Thursday, December 20, 2007

3CR interview on asbestos at Roberts Street

This morning I was interviewed on community radio station 3CR's breakfast program about asbestos at the Roberts Street public housing flats in Northcote. The interview covered the failure of the Office of Housing and Northcote MP Fiona Richardson to release information about asbestos at the flats and how it will be dealt with when the flats are demolished and redeveloped for new public housing early in the new year.

As well as being the local MP, Richardson chairs the community advisory committee for the redevelopment, but has yet to fulfil a 5 December commitment in The Melbourne Times to release an asbestos audit for the site that the Office of Housing website claims has already been done. Nor has demolition tender information been released, despite the website stating that the tender for demolition was to be advertised mid-December. No minutes for any of the community advisory committee meetings are available on the website, including the 26 November meeting at which Richardson claims the issue of asbestos was discussed.

While I wholeheartedly support the Roberts Street public housing redevelopment, it should proceed with transparency and accountability – especially with regard to asbestos. As I said in this morning's interview, if the government is asking us to trust them on asbestos at Roberts Street, then I'd say trust comes with openness and public information, not secrecy and spin.

If you'd like to get in touch with me on this issue, email, or leave a comment by following the comments link at the bottom of this post.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Garrett Should Reject Channel Deepening in the Bay

Federal Evironment Minister, Peter Garrett, is set to decide on channel deepening in Victoria's Port Phillip Bay this Thursday 20 December. I recently received an email urging people to write to Garrett on the issue, so I did. Here is my my open letter to the minister:
Dear Peter,

I urge you to reject channel deepening in Port Phillip Bay when you make your decision this Thursday 20 December. I urge this decision for two main reasons. The first is the uncertainty as to the environmental impact in terms of the marine ecology ? due both to the removal of rocks at Port Phillip Heads, but also to the disturbance of toxic sediment that will likely damage the health of the Bay in unanticipated ways. If the deepening goes ahead and these risks are realised, there is no prospect of successful remediation that will return the Bay to its current state within the foreseeable future. Like the felling of a tree in an old-growth forest, once the damage is done, it is irreversible ? it would be, in the words of Cormac McCarthy's recent novel, The Road, 'a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again'.

The second main reason for rejecting Bay deepening is that the channel is proposed to be deepened primarily to allow the entry of larger cargo ships, providing for the substantial growth of shipping traffic through the Port of Melbourne. This will necessarily impact on Australia's efforts to prevent dangerous climate change both in terms of the emissions of the shipping itself, and in terms of the promotion of increased consumption and its related carbon emissions.

I have seen nothing from the Victorian State Government connecting and reconciling the issues of channel deepening and climate change. Surely, given our recent participation in the UN climate change talks in Bali, Australia should be showing more than rhetorical leadership in this global emergency. Will the report of Professor Garnaut examine planned increases to shipping levels? If this is not part of the Rudd Government's considerations, on what basis has it been excluded?

In conclusion, I urge you to reject the channel deepening in Port Phillip Bay, and thereby to make a stand for the environment, and for the Australian people in their hope for climate change leadership following the election of the Rudd Government.

Yours sincerely etc.

If you oppose channel deepening in Port Phillip Bay, please write to Peter Garrett as soon as possible before tomorrow's decision.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Full picture slow to emerge on Roberts Street asbestos

Public pressure on Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, and the Office of Housing is beginning to pay off with the slow emergence of the full picture of the asbestos in the soon-to-be demolished Roberts Street public housing flats. Calls on this blog and in The Melbourne Times for the release of information have resulted in the tardy update (11 December) of one page of the Office of Housing's website about the redevelopment. The relevant passages on asbestos read as follows:

An extensive audit for the presence of asbestos containing material was the first step in planning for the safe demolition of the buildings. The analysis was undertaken by independent experts and found asbestos materials in eaves linings, heater flues, window flashings and some joint sealants. Asbestos was a commonly used building material between the 1940's and mid 1980's because of its qualities of fire resistance, insulation and durability. The material was phased out between 1975 and 1985.

The handling and removal of materials containing asbestos will be undertaken by specialists according to the highest industry standards. In addition, an independent occupational hygienist will be engaged to monitor air quality during the works and provide a 'clearance certificate' for the asbestos removal, to ensure that the dust levels during demolition are below the prescribed maximum levels.
So what can we surmise from this? Well, the extent of asbestos on the site is somewhat clearer – there seems to be a fair bit of it. It also appears that an audit has been done. So, judging by Richardson's commitment in The Melbourne Times (5 December, page 8), its full release must be imminent. That will tell us when the audit was done, who did it, what the specific findings were, and what type and amount of asbestos is present ('an extensive audit for the presence of asbestos'). We'll also be able to judge whether the release of public information has been timely.

We also have a better estimate of the demolition timeline. According to the page quoted from above, it's looking like February. OK, good to know. We have a bit more time to get very clear about the situation and to take steps to inform the public if Richardson and her bureaucrats fall down in that regard.

What is still unknown? Well, we don't know who will undertake the demolition, as the tender will be advertised mid-December (that's in the next few days, I guess). However, we should expect notification on the redevelopment website, and it should certainly appear on the Victorian Government Tenders website, should it not? The documentation should reveal pretty plainly the sort of precautions that are expected to be taken during the demolition – presumably referencing State controls regarding asbestos.

We should also expect to know who the 'independent occupational hygienist' is, and exactly how the monitoring will be performed. Will this be the subject of a tender? If so, the same considerations apply as with the demolition tender.

Once the demolition contract is let, we should be able to find out who won it and look into their track record regarding demolitions involving asbestos. Will the contractor be on the Trades Hall register of approved consultants, for example? I hope so.

Finally, despite a modest concession to public information, we still don't have available on the website the minutes of any of the community advisory committee meetings – including the 26 November meeting at which the issue of asbestos was supposedly discussed. So, to the public release of the asbestos audit and the tender information, we should add the minutes of these meetings.

Why is all this necessary? Many people have a tendency to believe that the government will 'do the right thing'. To that kind of belief I would respond that the government/public housing bureaucracy has let the Roberts Street flats deteriorate over years knowing that asbestos was present. It is commonly known that the risk from asbestos increases with such deterioration. In that case, surely it is more likely the government will 'do the right thing' if they are persuaded to release information by which they can be held accountable. And that must benefit everyone living in close proximity to the flats, or who happens to live downwind of the demolition.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Where's the asbestos audit, Fiona?

In an article in this week's edition of The Melbourne Times, Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, responds to concerns about asbestos in the soon-to-be demolished Roberts Street flats by saying that an audit of asbestos and removal plans will be made publicly available. The trouble is that, despite the timeline for the project being long known and the demolition being close at hand, there has been almost complete silence on this issue. That's why I raised concerns with TMT, and was unsurprised that those concerns turned out to be shared by former residents.

Yes, there is still one resident who has not been transferred to alternative accommodation, but delaying the commencement of the redevelopment shouldn't mean stalling an asbestos audit and making the results publicly available, or failing to be open and transparent on an issue of public health. I am told, for example, that the issue was raised at the recent community advisory committee meeting (26 November) not by the attending officials, but by a resident.

Given that the committee meetings are understandably held at a time suitable for the residents rather than members of the wider community to attend, that places a special onus on the committee, and on Richardson as its chair, to communicate more effectively via letterboxing and the web. Yet the Office of Housing website appears not to have been updated since September, and contains absolutely no mention of asbestos.

So what should we expect on this issue? I think it's reasonable to have answered the questions I sent to Richardson on 28 November. It's reasonable that as much information be made available as will allow the community to make its own judgment about whether asbestos will be appropriately handled to ensure a safe redevelopment.

As a start, Fiona, when was the audit commissioned and exactly when will it be published and distributed? We might also have the minutes of meetings published on the web as soon as they are completed, so that those who can't attend in normal working hours can read what's going on. It's time to move towards openness and transparency, and away from spin doctors and so-called issues management - which is really more about covering backsides than informing the public of the things they have a right to know.

If you want to prompt Richardson to respond, why not call her electoral office on 9481 5777, or email

You might also consider writing a letter to The Melbourne Times by emailing, or calling them on 9473 4700 to express your concern.

For those of you who are interested, ABC Radio National's Australia Talks did a program on asbestos last night. The Science Show will also shortly broadcast a series on mesothelioma, a deadly disease caused by exposure to the fibre.

While it is important to remember that asbestos can be removed safely to protect human health, not all asbestos exposure occurs in the workplace – there have been numerous examples of dangerous cost-cutting in commercial demolition works. That's why it's important for the government to set the standard with projects such as the Roberts Street redevelopment.

Your comments are most welcome here, or feel free to email me if you prefer to discuss this matter offline.

More on asbestos at Roberts Street shortly

If you've received my flyer and want to see the questions I sent to Richardson, see below. More soon!

Roskam plain wrong on Howard loss

The Institute of Public Affairs' John Roskam was pushing his skewed take on national affairs in the opinion pages of The Age yesterday in a piece entitled, 'It wasn't because they weren't "liberal" enough that the Libs lost'. It was part confused rationalisation of the Howard loss, part prescription of where to from here for the Liberal Party.

To me the piece was badly argued, and I responded in a letter to the editor that was somewhat shortened in the published version ('A vote on values'). Here's the full version:

John Roskam is clearly bewildered by the Coalition's deserved loss of the election – he's also confused. While Kevin Rudd did play small-target politics and the charge of me-tooism was not unjustified, his strategy highlighted significant differences between his alternative government and the Howard Coalition. These differences were of policy and value.

If, as Roskam suggests, values can guide the Coalition's future policy formulation, it is also true that the policies it took to the election reflected underlying values that voters emphatically rejected.

WorkChoices was both an abhorrent policy and indicative of a Coalition that valued an exploitative inequality favouring employers over workers. The failure to endorse Kyoto was again symptomatic of valuing a narrow, big-business construction of economic prosperity over the health of an environment shared by us all.

Unfortunately, calls by Roskam and others for the Liberals to be the party that 'defends and extends personal freedoms' are too often code for removing constraints from corporations (so-called 'legal persons') to the detriment of the public interest – the Coalition's WorkChoices and climate change policies were just two, electorally disastrous, examples.

That's why Howard lost, John, and why, in terms of policy and value, Rudd's election brings a promise of fresh, carbon-free air.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Asbestos at the Roberts Street flats

Given that the flats at Roberts Street Northcote contain asbestos and are slated for imminent demolition, nearby residents need answers to the following questions:

  1. What is the likely timing of the demolition?

  2. Has an asbestos audit of the buildings been undertaken? If so, will the findings be made public? If not, why not, and when will an audit be done?

  3. What requirements does the presence of asbestos place on the demolition of buildings, and how will these be applied to Roberts Street to ensure the safety of the community?

  4. Has a demolition tender been let? If so, has a company been appointed, and when will this information be made public?

If readers can think of any more questions, feel free to leave them here by using the comments link on this post - the same goes for any answers the government might deign to provide. I'll be sending Northcote MP Fiona Richardson the post, so she can't say she doesn't know.

This issue has gone under the radar a bit with the election and the generally poor communication about the project. The advisory committee meetings, for example, are held on working days when many people can't attend, and the website hasn't been all that informative, is very general, and was a long time coming

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Rudd's election a chance for progress

The night before the election I was out to dinner with my family at an inner-city pub in the seat of Melbourne. On the next table, the conversation mixed popular culture and, of course, the election. 'Instead of changing their own lives, they'll change the government,' a young man said.

Last night's emphatic defeat of the Howard Government was also a defeat of the kind of distorted aspirational thinking captured by this comment. At its heart was an arrogance that suggests that everything affecting our lives is within our grasp to change. For the inner-city professional classes, that may largely be the case. But tell that to Australia's Indigenous people, to refugees in mandatory detention, and to workers suffering under Howard's industrial laws.

Despite my disagreement with some key ALP policies - the mining of uranium and the pulp mill among others - there was enough in last night's victory speech by Kevin Rudd to hope for a more progressive Australia. I'm looking forward to a new vision for education, for cooperation on health, an improvement in the plight of Indigenous people, action on climate change, and fairer workplace laws.

In particular, I saw Australians unite in last night's vote to defeat together efforts under WorkChoices to fracture their collective power in the workplace.

I was heartened that, at the possible dawn of a new progressive era, Kevin Rudd chose to acknowledge the approaching end of Bernie Banton's brave life.

I was heartened that Greg Combet, who has stood with Mr Banton in his fight, was acknowledged in his victory as a man who has consistently worked for the rights of Australian workers - recognised as a champion of workers' bargaining equality in spite of a scare campaign demonising unions for opposing the one-sided power of business.

Yet last night's victory is also a challenge to Mr Rudd to acknowledge the debt owed to the Greens in ousting the Howard Government. As Bob Brown noted, it was Greens preferences that substantially helped the ALP over the line. Even in safe Labor seats, the growth in the Greens vote sends a clear signal to the new Rudd Government to reconsider the drift of the party to the right.

In Batman, won convincingly by Martin Ferguson, the Greens' Priya Carey continued the rapid growth in the party's support. In Melbourne, Adam Bandt signalled the Greens' eclipse of the Liberals as the second political force.

With the new Senate still emerging, it is to be hoped that the progressive note sounded by the vote in the House of Representatives will be echoed in the house of review. It is a sadder note of this election that we will likely lose the proven qualities of Queensland Senator Andrew Bartlett and Victorian Senator Lyn Allison. With the retirement of Andrew Murray and Natasha Stott-Despoja, that would signal the end of the Democrats' contribution in the Senate.

A strong Senate – with the Greens possibly holding the balance of power – would test the new Government, in particular where Kevin Rudd's victory speech signalled cause for concern in its call to move past 'old battles' such as the one between 'public and private'. We should remember that Rudd's election is a chance for progress, not its fulfilment.

This article is cross-posted at

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A final word on the 2007 Federal election

Essential reading for anyone who might be slightly mystified by voting preferences is Beth Spencer's recent article for The Age, 'Your voting preferences really do matter'. I encourage everyone to have a read and spread the word among your friends.

As for me, through letters to the editor, web articles and posts on this blog, I've made my own modest contribution to highlighting some of the issues that will be important in deciding my vote next Saturday. Below are some links to these for easy reference.

The unknown Batman Liberal - in search of Jonathan Peart

Interview with Priya Carey, Greens candidate for Batman

'Sticky John' a double-standard distraction for Batman

Questions for Martin Ferguson

Vaile's attitude proves the point (Letter to the editor, The Age)

Hidden dangers (Letter to the editor, The Sunday Age)

The first four articles were written for, a citizen journalism project focusing on the election and run by the Queensland University of Technology. Contributing to this project has been an interesting experience, and I hope citizen journalism grows as an inclusive and participatory means of shaping the future of our democracy.

Vote well!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The unknown Batman Liberal – in search of Jonathan Peart

Who is Jonathan Peart, the Liberal candidate for Batman. I tried to find out.
Beyond a short piece on candidates' policy promises in last week's Northcote Leader, I've seen little about 27-year-old Liberal candidate for Batman, Jonathan Peart. There's been nothing in my letterbox and he certainly hasn't been in the neighbourhood door-knocking. So I thought I'd see if I could get any more response from him than the complete silence I received from Martin Ferguson. After all, the Liberals polled nearly 26 per cent of the first-preference vote in Batman last time around.

After an email bounceback from an incorrect address on the Liberal Party website, I sent Jonathan two emails to the corrected address requesting an interview for YouDecide2007, explaining that it was a citizen journalism project focusing on the election from local perspectives. With no response, I thought I'd do a web search on the candidate, and finally came up with a mobile number since removed from a live business web page but still captured in a cached copy retained by Google. Sure enough, I got the voicemail of the candidate and left a message. When there was no response, I left another.

Two emails and two voicemails later, I figure Jonathan isn't going to play ball, which is a pity because I had some good questions to ask him, which I will discuss here anyway. What I'll also do is email him this story to see if he will offer any response on this site. The only problem with that is readers won't know if it is Jonathan answering or a party spin doctor – just like his entry in the local paper, really.

Read the full article at YouDecide2007

Monday, November 19, 2007

Vaile's arrogance on grant audit signals need for change

I hope as many people as possible read Mark Vaile's comments cricitising the release of an Auditor-General report into the Coalition's political abuse of regional grants. That's because I believe the arrogance of his reaction signals the need for a change of government. Today The Age published 'Vaile's attitude proves the point', my letter responding to the article in which Vaile's comments were reported:
Nothing could better clarify the need for a change of government than Mark Vaile's criticism of the timely release of the Auditor-General's report on the misuse of regional grants for political purposes (The Age, 17/11). The report, by an independent officer of the Crown, goes to the heart of the Government's accountability on significant public expenditure.

Yet Vaile's response belittles the Auditor-General as an "unelected individual" and calls for a reassessment of the rules controlling when such reports can be made available. In essence, damaging, if factual, information that can now be released before an election might then be released after an election. Ring any bells?

Vaile's arrogant attitude underpins not only the politically motivated dispensing of regional largesse, but the concealment of the true circumstances of the Tampa incident, the decision to go to war in Iraq, the AWB scandal and, more recently, the disgraceful treatment of Mohamed Haneef. That he can so openly call for a change in the rules to better conceal inconvenient truths speaks volumes. This election is an opportunity to lift the Vaile of secrecy.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Priya Carey interview at YouDecide2007

Last weekend I interviewed Priya Carey, Greens candidate for Batman in the 2007 Federal election. I began with the challenge of running against Martin Ferguson in the safest ALP seat in Australia...

Priya Carey has the toughest gig of any Greens candidate running against an ALP incumbent this election. Martin Ferguson, the Labor MHR for Batman, holds the seat with a 21.3 per cent margin (two-party-preferred) from the 2004 election, making Batman the safest ALP federal seat in Australia. The Greens' hopes for the seat were challenged on this very basis by a local journalist when Bob Brown spoke on the Tasmanian pulp mill at the Northcote Town Hall back in July. I therefore began my interview by asking Carey what claim to relevance the Greens could have in such a safe seat.
Read the full interview at YouDecide2007

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Walk Against Warming unites climate concerns, hopes for change

It was good to see the Smith Street tram packed today as I made my way to the Walk Against Warming with the kids in tow. When we parked ourselves under a shady tree outside the State Library, the banners hovering above the swelling crowd showed the diverse political platforms now unifying behind the cause of halting dangerous climate change. There were the Greens, of course, but also the Democrats, GetUp, the Socialists and anti-nuclear groups, The Big Switch guys, the Australian Conservation Foundation, and representatives from the dwindling numbers of the orange bellied parrot – in their faux-feather costumes on a very sunny day they certainly were warming to their task, and good on them for their commitment.

I even saw a comprehensively sun-tanned former deputy premier in the ranks, though no ALP or Coalition banners anywhere. Perhaps the major parties were simultaneously ashamed and hedging their bets with conservative voters. While their media statements suggest a (varying) willingness to tackle the problem, in true me-too spirit, they were perhaps unwilling to go so far as to be caught sweating on the asphalt with those openly committed to facing the problem head-on.

The really great thing about today was seeing people from the bus I catch, from my kids' school – people I don't know that well who I would never guess care about global warming, but obviously do. Today was a day not only to demonstrate numbers, but for people to openly acknowledge to each other what they care about. True, their concerns are too often split between state and federal seats, but with the rising temperatures sentiment is rising across electoral boundaries that is capable of significant impact. That is cause for hope in the fight against climate change. As one rap went today, 'Show me what democracy looks like: This is what democracy looks like!'.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

'Sticky John' a double-standard distraction for Batman

Here I take a look at local media coverage of the federal contest for Batman. This is the original version of a piece that was published on the YouDecide2007 site yesterday.

It can be an interesting exercise to look at the local media's election coverage. With a circulation of more than 24,000 in the Victorian seat of Batman, last week's edition of The Northcote Leader offered a telling glimpse of the substantial reach but narrow focus of some local election reporting.

With only three editions to go before polling day, the election didn't make the front page this time around, though the previous week saw some glancing coverage identifying climate change as a big issue with Batman voters in the safest ALP-held federal seat in Australia.

Make it to page five and we get a Q and A of the candidates' 'favourite local hangouts, from restaurants to parklands'. But it's on page seven that cynical amusement could begin to creep in. 'Sticky John riles Rudd' reads the headline above a large colour pic of a Northcote resident (one Cathy Rudd) holding her Martin Ferguson placard besmirched with a glued-on, photo-copied portrait of a smiling PM with a 'Howard 07' caption – Ferguson the victim of a hideous head transplant.

Martin Ferguson, MHR for Batman and the ALP's safest bet, declares the vandalism of the frontyard promotion 'beyond a joke', describing the admittedly silly act as 'clearly thought-out and orchestrated'. Curiously, he then expresses doubt that the Liberals are behind the prank.

Obvious but unanswered questions are who he thinks might have hatched the devious masterplan and what political mileage is in it for them. This Batman mystery is not Murder on the Orient Express – with only six candidates, the political suspects are limited; one – the Liberals – apparently already ruled out.

If I were more optimistic, I'd be pleased to see Ferguson take this stand, because voters could read it as a rejection of the kind of tactics the ALP itself used in a misleading propaganda campaign against the Greens in the contest for Northcote at the November 2006 Victorian State election. Of course one could argue that it's an entirely different ballgame, except for the fact that back in November 2006 Ferguson was spruiking on the steps of Northcote Town Hall for then ALP candidate and later Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson. It was Richardson's husband, ALP State Secretary Stephen Newnham, who authorised the so-called 'Gotcha' campaign against the Greens.

So this time, if he is sincere, Ferguson seems to be signalling that we'll see no unbranded but ALP-authorised flyers appropriating the Greens logo and featuring the heads of prominent Liberals at its centre. Transplanted heads? Is Ferguson insinuating some kind of ham-fisted Greens payback in the current stunt? That, of course, is the less optimistic view: Ferguson's cryptic comments in the 'Sticky John' report could signal just the kind of stupidity that besieged our letterboxes last November.

Of course, this is all somewhat complicated by the preference deal that now seems to have been sealed between the Greens and Labor. How do you falsely insinuate a deal between the Greens and other parties when you've done a deal with them yourself? Maybe you insinuate questionable campaign tactics instead.

While we'll have to wait and see if a misleading ALP campaign becomes a feature of the federal contest for Batman, the trouble with this kind of beat-up masquerading as election coverage is that it displaces real issues and fails to engage in actual debate.

The previous week's edition of the paper devoted a tiny paragraph to the key issues for Batman as identified by Roy Morgan research – improving health services and hospitals (39 per cent of responses); improving education (25 per cent); and fair workplace and employment regulations (23 per cent). Fast-forward to last week's 'Sticky John' edition and two of these issues are implicated in a worthy commentary piece ('Stomach it?', p.6) by Heather Gallagher, who was admitted to the emergency department of a local hospital during the recent Victorian nurses' dispute.

Unfortunately, the issues covered in the article were not followed through in the paper's election coverage, so we were given little indication of where the candidates stand on issues that clearly concern many Batman voters. Given recent events, however, a closer analysis would have challenged the major parties, with the Victorian Labor Government having invoked WorkChoices in its attempt to break the nurses' dispute, and the Federal Government badly embarrassed by the seeming failure of its pork-barrelling takeover of Tasmania's Mersey hospital.

While it would be easy to frame serious questions around these events to bring out the positions of all the candidates, it seems the best we can hope for in the coverage is trivial shenanigans that distract us from the issues. In Ferguson's case, it's a distraction based on a double-standard regarding appropriate campaign tactics. Let's see if some substantial issues emerge in this week's edition of the paper.

All comments welcome, but, in the case of the ALP, that might risk addressing the real issues – don't you think, Martin?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ferguson on YouDecide2007

My last post has now been published as an opinion piece on the YouDecide2007 website. YouDecide is publishing local accounts of the important issues in the 2007 Federal Election as part of an Australian Research Council-funded citizen journalist inititaive run by Queensland University of Technology. Let's hope Martin Ferguson is encouraged to respond to the issues I've written about, even if he does hold Batman on 71.3 per cent two-party-preferred as at the last election. He's welcome to comment here, and I'm more than willing to discuss these issues in person and report back on them.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

One question for Martin Ferguson

I read in The Melbourne Times last week about Martin Ferguson's aggressive tactics at a recent Darebin climate change forum, and his disparagement of the low numbers attending. It's a pity, because I don't mind the former unionist and political street-fighter who's always up for a rhetorical punch-up. Unfortunately, on the issue of uranium and climate change, Martin Ferguson is just plain wrong.

Despite unconvincing assertions to the contrary, he's long been pro-nuclear, and is even singled out for special mention by Ian Lowe in Reaction Time, the latest Quarterly Essay, which thoroughly debunks nuclear energy as a solution to future energy demands and climate change (see especially page 67).

I particularly remember a forum on uranium mining held at Northcote Town Hall back in June 2006, where Ferguson's main line seemed to be that, regardless of any change to Labor's three-mines policy (now history following the ditching of this limit at the ALP's national conference in April this year), Australia would be the biggest producer/exporter of uranium by 2013 anyway. As if that were somehow a licence to throw out consideration of a policy change to phase out uranium mining and make the world a safer place.

Some of my recent reading has now coalesced around an ALP policy that would eschew the use of nuclear power in Australia, but allow nuclear risk to be exported around the world to countries subject to insufficient nuclear safeguards, accidents, terrorism and the uncertainties of their own geo-political squabbles.

First, there's the eloquent science of Reaction Time making plain the risks of a nuclear 'solution' to climate change that is uneconomic, slow and dangerous in contrast with a diversity of safe, renewable and timely alternatives. Unlike Martin Ferguson, Lowe dodges none of the issues and, as one who supported nuclear energy early in his scientific career, is prepared to take the nuclear lobby's best shot and show it falling drastically short.

Next is Cormac McCarthy's 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road. Anyone who has not read the book might question the inclusion of fiction to support the anti-nuclear cause. But the novel's imagining of a post-apocalypse America shows the truth of a suggested but unacknowledged nuclear war, drawn out over the alternately debased and heroic lives of the last survivors of an irrevocably damaged planet. McCarthy's profound imagining should be shared by everyone who makes decisions that literally affect the fate of the earth.

Bringing McCarthy's imagining firmly back to reality, however, is a real-life scenario of how the nuclear dominoes might actually begin to fall.

The ABC News website reports that four senior officers have recently been fired from the USAF following the prohibited transfer in August of six nuclear-armed cruise missiles on the wing of a B-52 bomber flying between bases across America.

No doubt each of the missiles far exceeded the explosive power of the A-bombs detonated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War, yet the missiles were flown over America's domestic rooftops uncontrolled by clearly fallible procedures. More alarming still was the news that permission to handle nuclear weapons was withdrawn from 65 USAF personnel. How many actually have permission, and what is shown by the scope for error that entails?

Yet Martin Ferguson thinks it's OK to export uranium that will be enriched by the same processes that can be carried further to produce weapons-grade material. It's OK to provide uranium for energy purposes that might allow the diversion of part of a country's total stores of the radioactive ore to weapons programs. It's OK to poison the world with nuclear waste that, once released, can't be put back in its atomic bottle. Martin, as one of your Batman constituents, I'm asking you why it's OK.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Planning on the web in Darebin

This week's Northcote Leader reports that, by the end of the year, the City of Darebin will offer a web service to track local planning applications. I agree with the quoted comments of DADA spokesperson, Terry Scully. This is a strong idea, but the success of the proposal will depend on how it improves the ability of residents to genuinely participate in decisions about developments. That, in turn, depends crucially on what information the service offers, and the timeliness of its appearance on the web.

I am unaware of any consultation by Council with residents regarding the features they'd like to see in the service, and it would be interesting to see the brief for its development. Here, however, are a few ideas that I think would make the service better.

Firstly, updating the information online must be built into Council's procedures to process applications. Residents should be able to track who the applicant is, the date of first application, what is being proposed, the advertising period and deadline for resident submissions, the dates of meetings at which an application will be considered, its approval or otherwise, and whether an application is subject to a planning panel or appeal at VCAT. The ability to view planning applications by date, year, location and applicant would also be valuable.

This is not a comprehensive list, but these and similar features would improve the transparency of planning in Darebin. While the service cannot compensate for bad planning laws that allow inappropriate development to occur, a timely, regularly updated service would enable better participation by residents in planning decisions.

Finally, I also agree with Terry Scully regarding more conventional methods of informing residents about developments. There should be broader notification of surrounding residents – especially for larger developments. Terry's idea of listing proposed developments in ward newsletters is also a good idea, again depending on timeliness. To this I'd like to add a way to inform residents whether particular developments are supported or opposed by their local councillor. Whether print or online, this would be a good way of holding councillors accountable for their role in what is built in our local communities.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Introducing the MP for Northcote

The 2 October edition of the Northcote Leader makes a comic connection between a life-size Dalek constructed by a local Dr Who enthusiast and a recent survey showing poor public recognition of Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, and Darebin Mayor, Marlene Kairouz. The paper amusingly asks whether voters can tell their local politicians from the noisy galactic fiends.

For Northcote's more politically progressive residents, the front-page image of a Dalek poised menacingly over Richardson begs the classic response from Doctor Who's robotic arch enemy. However, in answer to the amusing question posed in the story, it would be far preferable to her current poor recognition if more people could actually recognise their local member and what she stands for. She could then be judged on her merits by people who too often vote simply for a generic ALP brand that no longer lives up to its traditional values.

For those unfamiliar with their local MP, Richardson is firmly on the conservative Right of the ALP, and is married to Labor State Secretary, Stephen Newnham. Newnham would be familiar to readers of the fine print on ALP propaganda campaigns. He authorised the ALP's strident anti-Greens campaign in Northcote during last year's State election, and more recently in the Albert Park byelection. Richardson's link to this misleading campaign is more than a familial one – as recently as last weekend she was displaying the propaganda in her electorate office window (bigger image). That's what she stands for, and it's high time more people were aware of it.

Update, December 2007: The Greens Liberal Deal website appears to be undergoing some sort of rebranding. Gone is the banner featuring John Howard in the Greens logo, along with, it seems, authorisation of the site by the ALP's Stephen Newnham – though as of today (16 December), the site URL is still registered to the Australian Labor Party. No matter, the banner (and an earlier version based on the above photo) and the site have been suitably archived, and a link may appear here when I have a bit of spare time to put one up. I guess the site had become somewhat embarrassing given Labor's sensible preference deal with the Greens to get rid of Howard at the 2007 Federal election. The ALP's reasoning appears to be:

  1. If we're fighting the Greens in a state election (November 2006), we should suggest a link between the Greens and the Liberals.
  2. We'd better stop that for the federal election (November 2007) in which the Greens have a deal with us for purposes of getting rid of John Howard.
  3. That achieved, let's go back to our silly propganda and start attacking the Greens again.

As well as the embarrassing URL that suggests an ongoing link between the Greens and the Liberals, the site has started posting again after its brief hiatus for the federal election. This time they're criticising Victorian Upper House MP for the Greens, Sue Pennicuik, for suggesting that not all graffiti is bad.

Is that the way to engage in political debate? Why doesn't the ALP try to win the argument instead of relying on shallow propaganda? That might actually get them more votes, but it isn't what they stand for.

Update 21 December: It appears the changes in the site were temporary. The Howard–Greens logo is back, but comments are still closed and the 'arguments' are still pitifully week. I can see why the authors are anonymous, even if the ALP's Stephen Newnham is willing to put his name to authorising the site. What does it say about the political climate in Victoria that this site isn't exposed for the sad embarrassment that it is? Who knows, that may change in coming months. A happy thought for Christmas and the New Year!

A nice day for herbicide

It was pretty windy this morning before 9.00am (and still is), but that didn't stop the City of Darebin spraying herbicide on the western side of High Street south of Westgarth Street in Northcote. With City of Darebin truck number 505 nearby, a City of Darebin worker sprayed the herbicide from a backpack. True, he was using a 'wand', but chances are the herbicide was well and truly distributed where it was never intended to go.

What's the Council policy on herbicide use on windy days? You'd think a reasonable approach would be to call it off, but that might cut across the economic 'efficiencies' of getting our nature-strips covered with toxic chemicals. Got any herbicide stories? Feel free to comment using the link below.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Australian Blogging Conference

This free conference will be held this Friday 28 September 2007 at Brisbane's Queensland University of Technology. Topics will include the Politics of Blogging; Researching Blogging and Blogging Research; Blogs, Creativity and Creative Commons; Legal Issues; Citizen Journalism; Blogs and Education; Business and Corporate Blogging; Building a Better Blog; The Future of Blogging – What's Next?; and The Future for Your Blog – Promoting Your Blog and Building Traffic.

To start the discussions, the conference organisers are running a blog where you can leave comments under the various topics about what you would like to see discussed. For those, like me, who are unable to attend in person, I understand there are plans to podcast the sessions.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

No rubber stamp for post-election Senate

Democrats leader, Senator Lyn Allison, has rightly affirmed the prospective role of minor parties in the new Senate in scrutinising the legislation of whoever forms government after the forthcoming Australian federal election.

The affirmation comes in response to Deputy Opposition Leader Julia Gillard's assertion of a mandate for Kevin Rudd's new IR package should he be elected prime minister. While the ALP's IR package is a marked improvement on WorkChoices, a Senate role for minor parties should be welcomed as signalling greater debate and accountability for an ALP positioning itself too close to the conservatives for many progressive voters.

A Rudd government sans Senate control would be forced to reveal itself either in its willingness to negotiate with progressives or to deal with the conservatives. That would be the acid test for a new Labor prime minister. Should the latter scenario eventuate, voters would be entitled to brand Labor hypocrites after attacking the Greens in Victoria with false claims of dealing with the Liberals over such issues as the Nuclear Plebiscite Bill.

Here in Northcote, the nuclear issue has a particular resonance for Batman's pro-uranium ALP federal member, Martin Ferguson. Given his own position, it is curious that the Victorian ALP is attacking the Greens by insinuating nuclear complicity with the Liberals contrary to clearly stated Greens anti-nuclear policies. I wonder what Ferguson thinks of this strategy, and the fact that the local ALP State member for Northcote has been promoting it in the front window of her electorate office?

I don't think it's a defence to say that the ALP doesn't support domestic nuclear power, when it is willing to export nuclear risk overseas – despite some minimal restraint in selecting its business partners.

In the end, it is examples like this that show the need for some Senate brake on the power of government. The prospect of that happening following the imminent federal election is most welcome.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Minister Andrews stands on a shrinking iceberg

Today's judgment of the Federal Court places Kevin Andrews on a shrinking iceberg of his own making. The Court's Justice Spender has found not only that Andrews applied the wrong test to cancel Haneef's visa, but that his interpretation of 'association' was dangerously wide, and would, for purposes of s.501(6)b of the Migration Act, cause a battered wife to fail the character test by her mere association with a wife-beater.

To pursue the wide definition of 'association', the Government's counsel was forced into the ludicrous position of claiming that the 'character test' in effect had nothing to do with character: in essence, that the required association would be satisfied by factors extrinsic to the person in question rather than intrinsic to that character. Justice Spender rejected this position, stating:

[At 205] I simply do not accept that the words "the character test" are not words to be read as having a meaning; they are not "just a convenient definition".

He went on to state:

[At 208] The submission that the words "the character test" are not words to be read as having a meaning, starkly reveals the distance between the scope and object of s 501(3) of the Migration Act and the construction that the Minister wishes to make of s 501(6)(b).

That is to say, Andrews interpretation, and counsel's argument supporting it, betray the yawning gulf between the rationale of the legislation and the minister's exploitation of it.

This was a victory for commonsense that I hope will be upheld by the Full Bench of the Federal Court. To be tarnished by association, there should need to be some degree of complicity in the wrongdoing with which the person concerned is associated - whether that be knowledge or direct involvement. Insinuation by a politically motivated minister is not enough, Kevin Andrews, and you should resign.

The full judgment is available from the AUSTLII website.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Roads need more than roundabout solutions

A letter in this week's edition of the Northcote Leader highlights the fact that the Government's obligation to provide safe roads extends beyond showcase projects, as the St Georges Road roundabout seems destined to become when it is finally properly addressed.

While there is absolutely no doubt that the roundabout is a dangerous blackspot – especially for cyclists – Nick Hurle's letter highlights the Westgarth Street–High Street intersection as another, possibly more serious, risk to pedestrians, cyclists and traffic.

Then there is the issue of appropriate speed limits along sections of High Street itself. As cars continue to fly through local shopping strips, often running red lights at pedestrian crossings, the Government drags its heels with trials in largely industrial sections where pedestrians are few and far between.

From north to south, protection in the form of clearly signed and vigorously policed forty-kmh zones needs to be in place where the people are – where children cross High Street to go to school, where elderly people and families need safe access to shops on either side of what should be more than a stream of smog and excessive speed. So fix the roundabout by all means, but let's not have our politicians pretend that, by paying limited attention to any one problem, they have done their bit for roads.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Three Cheers for Richard Wynne!

Finally, three months after I wrote to him, Richard Wynne has today replied to my email of 10 April regarding the Roberts Street Northcote housing redevelopment and the relocation of the current tenants. That is, I think it was a reply from Wynne. It certainly appears to have been written from his point of view ('I announced on 22 February...' etc.), but is signed by some housing bureaucrat and not even on behalf of Wynne himself.

Naturally, the letter either fails to answer my questions, or provides answers I have found out myself in the three-month lapse since I first wrote to the minister. Naturally the letter also glibly states a commitment to appropriate consultation and invites participation in a committee that meets at a time when most people are working.

While I've already said what I think of the process in an earlier post, a good example of the standard of consultation on this matter is the Office of Housing's own website. Despite the project being announced on 22 February, and despite a web presence for other redevelopment projects, there is nothing on the Office of Housing site regarding the Roberts Street redevelopment – no terms of reference, no minutes of meetings, no media releases – nothing. This despite a luke-warm reassurance given at the June public forum.

Well, I read in the Northcote Leader today that the Roberts Street tenants have begun to move out, first among them a tenant who'd been active speaking up for his neighbours in the flats. You can draw your own conclusions about that, and while you're at it hope for the best for the other tenants to be relocated within a public housing system stressed to the limit through government neglect.

My advice to Wynne is that if he can't provide timely and meaningful answers to questions asked in the public interest, he should ideally resign, or, at the very least, not waste the government's resources sending late, meaningless replies destined for the recycle bin.

Three cheers for Richard! I guess it's just another of those 'Wynne results' touted on his personal blog – a 'Wynne win' you might say, but not if you were a Roberts Street tenant.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Take a look at Hansard on nuke plebiscite

As I suspected, Hansard disproves the propaganda being put out by the ALP regarding the Greens vote against the plebiscite on nuclear power in Victoria (see original post). In support of the Bill, the Greens moved two amendments to provide a clearer trigger for when the plebiscite would be called, and to ensure a say for Parliament in the framing of the plebiscite question. Those amendments were rejected by the ALP in the Upper House, and the Greens voted the Bill down.

Their rejection of the Bill should be seen in the context that nuclear activities are already prohibited by Victorian legislation, and the plebiscite would not have been binding on the State or the Commonwealth in any case – that is to say, it would have had little impact beyond taking the pulse of public opinion on the issue. That being the case, the Greens were committed to an appropriate process to deliver a question framed by Parliament and not the State Resources Minister of the day – a commitment not matched by the ALP.

The Hansard coverage is also notable for highlighting the hypocrisy of the State Labor Government in criticising moves to amend the Bill given their own pro-uranium Fedral position. It makes interesting reading, but few people have the time to wade through the pages of Hansard, and so some of the ALP's messages unfortunately stick.

So where does that leave the ALP's Gotcha campaign? The website's masthead leaves little doubt that it is claiming complicity between the Liberals and the Greens in a pro-nuclear position – it includes an image of a nuclear smoke-stack with the Greens and Liberals logo. Yet anyone who reads Greg Barber's Upper House speeches in Hansard can be left in no doubt of the Greens' oposition to nuclear power in Australia, or anywhere for that matter.

The problem is that the ALP needs to be held to account within the timeframe in which voters make their electoral decisions. That didn't happen in the State election with regard to the Liberals misinformation campaign in Northcote and elsewhere, and the question is whether it will happen in time for the Federal election. Yes, I want Howard out and Rudd in, but Labor has to be better, not just relatively better than the Liberals. And if Rudd's power is checked by Greens and principled independents, that's fine by me.

Labor at it again with Greens 'deal' campaign

There's an interesting article by Simon Kidd in today's edition of The Melbourne Times. It describes the ALP's accusations of a deal between the Greens and the Liberal Party that first surfaced in the lead-up to last November's State election. The campaign has hotted up with the election of three Upper House Greens MPs – Colleen Hartland, Greg Barber and Sue Pennicuik – and, of course, with the approaching Federal election.

Among the issues currently contested is the Greens Upper House vote against a Bill supporting a plebiscite should the Federal Government attempt to foist a nuclear power station on Victorians. TMT reports the Greens response as rejecting the plebiscite Bill because the Resources Minister and not the Parliament would have the final say on the wording of the question put to voters about whether they wanted nuclear power in their State.

My view is that we should look carefully at the ALP's allegations on this and other issues, asking whether they are accurate in terms of how the Greens have argued in the Upper House and, secondly, whether the allegations sit sensibly with what we know are the fundamental principles and stated policies of the Greens.

I haven't got to Hansard on the plebiscite Bill as yet, but the insinuation of the ALP's charge is that the Greens are somehow closet supporters of nuclear power. This has as much credibility as Martin Ferguson's claim (letters, same issue of the TMT) that he isn't pro-nuclear, despite being his party's most ardent supporter of the expansion of uranium mining and the change of the Labor Party's three-mines policy at last April's ALP National Conference.

The challenge for the Greens is to squarely meet the ALP's claims, showing why parliamentary disagreements with the ALP are principled, and do not amount to collusion with the enemy.

At the last State election, while the Greens addressed Labor's misinformation about a preference deal with the Liberals, they were unable to do so with sufficient vigour in the short time available before polling day. Running as an independent in Northcote, I saw the number of people on election day who approached the Greens campaigners quizzing them about the deal. The ALP's strategy hit home, but the Greens should have challenged the Northcote result in court because the ALP's victory was built on misleading campaign material that arguably influenced the outcome.

Whatever the prospects of success of such a challenge on legal grounds, such a move would have ensured a clear airing of the issues and a thorough testing of the ALP's claims. The risk is that the current ALP campaign will gain impetus from the Greens' inadequate response.

Back in November, some of (now Northcote MLA) Fiona Richardson's ALP-branded campaign material was authorised by the same person who authorised unbranded and otherwise unattributed material alleging a preference deal between the Liberals and the Greens. One such item was authorised by Stephen Newnham, Richardson's husband. Newnham also authorised the letter to Northcote constituents from Peter Garrett, again alleging the deal.

Now he is authorising the website set up to promote the ALP's so-called 'Gotcha' campaign, which criticises how the Greens vote in the Victorian Upper House and suggests an ongoing relationship with the Liberals.

Instead of peddling propaganda, Labor would do better to heed principled disagreements with its policies; it will otherwise continue the drift away from its own core values and weaken its chances of removing John Howard at the Federal election. On the other hand, working with progressives will only strengthen its electoral fortunes among voters who have not forgotten the Left.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

MP's allegations cast shadow on public forum

Tuesday night's public forum on the Roberts Street Northcote public housing redevelopment was marred by allegations of 'bullying and intimidation' of tenants by support workers from 'competing' community organisations. The allegations were raised by Fiona Richardson, State Member for Northcote, in front of an audience of 30–40 people, including Upper House Greens MP, Greg Barber, and Federal Greens candidate for Batman, Priya Carey.

In raising the allegations, Richardson was responding to questions challenging her on the lack of independent advocacy for tenants in the recently completed interviews to determine their relocation needs. Some 90 per cent of the tenants were without independent support in the interviews, which will influence the offers of accommodation from which they must choose as the flats are progressively vacated pending demolition.

Richardson portrayed a tug-of-war, with tenants caught in the middle, leading, she said, to the claims of bullying and intimidation. She further claimed that complaints that independent community advocates had been shut out of the process were politically motivated, with a particular group wanting to represent all the tenants, but supposedly having been refused that role by the tenants themselves. The clear implication was that the involvement of independent community advocates had been limited by the choice of the tenants and not the flaws in the relocation process itself.

Richardson refused to identify the organisations at the centre of the allegations.

Those unfamiliar with the Roberts Street issues would do well to ask themselves which scenario is on its face more reasonable and plausible – that a group of disempowered elderly tenants has been denied adequate and independent advocacy because it will highlight their complex needs and render their relocation more difficult for the government, or that the advocates themselves, with a record of sustained but under-resourced support of those same tenants, should intimidate and bully them to gain a more prominent role in tenant support.

Since the forum, I have spoken to a wide range of people working directly with the tenants, and have satisfied myself that the allegations raised by Richardson at the forum are an unwarranted attack on community support workers and a distraction from the real issues. The distinct impression I have formed is that the community organisations working with the tenants have their trust, and in fact work very cooperatively across the various organisations, uniting to ensure as much support for the tenants as is possible within the constraints of the available resources. I leave any more detailed response to the organisations concerned given that I speak independently and not on their behalf.

An additional concerning aspect of the forum was that none of the Roberts Street tenants were there, a fact reflecting the quarantining of the tenants in the consultation process. Instead, the focus was on the nature of the planned redevelopment, with a small number of surrounding residents attending who would have been substantially outnumbered by the tenants (who are in fact also residents) currently living in the 47 flats on the estate. Despite contributing a good number of well-intentioned and positive suggestions about the development, including ways the tenants could be more successfully included in the community by a better design, the residents' discussion was the poorer for the lack of the tenants' own perpective. This was a direct result of the pre-determined focus of the forum, for which the agenda was made available only on the night. A more appropriate format for the Office of Housing consultation would not submerge the tenant consultation below the level of public scrutiny.

Despite these issues, there were some positives to emerge from the night. Apart from the constructive ideas contributed by residents to inform the initial design, there was a sentiment of general acceptance that the site should continue to be used for public housing for the elderly. There was also a public reassurance by Richardson that the site would be exclusively public housing, managed by the government; there will be no private or social housing on the new estate.

The key aim now is that the development not proceed until satisfactory alternative accommodation is found for the existing tenants. This will be difficult within a public housing system already stressed to its limit, with more than 35,000 people on our public waiting lists. Nevertheless, the logistical difficulties should not be used as an excuse to ignore the tenants' complex needs or the fact that the relocation will sever community connections and supports built up over years. To ensure appropriate support through the relocation, the tenants need independent advocacy, and that means community support workers must be brought more effectively into the process, not attacked for attempting to advocate in spite of it.

Fiona Richardson no doubt has a different view of these issues, and I invite her comments here as part of an open dialogue on the Roberts Street redevelopment. She cannot retract the allegations she raised at the forum; indeed she must explain them.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Come to the Roberts Street forum

Redevelopment of Northcote's Roberts Street public housing estate will be the focus of a public forum next Tuesday 26 June from 6.00–8.00pm at the Jika Jika community centre (cnr Plant & Union Streets, Northcote). The forum is being run by the Office of Housing as part of its public consultation about the redevelopment, but support is needed to broaden the agenda to include not just the redevelopment proposal, but the ongoing welfare of the existing Roberts Street residents during and beyond the relocation process.

A recent email from a social planner engaged to carry out the consultation described the residents as 'the people who are most directly and significantly affected by the redevelopment'. If that is the sincerely held belief of the state government, the Office of Housing, and our local MP, Fiona Richardson, then the forum must include an accounting of the treatment of the residents in the relocation.

I call on Fiona Richardson to make herself available to local community members at the forum, and to answer questions about why the relocation process has acted to exclude independent advocacy on the residents' behalf.

The current process has meant that as many as 90 per cent of residents have been unrepresented in meetings to discuss their relocation options, with a number of residents having received initial offers this week.

The process threatens to sever the connections with the local community built up by the residents over years, and to undermine community development efforts partly funded by the state government itself.

If the process can be changed to better meet the residents' needs, the Roberts Street redevelopment could serve as a valuable guide to best practice for other planned redevelopments. On the other hand, if a faulty process is replicated in other cases, the human impact and social damage will only be multiplied.

The true test will be the welfare of the residents over time, and I will be encouraging community efforts to monitor this and hold Richardson and the state government accountable. You can help by attending the forum and supporting our fellow community members who live at the Roberts Street flats.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Starting the clock on Richardson

In the absence of a response from Richard Wynne to my April email detailing questions on the Roberts Street Northcote public housing redevelopment, I wrote to Northcote MP Fiona Richardson last Thursday. I asked Richardson for help in prompting Wynne's response, and for information on the murky advisory and consultation processes for the relocation of the current Roberts Street residents to allow redevelopment of the site.

In the email I detailed my concerns that the current arrangements were not transparent, and that decisions risked being rushed in a manner detrimental to a group of public housing tenants whose disadvantage prejudiced their ability to advocate on their own behalf. I noted that it was therefore vitally important that the residents be collectively represented by independent community agencies with a strong interest in their continuing welfare. I remain concerned that the approach being adopted with residents is one of divide and conquer rather than helping them focus on their needs through the help of sympathetic, and independent, advocates.

Let's start the clock on our local member, and hope her response time is a bit better than the minister for housing. What consultation is planned, and how will the needs of the current residents be kept at the centre of the process to minimise the human cost of relocation? And just what are the government's plans for the Roberts Street site?

There's more required from our local MP than the offer of polite letters to government departments and ministers. Let's have a clear process with a genuine say for residents and the community, and maybe even some uncomfortable but necessary advocacy from our local MP.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

VEC recommends a more representative Council for Darebin

The Victorian Electoral Commission has recommended that Darebin City Council be elected by proportional representation (PR) from three three-councillor wards at next year's elections. The final report, issued late Monday, affirms the preferred option of the Commission's preliminary report, but makes minor changes to ward boundaries to reflect concerns expressed during the public review process. The recommendation will now be considered by local government minister, Richard Wynne.

The final recommendation, which has dropped any alternative option retaining the current single-councillor structure, is a big win for local democracy in Darebin. The current councillors will now be open to challenge from strongly supported community candidates who, under the changes, will gain a realistic chance of election via the PR voting system that legislation requires for multi-councillor wards. As a result, there is some prospect that the Labor Unity factional monopoly on the current council will be broken, with fresh viewpoints and more open debate in the council chamber.

Though the final recommendation is yet to be approved by the minister, its rejection would risk a public perception of political interference given the care with which the VEC has made its case for change. The closely reasoned report has stated that case clearly while rejecting the case for retaining the current structure on transparent and robust grounds. One factor important to the decision was the ability of larger wards to capture well-supported communities of interest that could achieve the quota of votes necessary to elect a candidate under the PR system. This would result in a more representative council than under the current structure, which divides communities of interest, and therefore support for potential candidates, among a larger number of smaller wards.

Ultimately, the VEC's finding is an invitation for the residents of Darebin to participate in their local democracy, and that's a good thing in the opinion of this writer.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Leader Needs to 'Shore Up' Review Coverage

Last week's edition of the Preston Leader ran with an item on the Darebin representation review under the headline 'Locals shore up support'. It described a 'tidal wave' of support for the current system, which has given the ALP's Labor Unity faction nine out of nine elected councillors in Darebin.

However, the Leader report failed to factor in the preliminary submissions when it said that only 16 out of 53 submissions supported change. While I actually have 18 of the response submissions down as supporting change, we shouldn't forget that only three of the 31 preliminary submissions supported the current system. In total, of the 84 submissions, 45 supported change, and 38 supported the status quo - one submission was unclear.

Three of the community groups supporting the current system are from the Lebanese community, of which two Darebin councillors are members. It should also be noted that councillor Stanley Chiang is president of another group submitting in support of no change - the Northern Melbourne Chinese Association.

While both these groups together represent only a combined 3.3 per cent of the Darebin population of about 128,000, they would in fact be better represented under the proportional representation system proposed by the VEC in its preliminary report.

PR reflects 75 per cent voter support in three-member wards, while the current system reflects just over 50 per cent. And while it is true that council currently includes a relatively diverse membership, they also represent a political monopoly at odds with the diversity of views held by Darebin's communities.

The Leader report also failed to note the submission by the Preston Reservoir Progress Association, choosing instead to promote a petition submitted to the VEC by a Darebin councillor. This despite the fact that council would have done better to promote actual submissions rather than collect signatures no doubt responding to an ALP pitch. Instead of doing almost nothing to promote the review process, council could have encouraged participation - especially by referring our various ethnic communities to multilingual information offered by the VEC.

Instead, council opted to mobilise support informally among those it could count on, thereby undermining the formal consultation carried out by the VEC. Unfortunately for council, so far it hasn't quite worked. In my presentation to the VEC's public hearing, I urged the VEC to maintain its stated commitment to the reasoning of submissions, and reject what it had earlier called a 'straw poll' comprising merely of numbers for and against. It is the strength of the arguments that should win the day, and that's where the ALP has fallen down.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

VEC public hearing on Darebin council

Well, it was a bit of a marathon but well worth sitting through the 18 presentations made at the hearing on the Darebin representation review held last night (Thursday 3 May). A lot of arguments were made, among them the false claim that data from the 2005 Brimbank election supports the case against a change of council structure in Darebin. To read why that case is fundamentally flawed, take a look at the following media release and my presentation.

Preston MLA to speak tonight on flawed Darebin voting submission

My speaking notes for the presentation

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

So what's the real balance of political submissions?

The likes of Preston MLA, Robin Scott, his predecessor Michael Leighton, and Councillor Peter Stephenson have put forward views that submissions to the Darebin representation review seeking a change in council structure can be variously attributed to 'failed candidates' or 'political activists'. Yet actual analysis of the submissions tells a different story.

With more than half of the submissions from the total whose political alignment is known, the weight of politically motivated submissions falls decidedly with the ALP. Indeed, of the submitters of unknown political alignment who were unelected candidates, four out of six supported the ALP position of retaining the current council structure, despite the fact that it makes the election of even well supported alternative candidates very unlikely.

Four Greens submissions, one Independent and one Liberal submission supported change consistent with the VEC's preferred preliminary option of three three-councillor wards elected by proportional representation.

With the bulk of political submissions coming from the ALP supporting a system that has delivered nine Labor Unity councillors, and political opposition coming from diverse political viewpoints, just where does the bias really lie?

Of further interest was the submission from the North East Melbourne Chinese Association (NEMCA). This was submitted by the NEMCA Secretary, but a look at NEMCA's website reveals that its president is none other than Councillor Stanley Chiang.

The review enters the public hearing phase on Thursday night, when submitters will appear from 6.30pm at the council chambers (Cnr Gower and High Streets, Preston) to make their final arguments before the VEC issues its final report to the Minister for Local Government, Richard Wynne, on 21 May. Approximately 18 submitters are expected to present, including council, Robin Scott, Michael Leighton, and myself.

Further analysis of the submissions is available as a PDF download

Friday, April 27, 2007

Darebin media release shows timing is everything

Like the only other media release issued this year regarding the council representation review, the City of Darebin's latest appears to have been published on council's website well after the claimed date of its distribution to the media. The web page states that it was last updated on 27 April, but it is hard not conclude that it was in fact first published there on that date, even if it was actually forwarded to the media as stated under the headline, on 24 April.

Why should this matter? Timing, as they say, is everything. The release was likely published online too late to alert website visitors of the deadline for response submissions to the Victorian Electoral Commission's preliminary report [3MB download, PDF] - as it happens, 5.00pm Tuesday 24 April. Council spin doctors also know that any actual media coverage will only appear next week.

It was a similar story with council's 9 March release, likely to have been published on council's website on the 'last updated' date of 15 March, conveniently after the VEC's deadline for preliminary submissions from the public on Tuesday 13 March. In that case, any media coverage generated in local papers was unlikely to influence public submissions, as local papers tend not to appear until at least ... you guessed it, Tuesday.

If that isn't bad enough, both releases focused not on the opportunity for the public to participate, which their timing in any case precluded, but on council propaganda for retaining the voting system that has seen council totally dominated by the Labor Unity faction of the ALP - namely majority preferential voting for nine single-councillor wards, a system prone to dummy candidates.

Now, in a submission recently published on the VEC website, Councillor Peter Stephenson has argued that there was insufficient time for consultation. It's really a bit rich when council has gone out of its way to keep the lid on the review process for fear of submissions arguing for democratic change to the council's structure - change that has been endorsed in the VEC's preliminary report as its preferred option of three three-councillor wards elected by proportional representation.

Not to be outdone, Councillor Chris Kelly has forwarded a submission including a petition of more than 1000 signatures of people supposedly against the VEC's recommendation for change and for the retention of the unrepresentative status quo. Given the Councillor's vested interest in retaining that status quo and the opportunity squandered by council to promote more actual submissions from the community, the VEC should reject such petitions out of hand as undermining the legitimate consultation process.

The VEC and the public can never be assured of what the signatories understood about the process or what was presented to them in that regard, and we will never be able to see the reasons they might have put forward had they made written submissions to the review. This is exactly the kind of 'straw poll' that the VEC stated it would not undertake in conducting the review, further stating that it would examine the arguments and reasoning of the positions put forward. I trust it will stick to that commitment, despite heavy pressure from the likes of former Preston MLA, Michael Leighton, and current MP, Robin Scott.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

VEC persuaded by reasoning, not just numbers

Response submissions are now being published on the VEC website following the VEC's preliminary report on proposed council changes for Darebin issued on 3 April. Overall numbers, including preliminary submissions, thus far continue to strongly favour the the VEC's preferred preliminary option of three three-councillor wards elected by proportional representation, but the tally will not be fully known until later this week.

Despite the ultimate count for and against, the VEC has stated that it is not conducting a 'straw poll' and, though it recognises the number of submissions favouring the preferred option, has so far also found the reasoning of submissions favouring PR to be 'persuasive'.

Understandably, a few councillors have thrown their hats into the ring, with submissions from councillors Peterson, Chiang, Fontana and Kelly arguing for the status quo. Their arguments appear to focus on the accountability benefits of having a single councillor, but what happens if representation is poor? I can only surmise their answer is 'wait another four years until you can vote someone else in'. With multi-member wards, residents would have more than one councillor to go to, and it's likely that a more diverse council would better represent diverse community interests in the chamber.

My submission is not yet up on the VEC website, but is available here. Some of the points I make are:

Under the proposal councillors would need more support to be elected than was needed in either the 2002 or 2004 council polls. Nor under the proposal would the preferences of minor candidates play nearly as big a role in helping them to reach the required quota. Dummy candidates would be far less effective under PR.

In its preliminary submission, council sought to justify its argument for retaining nine single-councillor wards by harking back to the mid-1990s recommendation by political scientist Dr Brian Costar to the Darebin Commissioners. What they don't say is that multi-councillor wards under PR were not then an option for Dr Costar under the legislation. He confirms this is in an email I have included with his permission in my response submission.

Despite councillor Peter Stephenson's protest in his response submission that the VEC allowed insufficient time for consultation, council did almost nothing to promote the review process. Its actions have shown that, rather than seeking to promote broad engagement, it has been more concerned to keep the lid on the review for fear of dissenting views.

My response submission also points out that the City of Darebin's own submission supports the VEC's position because the City concedes that we have non-geographic communities of interest. These are better represented by larger wards under PR because they capture support over wider areas and allow it to be represented by an elected candidate.

Stay tuned for further reflections on the response submissions, and remember there will be a public hearing for submitters at council's Gower Street Preston offices on Thursday 3 May from 6.30pm.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why proportional representation is better

As I have written here in other posts, the Victorian Electoral Commission has made a preliminary recommendation of three three-councillor wards for Darebin from the 2008 council elections onwards. You can write a submission supporting this recommendation (deadline 24 April), but why are multi-councillor wards better than the current single-councillor ones?

One of the big advantages of moving to multi-councillor wards is the voting system that comes with it – proportional representation. So, how is that different from the current system of majority preferential voting? Under the current system, in which we have one councillor per ward, a candidate must either gain a majority of votes, either from first preferences or from these together with the preferences directed to him/her from other candidates. In this system, running dummy candidates to direct their preferences to you is a tried and tested way of gaining the crucial majority – especially, it seems, if you are a candidate belonging to the Labor Unity faction of the ALP, which currently holds all nine council positions.

In some Darebin council elections, as many as 18 candidates have run in a single ward. It is understandable if voters ask whether any of these candidates might be running as dummies for no other reason than to direct their preferences to another (usually ALP) candidate. Such preferences are directed upwards from candidates who are eliminated at each stage of the counting because they have the least number of first-preference votes. Dummy candidates can therefore be relative unknowns, but as each dummy is eliminated from the count and their preferences are distributed upwards, they can together add up to give a significant advantage to the candidate for whom they are really running.

In proportional representation, however, preferences play a much smaller role and the PR system lessens the impact of dummy candidates. It also lowers the percentage of votes needed for a candidate to be elected from a majority (above 50 per cent) to a quota that depends on the number of vacancies and the total number of formal votes in the ward being contested – 25 per cent under the VEC's preferred preliminary option. For example, in a multi-councillor ward with three vacancies and 30,000 formal votes, a candidate would need a quota of 7,500 votes to get one of the three places on council for that ward - much less than a majority of 15,001. The actual formula and steps are explained in the VEC's proportional representation slide show

As a result, candidates with strong but not majority community support stand a good chance of being elected, whereas under the current majority system they have little chance. If Darebin moves to such a system, we are likely to see more diverse voices on council that have strong support and are more representative of our diverse community.

Dummies have far less influence in such a system because preferences are initially distributed downwards from candidates who have already achieved a quota (and therefore a spot on council) to those who don't. The preferences distributed are the votes the candidate has gained above the quota and are known as a surplus. Surplus votes are distributed at a diminished value worked out according to a formula. Again, this is explained in the VEC's slide show

It is clear from this that, under proportional representation, candidates with substantial community support will have more of a say in the ultimate outcome than do dummy candidates with poor support under the present system, in which their collective preferences may accumulate to get another candidate over the line.

So, be sure to have your say and get your submission into the VEC by 5.00pm on Tuesday 24 April. To find out more, go to

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Darebin council review flies under radar

Despite a healthy number of submissions from the politically engaged, the Darebin council representation review is flying under the radar with regard to the broader community. The result could be that, despite a positive preliminary recommendation from the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC), the community doesn't mobilise to ensure fairer and more diverse representation of its views. The community response to the VEC's preliminary report will play a key part in shaping the VEC's final recommendations to the Minister for Local Government, Richard Wynne.

The VEC has so far recommended three three-councillor wards for Darebin from the 2008 elections onwards. This welcome but preliminary recommendation would bring with it a legal requirement for proportional representation. A key outcome would be that, given substantial community support, diverse voices would stand a chance of election to council and therefore broaden the representation of the community.

In contrast, the current preferential majority voting system has delivered Darebin nine councillors who are all members of the ALP's Labor Unity faction. Such a result is too often achieved with the support of 'dummies' – candidates who run only to direct their preferences to another – the more dummies you can muster, the greater your chances of election. A big benefit of the VEC's recommendation is that the role of dummies would be very much diminished, and clear community support for alternative candidates would not be undermined by the preference game.

The bad news is that the VEC's second alternative recommendation leaves open the door to retaining the present unrepresentative council structure, depending on responses to its preliminary report. The ALP's Labor Unity faction and the Darebin council will resist tooth and nail the VEC's recommended shake-up of council. Residents who value more inclusive local democracy are urged to read the VEC's preliminary report and respond by 24 April. The report and preliminary submissions can be found at the VEC's website,

Community questions and discussion are also invited here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Six questions for minister Wynne

Following a letter in today's edition of the Northcote Leader from local MP Fiona Richardson, I thought it timely to go straight to the source for some answers about the redevelopment of the Roberts Street flats. The following quotes an email sent this morning to housing minister Wynne, and cc'ed to Richardson and the media. Richard claimed in her letter that a 'traditional public housing redevelopment' is planned for the site. Let's see how long it takes to get some decent answers.

Dear Richard,

I am writing further to Fiona Richardson's letter in the Northcote Leader (10/4, p.11) claiming that a 'traditional public housing redevelopment' is all that is envisaged for the Roberts Street site in Northcote. Our local member claimed that you had made this 'absolutely clear' on the day you announced the redevelopment to residents.

Since a search of the government's online media releases and speeches reveals no such unequivocal statements by you, and none to my knowledge have been reported, I invite your response to the following questions:

1. Do you rule out a public–private partnership on the Roberts Street site?

2. Have there been, or will there be, any discussions at a ministerial, departmental or local government level with private developers interested in developing the Roberts Street site?

3. Have there been, or will there be, any discussions at a ministerial, departmental or local government level with Melbourne Affordable Housing to develop the site under a similar arrangement to Mary Street, Preston?

4. Can you confirm that the site will be retained for the exclusive purpose of public housing managed by the Office of Housing?

5. Are you able to confirm the number of units to be constructed on the site, including the numbers of bedrooms?

6. Will you allow residents to choose their own representative in their discussions with government concerning the redevelopment?

I look forward to your response, which I am keen to share with the local community.

Sincerely, Darren Lewin-Hill

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

VEC's preferred option a good start

Released yesterday by the Victorian Electoral Commission, the preliminary report for the Darebin representation review has put forward three three-councillor wards as its preferred preliminary option for Darebin council. Its first alternative option is also for three three-councillor wards, but with different ward boundaries. Of more concern is a second alternative option that provides for nine single-councillor wards, but with ward boundaries amended from the current structure.

While the preferred option is welcome news for local democracy, the second alternative option for single-councillor wards would retain the problems with the current structure and means the door is still open for an ALP factional campaign attempting to reverse the VEC's preliminary findings. For this reason it is very important that concerned members of the community read the preliminary report and respond in support of the preferred option for three three-councillor wards.

The deadline for submissions is 24 April. Submitters also have the option of speaking to their response at a public hearing on 3 May (details at the VEC website).

The preliminary submissions that informed the VEC's preliminary report overwhelmingly argued for change. Few submissions argued for retention of single-councillor wards, with key support for this position unsurprisingly coming from the City of Darebin itself. Council's submission was adopted in March by the very councillors who stand to be directly affected by any move to multi-councillor wards. Currently the nine council positions are held by nine members of the ALP's Labor Unity faction.

Please watch this site for updates and further analysis of the preliminary report. Feel free to leave your comments using the link below. Comments are moderated, but open debate is most welcome. Alternatively, send me an email

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Rep review preliminary findings due today

Darebin residents will today find out if the Victorian Electoral Commission has recommended multi-councillor wards, or a maintenance of the unrepresentative status quo in the form of continued council domination by the Labor Unity faction of the ALP.

Preliminary submissions to the Commission put a strong case for allowing more diverse representation on council by electing multiple councillors per ward via proportional representation, in which candidates achieving a minimum quota of votes derived by a formula are elected to council.

The adoption of proportional representation would likely mean that Greens, independents and other alternative voices with strong community support would be able to represent, and vote for, widely held community views in the council chamber.

Currently, preferential voting to establish a majority for a single councillor in each ward allows the ALP undue influence on the process via high numbers of candidates with an ALP alignment directing their preferences to the ALP's preferred councillor in any given ward. The number of candidates in a single ward has been as high as 18 in recent Darebin council elections.

The announcement of the VEC's preliminary findings will likely come via the media release page of the VEC website. Following release of the findings, responses must be submitted to the VEC by 24 April.

Watch this site for updates. Please use the comment link to this post (see below) to have your say, or send me an email