CAN it be the coming council election? A series of malignant New Year resolutions? Whatever it was, hopes were dashed early at last Wednesday’s first Mornington Peninsula Shire meeting of the year, a hope that good behaviour, forbearance or courtesy would be prominent in 2016.
The chamber was brought to order by the calm, firm and admirable governance manager Joe Spiteri, who should never need to perform such a role for a meeting of presumed grown-ups. Perhaps it is not within his remit, but it needs doing.
So normal has discourtesy to the chair and contempt for the public become, first in 2015, Bev Colomb’s mayoral year and now at the start of Graham Pittock’s, that perhaps Mr Spiteri will have to perform the role of chief whip – with a stockwhip.
Lest anyone thinks (as apparently some do, and are puerile and foolhardy enough to bruit the defamation) that my remarks in this column are a fantasy, a farrago of fake facts, I direct them to the recordings of shire meetings.
There they will hear for themselves the official audio of shire meetings, including the snide remarks, the shouting, the odd precipitate, surly exit from a meeting with shouted insults as a departing accompaniment to chair-slamming.
I write no fantasy. I would not stoop to it. I have done this work professionally for half a century, for Melbourne’s leading quality newspapers, first The Herald then The Age.
My lodestar is a Latin motto discovered early in my career: “Magna est veritas et praevalet” – “Great is truth and mighty above all things.” It’s from Apocrypha: 1 Esdras Chapter 4. Nail that to your mast and bind yourself to it, people: it will stand you in good stead.
There endeth the diversion, and the use of what is known in my trade as “the perpendicular pronoun”, or, more technically, the first-person singular. Often described as the indulgence of the ego.
Now, what were we talking about? Yes – the meeting. The usual pro forma start, with a prayer so antique that it should be printed in Olde English typeface, questions, and CEO Carl Cowie’s report to the community on the shire’s satisfactory financial progress.
Then we got to the Skylift item – approval of its bushfire/emergency plan, covered elsewhere in these pages. It passed: councillors’ hands are tied on “secondary consent” items such as this, a product of VCAT. They must pass them. Why such consent exists must mystify many; additionally, it irks developers, and councillors.
The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal is a strange beast with an almost total freedom from real curbs on its power, as well as strange powers it imposes on communities.
Example: in its “decision” (VCAT does not judge) on the Skylift, it remarked on bushfire risk that it was “comforted” by passenger safety assurances from a proponent of the project, and left the entire bushfire emergency plan in the hands of councillors.
But not the power, staff have been telling councillors for months, to amend, in any substantial way, the plan presented to council. Where is the logic in that? It leaves the entire plan, on which lives depend, in the hands of the developer and its experts.
The other temperature-raising item on the agenda involved reversing a silly December decision on closing the Rye tip, also enlarged on elsewhere in these pages.
Cr David Gibb made what he later strenuously denied was a snide remark aimed at Cr Hugh Fraser. Cr Fraser immediately called for it to be withdrawn. Cr Gibb hotly argued that he had named no councillor, and continued to deny it was a snide remark.
Cr Pittock reminded Cr Gibb the meeting was being recorded in case anyone wanted to re-listen. We are not yet at the electronic point of instant replay, like a Test wicket falling, but it stilled that debate.
Rye tip has reeked for years as an issue in the shire. When the peninsula had its own cocooned waste scheme, effectively run by Cr Gibb, the slogan was keep shire waste in the shire. Then the old Pioneer quarry at Arthurs Seat loomed as a replacement dumping site.
The Rye tip was nearly full, came the message. It will last only until 2019. We need to look for another tip site. And the move began to fill the spectacular quarry with rubbish, stopped a few years ago by the EPA refusal to approve it.
Suddenly, a conjunction of events: climate change, the absorption of the peninsula into the Melbourne metro waste group and loss of the quarry as a tip site. And an election in 2012 that changed the council numbers away from the Gibb group.
Cr Gibb had a bad night. The tip was closed, he was successfully challenged over meeting rules, his involvement in the Rye tip moves came to light. His colleague Cr Antonella Celi rose, in a move that caused laughter in the gallery, to lecture councillors on their standard of behaviour and urge an improvement.
And, affecting him only in that Cr Andrew Dixon generally supports the Gibb-Celi-Shaw-Garnock group, the Briars ward representative stood up at 11.09 (by my generally accurate watch) and left the chamber in a huff with a remark not quite intelligible to the gallery.
CW is not sure precisely what sparked his exit, his second premature evacuation in a few months. But it was in keeping with the general tone of the meeting, which ran its full measure until 11.30. A long night’s journey into depression. Is this a template for the whole year?