Shooters and Fishers party and supported by coalition government, has been widely condemned by the entire opposing political spectrum, including the peak body representing NSW councils.
It complements yet another dreadful week for the NSW Liberal-National parties, which have seen more of their MPs resign over ICAC corruption investigations.
While the City of Sydney Amendment (Elections) Bill 2014 applies only to Sydney, critics say there are plans for it to be applied across the state. Similar laws exist in Melbourne, and this proposal would give non-resident owners of rateable land two votes in local government elections.
In introducing the bill to Parliament on Thursday, Shooters and Fishers party MP Robert Borsak thanked broadcaster Alan Jones and the Daily Telegraph for their support.
Meanwhile, local NSW MP Don Page (Nationals) supports the idea – which Local Government NSW (LGNSW) says came without warning – and told The Echo the reforms will fix changes introduced in 1998 that created barriers to prevent non-residential voters from ‘exercising their democratic right’.
‘To be clear, businesses have always had the right to vote,’ he said.
‘Unfortunately, to do so they have to navigate through significant bureaucratic barriers within a three- month period. If they find a way through the red tape, they have to do it all again at the next election because the non-residential roll is deleted. No other Australian city deletes the non-residential roll after each election.’
Mr Page took aim at the lack of engagement on the bill, saying that, ‘Some who claim there was no consultation did not even bother to make a submission. Others that did are simply scaremongering.’
Mr Page also recited some of the Shooters and Fishers’ MP Borsak’s speech in parliament.
‘A person can only be enrolled once, meaning they only get one vote. A person who owns 20 properties in Sydney will only be enrolled once, not 20 times.
‘The reforms address an injustice that prevented those who contribute 78.5 per cent of the City of Sydney’s revenue ($188 million a year) exercising just 2.13 per cent of votes at the last election.’
Voting rights based on wealth: Greens
But such voting rights could mean a return to the ‘nineteenth century voting rights based on wealth’ says NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge.
‘The NSW coalition has consistently shown that they follow the money wherever it takes them and that they believe developers and businesses should control the political process. With this Bill, the coalition is directly handing political control to corporate interests.’
NSW Labor’s Sophie Cotsis said, ‘Given everything that is being revealed at ICAC, it is unthinkable that the Liberals and Nationals are proposing these changes.’
Meanwhile, the peak body representing Local Government NSW (LGNSW), says it is deeply concerned about the lack of transparency and non-existent consultation on the proposed legislation, and the potential for these new voting rules to be rolled-out to all NSW councils.
President of LGNSW, the peak body representing local governments in NSW, Cr Keith Rhoades AFSM, said he is outraged at the NSW Government’s support of this Bill.
‘How can a government justify ramming through changes in Parliament without any consultation whatsoever with the industry set to be significantly impacted?’
SCU law lecturer Aidan Ricketts told The Echo the idea looks ‘terrible, problematic and horrendous.’
‘A town square beheading without even letting the public bear witness,’ was how Byron Shire mayor Simon Richardson described the quiet adoption of large-scale development plans for Brunswick Heads holiday parks and reserves last week.
And while fellow councillor Di Woods also condemned the contentious plans by the government-run NSW Crown Holiday Parks Trust corporation, our locally elected state representative, Don Page (Nationals), is remaining mute.
When asked by The Echo for comment on the independent audit’s questionable findings about the public submission report, the retiring MP instead suggested that questions be passed back to the organisation that compiled the report.
It’s unclear if Mr Page even read the submission report and subsequent audit; his reply was, ‘[The Crown Holiday Parks Trust’s media officer] is in a much better position than I regarding any details.’
The mayor slammed the long-serving MP with, ‘I presume Don Page’s silence over the matter is due to utter embarrassment.’
Broken election promise
Notwithstanding the 2006 holiday parks takeover by disgraced NSW minister Tony Kelly from Council and loss of revenue, the mayor also took aim at the government’s claims when elected that it would ‘put locals back in control of planning matters that affect them’.
‘Not only have the Brunswick Heads Plans of Management (POM) kept control over the holiday parks in the hands of the state government appointed “Trust” seeking the highest return; they have put the same operators in charge of ensuring compliance, the setting of public access widths and overall reporting. For example, what was once public access that allowed fishing and picnicking, could, if the manager sees fit, be as narrow as 1.8 metres wide.’
Meanwhile Cr Woods told The Echo, ‘While some concessions have been made over all the parks, there is still no access being granted along the foreshore at The Terrace Reserve Caravan Park, but rather an adjusted plan for the public to walk through the park.’
According to the public submission report – which is of questionable validity due to the audit review – there were 80 supporting submissions to, ‘Provide public access to and along the foreshore at Terrace Reserve’.
Cr Woods said river access and access outside the park boundary was a ‘major point’ from all the public submissions.
She says another issue along the riverbank is the ‘continued erosion along the edge, which is compounded by the permanent residents’ structures that almost hang over the edge.’
‘The Trust representative said that the permanent residents along the edge of the river will be moved by natural attrition.
‘However, there has been a sale to a resident during the last couple of years, with no indication to the purchaser that their structure was in fact in a position that the Crown had previously informed Council during its control was inappropriate, and Council had been informed that the structure had to be moved and in fact had asked that Council relocate all the residents living in structures that were hanging over the edge of the river bank.
‘Council had begun the process, prior to the Crown assuming control of the parks.
‘Under the Trust’s management, it appears that they do not believe that this problem needs urgent attention, and I find that quite at odds with the instructions given to Council, and wonder what is really in store for those residents.’
‘There are a number of concessions that contain a get-out clause, which basically says they could change their mind. For example, a fence being erected along The Terrace Road, while not in the immediate plans, could be seen to be necessary at a later date, while access through the park could be stopped if deemed unsafe.
‘I am of the opinion that once the plans of management have been implemented, and the parks have been given the majority of their upgrades, then the state will see them as a very attractive piece of real estate to be offered up for sale to private enterprise.
‘Not just in Bruns, but places like Evans Head, Ballina, and many other parcels of land, particularly along the coast, will be seen as a way for the state government to get some fast money. Just like the sale of the NSW Lotteries, the electricity infrastructure, the Newcastle port etc.’
NSW Crown Holiday Parks Trust CEO Steve Edmonds has defended his development plans for Bruns, despite similar plans sparking public outrage at the Silver Sands caravan park in Evans Head.
He echoed NSW minister Kevin Humphries reply last week that ‘41 amendments were made to the plans of management as a result of public input,’ and repeated that subject to ‘reasonable conditions’, public access through The Terrace Holiday Park and to Simpsons Creek will continue.
He told The Echo, ‘The public car park and kayak launching facilities will be upgraded as part of this plan.
‘The Trust will progressively relocate existing structures away from foreshore sites to enable the re-establishment of a natural bank profile and the protection and restoration of the vegetation communities as part of its foreshore environmental restoration project.’
While ignoring public concerns over access, Mr Edmonds spruiked the development, saying, ‘Additionally, the Torakina and Banner Park Reserves will benefit from $1m worth of improvements such as playground facilities, boardwalk platform and upgraded amenities which will benefit the local communities, businesses in the area, tourists and other visitors to Brunswick Heads.’
Asked why there was no public announcement over these major developments, Mr Edmonds replied, ‘In accord with due process, it is appropriate to firstly brief local councils in relation to the adoption of plans of management before public announcement. The meeting with Council was arranged to fit with Council availability.’
The mayor meanwhile said that during the last year or so of negotiations with the Holiday Parks managers, ‘it was clear we would struggle to achieve anything like the outcomes the community deserved.
‘But with the state government requiring Council to negotiate, we did so in good faith. I thought if we could maintain public access, we had secured at least something for the community, knowing that ultimately we were being forced to play the tune created for us by the state government.
‘Though tenuous, the community have managed to keep public access along the Brunswick River in front of two parks, with a touch more public access gained on the eastern side of Massey Greene, but access through The Terrace Reserve will be at the discretion of the managers.
‘There is absolutely no compulsion whatever for the permanent dwellings to move away from Simpsons Creek and allow for public access as appropriate. To rub salt in the wounds, this disgraceful management model has been promoted within the wider review of the Crown Lands Act as a model example of efficient and successful management.’
Brunswick Heads chamber of commerce president Peter Wotton told The Echo their reply was still in progress, as ‘one person on this committee is ill at the moment, we have not been able to consider all the issues as yet.’
‘We will have a statement for you on this very important and complex matter soon.’
A brief lifting of the political iron curtain has revealed what NSW deputy premier Andrew Stoner (Nationals) really thinks of those who oppose gas drilling at Bentley.
‘Mark my word we were prepared to go head to head with that protester group,’ was just one of a few comments made to Jenna Cairney, deputy editor of The Land (Fairfax) newspaper, at a recent Nationals convention.
She shared the comments on social media site Twitter, with other comments reading, ‘It broke my heart that some of those professional bludgers thought they had a win.’
The belligerent and pro-gas mining stance comes despite Mr Stoner having not travelled to meet with the farmers who may still be affected by Metgasco’s drilling attempts just outside Lismore. The Echo previously reported some of those farmers were prepared to be arrested and had ‘locked on’ to concrete devices.
And while the comments were condemned by Lock The Gate’s Michael McNamara, Mr Stoner’s office confirmed with The Echo he was quoted correctly. ‘I said words to the effect that it was a large protest which included a core of hardline protesters who had travelled to the area but also some good local people.
‘At no stage did I suggest that all the protesters were professional bludgers.’
The ‘head to head with that protester group’ comment remains without elaboration. Mr Stoner is also on record as saying he would not want a gas operation near his property.
The establishment of Crown Lands as a possible public trading enterprise has prompted a corporate law firm to advertise its services to prospective corporations and individuals wanting to maximise ‘the return to the government and the community from the use of Crown land.’
Australian corporate law firm Clayton Utz says on its website that, ‘For the private sector, the reforms have the potential to open up new business and operational opportunities.’
Shift in use
The law firm’s webpage, ‘NSW Crown land – a field of opportunities’, spruiks the recommendations in the state government’s White Pa- per, which is now on public submission.
They say it demonstrates, ‘a shift in the use of Crown land towards private entities.’
‘Tenants under Crown land are currently bound by certain provisions of the Crown Lands Act which make it impracticable to operate standard business and development models.
‘Removing restrictions to enable leases to be granted on terms and conditions more regularly found in commercial leases will provide greater flexibility in the use of Crown land.
‘Roughly 42 per cent of land in NSW is Crown land (not including national parks and state forests), with a total value of over $11 billion.’
The law firm says apart from the public trading enterprise aspect of Crown lands, the new legislation will provide for the pay- ment of market rent as the default position under leases of Crown land (with rebates and waivers applied where appropriate); standardise the way in which Crown land is valued (having regard to the hypothetical value of the land as if it were a freehold parcel); require an entity ad- ministering Crown land to evaluate the expected return to be provided to the government and the community when permitting the use of an asset (and taking into ac- count the opportunity cost of allowing an asset to be used in such a way); and implement stronger compliance and enforcement provisions which will provide penalties for damage and unlawful use of Crown land.
NSW Trade & Investment says on its website that the changes are part of a ‘commitment to cutting red tape and updating legislation to improve outcomes.’
Public submissions in response to the White Paper are open until June 20.
For more information visit http://bit.ly/1ojZhIP.
Will the newly appointed NSW premier push ahead with privatising the state’s hospitals?
While that remains to be seen, minister for north coast, Don Page (Nationals), says his party – which shares government with the Liberals – ‘does not support the privatisation of public hospitals.’
His response came as NSW La- bor shadow minister for the north coast, Walt Secord, called on north coast Nationals MPs Geoff Provest (Tweed), Don Page (Ballina), Thomas George (Lismore) and Chris Gulaptis (Clarence) to reject outright any possible privatisation of the state’s public hospitals.
Newly appointed NSW premier Mike Baird has given public sup- port for the privatisation of public hospitals, and told Fairfax media he supports Western Australia’s model
where where non-clinical staff were privately employed and public hospi- tals were privately built and managed.
But Mr Page told The Echo, ‘This is classic Secord scare campaign bullshit.’
Scare campaign: Page
‘The fact is that private hospitals and public hospitals have been part of our health system for more than 100 years.
‘In our own area we have St Vin- cent’s (Lismore), John Flynn (Cool- angatta), and Ballina Day Surgery (Tamar St Ballina), which are pri- vate health facilities.
‘They supplement and comple- ment our public hospitals. The Na- tionals have no intention of privatis- ing our public hospitals. There are some circumstances where it can be beneficial to have a private compo- nent to a public hospital.
‘For example, if I can get the $90 million I need to build a new central public hospital for the Byron Shire area in the next budget, the private sector could be in- vited to tender for the day surgery component.
‘Day surgery would serve both public and private pa- tients and would thereby guarantee the patient num- bers to justify having that fa- cility locally.
‘As we know the previous state Labor government let the Byron Shire central hos- pital go unfunded for their whole 16-year term, whereas we have activated the plan- ning to the point where we can mount a credible case to Treasury for funding in the next state budget.
‘I repeat, the Nationals do not support the privatisation of public hospitals,’ said Mr Page. ‘However, private hos- pitals will continue to play a part in our health system and in some cases it is in the pub- lic interest to engage with the private sector.’
A unified vote by Byron councillors at last Thursday’s meeting will see two letters sent to state government MPs regarding concerns over the rapidly expanding gas mining industry.
It will be requested that macadamia, dairy and beef industries of the northern rivers be classified as a critical industry cluster (CIC). Only horse breeding and wineries in the Hunter Valley have been classified as a CIC – as Cr Alan Hunter pointed out, it was only because they have open cut mines to contend with.
Water threat to region
And likewise, Council will express its concerns with pen to paper that ‘gas exploration is taking place in a location (Bentley, west of Lismore) within the surface water catchment of one of the region’s urban water supply sources.’
Cr Duncan Dey’s motion says, ‘Incidents in recent years such as wastewater overflows in the Pilliga State Forest and at Casino demonstrate that the infant unconventional gas industry is either not willing to, or not capable of averting such incidents, and that the planning for and granting of exploration licences was premature.’ Will this all make any difference? Probably not if done in isolation, as Cr Di Woods pointed out.
She suggested it would be more effective if all north coast councils were aligned. But that’s notwithstanding the public’s discontent which saw thousands turn out at Bentley recently.
One of the most interesting parts of the meeting’s debate was the idea put forward by Crs Hunter and Chris Cubis that Council should instead concentrate on the three Rs: rates, roads and rubbish. We shouldn’t be political, they said.
It’s an intriguing argument: should we operate as non- political vessels and let the state and feds take care of us?
Or, can humans ever achieve a pure non-political state of being? It’s understandable to want less work given the rates of councillors’ pay, but such is the calling to a higher purpose.
Botched boat eviction plans by bureaucrat change to year lease for Bruns Buccaneer
The tedious and complicated bureaucracy that nearly sank Brunswick Buccaneer boat hire may soon be over. Well, for a year at least.
The Echo reported earlier this year that the manager of the NSW government-run North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP), Jim Bolger, inexplicably tried to evict the 30-year old business and its operator Ilan Schnitzler a year ago with just four days’ notice.
It came without explanation and Mr Bolger told The Echo at the time, ‘the Trust will not take part in discussing licence or legal issues through the media’.
But in a turnaround, Mr Schnitzler told The Echo that Mr Bolger had a ‘completely changed attitude,’ at their recent meeting, and agreed to allow the boat hire business to continue for a year.
And as the licence makes no guarantees past 12 months, Mr Schnitzler’s solicitor, Claire Lovejoy, told The Echo it was possibly because of the NCHP’s controversial plan of management (POM) for the town- ship, which is yet to be determined.
Interestingly, when on exhibition the POM did not include the Brunswick Buccaneer in the plan or maps and instead promoted a deck- ing area at the site.
As for the way in which Mr Schnitzler had to navigate the bureaucratic smoke and mirrors, be prepared for layers of confusing regulation.
While NSW government departments all appear to share responsibility of issuing permits to access the creek, Mr Schnitzler was advised that NCHP controls the embarkation point at Banner Park. At the high-water mark. Still with us?
Smoke and mirrors
Now that a licence has been signed by NCHP, he has to go back to Crown Lands, NSW Marine Parks and Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) to get the technical tick to legally operate.
‘Previously the departments indicated that permits would be grant- ed after NCHP gave the licence,’ said Ms Lovejoy. ‘Now it appears some of these departments are dragging their heels with emails unanswered for over a month.’
Mr Bolger, who is also NCHP’s media contact, was asked by The Echo for comment on the reversal of his previous eviction intentions but as of deadline there has been no reply.
NCHP controversially took control from Council of public parks and reserves in 2006, and The Echo previously reported that the state government took that revenue away from Council.
Additionally, the community be- came enraged at Mr Bolger’s plans to fence off public lands in the town.
■ Disclosure: Mr Schnitzler’s solicitor is a relative of the reporter
While the state government spewed its usual rhetoric this week, there was one issue that spun at a higher pitch: the rising unpopularity of fossil fuel expansion, especially in regional areas.
A temporary suspension on the issuing of new coal seam gas exploration licences was announced by the O’Farrell coalition government, while the NSW Labor opposition called on the premier ‘to go further and halt all CSG operations across NSW.’
It’s a turnaround for NSW Labor; when in government previously – for 16 hard long years – they were responsibble for the unfettered expansion of the industry, including $1,000 mining licences and royalty-free periods.
Meanwhile two major gas mining companies, Santos and AGL, have sought to address public discontent with a non-binding agreement with NSW Farmers, Cotton Australia and NSW Irrigators Council.
It accepts the right of landholders to refuse miners access to their land for gas development. Notably it poo-poos any neighbour who may disagree, with the agreement stating, ‘The parties condemn bullying, harassment and intimidation by third-party groups and individuals in relation to agreed operations.’
It comes only weeks after a Greens bill to give landowners a say on land access was not only rejected by the major parties, but not even debated.
While welcoming the announcement, Lock the Gate’s national co-ordinator Phil Laird said the commitment, ‘is no comfort to our Queensland members or to communities in the northern rivers facing off against gas company Metgasco, and cannot be relied upon unless it is enshrined in law in NSW.’
‘Our message to the government is this: extend rights and protections not just to landholders, but to the communities that rely on the health of the land and the water. Otherwise a gas company can still undermine the safety and security of landholders by buying high-value farming land for coal seam gas extraction, as AGL has done in the Hunter.’
Will Byron Bay’s traffic gridlock be addressed before the first sod is turned on the yet-to-be-determined West Byron Project?
Yes, according to NSW minister for the north coast and Byron resident Don Page MP (Nationals).
It comes as public submissions close this Friday for the proposed estate, located 2.5 kilometres west of the CBD. If approved, it would be the town’s largest suburb in decades.
Mr Page told The Echo, ‘I have told the consultant for the West Byron landowners that I will not support the project unless the Byron bypass has been constructed.
‘We have serious traffic congestion in Byron already and it should not be exacerbated. There are other issues which also need to be considered with their proposal and this is currently happening through the public exhibition and consultation process. I will treat those issues on their merits.’
But are the issues being addressed?
Not according to Council’s planning staff, who say issues remain, which they raised with NSW Planning and Infrastructure in 2011.
Director of Council’s environment and planning, Ray Darney, told The Echo that, ‘staff have recommended within the draft submission that the bypass needs to be completed prior to any residential subdivision proceeding at the site.’ As for residential density, he says, ‘The current proposed allotment size is too small and the overall density of development is not compatible with the general urban form and character of Byron Bay.’
And similarly, the concerns of flood mitigation raised in 2011 also remain. Mr Darney said staff have recommended within the submission that they are not satisfied with the flood planning levels as proposed by the developer.
‘The flood levels and flood planning levels for the development must be consistent with Council’s adopted flood study and flood management plan, which follows the process in the NSW flood plain development manual.’
However on its website’s FAQ, the West Byron Project claims, ‘The department commissioned WMA Water to undertake an independent review, which supported the modelling and flood planning levels.
‘There are no developable lots in high flood hazard risk areas. There will be a negligible impact on offsite peak flood levels.’
But it’s just not roads, density or flooding issues; Mr Darney says there would be a significant amount of infrastructure required to service up to 1,000 allotments.
‘Staff will be recommending to Council that the development should be provided with dual reticulation to recycle water and that the bypass and roundabouts on Ewingsdale road need to be provided by the developer.
‘In addition the trunk drainage system needs to be comprehensively designed and provided by the developer to ensure the quality of stormwater runoff does not impact negatively on the sensitive Belongil Creek.’
Bypass voluntary contribution: developers
The Echo understands that one of the priorities for the current councillors in their first term is to complete a Byron bypass. Given the issue has plagued successive councils for 25 years, it would be quite an achievement.
And with a total cost for the Byron bypass being estimated at around $8.2 million, the developers have said they will make voluntary contributions, ‘specifically earmarked for the bypass.’
They say it’s in addition to regular contributions to infrastructure that developers pay Council for projects.
If the rezoning is approved, they say, $7,000 per residential lot will be contributed under a planning agreement between them and the NSW planning minister.
If approved, it would almost cover the bypass cost if 1,000 homes were built, and would need to be paid upfront.
As for state assistance, MP Page said, ‘Even though it’s a Council responsibility, I have arranged through the minister for roads to pay 80 per cent of the geotechnical study (an important first step in helping to get the project started), estimated at $270,000.
‘The minister has also agreed to assist Council with additional funding for the construction of the Byron bypass once we know what the full cost will be.
‘The geotechnical study will help determine this.’
Meanwhile, mayor Simon Richardson told The Echo he is unsupportive of West Byron, ‘certainly not at the scale being proposed, but that is no matter within Council’s power.’
‘The monies we have do not go remotely towards addressing the long-term traffic and road infrastructure needs in Byron Bay. One roundabout alone is around the $1 million mark. In regard to traffic, there would not be a stupider place to plonk a development five times the size of Sunrise [than the site] proposed on Ewingsdale Road. So if the proponents want it, they need to ensure the rest of the community don’t have increased gridlock because of it.’
Plans for the West Byron Project are at http://bit.ly/westbyronplans and public submissions close January 31.
Those operating a tourist-related business in Brunswick Heads be warned: it’s unlikely local MP Don Page (Nationals) will defend your activity from being taken over by the NSW government-run North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP).
Last week, The Echo reported that Brunswick Buccaneer boat hire operator Ilan Schnitzler is facing eviction by NCHP.
But Mr Page is refusing to intervene, raising the question: how accountable is NCHP and its manager Jim Bolger to elected politicians?
Emails obtained by The Echo show that despite having authority over Banner Park and the waterways opposite the pub where the boats are located, Crown Lands has palmed responsibility to NCHP. And while Crown Lands, under deputy premier Andrew Stoner (Nationals), did not reply to Echo questions, Mr Page did.
He told The Echo, ‘I am advised that the [Brunswick Buccaneer’s] licence had expired some time ago.’
Terminated vs expired
However, Mr Schnitzler’s solicitor, Claire Lovejoy told The Echo the licence ‘never expired and was instead terminated’.
‘There is a clear difference between “expired” and “wrongfully terminated”,’ she said.
Mr Page then suggested that NCHP’s plan of management (POM) for the surrounding foreshore – now on public exhibition – could be an avenue for the operator to lobby his cause.
‘The operator, like all other interested parties, is able to make a submission as to the most appropriate future use for the site,’ he said. ‘Any future licence will be granted through a competitive tender process.’
While The Echo is unaware of other ‘interested parties’ wanting to hire boats in that location, kayak hire is now available at the NCHP’s Terrace Reserve Holiday Park, located a couple of hundred metres up the creek.
The surprise announcement that Mr Schnitzler’s 30-year business would now be subject to a tender process comes without warning and is not even mentioned in NCHP’s plans of management.
And despite no mention of The Brunswick Buccaneer either, there are concrete walkways and park extensions earmarked for the immediate area in the plan of management.
Conflict of interest
While this appears to be ‘making it up as you go along’ governance, another unanswered question is whether the state government has a conflict of interest.
When asked whether it was a conflict of interest to operate a commercial venture while having the power to issue licences for a similar private business close by, Mr Page said, ‘If they are hiring kayaks,’ he said, ‘then whether there is a commercial conflict of interest – or not – is a legal matter that would require appropriate legal advice. I am therefore not able to answer your question on conflict of interest.’
n Disclosure: Mr Schnitzler’s solicitor is a relative of the reporter