Fig debate turns ugly, police called

BLOCKED: A protester confronts Newcastle council’s John Johnston last night. –  Picture by Max Mason-Hubers
BLOCKED: A protester confronts Newcastle council’s John Johnston last night. – Picture by Max Mason-Hubers

SAVE Our Figs spokeswoman Caity Raschke said pro-fig supporters could hold their heads up high for last night forcing Newcastle City Councillors to walk past ‘‘the people they had let down’’ after voting down the offer of a state government-backed assessment of the Laman Street figs.

‘‘If you think that lining the hall so that the councillors actually have to walk past the people they have let down, if you call that aggressive, then yes, ok, we were aggressive,’’ Dr Raschke said this morning.

‘‘I was very keen to have those people face us on the way out.’’

Last night’s Newcastle City Council meeting ended with allegations of assault, attempts to physically prevent councillors from leaving City Hall, and a decision that means the Laman Street fig trees are for the chop.

Councillors voted seven to four against a motion for a state government-backed assessment of the fig trees. Earlier in the night, state MP Tim Owen had spoken to councillors and strongly suggested they take up the offer.

An ugly confrontation broke out immediately after the meeting, when councillors who voted against the assessment tried to leave the council chambers.

A large number of protesters, who reacted angrily to the vote, attempted to block a group of councillors and council staff members from leaving.

Cr Mike King was jostled by several protesters in the corridor. As he moved past, a woman fell to the ground.

The council’s infrastructure services manager, John Johnston, was pushed, jostled and abused as he made his way down the City Hall steps.

Members of the public followed councillors outside as they walked from the building.

Police confirmed this morning that allegations Helen Margaret Henry was assaulted were being investigated.

Senior Constable Tony Tamplin said police were still taking statements, with eleven people nominated as witnesses.

‘‘(The) allegation has been refuted but not yet officially,’’ he said.

‘‘One of the problems was that many of the so-called witnesses were not independent.’’

Dr Raschke said she was at the other end of the hall when the councillors ‘‘had to push through’’ the crowd.

‘‘I was very fortunate that I was not at the other end,’’ she said.

‘‘You don’t just fall over as someone walks past you. However, I didn’t see it. I would be very interested in talking to Margaret Henry.’’

Asked about the behaviour of Save Our Figs members in the crowd Dr Raschke said people had the right to call shame at the councillors.

‘‘People were angry last night but if these guys can’t walk past a group of people who are angry then don’t do the job,’’ she said.

‘‘If you are going to make these decisions you have to live with it. I think that what happened is there were a lot of people in the hall way and the councillors had to push their way through a crowd.

‘‘Show me the footage showing that people jostled them. They insult the Premier by knocking back the offer of an independent arborist ... explain it to me. It’s just shocking.’’

When the meeting closed, lord mayor John Tate said he would call for an inquiry into the council, specifically looking into the fig tree debacle and other controversial issues such as the lighting in Novocastrian Park.

‘‘As a matter of urgency, the department [of local government] needs to bring in local government inspectors about what happened here.

‘‘There’s only three weeks to Christmas and I don’t think [the removal of the fig trees] is what the city needs,’’ Cr Tate said.

Cr Michael Osborne said after the meeting that he would lodge a rescission motion, which would bring the matter back to the council for another debate.

The effect of the failed vote is that the council can notionally implement its July decision to remove and replace the trees, as soon as a court injunction is lifted.

A NSW Land and Environment Court hearing is set for December 5 and 6.

Cr Osborne moved that the council accept Premier Barry O’Farrell’s offer of a state government arborist to review and assess the risk of the fig trees.

He said he put the motion at Mr Owen’s suggestion.

‘‘If all that is done and a report is brought back to the council, then surely we’ll have a proper resolution of the issue,’’ Cr Osborne said.

Mr Owen’s Liberal colleagues, Brad Luke and Mike Jackson, both voted against the assessment, along with Mike King, Aaron Buman, Bob Cook, Graham Boyd and Scott Sharpe.

Cr Luke said the council was wasting $6000 a day while the saga dragged on.

When the vote was lost, Cr Sharon Claydon withdrew a foreshadowed motion and the meeting was closed.

About 70 Save Our Figs protesters were inside the chamber and shouted ‘‘shame’’ and described the vote as ‘‘the blackest day’’ in the council’s history.

Spokeswoman Fee Mozeley said she was stunned that councillors rejected the independent assessment offer.

‘‘To be that bloody-minded ... is outrageous,’’ Ms Mozeley said.

Outside the chamber, a group of about 40 counter protesters chanted ‘‘chop, chop, chop’’ over a megaphone.

Police were called by security guards when ugly clashes erupted and were still taking statements late last night.