'Fool on The Footy Show' dreams of council shake-up

RETIRED jockey and Newcastle City Council aspirant Allan Robinson can’t name a politician he admires.

‘‘I’ve not followed politics much,’’ he said.

But he wanted to provide an answer to give an idea of the people he admired, as an indication of the kind of Newcastle councillor he might be.

‘‘You know the blokes I admire? [Radio broadcasters] Ray Hadley, John Laws and Alan Jones.’’

He had trouble thinking of a woman he admired with a public profile, until he remembered horse trainer Gai Waterhouse.

‘‘She’s worked her way up. She does a good job,’’ he said.

Robinson surprised Newcastle councillor Aaron Buman a short while ago when he said yes to heading Buman’s ticket in ward four in the September 8 local government elections.

Buman wanted someone with a profile. The sometimes controversial former jockey, and self-described ‘‘fool on The Footy Show’’, fitted the bill.

Robinson, a 45-year-old father of two, has a few reasons for putting up his hand, not the least being that ‘‘I’m looking forward to becoming a better person.’’

He’s like a lot of people.

He’s never been to a council meeting, doesn’t really know how a council achieves ‘‘good governance’’, but he has firm opinions about what needs to be done in Newcastle, and what he’ll do if he gets a seat in the council chamber.

His views are similar to Buman’s.

‘‘I’m very pro-development,’’ he said.

‘‘Hopefully I’ll be able to help speed up DAs [development applications].’’

He thinks fees to the council’s swimming pools are too high, making ‘‘a simple trip to the pool out of reach for some families’’.

He’s going to look at libraries because he’s worried about the $8.4million annual operational cost.

‘‘Yes, we need libraries, but do we need nine of them?’’ he said.

And he wants to represent the western end of town.

‘‘That’s Wallsend, Shortland. They always say they get a rough deal, now they’ve got a voice and it’s a vocal one,’’ he said.

Across the Hunter, would-be councillors like Robinson are preparing to nominate from July 30 for seats in 11 local government areas across the region.

Many are sitting councillors throwing their hats into the ring again. But many are new to local government, like Robinson, with high expectations but no experience of the often thankless work of a councillor.

In a week in which Cessnock councillor Dale Troy suddenly resigned after a doctor’s warnings the stress of his council’s latest woes could kill him, Robinson agreed a crash-through or crash approach might not work in local government.

‘‘Act first and think later. I’ve done that all my life but I’m 45,’’ he said.

‘‘I’ve got a 14-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son and they’re watching, and I’m a little bit older and a little bit wiser.

‘‘In the things I’ve done in the past, I’ve always been on my own so I’ve run things my way. But if I’m on council, there’s 12 of us on this horse’s back, not one of us, and I’ve got to make room with those other 11.’’

But later in the interview Robinson railed against ‘‘some councillor who has flooding concerns’’ holding up a development, and said: ‘‘These grubs sit in there, and say there are flooding concerns and it’s somebody else’s money on the line.

‘‘If that ever happens, it’ll be on.’’

IT’S been a tough term for local government in the Hunter Region.

The combined impact of state government-imposed rate capping since 1977, the state’s confirmation of the Hunter as a population growth area, and the demands of the coal industry leave the region’s councils struggling to provide infrastructure and even basic services like roads to a reasonable standard.

In December, Hunter councils backed a local government move to end rate capping, as the NSW government announced an independent review panel on local government, chaired by Professor Graham Sansom, which released its first background paper on Thursday.

Lake Macquarie mayor Greg Piper described rate capping as a ‘‘lazy mechanism’’ from the 1970s which ‘‘provided no way to address the structural problems we’d face in the future’’.

Maitland mayor Peter Blackmore criticised capping for not keeping in line with inflation, and said government agencies increased charges to local government ‘‘by more than what we are permitted to raise rates by’’.

Councils’ arguments were significantly boosted when the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal approved controversial large rate rises put forward by Lake Macquarie and Newcastle councils.

But the arguments wore thin in 2012 as the $1.6million bill for Newcastle Council’s Laman Street fig tree debacle hit home; Singleton ratepayers digested the $1.5million they have spent on legal fees for two code of conduct disasters in 2009 and late 2011; and Cessnock ratepayers were powerless as mayor Alison Davey took Supreme Court action against 10 of her councillors in a saga where the legal bills are already in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Hunter Councils chairman Martin Rush said there needed to be much more focus on conciliation of disputes involving councils.

‘‘Clearly the performance of local government has not been assisted by a code of conduct which has become a weapon used by councillors, and at times by members of the executive, for overtly political purposes,’’ he said.

‘‘Some of the worst aspects of these abuses have had to be reviewed by the courts which have had to intervene, sometimes against councils, and at enormous cost to communities.’’

While state authorities have been criticised in the past two years for not acting to stop excesses by councils, Rush said local communities had the ultimate power to act.

‘‘People are the best judge of the performance of the 11 councils in the Hunter, and they have the opportunity to pass judgment in September,’’ he said.

DR Andrew Kelly is a senior law lecturer at the University of Wollongong, an associate of the Sydney University of Technology’s Centre for Local Government, a former NSW Ombudsman’s office employee and former town planner for a number of NSW councils.

He is also a strong supporter of local government, and groaned this week when told of the Newcastle, Singleton and Cessnock council controversies.

‘‘It’s always sad to hear things like this,’’ Kelly said.

‘‘I have quite a respect for local government. I often think council procedures are better at dealing with things than other levels of government, and they’re certainly better than federal parliament at the moment.’’

When councils ran into trouble, communities were able to respond with some force because of the accessibility of local government as compared with state and federal governments, he said.

In 1991 Kelly had some involvement with a NSW parliamentary public accounts committee inquiry into local government legal expenses.

‘‘It concluded that local government was spending too much public money on legal services,’’ he said.

‘‘Nothing much has happened to change that, it seems.’’

Kelly, whose field of interest is environmental management, expressed concern about opportunities for the community to challenge developments, and state government decisions on planning which he believed had left councils’ hands tied in some significant areas.

The controversial Huntlee housing development at Branxton was an example of a state government making a decision that would make further demands on a council. Its distance from existing built-up areas was a concern.

‘‘I just can’t believe that one,’’ he said.

DESPITE the most obvious problems in the Hunter in the past four years, Peter Blackmore said he believed local government had ‘‘had a good run’’.

‘‘The in-fighting in some councils is something which I’m not proud of, when I say I’m in local government,’’ he said.

‘‘When Maitland council was sacked in 1997 and an administrator was appointed, it was an important time. When the council was elected in 1999 and only five of the previous councillors were re-elected, I think there was a lot of embarrassment that their council had been sacked, and a feeling that we had to do things differently.

‘‘As mayor I take the view that we might have had a ding-dong battle inside the council, but we leave it in the chamber and we don’t carry grudges outside.’’

Blackmore said good councils were the product of good communication and mayors, councillors, general managers and council staff knowing their responsibilities.

Under the Local Government Act councillors are the governing body, similar to a company board, and the mayor is similar to the board chairman. The elected council appoints one council staff member – the general manager – who is responsible for the efficient and effective operation of the council.

It’s a good system when it works well, but an expensive one for the community when, as NSW Supreme Court Justice Monika Schmidt noted in Singleton’s code of conduct debacle against its deputy mayor Paul Nichols, things go ‘‘seriously awry’’.

Blackmore said he had no doubt the Local Government Minister and the Division of Local Government had been monitoring some Hunter councils during this term, and he anticipated some surprises in the September election.

‘‘When you look at some of the things that happen in local government, you can well understand when voters take out their wrath,’’ he said.

Allan Robinson said he was prepared to learn about where his responsibilities as a councillor began and ended, and he was looking at the image he wanted to project if he was successful in September.

Asked if he would be wearing a suit for a Newcastle Herald photographer outside Newcastle Town Hall, Robinson considered if he’d be ‘‘suiting up’’ as a councillor.

‘‘I used to get in trouble going to Sydney looking like a bush boy, but I’ll put a suit on,’’ he said.

‘‘If you’re representing people, you want to look the part.’’

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