Local angles on health services, climate change, vocational training, rail trails and local government autonomy (and lack thereof) all got an airing on Thursday night in a bid to help voters decide where to cast their vote at the upcoming state election.
Four candidates for the seat of Lismore in the March 23 poll faced questions at a Q&A forum in the Tenterfield School of Arts on February 7.
Greens candidate Sue Higginson pointed out that Lismore is the equal-fourth most marginal seat in the state.
“All eyes will be on it,” she said.
“Your vote is incredibly important.”
Ms Higginson was joined by Labor’s Janelle Saffin, independent Greg Bennett and Nationals’ Austin Curtin in the forum hosted by the Tenterfield Chamber of Tourism, Industry and Business and moderated by Harry Bolton.
Ms Higginson aims to restore voters’ faith in politicians and promises to put the electorate ‘on the map’, promoting its clean green brand.
Ms Saffin committed to broadening the NSW focus beyond ‘Newcastle/Sydney/Wollongong’, tapping into the district’s strengths of tourism and food-and-fibre.
She said the Labor Party is known for its inclusiveness and a fair go for all.
“Rural people should be given a fair go in all things that matter,” she said.
Mr Bennet cited his small-town roots and seven years on Lismore City Council as preparation for the state role, saying it was environmental zoning that pushed him into politics in the first place.
Mr Curtin – a regular visitor to this end of the electorate, often in the company retiring incumbent Thomas George – hopes to continue the Nationals legacy.
He has already survived a community poll back in November 2017 which picked him over other candidates nominated by party branches, including Tenterfield mayor Peter Petty.
Mr Bolton offered a community consensus that the local hospital is under-resourced, given the district’s aging population and its need to attract young families.
Candidates reported strong community feedback regarding concerns about the health service. Ms Saffin’s priority is to ensure the hospital has the resources to stabilise patients before they’re transported to a larger centre.
Mr Bennett would push for a return of maternity services, while Mr Austin pointed out that this would also require reopening a surgical ward. He said in any case obstetricians are drawn to bigger centres where there’s the volume of deliveries to justify their large overhead costs, particularly insurance.
“That’s what they trained for,” he said, although Mr Bennet declared that the hospital had maternity services in the past so it’s not impossible.
Mr Curtin reported that the local Health Advisory Committee is very happy with recent funding injections and that capital works are being ‘ticked off’.
He said there’s a need to continue upgrading facilities in order to attract visiting specialists. Mr George announced a further $410,000 last week to finalise maintenance works at the hospital, on top of $1 million from the Rural Health Infrastructure Fund to upgrade the emergency department and renovate inpatient bathrooms.
Ms Higginson credited the electorate’s standing as a marginal seat for the cash injection over the past four years. She will be pushing for safer staff-to-patient ratios generally, to avoid turning people away from a career as a carer.
“It’s time to really invest in the public system,” she said.
Local government autonomy
With vested interest, Mayor Peter Petty sought the candidates’ thoughts on state/local government power imbalances.
Ms Saffin would like councils to have the autonomy and authority to govern, and feels constitutional recognition of local government is the answer.
“If it happened, it would change everything,” she said.
“I’m totally committed to that happening.”
She would also like to see the 2016 IPART (Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal) performance reports on individual councils made public, to start some conversations about how councils are doing.
Ms Higginson noted the trend toward state government dictating to local government, but feels it may be justified to an extent by several very poorly-behaved councils.
“State government has determined its relationship with local governments based on that lowest common denominator,” she said.
“It’s time to embrace that relationship.”
She wants to stop the ‘nonsense’ of cost-shifting, which leads to the community criticising councils who are being forced to take on heavier workloads with tighter budgets.
Mr Bennett agrees that cost-shifting places undue financial stress on councils, but he is against giving councils more autonomy given his Lismore City Council experience.
“Decision-making needs to be moderated.”
He feels in many cases grants given to councils end up being a burden.
“We get a grant from state government to build things we can’t afford to run,” he said.
Mr Curtin blames some local government woes on the intrusion of party politics into councils which traditionally valued their close ties to the community.
He credits the National Party at the state level with funnelling a lot of money into rural councils, including Tenterfield.
Ms Higginson said the Greens are very strong on rebuilding TAFE, in the wake of ‘real’ training centres turning into ‘virtual’ training centres known as Connected Learning Centres.
“TAFEs need to be filled with real teachers and real students. We have absolutely headed in the wrong direction.”
Ms Saffin said without TAFE we can’t build a lot of the jobs we need for the future.
“TAFE needs to be at the forefront of predicting jobs.
“Everywhere I go people talk about not having enough apprentices.”
She said one of Labor’s policies is that 10 per cent of jobs on government projects, including those in the country, go to apprentices.
Mr Curtain disputed that TAFE was losing ground, reporting that enrollments at the Tenterfield TAFE have tripled.
“Kids are going in and loving it. This is the future of how people are learning. This is the future of work.
“The Tenterfield Connected Learning Centre is bringing results.”
Mr Bennett took a step back and said there should be a refocus in schools on literacy and numeracy to equip students with the skills they need to enter TAFE or another career path.
“We have to give authority back to the teachers to run their classrooms, and ensure parents are doing the parenting and those duties aren’t being foisted on to teachers.”
He said programs like Safe Schools (fostering an environment that is supportive and inclusive of LGBTI students) don’t belong in our schools, where the focus instead should be on core skills.
The candidates’ embracement of climate change science ran the gamut from Mr Bennett’s rejection of predictions of catastrophic climate change – citing non-eventuating prophecies – to the Greens’ goal of 100 per cent renewable energy by the year 2030.
Mr Bennett challenged Gail Galloway’s assertion that the Tasmanian fires, state of the Murray-Darling river system and the Townsville floods were indicative of climate change, instead saying the fires are a result of poorly-managed forestry stemming from clearing restrictions.
“Stop using climate change as an excuse for not managing our forests,” he said.
“We’re pushing ourselves into a position where we’re burning our forests and killing our animals.”
He said detaching Murray-Darling water licenses from properties led to an increased uptake. Some of the licenses were bought for environmental flows and these have also been mismanaged.
“We should be building dams,” he said.
As his wife is a native of Townsville he said such flooding events are not unknown and can’t be put down to climate change.
Mr Curtin is a little farther along the climate change scale, saying climate is always changing and always has been, and centuries of industrialisation is likely to have contributed to that.
He said the move from fossil fuel to renewable energy has to transition in a way that mums and dads in Tenterfield can still afford their power bill, and manufacturing and industry can keep driving ahead.
This position was supported by Mr Bennett who said Australia is a fossil-fuel driving economy exporting tens of billions of dollars worth of coal and energy. It also has more than a trillion dollars in foreign debt, and we have to service that debt.
“Everytime we close down a fuel-powered power station China opens 10, so what are we achieving?”
Ms Saffin accepts the science, backing Labor’s policy of achieving a minimum 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030.
She said a lot of time has been wasted through the Greens voting down the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme three times in federal parliament when everybody else was on board to start the transition.
Ms Higginson is at the far end of the climate change scale.
“I firmly believe the science,” she said.
“There’s really no question around the modelling.”
She said of the current drought that the ‘real’ farmers out there are telling us this is not like anything they’ve experienced in history (possibly taking a dig at the macadamia nut farmers either side of her).
The Greens support a 100 per cent move to renewables by 2030.
“Our policy is based on our Australian experts,” experts that she said have been sidelined because of fossil fuel donations to political parties.
Ms Higginson said of the more than $100 million donated to political parties since 2012, 58 per cent came directly from fossil fuel industries. The Greens don’t accept corporate donations.
“One hundred per cent (renewable energy) is not only achievable, but it’s 100 per cent exciting,” she said.
“Countries all over the world are doing the rapid and just transition to the new economy, and we are being left behind.”
Briefly, Mr Bennett is against rail trails (repurposing unused rail corridors as walking/bicycling tracks), wanting to bring back freight trains to get trucks off the road. Passenger services would be a bonus.
Not anticipating a time when the return of train services in this district becomes economically viable, Ms Saffin and Mr Curtin support the tourism potential of rail trails.
Ms Higginson feels it’s time to develop an integrated transportation plan for the next 50/100 years.
“The future is public transport,” she said.
“It’s only a matter of time before electric transport gets here.”
In response to a query from Jane I’Ons for their thoughts on the fallout from the recent banking inquiry, Ms Saffin said it’s necessary to re-orientate government bodies towards serving public interests, rather than political ones.
Mr Bennett would like to see a segregation of trading activities from other banking sectors, and the return of a “good old Commonwealth Bank owned by the people.”
In this instance he concurred with Ms Higginson who would like to see us re-embrace the joy of public ownership.
“It’s time to claim it back,” she said, while also seeing the need for an increase in good regulation where the banks are concerned.
Considering it a federal issue, Mr Curtin preferred to focus on state and local priorities he can impact.
Mrs I’Ons thanked the candidates for their participation, saying we are fortunate to have candidates so well-informed and of such calibre. Her thoughts were echoed by moderator Mr Bolton in bringing the session to close, when candidates tackled queries on a one-to-one basis.
Other candidates registered for the election (according to the NSW State Register of Candidates) are independent Sam Alexander Hansen and the Animal Justice Party’s Alison Waters.
Watch the forum in full…