South Gippsland, Australia local council candidate Sue Plowright speaks with Wikinews about environment, education, and other local issues

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Saturday, September 4, 2021

South Gippsland Shire Council wards.
Image: Victorian Electoral Commission.

Since June 2019, the people of South Gippsland Shire, located at the southernmost tip of Australia, have been without a local council, after a state government inquiry found "high levels of tension" within the council. Administrators were appointed by the Victorian state government in July 2019, who have governed the shire since then. However, South Gippsland's council is scheduled to be restored with an election to be held via post from October 5-22, 2021.

Wikinews interviewed one of the candidates standing in this election, Sue Plowright. She is an independent contesting the Coastal-Promontory ward, which covers towns such as Venus Bay, Waratah Bay, Yanakie, Foster, Port Welshpool, and Toora. The Coastal-Promontory Ward elects three councillors to the South Gippsland Shire Council.


((WN)) What do you hope to achieve as a councillor?

((Sue Plowright)) I have four initial priorities to achieve in the three years the new Council will serve. The first is to contribute my ethical governance skills and knowledge to build a trusted and dynamic Council that is widely recognised for applying due process and being diligently accountable. South Gippslanders deserve a Council that acts with dignity and respect for the people and democratic processes. Achieving widespread recognition for very good governance practices, will, among other gains, enable Council to better attract funding, public, private and philanthropic, to resource opportunities such as community power projects, widespread shifts to regenerative farming, ensuring tourism is sustainable and sustainably supported and adequate community services care for the people of the Shire.

Secondly, turning climate change into exciting opportunities rather than a divisive issue is a key goal I want to achieve. At a minimum, all councils have a legal obligation to tackle climate change as per the Local Government Act 2020, but the situation is urgent and so minimal responses are not enough but organisations like Landcare are a great role model - they’ve been working bit by bit for example to fence off and revegetate rivers flowing into Corner Inlet for 20 years or more through providing information, incentives and value adding for farmers and landowners.

A beach in Sandy Point.
Image: User:Tamlynavery.

The leadership of a switched on and dedicated Council can play a similar role, by connecting and enhancing all the small projects and initiatives that locals are already doing like the shared power project at Sandy Point. As a first action therefore, I will support a declaration of a climate emergency, accompanied by development of a community-led action plan that is then resourced in subsequent budgets, strategic plans and works to support and increase individuals and community initiatives.

My third priority is support for a full time youth officer/coordinator position in Council in order to facilitate a strong network of young people, services and volunteers to create spaces and events for young people, because I see shires like nearby Wellington Shire providing so many more opportunities. And fourthly, I’m working with a group we’re calling Mayday Projects to better utilise existing properties in the area to help alleviate the affordable housing emergency that we, along with many regional areas, are facing. I provide more detail about these two projects in question 6.

In summary, there are of course so many aspects to life in South Gippsland councillors will need to consider and address, thus a councillor’s approach to decision making is important. My own golden rules are to seek out diverse perspectives though listening and talking to a wide range of community members and experts; thoroughly prepare for meetings through diligently reading briefings, research reports and doing my own research; being prepared to consider new possibilities; and work to enhance existing initiatives and good will by making connections.

((WN)) Do you think the two-year period that South Gippsland Shire has been governed by administrators since its 2019 sacking has been too long, and why/why not?

((Sue Plowright)) From my position as a new observer of the Council when I moved to live full time in Toora in 2016, it became clear by 2019 that a circuit breaker was required. In the end, with so many resignations and countbacks the Council make up no longer reflected the choices of the people at the 2016 election, while acrimony and dysfunction appeared to overshadow any initiatives that were achieved. I think democratic elections are always a priority over any other model or arrangement of governance and so I do think elections in 2020 along with the majority of Councils in Victoria would have been desirable. However, the two years has given South Gippslanders time to rethink and reinvigorate how we do democracy and I lend my support to this important cause through standing myself and encouraging diverse others to do so also.

((WN)) Wilsons Promontory National Park, which takes up the majority of Coastal-Promontory ward's land area, attracts a significant amount of tourists on a yearly basis. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the current lockdown, there has been a large impact on local businesses. What do you think needs to be done to help business recover?

Tidal River in Wilsons Promontory National Park.
Image: Dietmar Rabich.

((Sue Plowright)) Businesses facing the COVID pandemic are like a batsman/woman facing an incoming bouncer in cricket. Some have been able to put bat to ball and belt out a six and are thriving in the new circumstances, while for others the ball has bounced awkwardly. I'm a sole trader, having started my own educational consultancy practice in mid-2019. By the end of that year I was getting excited about what I could achieve with some interesting work in schools coming my way. But just when I was about to get cracking after the summer holidays in Term 1 2020, the first COVID lockdown hit, and the rest as they say, is history. I was not in a position to 'pivot' online as I did not yet have the recognition and networks required to shift from face to face professional development delivery to online.

It was demoralising but I’m not alone, many businesses relying on tourism for example have copped a difficult bouncer too. Business recovery strategies will therefore necessarily need to be diverse and targeted, because one size will not fit all. Some might benefit from working through a reinventing process where they’re supported through mentoring or education strategies such as a Deloittes COVID-19 recovery workbook that suggests business owners reflect, restart and revitalise. Some might benefit from re-establishment or revitalisation of traders associations and Chambers of Commerce where the focus is on a whole-of-town or district strategy. Others might benefit from provision of training and retraining opportunities, which might require lobbying TAFE providers and state government to provide appropriate courses. Multiple efforts and strategies will be required to recover, reinvent and revitalise adversely impacted businesses.

((WN)) What changes and reforms would you like to see in regards to environmental protection?

((Sue Plowright)) There are so many issues around environmental protection that both need to be tackled and can also offer opportunities for farmers, communities, individuals and the beautiful South Gippsland environment. Environmental protection is a delicate balance between carrot and stick approaches. As an educator, I favour the first approach but of course regulations and legislation with ‘teeth’ are also required. In relation to the carrot approach though, one of the reforms required is to address the short term nature, and very often narrow focus, of funding for environmental projects.

A farm in Ensay, Victoria.
Image: CSIRO.

Many are funded for a year or two but it takes a tree much longer to grow than that and much longer to eradicate weeds and pest animals such as rabbits. Individuals and organisations end up spending hours hunting for funding sources and writing detailed and exacting submissions with no guarantee of a result. Then reporting and aquittal requirements don’t always respond to circumstances - such as COVID lockdowns. A whole of government and systematic review of how projects are identified, supported and funded to recognise the long term nature of environmental protection projects is required, and a dynamic Council can play a role in achieving that.

((WN)) What do you think qualifies you to be a local councillor?

((Sue Plowright)) Councils are often associated with rates, roads and rubbish. Education is often said to be the three r’s of reading, (w)riting, and ‘rithmetic. So as an educator who wants to be elected to Council, I propose I have three qualifications for being a councillor: experience, expertise, and energy.

In terms of experience, I have 35+ years experience as a manager, leader, educator and administrator in a wide range of organisations, including a Shire Council as a Social Planner where I started a Youth Council and a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group. I’ve been a senior project officer in the Victorian Department of Human Services, as it was called when I was there and managed a large team in a faculty of education in a large Victorian university.

Corner Inlet in 2017.
Image: User:ChineseChequers.

In terms of expertise, I have a PhD in democracy, governance and education that adds extensive and in-depth knowledge to my experiences, that I think is very important for a new Council starting afresh after administrators. I also bring energy and commitment to community as demonstrated by my involvement and leadership in many community service activities. For example I co-founded and still run Corner Inlet Youth Council and co-founded and help run Mayday Projects, a group that works on practical projects and advocacy at levels of government to increase women’s safety.

((WN)) In your local community, are there any specific projects you'd like to highlight and advocate for?

((Sue Plowright)) I have two particular projects to highlight and advocate for, among many. The first is opportunities for young people. South Gippsland Shire Council doesn’t have a dedicated youth officer or coordinator and I have joined with others to previously submit that a full time position be created through the latest Council budget consultation process.

We were unsuccessful but young people need to be a high priority, always, but never more so given the COVID lockdowns, which is severely restricting their opportunities to develop socially and emotionally and just have the fun that young people should have. As soon as we can, we as a society and community need to make quick opportunities for our young folk to catch up on all the fun they’re missing out on. There are several mental health support and education strategies in place which is important, but so is having a good time.

A second project is finding a practical model for fixing and kitting out some of the empty properties around small towns and on farms etc. There is a housing affordability and availability emergency in many regional areas, including South Gippsland. SGSC is developing proposals to the State Government’s Big Build initiative and I fully support that. In the meantime as a founding member of Mayday Projects smaller, targeted and tailored projects to the needs of particular people and families and landlords could also make an impact through the cumulative effect of multiple small projects. This could also reduce the environmental impact that large new developments tend to create unless very carefully designed.

((WN)) During the COVID-19 lockdown, how have you reached out to local voters?

((Sue Plowright)) I began campaigning just before the latest regional Victoria lockdown. Restrictions were in place so I was busy having lots of coffee catch ups in cafes around Coastal Promontory Ward and indeed around the shire. I was also having a crash course in social media, which is just as well given this current lockdown looks like it might last for much, if not all, of the campaign.

A closed cafe in Canberra during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Image: User:Nick D.

I have a campaign website and Facebook page and am slowly building up followers, but I do struggle as usually my daughters would help me but they’re in Melbourne and very busy with home schooling, study, etc etc and I don’t want to add more work to their to do lists. I’m increasing the number of local groups I follow on Facebook, which helps me learn what’s happening and what people are talking about.

I’m running open Zoom meet and greets on Mondays at 12 noon and 8pm. In addition, I’m arranging many Zoom meet and greets with groups of friends, neighbours, interest groups, community groups, organisations, businesses etc. to hear a diverse range of ideas, wish lists and concerns. I have freely provided my phone number to anyone and everyone and a few people are taking the opportunity to call me, as well as contact me via my website and Facebook page.

((WN)) Have you ever run for a political office prior to your current candidacy for council?

((Sue Plowright)) I have run for political office twice prior to my current candidacy for Coastal Promontory Ward in the South Gippsland Shire Council elections of 2021. In 2008 I ran for Sandridge Ward of City of Port Phillip Council elections, and in 2010 I ran for the federal electorate of Melbourne Ports - it’s had a name and boundary change since then. In both of these instances I ran for the Greens, but I resigned from that party in early 2012 because while doing my PhD in democracy, I developed a strong conviction that independent thinking and community voice should drive democracy rather than party loyalties. Thus, I’m now a very dedicated independent, committed to working closely with communities, other councillors, the CEO, other Councils and levels of government in order to respond to, and represent, the people of South Gippsland.


This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.