Monash – A City in Conflict

Protest outside Council 29 Sept 2013
Protest outside Council 29 Sept 2013

A Brief History

Since July 2013 the residents and council of the City of Monash have been engaged in a bitter, destructive and wholly avoidable conflict over the Council’s plan to sell the Monash and Elizabeth Gardens residential aged care facilities.

At every Council meeting from July 2013 to January 2014 at least 200 protesters (peaking at around 700 in September 2013) were present to object to the sale.  Over that period petitions containing about 10,000 signatures were submitted.

Despite the protests Council decided in January to sell Monash and Elizabeth Gardens and the communal land upon which Monash Gardens stands.

The sale to Royal Freemasons is generally acknowledged to be a good result for aged care – it may even be the case that Council has found a provider capable of doing better by the City’s elderly than in the twenty year, oft-quoted, Council’s “long and proud history of delivering quality aged care”.  It does, however, come at the cost of the permanent loss to the community of the land used by many in the neighbourhood of Monash Gardens and, it seems very likely, a significant loss of working conditions for the staff.

So if the result is so good (assuming Royal Freemasons deliver on their very promising start), why was there such conflict and why is there still such deep distrust of and anger towards the Council?

The Role of Councils

The Local Government Act 1989[1] describes the roles and responsibilities of a Council.  Some of those are:

  • §3C(1)The primary objective of a Council is to endeavour to achieve the best outcomes for the local community having regard to the long term and cumulative effects of decisions.
  • §3C(2)(g)to ensure transparency and accountability in Council decision making
  • §3D(1)…provide leadership for the good governance[2] of the municipal district and the local community
  • §3D(2)(f)fostering community cohesion and encouraging active participation in civic life.

The Word is TRUST

At the time the sale was first publicly mooted there was considerable media attention being focussed on the abuses in a number of privately run nursing homes.  Council’s proposal to call for expressions of interest precluded any option other than a sale; people were terrified about the welfare of their elderly relatives.

In the minds of residents and caring relatives, the total lack of warning for this fait accompli was a betrayal of the trust they had placed in Council for care in the later years.

To compound the fear, Council set tender quality evaluation criteria which caused extreme uncertainty – particularly the lack of any requirement that residents could be assured they would stay where they were; Council didn’t raise the question of covenants before considerable community uproar.

The secrecy surrounding the process – Council called it “targeted consultation” and justified it on dubious grounds of commercial confidentiality – and the fallacious claims of protections for residents which were clearly, and ultimately acknowledged by Councillors, impossible to measure or implement only served to increase distrust.

When residents and relatives sought information, Council’s answers were evasive, dismissive and contradictory:

  • Council said there was a need to spend tens of millions of dollars over 20 years to upgrade the facilities but would not explain those costs (Mayor Drieberg mentioned swimming pools, gymnasiums, cafes and medical centres; Mayor Lake subsequently dismissed those items – nobody has been told the true reasons);
  • Councillor Little wrote “I will lose no sleep knowing my answers don’t satisfy you”;
  • Mayor Micaela Drieberg and CEO Andi Diamond insisted the decision was about delivering the highest quality of care and not about the money; Councillors Dimopoulos and Klisaris, in face to face meetings, both insisted the decision was “absolutely about the money”.

And yet, Councillors still dismissed the importance of the matter.  Councillor Little consistently refused to discuss or meet with support groups; Cr Dimopoulos described the issue as “by far not the most important” in his time on Council.

It is fair to say that by this time the rift between the community and Council was enormous.  A good decision might still open a pathway to better governance and reconciliation within the City.

The Other Word is RESPECT

In January 2014, Council voted, in confidential session, to sell to Royal Freemasons then returned to the public meeting to announce the decision.

Mayor Lake read a statement describing it as a win-win.

Deputy Mayor Dimopoulos, having been excused due to a personal conflict of interest arising out of his recent endorsement as the ALP candidate for the state seat of Oakleigh, was not in the chamber to hear the decision announced.  (Privatisation of aged care is contrary to Victorian ALP policy and Cr Dimopoulos’s prospective new boss in Parliament – Daniel Andrews MP, Leader of the Opposition and Member for Mulgrave – met and supported protestors and spoke himself or sent messages of support to the protest rallies.)

Councillors Klisaris and Paterson acknowledged the difficulties they had felt making the decision and the efforts and advocacy of the support groups.  Cr Lo acknowledged the passion of the support groups and promised the community that the outcome would be good for everyone.  Cr Davies explained his reasons for continuing to oppose the sale but that he believed, nevertheless, Royal Freemasons would be a good provider.

And then Councillor Little stunned the gallery by saying, “…and to the support groups, there was nothing to save!”.  What an astonishingly contemptible and contemptuous statement!  Monash and Elizabeth Gardens residential aged care facilities have enjoyed an outstanding reputation for the quality of care, the amenity of the homes and the standards of and for the staff.  This long and proud history absolutely was worth saving and, due in no small measure to the pressure and public scrutiny brought to bear on Council and the process throughout the sale, it seems that it has been saved.

Healing the Conflict

This dispute has been deeply hurtful to many in the City of Monash.  Trust, confidence in and respect for Council has been lost for many residents.  It will be extraordinarily difficult to restore that but restoration is essential for the well-being of the City.

The first steps on this path will require improvement in transparency and openness from Council.  It is NOT appropriate to hide information from the people most affected by that information.  It is not appropriate to stonewall and use technicalities to avoid answering ratepayers’ questions.

The attitude of some Councillors, that they alone know what’s best and what’s important for the City, must change – or the Councillors must be changed.  Councillors are representatives, not rulers!

Councillors must remember that they, first and foremost, represent the people of the City of Monash.  Their personal party memberships must be left outside all council matters and issues must be decided on their merits, not on the basis of to which group, inside or outside Council, a councillor belongs.  The bloc-based voting at the City of Monash is painfully obvious despite Mayor Lake’s protestations that Council should be independent of party politics.

The Role of Residents and Ratepayers

Residents and ratepayers have a wealth of knowledge and experience to contribute.  Standing for Council is one way to do this but that only allows for eleven contributors; those eleven must ensure that there are openings and opportunities to encourage the remaining 74,000 to participate when they have appropriate expertise to offer.

In the end, if we, as residents, want better governance, it is up to us to do something about it.  We can attend Council meetings to know what’s going on; question council about decisions and processes; contact our Councillors about concerns; find out about candidates and their preference recommendations; understand the voting system used to elect councillors; question candidates about their motives and allegiances and, ultimately, stand up and be counted by nominating for council ourselves.  It is only by breaking the voting blocs down to the point of irrelevance that the community’s voice can really be heard and this will not happen while residents and ratepayers are willing to allow the major political parties to use our Council as their Parliamentarian’s kindergarten.

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