The Eltham Shire Council

Local-government elections in August of that year were as uneventful as ever; immediately afterwards, however, one of the key members of the conservative majority died suddenly, and the Natural Development Association urged me to stand at the bi-election triggered by his death. He would have faced re-election within twelve months, and I had thought so little about the significance of our local government that I had naively believed it was possible no one else would bother to stand for the remainder of the man's three-year term. I dubiously agreed to the Association's proposal two days prior to the close of nominations, only to discover that this bi-election was to become a very lively affair. The ubiquitous RSL fielded a local plumber as their candidate. A successful business executive was chosen for the conservatives, and an ex-Shire president stood for the 'Think Again' alternative Conservatives. These candidates were all a long way from the local environmentalists who were making their first attempt to speak for the countryside they lived in.

The campaign proved to be very positive. The business executive visited every voter at least twice and appeared to be the man to beat. I knew absolutely nothing about local government in Victoria, except that it existed through an act of the State parliament and that it was weak on power and strong on superficial appearances. In 1972, local government had very little to do with social welfare or with humanity itself. Among a variety of self-interested groups there had emerged a smattering of well-intentioned citizens and do-gooders, but in general their aims and objectives were so restricted that much of their zeal was dissipated in garbage disposal and potholed roads. Local government was a property-oriented activity which psychologically divided the 'haves' from the 'have-nots' and the washed from the unwashed. Each Shire was subdivided into Ridings, and elections were held annually. Every Riding had three councillors, each of whom was elected for a three-year term, and one of whom retired annually.

The Vietnam War was approaching its final throes, and all of the old certainties were growing a little shaky, but the Conservatives appeared as confident as ever against our new-wave fraternity of artists, academics, and nut- and yoghurt-eating hippies. There had never been an adult franchise in Victoria for local government, but there had been a significant retreat from the privileged position whereby a larger amount of property allowed a voter three votes while a smaller amount provided only one. One was now also eligible to vote even if he were only a tenant and not a landholder at all.

As a candidate, I was supported by the most enthusiastic and unusual committee, which had come together as people watched the environment disintegrating in all about them. It was evident that they, too, were fed up with the hollow democratic phrases that had been bandied around in local-government affairs ever since the colony began more than a century ago. The Conservative candidate visited every household in the Riding two or three times - he believed this to be an essential ingredient in persuading the local fraternity - so we did what we could to make an effective reply. Election day served as a good opportunity for me to observe how the old-school-tie fraternity hangs onto office: its supporters stormed the polling booth the moment it opened, and it took an hour for the other three candidates to gain some composure against the onslaught. During the morning, it was possible to feel a little more hopeful. There was only one polling place, so the Conservative representative and I stood toe to toe all day advocating our wares. He urged stability and mature representation, to which all other amenities could be added. I kept repeating that if the voters wanted 'To Keep Eltham Evergreen', they had to vote for me. The Natural Development Association's catch-cry did its work in no uncertain manner, but it was possibly also the fact that I was such a strongly identifiable local person of long standing that finally produced a comprehensive Environmental party victory.

I immediately found it was one thing to win an election and quite another to be an effective councillor. At the first two or three meetings we held, I had little to add to the debates as I looked for some environmental issue to justify my position. It was not until I accompanied the assistant Shire engineer to a large vacant site for which a plan of subdivision had been submitted that I realised I had a special role to play among my fellow councillors. I had mentioned to the engineer how useless I felt my Council input was, to which he replied: 'You don't have to say anything. You have no idea how your mere presence has altered the Council'. I hope that was true, because the resigning Shire president, who was a senior member of the Victorian police force, introduced a series of social activities to provide councillors and their ladies with an agreeable opportunity to know each other better. Some of these were called 'Conversations', the highlight of which involved the president's wife's cake-baking skills and the catering, which was done by his son. As raw recruits to Council ranks, Margot and I attended a couple of these events; but I avoided them whenever possible by visiting the House of Representatives in Canberra with my painter friend and fellow environmentalist, Clifton Pugh. It was through Clif that I became acquainted with Tom Uren and Jim Cairns, who were both left-wing shadow-ministry members of the Labour party. I would interpolate these visits into planning conferences and other activities that occurred from time to time in the A.C.T.

Alistair Hepburn and Simpton were the chief planner and deputy, respectively. I saw a lot of these gentlemen during the next three or four years. I was the right man in the right place as far as our local council was concerned, particularly as I had participated in the initial town-planning courses at Melbourne University under Neil Abercrombie more than twenty years earlier, before there were any town-planning proposals in existence. Gone was the roads-and-bridges syndrome as the end-all of local-government activities. My first major activity was to turn an unsightly tip site in the middle of our beautiful valley into an excellent park, complete with lakes, clump-planted native trees, and a botanic section modelled on a modest Capability Brown principle. At one stroke, it recreated the same beauty that had once made it the loveliest natural spot in the entire metropolis. I gained like-minded men to stand for Council; within two years we had a five-to-four majority in the Chamber, and environment and social welfare became the major issues of the day. In my four years as a councillor, we did not create a single new road in my Riding, except for those required by law in the case of new subdivisions. The old street trees were treated like venerable pioneers. Each one was preserved, and the old clay tracks that went around them remained as they had always been. Professor Seddon said it correctly when he remarked there should only be three types of local roads: bad, worse, and worst! The long-awaited change of Government initiated an entirely new attitude to our hopes and ambitions, particularly wherever natural landscape occurred.

Alistair became Shire President in 1975, his his final year on Council.


The Eltham Shire Council Alistair Knox: Eltham Shire Council

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