By Andy Hutchinson
We live in an increasingly polarised society; one in which social media, precisely targeted advertising and heavily biased media organisations all conspire to drive people to ideological extremes. However, over the last ten years, what was once restricted to political viewpoints, has infected every facet of society. Moreover, the extreme behaviour that accompanies extreme views has filtered down from the upper echelons of politics to the lowest tier of community organisations.
The Shoalhaven Heads Community Forum is the formally recognised Community Consultative Body (CCB) by Shoalhaven Council. Formed in 2004 the forum was created to unite previously disparate community groups all lobbying for funds separately. Its remit was to improve the village environment through infrastructure upgrades and champion new facilities if there was a need for them.
By any standards, it was a highly successful group. Compared to many nearby coastal villages, Shoalhaven Heads has developed an impressive number of meaningful infrastructure upgrades from the installation of pavements and the creation of mandated off-leash dog areas, through to an outdoor gym, cycle path and bike pump track.
Over the years, these changes were accomplished by a small but passionate group of volunteers who applied for grants, organised fund-raising, and worked closely with the various government levels to improve village amenity. The administration of such community forums often takes up a considerable amount of time. It is usually retirees drawn to these roles because they do not have competing work or family commitments.
The subjects they discuss and the minutiae of the details, much of which requires discussion and agreement at forum gatherings, means that the monthly meetings are usually dry affairs. For all of these reasons, the group's administration is not usually something that is fought over. Quite the opposite, many volunteers would happily stand down and let someone else take over if they held up their hand. The AGM and the process of voting in the new executive often involves a bit of light arm-twisting.
Shoalhaven Heads has a hell of a lot going for it. It's an easy two-hour drive south of Sydney and located on a pristine stretch of coastline that is far less developed than similar locales to the north of the city. It sits at the southern end of Seven Mile Beach and, on its southern side, is bordered by the languorous Shoalhaven River. To the north, the village's boundaries are forever frozen in place by Seven Mile Beach National Park and to the west by swampland and Mount Coolangatta. Its footprint may extend slightly, but most development can only take place within the village's existing boundaries.
As new arrivals in Australia, looking to own a home on the south coast, we spent some time working out where we might get the best value for money. At that time, 20 years ago, Shoalhaven Heads had a poor status with the locals. It was seen as a last resort - nearby Berry, Gerringong or the new housing estates around Nowra were seen as far better options. Consequently, property prices were substantially lower than those more desirable nearby towns and, when we took a good look around, we could see no logical reason for this snobbery. So, we bought a house for between half and two-thirds what a similarly sized home would cost elsewhere.
We weren't the only people to see Shoalhaven Heads differently to the prevailing wisdom. Over the years, we watched as the demographic slowly but inexorably shifted from a primarily retiree-based community to a family one. One by one, the gaps between houses were filled in, the old beach-shacks and cottages were either pulled down or completely renovated, and small-scale developments started springing up.
The gentrification of the coastal villages in NSW has been a slow but steady process primarily linked to the improved road network. There is a clear and unmistakeable link between the chain of post-war upgrades to the Princes Highway and the effect it has had on nearby towns and villages.
More recently, the Kiama Bypass (completed in 2004), the Gerringong upgrade (completed in 2015), the Foxground and Berry bypass (completed in 2017), the Berry to Bomaderry upgrade (due for completion in 2022), the Albion Park bypass (due for completion in 2021) and the Nowra Bridge upgrade (due for completion in 2024), all contribute to the changing demographics of this region.
Shoalhaven Heads does not sit directly on the Princes Highway, but it too has been affected by the changes. It was always a popular destination for tourists, particularly during the summer holidays, but visitation rates have steadily increased over the last 20 years. Property values have been steadily rising too, both due to the improved road network and, more recently, the effects of the CoVID19 pandemic, which created an urge amongst city-dwellers, particularly those with families, to move out to the regions.
Not everyone is happy about this.
Wrong Side of the Track
As Shoalhaven Heads village has changed, so too have the priorities of the community forum. Where previously upgrades such as improved kerb and guttering, pavements, roadworks and a community centre were championed, the focus changed in favour of community assets.
Not all of these community facilities have been welcomed by residents. Some are quite happy with the way the village is and are keen to keep things exactly that way. This has created a rift between an old guard who want Shoalhaven Heads to the stay the same sleepy little coastal village and more progressive residents and families.
This conflict was brutally exposed during the pump track development with the group Save Jerry Bailey Oval setting up in opposition. The track was a decade in the making, pushed by a strong core of residents championing its development. After securing state government and some council investment, and a long and difficult fund-raising process, the track was finally built in 2019.
The opposition group was not well supported. In fact, at its core were just two people - long-term residents of Shoalhaven Heads whose properties were close to the sports oval where the pump track was to be built. They created a Facebook page for their anti-pump track group and spoke to regional press expressing their opposition to its creation. Their cause wasn't helped by their highly specious arguments - that the track would be the focus for anti-social behaviour among the local youth, that they would be "urinating openly" and that it would "foment toxic male behaviour".
Shoalhaven Council ran an extensive consultation period that included a community survey, open to Shoalhaven Heads residents, which showed 92.5 per cent in favour, 2.5 per cent against, and five per cent undecided. The track build went ahead, the majority of the funds coming from the state government, but a decent percentage from community fund-raising and support from local businesses. In the two years since it has opened, it has been a huge hit with the local community and tourists who visit the village. The anti-social behaviour that the opposition group predicted has failed to manifest itself - exactly the opposite in fact.
Not long after the pump track opened, the group's main leader threatened one of the mums at the pump track, swore at her, and spat in her face. So, the "toxic male behaviour" did come to pass, but not from the local youth, rather from a senior resident of the village well known locally for his bullying behaviour.
Last year a new community project was proposed. Championed by someone born and raised locally and now raising their own family in the village, the idea was to transform a portion of an under-used and unloved reserve into a kid's nature playground.
As with the pump track, there was a lengthy submission process for grant funding, several community consultation rounds, and heavy publicity in local social media.
Objections came from several residents who wanted to retain the existing tucked-away amenity of the reserve. The main concern was it becoming a 'destination park' attracting people from out of town who would clutter the quiet local streets with their cars. In September 2020 council approved the creation of the park.
The core group of residents who objected to the pump track found their ranks bolstered slightly by those residents who objected to the nature park. They began plotting their revenge on the organisation they deemed responsible - the community forum.
The Take Over
On 2nd December 2020, the Shoalhaven Heads Community Forum held its AGM, and the group of anti-progress residents put their plan into action. At every previous AGM, committee members were nominated and voted for by those who attended the meeting. It was always a friendly atmosphere in which residents cajoled each other into various committee positions - the sort of thing that plays out at the AGMs of all volunteer organisations. Not this time, though.
Three of the most outspoken members of the anti-progress clique sprung a little surprise on the forum. Prior to the meeting, they had gone out and acquired 300 proxy votes from residents. These proxy votes were of dubious standing - there was no reference to them within the Community Consultative Committee guidelines that made up the group’s rules. Nobody had ever used proxies in the history of the organisation.
It was a strong-arm tactic, a hostile move designed to send a message. People who attended the meeting said that the atmosphere was aggressive. Several people who had intended to stand for roles on the committee decided to withdraw as they felt intimidated. Within this aggressive atmosphere, the mild-mannered volunteers agreed to accept the proxy votes despite their highly questionable legitimacy.
The three were voted in and became the new President, Vice President and Secretary. The Vice President was the chief architect of the Save Jerry Bailey Oval group who showed his class by spitting in a local mum's face. The secretary was the one who had gone to the papers and suggested that the pump track would torment toxic male behaviour. The president was a resident whose property was adjacent to a block of land owned by the local Jerrinja aboriginal community and ear-marked for an aged care centre.
My Way or the Highway
The new committee went to ground soon after their success at the forum AGM, undoubtedly very pleased with themselves. Through December and then all of January, they were silent.
Then on the 2nd February, a full two months after the AGM, the new secretary finally shared a post on social media outlining their plans. There wouldn't be an official forum meeting until 3rd March, but the new president would be outlining his vision for his presidency at an unofficial meeting on 3rd February. The post included the text of the new president's speech.
The new speech started in the usual way, but the tone changed fairly quickly once the small talk was out of the way. "My vision is crystal clear," he said. "I could see things happening in our village that maybe other residents did not know about until it was too late."
He then thanked the old committee for their hard work over the years but complained that decisions were being made only by the 20 or so people who showed up for the meetings. He said, "I personally believe that this is unacceptable and at best unrepresentative."
Forum members have always gone to extraordinary lengths to encourage people to attend meetings, but very few people ever did. The new president's spin that this was some closed-shop is wrong - the simple fact is anyone could attend any meeting any time they wanted.
The substance of the speech and the section that explained the group's motivations was classic. "The new Forum will not support any project or development that either impacts the resident's enjoyment of the village, undermines property values, or undermines the look and feel of Heads." Ignoring momentarily that a blanket statement such as "The new Forum will not support", there's a lot to interpret in that mission statement.
The speech went on to say that the "new Forum has applied to Incorporate under the Association's Interpretations, Act 2009" - this despite no motion proposed, seconded and voted on by the forum. The president also suggested supplying all residents with a copy of the Guidelines for the Conduct of Community Consultative Bodies, which seems a risky move since then everyone would discover that there's absolutely no mention of proxy votes anywhere in those guidelines. If residents did bother to read the full guidelines, as this author has, they would discover that the new committee had contravened or ignored several key rules, not least being the rule that people should be "made welcome at the meeting".
The Meeting That Was Not a Meeting
If the trio had expected an easy ride from here on in, then they were mistaken. On Wednesday 3rd February the Forum Meeting that Wasn't Officially a Forum Meeting took place, with at least five times as many residents in attendance.
Once the councillors, council employees and sub-committee attendees had updated everyone on the various events and developments happening locally, the new president picked up the microphone.
Thus began a near 90-minute assault. During those 90 minutes, various residents stood up and questioned the content of his speech, the methods by which the executive had got themselves voted, the dictatorial subtext of what was in the speech, and the fact that Forum guidelines had been flouted in several ways. Controversially, it also transpired that the new secretary had written to the council, entirely on his own volition with no forum motion or vote, saying that the forum was against a proposed new dog off-leash area.
By the end of the meeting the new president suggested that he would call a vote of no confidence at the next meeting and stand down. I think it's fair to say he did not envisage things working out the way they did when they cooked up their plan.
The Greater Good
In many ways, the little coup on the coast is illustrative of the times we live in. The residents of Shoalhaven Heads against the changes taking place in the village felt marginalised and unrepresented. That was what led them to try and seize control of the organisation they blamed for their woes. There was a crucial flaw in their reasoning, however. They thought they were standing up for so-called Quiet Australians when the overwhelming majority of residents were in favour of all the changes.
None of this means that their views hold any less weight than any other resident of Shoalhaven Heads. They are just as entitled to think for themselves and to voice opinions as those who are in favour.
We live in a democracy, and organisations such as the Shoalhaven Heads Community Forum operate under democratic guidelines. That means motions that have the most support get carried and those that do not fail. Being on the losing side of the argument does not entitle you to force your plans through anyway.
The Trump era and the rise of neoliberalism have shown how fragile democracy is. Threats to democracy must be fought at every level of society. The bullies cannot win.
Feature image: Shoalhaven Heads Waterfront. Copyright Andy Hutchinson
Andy Hutchinson is a regular political contributor. Andy is a socialist, atheist, ADHD, autistic Libran. He is also a local resident, photographer, filmmaker and journalist.