Image for CONSULT … before the first stone is turned, or the first load of fish-gut is delivered

And so what’s this then? Best be avoided, these little stands and tables at shopping centres. Make the slightest inquiry and get ready for the spiel closure. Money for water wells in Outback Africa? A subscription to a global doomsday mag? Third-world child sponsorship program? All great causes but if you don’t do a quick-step you simply can’t backtrack from a heart-breaking story and trying to explain that you already sponsor at least three aid programmes. But no, the signage at this shopping centre is not duplicitous or solicitous. It is something I am most certainly interested in. Not just the information available to me here, but good PR for Launceston City Council (LCC), central to a public information program with four neighbouring regions on a topic of future dynamics.

Dateline: Prospect Vale Shopping Centre, last day of Summer 2014. Complete with booklets, brochures, professionals on hand, explanatory maps, pointing fingers, nodding heads, puzzling questions, simple non-obfuscating, smoke and mirror answers.

‘Can I help you sir?’

‘So long as I’m not signing up for anything ...  I’d just like to compliment you on taking this to the people in such a detailed, public way.”

I suspect the woman before me to be from LCC, but she explains her position, director of a Victorian specialist consultancy in city development, with almost too many letters trailing her name for her age.

The topic being of course, pared back to simple questions … what will Launceston look like in 20 years? And so the Greater Launceston Plan for the next two decades is out there. For all to see. Ratepayers, taxpayers, residents, visitors, dog-owners, investors, commerce and industry … and what’s that picture there in the brochure? A wood-chip mill on the sparkling Tamar River. Fantastic … nobody’s trying to conceal anything here.

Sorry at being a bit carried away here readers, but I have just stumbled upon in a very busy public place a whole new stratosphere of community phenomena … a public consultation program ... !

Ah it seems I have for so long and maybe for too long been in the shadow of too much suspected secrecy and concealment … of the Glamorgan Spring Bay Council.

“Forgive me for my inherent journalistic cynicism,” I apologise to the young woman before me, impressive business card, Nicola Smith BA (U&RP) (hons) MPIA CPP, of Niche Planning Studios, Collingwood, “but does the general public take a genuine interest in all this futuristic stuff?”

“Sure does,” she nods and says her four-hour stint at the busy Prospect Vale Shopping Centre is typical of the success of the concept of visibility on all issues related to urban planning and development.

Embedded of course in this concept is the substantive tenet of the Fourth Estate, the public’s right to know. The right to know everything! Of all decisions made by the elected for those who elect them … that’s us folks, the ratepayers, the taxpayers who fuel the noble concept of democracy.

Here at Prospect Vale, Nicola Smith runs this program with Matt Low, a colleague from Geografia, another Melbourne consultancy. They are fine-tuned in their subject expertise, are fielding answers and explanations to the point where, unlike pollies, they can’t break for long for a photo opportunity. It’s much more than a community PR exercise ... where visibility, glossy newsletters and websites give the impression of transparency. But I judge the efficacy of PR blurb and news agencies with a cynical eye. Not so much what’s in them but what’s not! I am eavesdropping on this consultancy’s interaction with the public ... and am impressed.

They’re even note-taking on questions and suggestions that will trickle-feed all the way to the urban planners. It’s how all councils should be working on any plan for the future that might impact on the integrity of the present landscape ... or the lives of its residents in an ever-changing dynamic environment.  Where I come from that means that high-class sea-board that stretches from gateway Orford, through Triabunna, all the way to Bicheno. Few other regions have such a seascape outlook continuum. And where greedy entrepreneurial eyes will fill its bays with fish-farms and allow industrial waste to compromise its pristine values, or desecrate its essential rural character with factories ... it’s time to insist on nothing less than full public consultation.

It is a fortuitous and timely juxtaposition that I have seen overt public coal-face consultation at work in Launceston…and what a now retired Glamorgan Spring Bay councilor described to me as translating as a contrived silence of elected councilors who seem to be no more than rubber stamps of the dynamic, progressive, general manager of my municipality. He added that councillors were not to speak to the media. And so let’s fast-track to my time at The Examiner where councillors of the ilk of the now late George Brookes, made headlines weekly in their criticism of their councils.

But you don’t see much of this today.

To be fair I have not followed in detail some of the decisions made by my council, except for a house in a popular Orford street that begs the question…how in the hell did a waterfront double-storey get passed when the by-laws and guidelines spell it out…no waterfront double-storeys.

And the official answer? It’s not a double-storey, it’s a loft! Well the only acceptance of that little piece of smoke-and-mirror magic, comes from the starlings that have taken up lofty residence in the place. Some councilors objected, but the majority went with it. But an addendum to this little anecdote is that in his own words, the owner had to lick a lot of arse. The mind boggles at the implications of this. Hence my cynicism and sensitivity to a perceived silent code that if it does exist, it must over-ride the democratic process which turns we foolish rate-payers into a paddock of mushrooms…kept in the dark and fed on detritus.

This display-stand in Prospect Vale, involves the City of Launceston and the municipalities of George Town, Meander Valley, Northern Midlands and West Tamar councils; a collective of local government administrators getting the information on future planning out there, the Greater Launceston Plan, to the people it will most affect ... the resident rate-payers and their families.

The catalyst for this article and a resolve for future scrutiny on all issues, was a hastily-arranged public gathering in Triabunna late last year on a council-devised program related to our private health records. My elected council - without my knowledge or consent or any upfront public consulting - plans to create a central-computer facility for private health records.

The entire municipality’s private information recorded by our GPs in Triabunna, Swansea and Bicheno. A data-base of me and you and everything our doctors know about us. The idea probably has merit. So long as guarantees can be made that only the medical community can have access to it in emergencies. But doesn’t the USA military super-giant find it impossible to keep its data-base safe from super-geeks? It wasn’t so much the concept but the secrecy and rumours that got the residents of this municipality out in a greater show of common interest than local Lions Club Australia Day festivities.

A public meeting ensued at the behest of concerned organisers. It was all tied up in a Chinese-type puzzle of variations of a community health scheme; one proposed by local and trusted GP, Dr Pranesh Naidoo, the other by entrepreneurial, and public rumblings of a secretive little-trusted general manager. But David Metcalf, does have some laudable runs on the board, including the Triabunna waterfront project that transformed an ageing jetty complex into a modern esplanade. The business community loves Metcalf because he’s a progressive who ‘pushes through’.

One entrepreneur and developer told me he’s much respected amongst proponents with grand schemes and a fistful of dollars.

“He gets things done,” he told me.

But in the 20 years I have resided in the municipaIity, I can’t recall any up-front public consultation process about future development as I witnessed in Launceston this week.

The first I twigged to the absence of the consultative process here was the fast-tracking of a public walk-way and cycle-path along West Shelly Beach, Orford.

At one point the new track is within spitting-distance of residents enjoying their balcony sundowners…and with easy hearing-distance of the occasional drunks and eff-words as they make late-way back from the pub or a party. Initially the cycle-track walkway was to pass by ALL waterfront residents, a sort of egalitarian gesture that vested interests and influential individuals don’t pull council strings.

But the fast-tracked-track doesn’t seem to follow the original plan. 

Some influential water-fronters don’t now have to contend with happy cyclers, joggers, pram-pushers and the occasional raucous revellers walking home from the pub. And so was it a hush-hush piece of lobbying that brought about a truncated cycling track that favoured an influential few? And why hasn’t it proceeded along the entirety of East Shelly Beach as was its original plan? There is so much we need to know, that we don’t get from the council’s PR newsletter or online web-site.

And then there was the water crisis a few years ago when the Prosser dam neared being perilously empty. Residents faced the prospect of fines for washing boats and cars and watering gardens during this ‘unusual’ dry period.

What ratepayers were never told was that the submarine water pipe to the Gunns Woodchip Mill had broken and all our water was running out to sea. Coincidentally I came upon this, while filming seabirds near the East-coaster Resort, now the Eastcoast Central and saw much ado on the water with divers bobbing to and fro like a busy seal colony…and onshore workers replacing pipes.

I took a series of photos and made inquiries. It was a major repair job. The Gunns pipeline had ruptured. Nobody had been told. Ratepayers were never privy to the facts … the truth. It went beyond secrecy … to subterfuge, threats to ratepayers and downright lies … and a hush-hush that treated ratepayers as mushrooms … and big industry as elites.

And now I have learned from a trip to the Glamorgan Spring Bay website, that there’s an online petition against the proposed Tassal factory, already approved in principle by council, to process 20,000 annual tonnes of fish-guts from salmon farms across the State. How many truckloads is that? As if dodging log-trucks wasn’t a major consideration of opponents to the Gunns wood-chip mill, now closed and owned by Jan Cameron and Graeme Wood and just a few days ago rezoned for tourism development.

The Mayor and Libs candidate for Lyons, Bertrand Cadart, has blandly posted an online statement that translates as he will do anything to bring jobs to the region. Well, let LeFrog hop behind a stinking fish-gut truck to the new factory as penance for his inability to understand that public consultation means full consultation. As where this story starts … in Prospect … and with professionals as Nicola Smith’s Niche Planning Studios.

The final word? Let councils be progressive and dynamic…but also insist that they consult … before the first stone is turned, or the first load of fish-gut is delivered. And why do councils like mine naturally adopt the mantra of jobs, jobs, jobs as their most pressing reason for being? New ventures bring more trucks, more noise, more stink, more pollution ... to our biggest natural asset that lures tourists here ... the sparkling eastern seaboard of Tasmania.

And just as I was shutting down … stop the press! The rumour-mill is suggesting that the defunct and abandoned Greg Norman Golf Course, with its eroding mountains of dirt and holes and signs and unfinished fairways … is on again! And that it is to be a major project of the … wait for it folks … the Glamorgan Spring Bay Council! Surely not! If the project was abandoned because of its dubious future as a corporate success, the question must be asked. What makes this council think it can develop an abandoned project into a financial success!?

Helllp! If it is true, and my sources are not into mischief hush-hushery, then surely the consultation process in my municipality is as I have always suspected … very selective and elitist.
Surely if the rumour is true there must have been some councillor voices in dissent. I won’t bother checking this rumour with council as I’d expect a long wait for an answer ... probably in the same sarcastic vein as I received when I wrote to have the gates to a public park behind me closed at night to keep wheel-spinning bogans out.

“We’re sorry you had a disturbed sleep ... it is a 24-hour recreation area, the gates remain open,” was the paraphrased reply to my letter which represented other ratepayers.

Yet here in the north, a city and four big municipalities have gathered very transparently to map out a future. It begs the question. What will the stunning East Coast of Tasmania, from Orford to Bicheno look like in 20 years ... without proper consultation or it seems empathy with the wishes of those who employ them ... Us?

*Paul Tapp entered journalism with The Examiner Newspaper as a 30 year-old cadet in 1975. He worked as police roundsman with ABC Hobart where he won the 1988 Keith Welsh Award for Journalistic Excellence. He also received a special baton from Tasmania Police Association for his reporting on many issues of public importance, in particular the growing dilemma of underage drinking, and issues related to internal police politics and rank and file morale.  He Moved for a time as police reporter with ABC Adelaide and moved to the Northern Territory as a press secretary. Tapp moved back to Tasmania for the inquest into the police killing of Joe Gilewicz in 1991, worked for a time in the Liberal Press Secretariat. With Stan Hanuszewicz, he researched the history of two families in Nazi concentration camps, court records of the Gilewicz coronial inquest and produced a book that became central to the flawed 2000 Gilewicz Commission of Inquiry. He is at present finalising his series of exclusive interviews with Hobart’s Dr Geoffrey Boughey, sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his young Fijian wife. Boughey’s view of prison life is the substantive theme of the book, ‘Get Boughey’. Tapp served as a conscript infantry reinforcement with several battalions in South Vietnam in 1967 and lives at Orford in full retirement, researching and producing online self-publications on Lulu.com and Kbuuk.com. He lives with his wife Jennifer of 48 years and has four grand-children to his two sons, Randall and Cameron, both of whom live interstate.

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