Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Gutless suburban councillors no match for feisty locals


(Above: Turning the first sod) 

By Louisa L.

A construction site around a disused public swimming pool isn't the usual place for a victory celebration.

Many Sydney-siders have never heard of Bexley, where fifty locals, councillors and workers gathered in late July. It's no hub of sedition, just a quiet, multicultural suburb a little southwest of Botany Bay and the airport. 

But it does have a history of struggle. Whether it's on Bediagal or Bidjigal land is uncertain, because the Cooks River, the Botany Swamps and the sandstone ridges of Rockdale meant invaders didn't settle it in any numbers till the 1880s, well after smallpox decimated its people.          


(Above: The only known picture of resistance leader Pemulwuy See http://www.sydneybarani.com.au/sites/pemulwuy/)

One thing is certain,  Pemulwuy, who led Australia's first battles for independence, ranged through the area. In 1790 he fatally speared Governor Phillip's rapist gamekeeper on the lowlands just two kilometres away, sparking the first British search and destroy mission in Australia, a complete failure. In nearby Undercliff the handprints of the first people cover the walls and roof of a rock shelter. 

The seven year saga that began in 2009 in Bexley has neither the enormous import, heroism nor suffering of the struggle led by Pemulwuy, but it brought together an 88 year old woman swimming two kilometres for charity, death threats, a parish priest, loads of locals, a solid group of councillors and finally Water Polo Australia and Swimming NSW in perhaps the world's only struggle symbolised by swimming goggles.

Goggles on!

When users of Rockdale Council-owned Bexley Swimming Centre won year round swimming in 2009, they felt empowered, but had no idea what lay ahead. 

The 40 year old pool, along with 20 thousand litres of water a day, was leaking money. Under further local pressure, a reference group began to formally discuss proposals for a bigger centre. The first report in February 2011 saw around 30 goggle wearing pool supporters at Council. Soon the addition of an indoor pool was Council's preferred option. 

Keeping the pool a high priority in an area plagued by rundown assets wasn't easy, especially when some councillors preferred to spend $6 million on a car park for one restaurant, but after more goggle protests, letters and local media coverage, the pool redevelopment was referred to the state government as part of Rockdale's City Plan.

Murky waters

NSW politics has swum in plans that disappear without trace. Keeping this one afloat was strengthened by organising five times more submissions for the Pool Upgrade Proposal than the previous Council record of 300.

Then, in 2012, a hidden campaign to sink the pool suddenly surfaced. 

When several councillors were absent, the Liberal Councillors and a supposed independent unexpectedly voted down the necessary capital expenditure. Key infrastructure supporter, Greens Councillor Lesa de Leau moved recision, but council elections meant months' delay. Ms de Leau, whose ward included the failed car park, was targeted for vitriol and lost her seat. But Mark Hanna, the leader of the pro-pool community, pulled in numerous supporters to ensure his first election.

In October the first of two residents' Facebook pages emerged, and at November's Council meeting  goggle-power defeated delaying tactics. 

Early 2013 saw tenders invited, accompanied by failed attempts to end winter swimming. 

The same nay-sayers tried to stop a new library being built, after 30 years in a temporary building.

Delay piled on delay, with dozens of scientific questions from the Liberals, but by November pool  plans were on display, and in December Ian Thorpe was a special guest at the Mayor's Christmas Dinner.

The DA was lodged in February 2014, with more community action in the lead-up and backing from Water Polo Australia and Swimming NSW. On April 30 residents had last laps before closure, with work due to start in September. 

Meanwhile two pools in neighbouring Canterbury Council, where there had been no organised protests, closed during winter for the first time.

Death threats fail

The Council had a $48 million offer from sale of another poorly utilised car park. This would fully fund all major projects including the library, pool, youth centre and town centre car park, leaving $10 million for other upgrades.

More opposition rose from the slimy depths as the minority councillors boycotted meetings.

Between September and October, five meetings lacked a quorum due to the failure to attend, or early departure of the Liberals and an 'independent'. 

“So this is democracy...? What a disgrace!” stated one of dozens of letters to the local paper.

Even a Labor ex-mayor, Bill Saravinovski, went against his party’s new mayor and councillors to vote for deferment when a quorum was achieved.

A community co-ordinating group was set up in response, with a second Facebook page 'Build Bexley Pool' feeding into a torrent of media.

In November, a seventh meeting was boycotted. By then the $48 million offer had lapsed, with $1.75 million already spent! 

Bernie Sharah of Rockdale told the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘‘Attending council meetings is a minimum requirement of their jobs, so if they are not attending, they need to explain why.’’ 

The boycott was spiced with death threats to Councillors supporting the projects.

Daily democracy

Enough was enough. A snap rally outside Rockdale Town Hall on November 8 drew 70 people, with just one day's notice.

ABC's 7.30 NSW in late November had Liberal Councillor Poulos running down alleyways like a petty crim to escape a female reporter, who shouted questions in his wake. HILARIOUS!

Soon after, a Sunday rally brought over 300 people to the entrance of the closed pool. Local parish priest, Father Brendan Quirk who addressed the rally symbolised the struggle's breadth.  


(Above: Mayor Shane O'Brien wins fans among the local kids with Mark Hanna in background)

Mayor Shane O'Brien's words invoked the power of the people, “This is absolutely about politics! This is about the behaviour of your elected representatives. It is about whether you read a brochure every four years, vote for people in good faith and after that leave them to their own devices to either break their promises or uphold their promises!"

He called them to “become participants in democracy every day of the week.”  Clearly further protests would be far bigger. 

Swimming to victory

The boycotters finally got the message, and on December 3 (incidentally the Eureka Stockade 160th anniversary) an amended project was passed. All the projects have started, with the delaying tactics costing residents millions.

There's no doubt the pool area would have been a property developer's dream. But it remains in public hands. The victory celebration brought together the key activists and the workers who are to build the centre.

Small victories are important. They bolster people's spirits, give a taste of power in unity. Success requires both protracted community struggle and the good leadership that was so apparent in this battle. 

Pool construction began in July 2015. Locals say Bexley is not as quiet as it used to be, with bulldozers rattling the neighbourhood in the construction zone. But no one is complaining.

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