Last efforts for shire

By Robert Muir

Strong last ditch efforts for a subdivided Moira Shire Council structure were conveyed to Victorian Electoral Commission staff last Wednesday evening at a public meeting in the Cobram Civic Centre.

Before making its recommendation public on May 29, the VEC provided a final opportunity for shire residents to speak to their submissions for a maximum of 10 minutes during the 1.45-hour-long meeting.  

A final report containing VEC’s final recommendation on the structure will be provided to the Minister for Local Government on May 29. It will be available on the VEC website. 

The VEC’s Preliminary Report has recommended the status quo – for an unsubdivided shire with nine councillors – which has been endorsed by Moira Shire Council in an understanding 7-2 vote by councillors. No division was called for when voting took place. 

At last Wednesday’s public hearing, VEC’s electoral registrar Keegan Bartlett as Chair and project officer Pamie Fung, together with Local Government consultant John Watson, heard six addresses from people in support of their earlier made submissions.

Five addresses for a ward-type structure were given – all but one address, jointly or independently from Yarrawonga and district – whilst strong defence of the current unsubdivided Moira Shire was given by the shire’s mayor Libro Mustica and deputy mayor Peter Lawless.

Two councillors, Yarrawonga-based Peter Mansfield and Kevin Bourke from Nathalia, want a subdivided shire and spoke in favour of it accordingly.

Mayor Mustica said council’s submission for an unsubdivided shire reflects council’s desire for effective and affordable councillor representation for a population approaching 30,000 people across 4.000 square kilometres.

“I believe the system we have in place works extremely well,” he said. Regarding the number of councillors, the mayor said: “Reducing the number to seven would encourage the council to function more like a board which in our opinion is not an appropriate model for a diverse rural shire.”

Cr Lawless said it is clear councillors need to govern in the interests of the entire shire in view of the breadth and complexity of local government. 

Noting that of the submissions council received from the wider public of the preference predominantly from the east of the shire for a ward-based structure, Cr Lawless said there were two main drivers for such.

“Firstly, the perception from Yarrawonga that it is not getting its fair share of capital projects given its population and growth and that somehow a ward-based model will correct this,” he said.

“More fundamental to the views from the east of the shire is that it more relates to what we know as north-east Victoria whereas the balance of the shire is clearly aligned with the Goulburn Valley. This is not something that the VEC can address through its process. Successive councils will need to work hard to build a shire identity that all its communities can comfortably relate to.”

The deputy mayor said some ratepayers assume each councillor is on council to “fight the fight” for their home town and acknowledged there is some truth with that approach.

“Experience suggests that wards can re-inforce the view that the shire is not cohesive,” Cr Lawless said. “It encourages parochialism and the view that a councillor is ‘council member for a ward’.

“We want the role of councillor to be understood by the community and particularly aspiring candidates who need to balance their election promises with their statutory obligation to govern for the entire shire.

“On a more practical note, there is further risk that a ward could be dominated by a larger town. This means that smaller surrounding areas and rural residents could have their representation diluted and their voice not heard.”

Cr Mansfield referred to the large size (120kms long) of Moira Shire, split between two Legislative Assembly seats Shepparton and Ovens Valley.

“Yarrawonga is unique in that we are dryland farming and tourism orientated, whereas the rest of the shire in mainly irrigation – dairy and horticulture,” he said.

“For commerce, health, education and sport, we relate to Wangaratta, and Albury/Wodonga for most of our needs.

“It is hard for people who are prominent locally in commerce, sport or volunteerism to be recognized in other parts of the shire.”   

Having wards would enable more candidates to be involved in Local Government according to Cr Mansfield who believes most Yarrawonga and district people want wards.     

Bundalong Action Group spokesperson Fred Douglas claimed that Bundalong was “not getting the best representation”.

“The Bundalong Action Group comprises some 150 members. It’s strong representation,” he said. “One-hundred per cent of members favour Option B (Subdivided West Ward, Central Ward, East Ward; three councilors each).

“Our community is 100 per cent behind this change. There’s a lack of representation, for example the water drainage issue. Bundalong’s been left off the agenda.”

Mr Douglas said that in recent times, the sole person from Moira Shire Council, be it councillor or staff member who has discussed anything in Bundalong with local residents, has been Cr Mansfield.

The action group’s president Peter Elliott said that before the flooding in 2010 there were problems which still exist. “Three out of four main streets were all under water. We had to dig trenches to get the water away.” 

Nathalia’s Kevin Bourke proposed “a hybrid version of Option B” based on the Census and “communities of interest to provide ‘adequate, equitable and fair representation to the constituents of Moira Shire”, as follows:  Eastern Ward 8390 constituents/councilor, Central (which would include Wilby) 8189, 2729, Western 7951, 2650.

Yarrawonga-based resident Michelle Church said she believes with a ward-base model, more people in her age bracket (the 50s) would stand for council and that having an unsubdivided shire imposes excessive time for the role and to travelling.

 Mr Joe Cilia of Yarrawonga said he believes better access to councillors would result with a ward-base system.

In addition to the VEC panel, speakers and two shire staff members, eight residents attended last Wednesday’s meeting, all from Yarrawonga.

After the meeting the Yarrawonga Chronicle spoke to Mayor Mustica who described the public hearing as “very informative”. 

“It was interesting to hear all the views,” he said. “I can assure everyone that with an unsubdivided shire, there is no favouritism towards anyone in the shire.”

In closing the meeting, Mr Bartlett expressed his appreciation to all speakers for their contributions. “We are a panel working with a broader panel,” he explained.

“We will consider all the information from this evening and then present our case. Any changes will come into effect at the next election, October 2020.”