By Sarah Russell
MORNINGTON Peninsula Shire has a track record of failing to consult ratepayers about important decisions. First, it came for older people who use aged care services. Then it came for our beloved wildlife sanctuary at The Briars.
In 2022, councillors voted to outsource aged care services to corporate providers, a decision presented to the local community as a fait accompli. Thousands of vulnerable older people were left without home care – some for several months.
Then mayor Cr Anthony Marsh said the council wanted “to ensure our residents had a choice and the advantage of a competitive market environment”.
A choice? What sort of choice is it to leave some of our most vulnerable residents without care? As for a competitive market? The private providers were not able to provide care.
The Commonwealth Home Support Program will not transition before July 2027. Council had five years to make the transition to a “competitive market environment” and ensure the transition went smoothly. Instead, it chose to push ahead and marketise aged care services at a time when all private aged care services were short staffed due to the pandemic.
More recently, residents were kept in the dark about Warner Brothers’ plans to stage a Harry Potter sound and light show in the beloved wildlife sanctuary at The Briars, Mount Martha. Clearly it is an issue of great interest to the community, yet most councillors willingly signed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with a multinational company. Whatever happened to councillors’ commitment to integrity, transparency and consultation?
Do our councillors need to be reminded they are elected to represent us? Cr Steve Holland claims those of us opposed to this event being held in a wildlife sanctuary are a “noisy minority” and “fringe activists”. Absurd claims given more than 16,000 people signed a petition in protest against this event within a fortnight. Cr Holland should perhaps reflect on the fact that he received only 9463 votes when elected, much less than half the 21,000 people who have now signed the petition.
A council spokesperson said the process of approving the event was “no different from many other commercial in confidence matters that are routinely considered by council during closed sessions”. This is utter nonsense. Discussing tender applications such as those required for new infrastructure require commercial in confidence. However, Warner Brothers’ sound and light show was not a competitive tender.
It has also been claimed the “event will showcase our region, inspiring visitors to stay for a few days in what is generally a quiet time for our tourism sector”. This suggests the agreement with Warner Brothers has been based purely on financial grounds – with no concern for the wildlife that call the sanctuary their home.
The Briars wildlife sanctuary contains rare flora and fragile ecosystems that are home to 23 species of animals, including threatened koalas, 16 species of reptiles, and 90 species of birds including a breeding pair of endangered powerful owls. Did councillors read the ecological assessment report about the potential impacts of holding this event in the wildlife sanctuary?
It is extraordinary that Warner Brothers and Fever did not need a planning permit. While council makes ratepayers go through hoops to build a small shed on our property, corporate giants face no obstacles when they propose an extravaganza in a wildlife sanctuary.
And when asked if the Bunurong Land Council had given its approval, a councillor replied: “I’m following up with officers.” How did councillors not think to check with the land council before giving their approval?
The influence of corporate money resulted in our council and councillors acting in the interests of big business instead of the local community.
The director of the Australia Institute’s democracy and accountability program, Bill Browne, said it was not clear why the non-disclosure agreement was needed, and it raised concerns about transparency. “This is a salient reminder … that the public is paying attention and doesn’t like being locked out of the decision-making process.”
The council’s argument that this light and sound spectacular is in a limited area of the sanctuary is akin to the days when you purchased a non-smoking seat on a flight and sat surrounded by smoke from the smoking section. Of course, the wildlife will suffer during this event.
As the opposition to this decision grows, thanks to a wonderful grassroots community campaign and extensive media coverage, Warner Brothers is re-evaluating the location of this event. Let’s hope our council and councillors also re-evaluate their behaviour.
It was their job to listen to the community’s concerns before confidential contracts with Warner Brothers and Fever were signed.
* Dr Sarah Russell is a public health researcher and chairs Progressives of the Peninsula.