What we’ve seen

The past week has delivered a devastating blow to our Hills community.
For many people, this fire is one of the worst in living memory.
As we have driven around our community over the past four days we have seen home after home burned to the ground.
We’ve been there as residents have picked through ruins that were once homes full of their memories.
We’ve seen paddocks still burning days after the firefront swept past and farming machinery and hundreds of sheds reduced to piles of twisted steel.
We’ve driven by kilometre after kilometre of charred ground and heard stories of devastating loss and remarkable courage.
We’ve seen livestock killed and injured and others left without feed.
We’ve seen people left homeless just days before Christmas.
But over the past few days we’ve also seen the incredible impact of our courageous local volunteers who left their own properties at risk and rushed towards the inferno when most people in the fire’s path were getting out.
We’ve seen those volunteers and other emergency crews battle to hold back the fires just metres from townships, saving hundreds of homes.
We’ve seen them fight through the night to the point of exhaustion.
We’ve seen them put their lives on the line for the sake of others.
We’ve heard stories of locals checking on their vulnerable neighbors and saving property that wasn’t theirs and we’ve seen people offer strangers everything from fodder and food to a place to stay or keep livestock.
We’ve seen businesses that are preparing to take a hit give away hundreds of dollars of food.
We’ve seen hundreds of donations for fire victims and we’ve seen those victims rally the strength to share a laugh or a smile, even while their world is shattered around them.
The last few days have been nothing short of devastating.
But in the midst of that we’ve seen a community that will not be broken.
We’ve seen a community that has come together when it counts the most.
We’ve seen – yet again – a community of which we are proud to be a part.

Moving online

Calls to have the Mt Barker Council implement live streaming fell on deaf ears at a meeting earlier this month with the proposal not even progressing to an investigation stage.
One side of the argument is that the world is rapidly moving into the digital space and the council should follow suit, allowing anyone to watch meetings and follow debates as they unfold.
Some believe this would create greater accountability, encourage better behavior from elected members and allow meetings to reach greater audiences.
This all sounds very encouraging, but only two submissions for the change were received indicating a less than overwhelming community demand for the service.
Elected members at the December meeting said the council broadcast issues and intentions through its website and The Courier giving the public multiple opportunities to become engaged with the planning process.
Live streaming won’t allow for greater public participation.
That can only happen by attending meetings in person and speaking directly to councillors and staff during public submission periods.

Fire safety

The launch of the new Alert SA app at the beginning of what has already proven to be a dangerous bushfire season is a positive move for fire safety in SA.
Two years after the previous Government was forced to pull an earlier version that failed when it was most needed, South Australians can rest assured that they will have up-to-date fire information at their fingertips.
The app is based on a system in NSW which has already proven effective and the Government insists that issues encountered with the previous app have been resolved.
But while the timely launch is good news for the State – particularly for those living in high risk bushfire areas such as the Hills – the app is only one tool in the toolbox.
It’s essential that South Australians don’t become complacent.
Preparation is imperative and the first and most crucial step towards bushfire survival is having a bushfire plan in place.

Heavy handed

The State Government last week softened penalties for truck and bus drivers caught speeding on the freeway’s downtrack.
Previously, first offenders faced an automatic six-month loss of licence, a $1036 fine and a loss of six demerit points.
Punishments were harsher for subsequent offences.
But on Friday that loss of licence was removed and a raft of other penalties reduced. After being introduced in May the penalties were consistently labelled by industry groups as too harsh – particularly for first offenders – and Friday’s changes indicate common sense has prevailed.
But if the Government concedes the rules are too harsh now, they were surely too harsh when they were introduced.
Why the softened penalties can’t be backdated to take into account drivers hit with the original punishments is unclear and could be deemed unfair.
Perhaps the harsher penalties were introduced with good intent, but over-zealous lawmaking has resulted in drivers losing their licences and likely their livelihood for relatively minor offences.

Council conduct

Mt Barker Councillor Samantha Jones’ frustrations with a fellow elected member boiled over onto social media last week.
Responding to Facebook comments, the Deputy Mayor implied at least one other councillor lacked intelligence, thoughtfulness, consideration and respect towards other councillors.
The comment was made as a result of ongoing issues with a particular elected member and a resident, Cr Jones said.
She said that councillor recently leaked a confidential email to the resident to irritate her and she has since lodged a Code of Conduct complaint against them for their actions.
Irrespective of whether the complaint is valid, Cr Jones’ comment indicates that social media should not be used to air private grievances. Issues such as these are among the reasons ratepayers lose faith in local government.
Elected members should discuss any differences in person and perhaps social media awareness courses should be mandatory for all councillors in order to avoid them airing dirty laundry on public platforms.

Seeing the signs

The Mt Barker Council’s decision to impose a limit on the number of corflute signs future local government election candidates can display is hardly surprising.
Community consensus is that corflutes are visually unappealing, a distraction for motorists and an outdated form of communication, so there’s little surprise Councillor David Leach was supported by most of his fellow elected members in this move.
Part of the irritation about election signs comes from the special set of rules allowing politicians to use public infrastructure to market themselves – a privilege not granted to anyone else. But Cr Leach raises a valid point that limiting the number of signs a candidate can display might provide a more even playing field in future elections.
It virtually eliminates financial and personnel disparities between independent candidates – whose ‘team’ might consist of a spouse or partner, a couple of children and a small group of friends – and others with the support of a major political party.
Corflutes do work.
They are expensive and difficult to put up (and remove) but major political parties devote considerable money and physical resources to plaster the environment with them before any election.
The two Mt Barker councillors who opposed Monday night’s motion questioned how else time-poor council candidates would raise their public profile.
The answer is hard work.
Grassroots campaigning is an excellent way to increase community standing.
If candidates are too time-poor to commit to community groups, sporting clubs or other local causes, how could they expect to properly commit to the role of an elected member?
The Mt Barker Council’s decision to limit election signs is one that will be watched with interest by other jurisdictions.
The SA Local Government Authority is planning to lobby the State Government to completely ban the use of the signs at all levels of government.
But whether or not that is successful, the council’s decision was made with a good understanding of its community – gained through personal engagements with constituents. A prime example of local government representing its ratepayers.

Political influence

Suspicions that an arm of the Chinese government attempted to assist a Melbourne businessman become elected to Parliament – presumably as an undercover agent – has sent shock waves through the Canberra establishment as well as the nation.
The fact that this man was later found dead in a hotel room after allegedly approaching Australian officials about the matter only adds a further layer of intrigue.
It appears to be part of a James Bond plot.
Any covert influence exerted by a foreign power on the development of public policy in Australia must be called out for what it is and rejected outright.
But before the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth gets too out of hand, we should take this opportunity to examine those who already covertly influence the goings-on in Federal Parliament, rather than looking exclusively to our northern neighbors with an accusatory eye.
The fact is that politicians are influenced by a host of outside ‘agents’ – all with self interest at heart. Any Chinese-backed MP will do the bidding of their master in just the same way as another MP who is closely aligned with a big political donor.
Massive mining companies, for example, donate to political parties for no other reason than to buy access to those in power in order to tilt the development of policy in their favor.
If the national government is so outraged and righteous about protecting its integrity from outside meddling, it should introduce stronger legislation dealing with political donations.
They could either be banned outright or the rules changed to enable the public to see – in real time – which party is receiving donations, exactly when they were made, who gave it, how it was given (cash in an Aldi shopping bag) and how much.
Until substantial changes are made, political parties send the signal they are happy to be influenced by those who give them money … but not a foreign government.
Governments should rightly be concerned about covert international influence just as they should be alert to the pressure exerted by business leaders whose only responsibility is to their shareholders and who have questionable interest in the common good.

Smoke and mirrors

As the deadly bushfires on the east coast destroy hundreds of homes and thousands of hectares of bush and farmland, another inferno has ignited well away from the smoke and embers.
The unedifying argument about whether politicians can discuss what impact a changed climate is going to have on the propensity for the Australian environment to burn – while it is burning – is generating as much heat as the fires themselves.
Australians have faced serious bushfires for many generations but the goal posts have shifted somewhat with the climate becoming hotter and drier.
Primary school logic says that a drier environment is more likely to burn so it’s not too difficult to conclude that bushfires are likely to become more of a problem across a wider area in the future.
So, armed with this knowledge it seems perfectly reasonable to ask what mitigation strategies the Government has developed or is considering?
The deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack believes linking more dangerous bushfires with a warmer climate are the “ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies.”
He went on to describe those trying to highlight the blindingly obvious as “raving inner-city lunatics”. His panicked response shows the Government has no answer.
Mr McCormack correctly says the immediate objective must be to extinguish the fires – but that’s the job of fire experts and thousands of volunteers.
The nation’s politicians are perfectly capable of engaging in a rational debate about what is likely to become an increased threat faced by millions of regional and peri-urban Australians. To brush off the issue as some sort of politically correct lunacy highlights just how uncomfortable the Government is about the issue.
Everyone knows our Government cannot single-handedly prevent the planet from warming (even if it stopped burning all fossil fuels, exporting coal and moved to a 100% clean power source), but it is perfectly reasonable for the community to expect our leaders to develop a strategy to deal with what climate experts have been warning them about for decades.
A changed climate is going to have an impact on a host of fronts – not just fires – and for the Government to ignore the inevitable is a dereliction of duty.

Tree removal

The public reaction to the removal of four centuries-old gum trees at the site of the future sports hub seems to highlight a disconnect between Mt Barker’s residents and its council.
The trees were felled last week to make way for sporting infrastructure while three other trees on the site were spared.
The axed trees were relocated and will die but remain as wildlife habitat.
Their removal was approved in September last year following months of consultation about the sports hub with the community and a range of sport and community organisations.
But despite the fact nearly 35,000 people live in the council area and the sports hub is set to be the largest single infrastructure spend in the council’s history, just one submission outlining any concerns with the development was made.
Yet despite the consultation efforts – and the community effectively giving the tick of approval to all aspects of the project, including the tree removal, by not voicing their concerns – the council has been hounded for the move.
This incident has brought two things to light – perhaps the community should become more engaged in its council’s operations and the council may need to review the way it communicates with its community.
None of the decisions made by the council were done in secret, yet the public reaction makes it seem as if they were.
For whatever reason, the council’s messages were lost.
Mayor Ann Ferguson has said the council had a community crying out for this infrastructure, but which also adored trees and their environmental and aesthetic benefits.
To create large–scale infrastructure – such as a regional sports hub – there must be sacrifices and these trees were sacrificed for ‘the greater good’.
There are no immediate winners when ugly decisions are made, but in the long term the community will benefit immensely from the construction of the sports hub.
Perhaps this issue will galvanise the community and make it more vigilant in advocating to save trees marked for destruction on land set to be built on purely for developer profit, not community benefit.

Traffic solution

For almost three decades the good people of Nairne have been told the traffic woes experienced at the intersection of the Old Princes Highway and Woodside Road were so complex a solution was unavailable.
The unusual combination of a ‘highway’ intersecting with a major arterial road at a t-intersection – coupled with a high-volume dead-end road almost directly opposite and a major freight railway line – made for a challenging scenario which has proven too difficult for professional traffic planning experts to solve since the early 1990s.
Or so the community was repeatedly told.
Several years ago pedestrian activated traffic lights were installed across the Old Princes Highway in an effort to ease the overwhelming congestion experienced every day at school drop-off and pick-up times created by the booming numbers at the nearby primary school.
But still the community struggled with cars being backed up over the railway line on Woodside Road with drivers forced to spend inordinate amounts of time trying to exit or enter the town.
Even having the State’s Premier (John Olsen) as the local MP in the 1990s could not deliver enough clout to fix this supposedly hugely complicated and unfathomable traffic problem.
But now the experts have miraculously discovered a solution – a roundabout!
The new State Liberal Government has announced its plans to acquire some land and build one of these revolutionary structures for the betterment of the community.
Of course the community should be pleased that some action is being taken but it does leave a rather bitter taste in the mouths of locals who have spent hundreds of frustrating hours attempting to navigate the intersection when the supposed solution was so simple.
What appears to have been missing was political will.
The former State Labor Government should feel a level of shame that it chose to ignore the cries of help from the people simply because there was no political value in acting and credit must go to the current Liberal Government for finally moving.
It is just a shame that previous governments of both political stripes used the problems as a barrier to hide behind rather than as motivation to push themselves to find a solution.

Wasteful spend

It is time to take stock and consider a rethink when governments willingly waste taxpayers’ money for no other reason than to make a political point.
Many governments – both State and Federal – fall into this trap, and when it does happen it is usually a sign of arrogance and highlights a disconnect between itself and the wider community.
The previous State Labor Government was a master of dipping into the taxpayer tin to promote itself and its agenda.
The shameless way it did so was an exercise in arrogance.
And last week during Senate estimates hearings in Canberra, the Federal Government was shown to have brazenly wasted millions of dollars in its struggle to deport a single family back to Sri Lanka.
The family was flown by chartered jet to the re-opened Christmas Island detention facility in September where they were, and remain, the only inhabitants.
It has cost $30m to re-open the centre which was brought out of mothballs in March when the Government said offering health services in Australia for some people being kept in detention on Manus Island would re-start floods of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat.
This has not happened and the only people being serviced by the 100 staff at Christmas Island are the Tamil couple and their two daughters, aged four and two.
These people had previously been living in regional Queensland for several years and, as the Senate hearings were told, are just four out of 62,000 unlawful non-citizens living in Australia.
So, why go to all the expense of detaining these four unremarkable people on distant Christmas Island when the legal dispute surrounding their status could have been undertaken while they supported themselves in Australia?
The short answer seems to be the Government wanted to make a point of being tough.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was keen to make an example and clearly thinks it is appropriate to spend a staggering amount of taxpayers’ money to do so.
Irrespective of where people stand on the issue of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, there is a waste of money going on around this case that is deeply unpalatable to all sides of the argument.
The Government would do well to ensure a repeat of this outrageous waste of money does not occur.
Ministers must remember they are spending the hard earned tax paid by ordinary workers and they should not be sucked into the ‘Canberra bubble’.
Most people understand $30m can buy a lot of nurses and teachers.

Sanctuary returns

The news that Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary has won the People’s Choice award at the SA Regional Showcase is good news for the park and the community.
Warrawong was a game-changing tourist park when established by Dr John Wamsley and Proo Geddes who encircled the entire facility with a vermin-proof fence several decades ago and, in the ensuing years, showcased the breeding of platypus.
The park became hugely popular and many thousands of tourists flocked to Mylor to see the elusive creatures and other little-known Australian wildlife. Apart from injecting money into the local economy and helping promote SA in general – and the Hills specifically – as a tourist destination, an often unseen achievement of the park was to educate and inspire.
Most people completed their visit with a greater understanding of both Australian wildlife and the need for conservation.
It is well documented the park closed due to outside financial difficulties and sadly slipped into closure.
However, new enthusiastic owners have restored the facility to where it once was – a ‘must see’ attraction in the Hills.
Locals should support the venture and it should be on a ‘to-do’ list for anyone hosting an interstate or international visitor.

Mine blunder

The recent disclosure of unsavory tactics employed by lawyers representing mining company Terramin Australia has left a sour taste in the mouth of many in the Woodside community as well as the wider Hills region.
It was unveiled in State Parliament that lawyers had deliberately emailed legal documents to family members and other people associated with the neighboring Bird in Hand winery just to be annoying.
Terramin plans to reopen the former Bird in Hand gold mine that adjoins the winery of the same name and wants to be portrayed as a good corporate and community citizen.
But this desire was clearly not properly relayed to the company’s lawyers.
If Terramin is serious about taking “severe action” in the wake of this issue, the community and the recipients of those emails deserve to be kept informed of that action.
While the lawyers might have acted without Terramin’s knowledge, they were still associated with the company and their actions are seen as those of their employers.
The State Government will soon have to make a decision on whether to approve the mine but in the community’s eyes Terramin is not to be trusted.