Helicopter View

Helicopter View

05.2.2016 What is true public consultation? Weekender Column 99


I am currently sitting at the end of the nervous nineties with this column being my ninety ninth Weekender column as Mayor. If my name was Shane Watson I would somehow manage to make this my last column! Who knows – with the current State Government merger proposals running across the state, this may well be my last column as Mayor.

We are right in the middle of the consultation process in relation to the merger proposals and it started me thinking about consultation and what it means. Is consultation a process whereby an organisation convinces the public of a particular point of view? Does an organisation – who puts an item out for public consultation – really want to hear any dissenting voices or are they simply after confirmation that the public will accept their idea? Is an organisation trying to lead by public opinion to ensure that every decision is ‘popular’ rather than possibly making the right decision?

In my time in Local Government I have seen the consultation process grow and develop extensively. I remember way back in 2007 I thought it was logical and sensible to sell the Council-owned Caravan Park. We had some data prepared by our staff and it all made sense so I moved the motion to sell the Park and a majority of Councillors supported the motion but, of course, it had to go on public display first before coming back to Council for a final resolution.

Council made sure the community knew about our plans and before long we started to pick up a few feelings of disquiet within the community. In the end, there was enough talk about the sale that a public meeting was organised. It was a cold miserable winter’s evening of 15°C with a gusty wind blowing down from the north as I entered the dark carpark of the PCYC. I could hear people whispering “there he goes” as I walked past and I was almost expecting Clint Eastwood to stroll around a corner and organise to string me up from a tree. The attendance sheet on the night revealed 164 people signed the sheet of which 155 were against the sale and 9 were undecided. I’m not sure what happened to my signature on the attendance sheet but I would have signed that I was in favour of the sale.

I had time to present my argument for selling the Caravan Park and then several speakers followed and by the end a show of hands was called for. It was a lonely room with only my hand going up in favour of the sale.

Some nine years later, Council still owns the Caravan Park. When it went back to Council the original decision was reversed and the final resolution was to retain ownership of the Park. The population of Dubbo in 2007 was just under 40,000 so the packed PCYC hall only represented 0.39 per cent of our population. Should Council have continued on with the decision to sell the Park with such a small percentage that were against the sale? Sometimes leadership means making unpopular decisions. There is no doubt it would have been unpopular and I could see some demonstrated financial benefits.

In the end, Councillors followed a course of action that represented the role of representative government. If you break down what government is then it is really a more efficient way for decisions to be made that are the will of the people but without having to ask all the people in relation to every decision. We presumably elect an individual we trust to undertake those decisions on our behalf.

More recently Council put forward a Planning Proposal that would have had an impact on property owners in South Dubbo. This was placed on public exhibition on 30 January 2014 and, due to the public interest, we extended the exhibition period to 57 days. We undertook a series of community consultation sessions and, on one occasion when we realised that the location we had chosen was too small, we re-convened a meeting in a larger location. By the time the matter was going back to Council in May the interest was that high that we ran the Council meeting in our theatre. We wanted to be certain that all interested parties could attend the Council meeting.

Once again the records will show that people power was the winner on the day. Even though Council originally moved the resolution forward due to the perceived benefits for the community, the community spoke loud and clear and said that they did not want it. Councillors made the decision to reject the Planning Proposal largely based on the weight of numbers.

I can only hope the State Government is listening as intently to the community as Council has demonstrated it has done in the past.

Let me know what the term ‘public consultation’ means to you at mayor@dubbo.nsw.gov.au

#NoDubbington