Protests as Council moves online

Outrage: Log trucks lined Kay street to protest council inaction on the closure of the native timber industry. Photographs supplied



HUNDREDS of people gathered outside the Gippsland Performing Arts Centre (GPAC) to protest publicly against recent Latrobe City Council decisions and in opposition to the ban on native timber harvesting.

Last month, the council shut down a notice of motion making calls for the state government to rescind its ban on native forest logging.

The Latrobe City Council usually hold its monthly public meetings at GPAC but opted to move online, citing disruptive public behaviour as the reason.

At around 4pm, a mass of people began converging out on the foyer of the GPAC building with signs that read: “Save our timber industries, save our communities”.

Huge log trucks lined the street and a sea of fluorescent high-visibility shirts congregated in arms about the state of the Latrobe Valley and its council.

As a result of recent council actions, there has been widespread community uproar over the council’s decision not to take a stronger stance against the state government’s closure of the timber industry, with many members of the public turning to Facebook to express their dismay, labelling councillors “traitors” to the timber industry and “lacking transparency”.

Carleen Haylock, the convener of a local advocacy group called the Gippsland Peoples Council, said they organised the rally with the Traralgon Community Development Association and Timber workers to protest against council’s decisions.

“(The native timber industry shutdown) is impacting all of Gippsland and we’ve lost jobs,” said Ms Haylock.

“It’s not just the timber employees out of work, they’re taking families out, football-netball clubs and small businesses, this filters all the way down and hits even the biggest cities like Traralgon, Morwell and Moe, and has an impact on each Gippslander.

“We are just exercising our democratic rights to say ‘No we don’t want to see the beautiful fabric that we call Gippsland ripped apart’.”

The Gippsland People’s Council, a local advocacy and community group, has been frequently attending council meetings in recent months. The group has been attending in larger numbers, and the excess amount of people in attendance forced the council to move meetings to a larger room at GPAC.

“We’ve just been concerned ratepayers that wanted to learn a little bit more of how local government operates, and that’s why we’ve been attending meetings over the last six months,” said Ms Haylock.

Huge public outrage has come from the council deciding to move their meetings online, citing safety and efficiency as the reason.

“We have not been disruptive in any shape or form, and the videos of the meetings show that contrary to what has been said about the meetings being disrupted, they certainly haven’t been on our behalf,” explained Ms Haylock.

“We were disappointed, and it’s a bit shameful that they’ve closed it down and locked us out of the meetings.

“We’re certainly not there to create any havoc, we are just there to exercise our democratic rights.

“We will continue to make our voices heard, (we organised the rally) within four days. We’ll gather the information we got from this and see where we go from there.”

Members of the council were invited to join; Cr Sharon Gibson and Dale Harriman were in attendance, alongside politicians – the Member for Morwell, Martin Cameron, and the federal Member for Monash, Russell Broadbent.

Cr Gibson said, “(I) went, and all councillors were invited to show their support for the timber industry.”

“It was one of the most peaceful protests I’ve ever seen. They even gave their thanks and applause to the police,” she added.

Retired Australian actor and former Neighbours star, Damien Richardson, was also in attendance and active at the protest.

Latrobe City Council closed the GPAC, Library Service Centre, Library and Maternal Child and Health and Services early at 3pm as a result of the community protest.

Posting on Facebook, the council said: “The decision to close the facility early has been made to ensure the safety and security of both our staff and community during the protest.”

Stratford Musician and former The Voice Australia contestant, Mick Harrington, took to a Facebook video to talk about “a real worrying trend of anti-transparency coming through at Latrobe City Council”.

“It’s one thing to have an opinion, it’s one thing to abandon your community, it’s one thing to not support an industry that supported your towns for so long, but it’s another thing completely to not allow people to voice their democratic views. Now, Latrobe City Council have closed council meetings, and people can’t go and voice their concerns,” he said.

“As a ratepayer, you should have the right to attend the meeting and voice your displeasure at council.”

Mayor of Latrobe City, Kellie O’Callaghan, in the heated council meeting last Monday night, took the time to express her opinion on the passionate debate inside the council and in the community.

“I think I’ve been fairly patient with conduct in this meeting and the conduct outside this meeting recently, and I intend to continue to be so,” she said.

“We are already holding these meetings online for a range of reasons and I think the least we can do is extend a level of courtesy and kindness to each other in the room. I’m very happy for people to disagree; I’m very happy for there to be very varying different views. What I don’t want is for anyone to feel pressured.”

At last Monday’s council meeting, there we are a number of motions put through regarding the timber industry. The first motion passed sought support from One Gippsland to collectively advocate for the timber industry.

The other motion put through calls on making a representation to the Victorian and Federal Governments concerning direct and indirect timber job losses.

The council said it acknowledges and respects the right of individuals and groups to voice their concerns and participate in peaceful protests.

Council have also said that the decision to reopen the public gallery will be reviewed in the upcoming months.

Peaceful: Rally-goers marked the event as an exercise of democratic rights.
Strength in numbers: Around 250 people came to the protest.
Voices: People came with signs in hand, expressing their opinions on a number of local issues.
Democracy: Many protestors were concerned with the latest Latrobe City Council decision to close public meetings.