Who is running the Gold Coast City Council – its elected officials or the local rag? The Gold Coast Bulletin is pushing local government by SMS polling as relations with Mayor Ron Clarke remain testy to say the least, as Willie Whiteshoes explains.

The Gold Coast City Council and its Mayor Ron Clarke have been having a spot of bother lately over various council decisions, but the issue that has now really got the Gold Coast Bulletin fired up is a controversial sale and redevelopment of the site now occupied by the Surfers Paradise Transit Centre.

The council earlier voted to sell off the loss making bus depot to a developer keen to stick up an 80 storey tower in its place among other things, while additional arguments raged as to the wisdom of selling adjacent council car parking, and replacing and offering better landscaping of existing parkland also attached to the overall site. The many pros and cons of both sides of the argument (although the council finds it extremely difficult to put its side), has led to the council seeking and receiving the support of the Queensland Local Government Minister Desley Boyle to help provide her planning experts to liaise with the council’s panning department to come up with a workable solution that will hopefully make everyone happy. But that seems a forlorn task given the vehement opposition being gathered at the local political level to try and derail the whole development, mostly being fought out on the need to retain the existing facilities whether they’re good, bad or indifferent (which they are).

Hence the council finds itself fighting a rear guard action against a highly organised grass roots ratepayer campaign being led by local Surfers Paradise councilor Susie Douglas, and injected with the usual invective by the Bulletin’s call to arms for readers to get behind the No campaign. For the trenchant critics of the council and particularly its Mayor Ron Clarke following on from this year’s controversial election campaign, the transit centre sell off is the best proof yet as to why the council seems to best resemble a couple of 60’s TV icons – Get Smart and the Beverley Hillbillies. For the newspaper that likes to think it’s keeping the bastards honest – and now has a regional Walkley for its reporting of the council election and related matters, the transit centre furore has been eagerly embraced for its potential to continue to drive a wedge between the council and those who pay the rates.

Not even the council would disagree its been its own worst enemy in not being able to better communicate not only what lies behind its decision making, but that it’s actually making good decisions at all? Even this correspondent has been scathing in his past criticism of the council and its Mayor’s decision making, but as I delve deeper into council affairs there are two sides to every story and on the question of the transit centre the council has been hung drawn and quartered for a development still wide open to amendment, yet still being painted as totally black or white. Yet in some ways the transit centre sale is probably the debate it had to have to help right the ship as to where the council is heading and how it needs to better sell itself and tell its story – and not just the one being pushed by the Bulletin? If anything the controversy cuts to the very core of what the Bulletin claims to be in the best interests of ratepayers, yet starts parading dubious SMS phone polls as the means by which council should listen to the “people”.

Now without going into all the ins and outs of a development that is causing so much heated debate, there can be little doubt local Surfers councilor Susie Douglas with plenty of encouragement from outside forces, is totally opposed to seeing the transit centre touched in any shape or form – unless it’s to give it a refurbishment. However, the council majority has its own reasons for why the development including producing a better public park is a win for the city, yet finds it problematical in trying to tell its side of the story.

So amid all this recent mayhem and public protest Mayor Clarke thought it might be a good idea to at least allow the Surfers Paradise ratepayers to have a say via a referendum, and while you’re at it to also throw in the annual Indy Carnival disruption and even fluoridation for some additional polling. But then after a noisy public protest last week in which the Mayor ironically and shamefully couldn’t even put his side of the story to the people protesting about not being listened to by the council in the first place, in rode the Bulletin to the rescue to short circuit the process of public or ratepayer polling.

So much better to throw it open to instant and cost negligible “people power” by inviting Bully readers to SMS the paper on these issues so that they could tell the council exactly what the people thought. And today the Bulletin let lose its initial polling with its front page advice to “listen up Ron”, and inside offer the following advice.

“Forget the referendum, residents have voted with their fingers on the sale of the Surfers Paradise Transit Centre, and the answer is a resounding NO,” the paper said after proclaiming more than 600 respondents made their views clear over the three issues (transit centre Yes 35 – No 305). Obviously as with other similar campaigns, the Bulletin feels SMS offers a definitive grass roots sample. Yet it could be argued readers are being asked to vote on a controversial redevelopment literally already fixed in concrete by the No vote; rather than what will ultimately be proposed which could yet be radically different?

Add to that some local political opportunism with perhaps the next council election in mind, including wise cracking former State National Party Premier Rob Borbidge, referring to the council as the Beverley Hillbillies, along with ex-Liberal MP and Mayor Lex Bell, and any notion of a neutral question on the transit centre being put to the test is ridiculous. There’s also something surely a little odd in the non-fluoridated water supply when the council is being variously typecast by its critics as refugees from various 60’s TV shows. Earlier it was seen as being associated with Get Smart when it was argued by a couple of councilors’ that in order to maintain the peace at rowdy council meetings, there should be a glass sound proof barrier between the public gallery and the council. This was immediately mocked by resident council curmudgeon, Cr Dawn Critchlow as symptomatic of something out of the world of Maxwell Smart – namely the dreaded “cone of silence”.

So two weeks ago when Rob Borbidge entered the public fray, he likened the council’s decision making to the “Hillbillies” when he claimed: “the Clampetts are running this town”! No doubt the trifecta of Hogan’s Heroes can’t be far off when the council is again held accountable.

Yet surprisingly for such a red hot issue where the Bulletin has been literally manning the barricades to oppose the council, 600 responses from a population of 400,000 seems surprisingly modest when weighing into the transit centre row. So to then suggest Local Government should be responsive to this highly emotive SMS poll shaped by a lop-sided debate by essentially a one-town newspaper; is hardly my idea of democracy at work either.

It’s also premature to just blindly oppose a development when already the wheels of democracy are turning with the State Government able to offer its advice and expertise as to what is best for the city without it being prejudged as not good enough without knowing the alternative to doing nothing at all?

The Gold Coast Bully and Surfers Paradise transit centre

The Gold Coast Bulletin’s Council reporter responds to Willie White Shoes:

Dear Crikey,

In his report entitled ‘Who is running the Gold Coast’, Willie White Shoes conveniently failed to mention a two-page spread, featuring prominently in Saturday’s Gold Coast Bulletin, which outlined Gold Coast City Council’s reasons for the transit centre sale.

Economic director Greg Young’s reasoning behind his recommendation to sell the centre, along with a first person piece from Mayor Ron Clarke on his reasons for supporting the sale, were published in great detail.

Cr Clarke is also given a weekly column in which to express his views. I would like to think that Willie, who described the Bulletin’s coverage as ‘lop-sided’, did not mention the two articles because he has poor eyesight.

However the pieces were published just one page after the story which launched the Bulletin’s SMS campaign on the issue, which Willie is so critical of.

If Willie is going to preach to all and sundry about unbiased reporting, perhaps he should try it himself. Willie is notoriously inaccurate and running his own agenda, which poor old Crikey doesn’t seem to be aware of.


Fiona Hamilton
Council reporter
Gold Coast Bulletin

Willie Whiteshoes responds

It’s a fair cop Fiona. I did unaccountably miss the Clarke/Young spread for which I can only apologise and for which there was no sinister motive. The paper should be acknowledged for providing that platform, although that still doesn’t wash away the sustained negative campaign before then.

As for running my own agenda, if that means looking at many of the most critical council issues the Gold Coast Bulletin has been writing about this year which I have tended to agree with, and now putting them to the test in front of the Crikey readership for a perspective other than my own or the Bulletin’s – that’s exactly what I propose to do!