Destination Gippsland debate

Michelle Slater

LATROBE City councillors were locked in a public spat with the chair of Destination Gippsland for not staying on-message in regards to mine rehabilitation.

Councillor Dale Harriman put forward a motion to freeze funding to the tourism body at Latrobe City’s ordinary meeting on Monday night.

He wanted to close the coffers until Destination Gippsland chair Sue Smethurst met with council to “explain her support for a mine rehabilitation outcome at odds with the held position of council”.

The motion was knocked back and instead, councillors voted for Destination Gippsland to have quarterly meetings with Latrobe City to ensure the tourist body stays in lockstep with council directions.

Cr Harriman said he put up motion after he was contacted by ratepayers and former Hazelwood mine workers who were “offended” at Ms Smethurst’s description of the mine as an “eyesore”.

He accused Destination Gippsland of having a “disconnect” between council’s views and he formally invited the chair to meet with Latrobe City to discuss rehabilitation.

“This is one of the things that got me upset, the problem being is the mine is not an eyesore, [former workers] see it as a place of work, giving them employment and the dignity of having a job,” Cr Harriman said.

“I had a number of constituents and ratepayers come to me angry over something and I’m not going to take it behind closed doors, I’m going to fight in public.”

This comes after Ms Smethust had publicly commented on a Lake Como-style proposal for Latrobe Valley mine voids on Melbourne radio station 3AW last month.

“The site itself is actually a fantastic location. Around the obvious eyesore of the mine there is beautiful farmland, rolling hills, there’s national parks nearby,” Ms Smethurst had said on-air.

“It just needs something done with it, and I say bring it on.”

However, deputy mayor Alan McFarlane said he was “disappointed” the issue was placed in the public domain, and called for a more collaborative approach.

“I just don’t think motions like this do any good for our partners’ images, I believe we want to work in an open and honest environment rather than destroy relationships,” he said.

Cr Graeme Middlemiss described the situation as a “storm in a tea cup” and Cr Brad Law described the situation as a non-event.

“We should have these discussions behind closed doors,” Cr Law said

Cr Kellie O’Callaghan and Cr Darrell White both said it was important for council to liaise with Destination Gippsland to provide clarity on council’s stances.

“I think the suggestion of withholding funds pending opportunity for further discussion is inconsistent with our approach to doing business and not necessarily one that will build a level of rapport or shared collaboration,” Cr O’Callaghan said.

Ms Smethurst fronted council to defend her comments, arguing it was her role to spruik the merits of the region as a lucrative tourist destination.

“I did not endorse or support any position for the mine rehabilitation, I was asked to speculate whether big ideas – not one specifically – are to be applauded, I did not comment on any position,” she said.

Latrobe City is one of five Gippsland councils contributing $33,000 a year to Destination Gippsland.