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Greens celebrate 20 years in local government

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 20 Sep 2011

Adjournment speech, Tuesday 20 September 2011

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:09): As the Greens spokesperson for local government I would like to pay tribute to 20 years of Greens representation in local government across Australia. The Australian Greens had their first electoral win in the 1991 New South Wales government elections held on Saturday 14 September 1991, with Bruce Welch elected to Marrickville Council and John Sutton elected to Newcastle Council. That proved to be the start of an unbroken representation on both councils that continues to this day.

From this humble beginning we have grown in numbers and support. Today there are 74 Greens councillors across New South Wales, with a better than 50-50 gender balance of 38 women and 36 men, including Jill Merrin and George Takacs, who were elected to Wollongong Council in a by-election just over two weeks ago. There are currently five Greens mayors in NSW, including Jan Barham who was Australia's first popularly elected Greens mayor, and a number of deputy mayors serving on both metropolitan and regional councils. Dominic Wy Kanak in Waverley was the first elected Indigenous Greens councillor and councillors Jeremy Buckingham, Ray Goodlass and Dorothy Robinson have worked hard over the years as the lone Greens councillor in their regional communities. Around the country there are over 100 Greens councillors serving their communities.

Whenever I get together with our councillors I am always proud of the diverse range of excellent people who step up to represent their community and the Greens. I congratulate and commend all Greens councillors, past and present, and the Greens New South Wales local groups that support them for their hard work and their dedication to upholding Greens values and principles. What unites our councillors is their commitment to grassroots democracy, open government and community engagement, protecting the built and natural environment from vested interests, and initiating sustainability measures for a greener future.

Greens councillors often face intense pressure from the old parties, developers and different interest groups. It takes courage to face this pressure, to stand up for your principles and to defend what you believe is right, not just what is easy. I praise them for their continuing courage and commitment, which delivers a solid foundation for progressive politics in NSW.

I pay tribute to Hall Greenland, Tony Harris and other founders of the first Greens party, the Sydney Greens. They registered the party name in 1985. The efforts to organise the party in Sydney's inner west took various forms in the 1990s, with us running in a number of federal and state elections. Bruce Welch, a former Labor member, ran as an independent in the 1990 federal election with a small group of supporters who were by and large annoyed at local Labor's corruption. He decided to run for the Greens in the 1991 New South Wales state election and then the local government election. When Bruce was elected to Marrickville Council in September 1991 he was the first person to be elected under the party name 'The Greens' in New South Wales. He was comfortably elected, taking the third of four positions in Henson Ward without any other candidate directing preferences to the Greens ticket. He spent just $700 on his campaign.

One of the first orders of business for the Greens on Marrickville Council was to reform the way politics was practiced at the local government level. Bruce Welch campaigned for open government, for the rights of residents to speak on agenda items before the council and to have their voices heard on planning matters and for residents who have lodged an objection to a development application to be advised in writing when the matter was to be discussed by council.

One of the hardest decisions Bruce faced was who to support for mayor. Together with a community independent the Greens drew up a charter for open council which they presented to every contender for the mayoralty. The charter concentrated on the principles of open council, public participation, open planning and approval process and equal access to all. I read the charter this week and I will publish it on my website. It has stood the test of time as an excellent model for open and democratic local government. Processes that we take for granted today, such as recording the way councillors vote on business matters, the disclosure of pecuniary interests or holding public meetings about major developments, were argued for and won by progressive councillors like Bruce. In his first two years on council, Bruce Welch achieved many of the goals that he set out in the charter for open council. The most important of these was the right for residents to address council meetings to speak about issues that affected their local neighbourhoods. Over time, the Greens' successes at reforming the culture of local government convinced residents that the 'old guard' and old ways of doing business in council were not effectively representing residents' wishes, concerns and aspirations. The Greens' commitment to good governance and grassroots representation has resulted in a constant rise in support for the Greens in Sydney's inner west at local, state and federal levels.

One of the toughest issues during Bruce's term on Marrickville Council was the commencement of operations of the so-called third runway at Kingsford Smith airport. Residents and business operators were stunned by the impact of the change of airport operations, placing a huge workload on the councillors. This resulted in the forced demolition of many houses, which had made up much of the suburb of Sydenham, because they were deemed too noisy to live in.

Bruce often found himself acting as a de facto ombudsman, helping residents to understand the processes of council and how they could use the most effective methods to get their voice and concerns heard and to try to cut through some of the red tape. I acknowledge the fine groundwork that Bruce laid to build strong relationships with his local Greens supporters and the wider Marrickville community. His legacy lives on.

Ten Greens councillors have been elected in the last 20 years, with Sylvia Hale joining the Greens from No Aircraft Noise and Paul Fitzgerald also making a huge contribution to the work on airport issues in this area. A majority of our current five councillors are women. Fiona Byrne is the first woman Mayor of Marrickville and Marika Kontellis is the first woman of Greek heritage elected to Marrickville Council. Like Bruce did 20 years ago, today's Greens councillors in Marrickville work hard for the community.

The other success for the Greens in the September 1991 elections was in Newcastle. The Greens took the other parties and players in Newcastle by storm. Labor and the conservative Citizens Group controlled Newcastle City Council at the time, with a couple of half-decent Independents trying to inject some forward thinking into the council. It was the first time Greens had contested local government and definitely the first time in Newcastle. There were no wards then, just 12 seats on the council to be elected by proportional representation. Newcastle Greens needed 7.7 per cent of the primary vote to secure a seat in the chamber.

John Sutton was elected as the first Greens alderman, as it then was, to Newcastle City Council in the September 1991 elections. He served two terms on the council before retiring in 1999. He was elected with virtually a full quota. Achieving more than seven per cent of the vote in our first election was indicative of the receptiveness of the electorate and the potency of our energetic campaigning and progressive policies. That was a fantastic result—7.7 per cent of the vote in 1991 in Newcastle.

By the next council election, four years later, Newcastle had been partitioned into four wards. With an even more locally focused campaign, and following four years of vigorous Greens representation on the council, John tripled his personal vote. John was largely responsible for initiating Newcastle council's environmental management plan and Newcastle's first waste management strategy, which aimed—among other things—to eliminate waste to landfill in Newcastle by 2010. Sadly, subsequent councils have not been up to the task of achieving this specific objective. On the basis of much of this work, Newcastle council went on to develop a national and even international reputation for environmental innovation in local government throughout the 1990s that was based on their strategic approach to waste.

John played a key role in developing a groundbreaking statement of commitment between Newcastle council and local Aboriginal people, which again became a template for other councils around Australia.

John's approach to the active role of local government in ethics and sustainability culminated in nationally recognised showdowns between Newcastle council and the Malaysian government—I had the pleasure of working with John at the time, and that was when we first met—between Newcastle council and McDonald's over the use of disposable cutlery and plates in their restaurants and between Newcastle council and animal circuses over a ban in Newcastle initiated by John on the use of wild animals in circuses. In each case, these controversies provided an important battleground for discussion and decisions that took Newcastle in a more progressive direction. John still plays an active role in the civic life of the Newcastle community.

In Newcastle, Greens councillors have been successful in setting up precinct committees to enhance community participation. They have secured their place in the political landscape in Newcastle and in 2007 were the largest group on council.

I congratulate Greens councillors across the country for their work.

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