Today we present part one of a special report into the machinations behind the scenes to one of Australia’s most intriguing running battles between City Hall, an unfriendly local media and fired up council protest groups, and even National Party has-beens getting in on the act! In the land of the great “white shoe”, Gold Coast Mayor Ron Clarke is not only fed up with the bad press and constant attacks on his administration, but wants to set the record straight as to his council’s record of achievement and the nature of the beast where his council must overcome a very public perception of being in the clutches of city developer interests.

When one of Australia’s greatest sporting legends won an impressive victory to become Mayor of Australia second biggest municipality back in March 2004, Ron Clarke wasn’t prepared for the personal vilification and widespread criticism that has come his and the Gold Coast City Council’s way in the months since.

The 67 year old successful businessman who has lived on the Gold Coast for the past decade, despite it seems many of his own constituents and the city’s one major newspaper the Gold Coast Bulletin believing otherwise, has from almost the beginning of his taking control of City Hall, run into a barrage of criticism and controversy with most of it being led by the Bulletin itself.

The paper’s problems with the GCCC apart from its Editor-in-Chief Bob Gordon not being able to run the city himself, or at least that’s how Ron Clarke views it, began when it learnt of a political campaign slush fund aimed at helping various candidates get elected with the help of donations from coast development interests. To borrow from Oscar Wilde or is it Monty Python, the Bulletin seems to think its much better for the council to be talked about than not talked about, and that it’s much better for circulation to promote bad news, because as even Crikey knows, anyone who believes good news travels fast, hasn’t seen how much quicker bad news travels in the media and how eagerly most readers devour it!

But you still need more often than not someone passing the ammunition, so in a well orchestrated campaign initiative, but an ultimately disastrous PR exercise due to the Bulletin’s journalistic diligence, a whole slew of local development interests set up and financially contributed to a central funding pool (Lionel Barden Trust Fund). Its sole purpose was to efficiently raise and dispense campaign donations to candidates that by the very act of receiving such funds, were being designated as either pro-development or developer friendly. For those councilors’ who did get elected with the help of such donations, they were always on a hiding to nothing once their donations were declared post election, of being perceived as developer friendly. It didn’t and doesn’t mean their loyalties have been bought or future favors guaranteed, but the fashion in which they received such developer largesse has left a continuing dark cloud hovering over the council’s decision making.

Soon enough entrenched council critics, but notably what Ron Clarke calls “the three musketeers” were proclaiming the council was being run by a pro-development voting power bloc, which via the pages of the Bulletin became simply known as “the bloc”. Later Clarke would term the three perennial council bloc malcontents as “the chip” as in chip off the old block! But all parties connected to these various intrigues or council cliques found this internecine internal council warfare remotely funny.

So it is against this background of in-council fighting and subsequently deftly ran media and ratepayer protest campaigns that the council’s decision making and policies is being constantly held up to scrutiny. But it is the howls of outrage that the GCCC is supposedly a pro-development council that resonates loudest, if only because of the way an influential development lobby was seen to hi-jack the March election. It has also been recently further aided and abetted by a huge media campaign run by the Bulletin over the proposed sale and redevelopment of the Surfers Paradise Transit Centre which has been seized on as a prima facie example of a council wanting to do away with a community asset as a loss maker (and eyesore) to be replaced with something else – still being debated as to exactly what that will be?

Yet for the all acrimony revolving around development issues among the combatants, if there is one person who can claim to be a council clean skin its Ron Clarke, who funded his own $225,000 election campaign without accepting outside donations for the reason as he told Crikey, that he could be totally independent of any vested interests. But the fact others can’t say the same has made a huge rod for the back of his council and the way the supposedly pro-development “bloc” is perceived by critics as controlling the council, which in turn has created an increasingly poisonous atmosphere, that’s also arguably being cynically manipulated as a basis for claiming a critical lack of corporate governance and conflicts of interest.

It’s even led to calls for the council to be investigated for corruption or conflicts of interest, and the council sacked and placed in administration by the State Government.

Earlier my own views that the council was developer friendly, operated in some secrecy, voted itself a pay rise he never previously flagged but supposedly supported, was directly challenged in Crikey by a hard hitting open letter from Clarke refuting many of these claims. Crikey publisher Stephen Mayne happily promoted the idea that the best way to clear the air, which included the threat of legal action by Clarke, was for reporter and Mayor to bury the hatchet and debate all the major issues face to face. This also offered the opportunity to raise issues also flagged by the Bulletin, along with his most vocal critic in council, Cr Peter Young. Clarke happily accepted the Crikey invitation to put his side of the story and face our questions, which following several meetings/interviews and additional queries, we now present the following Q & A transcript as the “Clarke Chronicles”. He makes it abundantly clear why he believes his administration is massively misunderstood and subject to a systematic campaign of disinformation and distortion from a variety of other self-interests who all have their own agendas for discrediting the council and himself.

(Please note: From time to time where some background is required or special comment to be added for context, I have provided additional narrative to further explain certain events or issues.)

Willie: What is behind these various community action groups protesting at council meetings and calling for State Government intervention to either put the council into administration or have it investigated?
Clarke: I call them the Association of the Defeated Candidates. The people driving a couple of these groups – I know of at least three who unsuccessfully ran at the last council election who are behind Concerned Ratepayers and Citizens for Democracy. Irene Wareing from the latter was talking about a protest meeting they were organizing to discuss a proposal calling for an investigation into the council, and she was asked who would be attending and she mentioned the names of three councilors. When asked why none of the other councilors had been invited she said: “we’re afraid they might disrupt the meeting” (laughs). And one of their major beefs with us is having a closed meeting! That’s just so typical of where they’re coming from.

Willie: One Crikey reader wrote to accuse you of being aligned with a National and Liberal Party rump within the council, but I note you have two key advisors one of whom is former Liberal candidate and ex-Gold Cost Mayor Ray Stevens, and ex-Brisbane ALP Mayor Jim Sorley, which hardly washes with this theory?
Clarke: That’s what I stood for…to keep it independent and the thing people need to understand is that councilors (Dawn) Crichlow, (Peter) Young and (Eddie) Sarroff and to a certain extent Rob Molhoek, but the first three are very palsy with the Gold Coast Bulletin; and they’re the ones who are always having their view predominating in the paper; where the Bulletin goes their way nearly all the time.

Willie: Do you belong to any party now or have you previously been a party member?
Clarke: No never.

Willie: How did it come about that for a time you thought Willie Whiteshoes was a Bulletin stooge?
Clarke: I thought that William Whiteshoes was a production of the Gold Coast Bulletin by having two of their journalist’s defending themselves. Because Willie was I thought very balanced until suddenly the William Whiteshoes byline came up…

Willie: and I spat the dummy over your comments on the Indy, but you read something into the William as opposed to Willie?
Clarke: I read something different into it and the rumour was that these two Bulletin reporters had been commissioned to get something offensive into Crikey because they (the Bulletin) read it so much. But this was so different and while I don’t mind being attacked…

Willie: Well my frustrations had been building up where it got to the stage….
Clarke: Until that stage I thought Willie Whiteshoes had seen through the Bulletin and understood where the Bulletin was coming from, then suddenly…

Willie: And then you threw me off…
Clarke: On the Indy?

“I never condemned the race” (Indy Carnival)

Willie: With hindsight and putting on your PR hat, would you agree now you should have kept your objections to the race to yourself?
Clarke: I never condemned the race. You see that was misinterpreted. All I said was I don’t like motor car racing and the reason I said that was to not be hypocritical. It was easy for me not to go…and really there were two elements to it. The first was that the council was not invited officially to do anything – it was a State Government thing and the Mayor wasn’t invited.

Willie: Even though the city kicks in something like $350,000 annually?
Clarke: I thought that was a poor thing, so I was making the point that the Mayor was not invited so I’m not going. But because I stood up to them over the resumption of park land for their pit lane extension, the whiff on me probably was something like: “ok you are going to stand up to us – we’re not going to invite you to the race”. So I said “fine” I will not be going to the race because there are no Mayoral duties so that’s easy. Secondly I wanted to protest about the way they went about the park. And three, you have to understand that it’s easy for me to knock it back because I don’t like motor racing anyway. So I was trying not to be hypocritical.

Willie: But at the time others including the Bulletin and myself read that as petulance?
Clarke: They were slapping my hand and saying: “Naughty boy – how dare you stand up to us”? But on the question of the park land we thought we gave them a sensible compromise. But they said: “No – we’ve considered that”, which I don’t believe they had, “but we’re going to take the park away”, and (John) Cowley (Indy Board chairman) said: “What’s a few bloody trees and a couple of birds for anyway, who cares?” But if you look down on the park it is mainly lake, and that bit of park and the birds and the trees is a substantial part of the park. It also provides a barrier on the edge of the park, and for a lot of people living around there, those trees were important. As well, I also represent people as well as events; but then they started to say: “How dare you oppose an event that is going to bring $50 million into the economy”! And I said: “Ok prove the $50 million”? And they said: “Get stuffed. Why should we have to prove that, it’s none of our business?” Why is it none of their business? I mean they use our streets and the Government puts $11 million into it but we give them more. We put in our streets and we close them off, and our infrastructure makes the race possible.

Willie: I support the race but do believe the council or at least the Mayor and his CEO do have a right to see the books or be shown how they arrived at the economic benefit given the city’s financial and logistical support. To be told as you have been that it’s none of your business is ridiculous.
Clarke: I’ve now been told by the Treasurer and you should know this, that we will be getting a report. Terry Mackenroth said we will be seeing something but some figures will be sanitized because they are commercial sensitive. That’s fine by me that’s all we need to look at. I just want to get some honesty and reality into things, but now I’m still waiting for them to follow through.
But let’s also get some perspective here.

Take the impact on our local economy of our international student population. Right now we have something like 8160 overseas students in our colleges and universities. Last year they produced $416 million in fees and accommodation, and we estimate there is something like another $500 million in shopping and general spending. So there’s something like a billion dollar dividend from our education sector with no publicity, and yet I’m supposed to be upset if we might win or lose $50 million from the Indy? We have a good relationship with Queensland Events and we’re dealing with various government ministries and have good relations with them too; so the only thing that has split us and got bad publicity was the Indy. I still believe I’m pretty friendly with the Premier and the Treasurer and no one’s snubbing anybody.

Willie: But given the response you got to your Indy comments, don’t you think it would have been politically wiser not to have said what you did?
Clarke: Oh I’ve got no doubt it would have been politically wiser but I would still do the same thing again. I’m not a politician but there are certain judgments I was determined to make from the start and that’s something I will continue to do and whether people support them one way or another is up to them.

Willie: So putting aside questions of economic impact you’re not knocking it as an event so much as you felt railroaded over the Indy redevelopment and hence didn’t feel obliged to attend it?
Clarke: And in saying I normally wouldn’t go to it…I have been here on the coast for 10 years and never been to an Indy. I’ve been in Melbourne when the Formula One was on and I would never go to it either.

Why Ron Clarke is not a Mexican?

Willie: Can I clear up something here that seems to be some sort of misconception. I thought when you were standing for election you were moving back to the coast from Melbourne?
Clarke: No I lived up here…but as well as Melbourne. I did sell my apartment in Melbourne, but we had our kids up here all the time…

Willie: But isn’t there this widely held belief including my own that you were originally in business up here on the coast, but then you moved back down to Melbourne before returning to stand for Mayor? That you were in fact relocating back here?
Clarke: No. I was here all the time.

Willie: But would you agree that’s the perception – that you’re a Mexican! A blow-in Mayor?
Clarke: Yeah. The Bulletin spread it.

Willie: I don’t think I’ve seen you really nail that misconception then?
Clarke: I nailed it as much as I could. Were do you nail it to get it printed…you go to the Bulletin. So I’ve shown them the rates that I’ve paid here for the last 10 years that’s in our name, my kids work up here for the last 10 years and live there. I spent more than half my time up here and I was also spending time in Melbourne doing my charity work.

Willie: You weren’t living in Melbourne and commuting up here?
Clarke: No you’ve got it the other way around. I lived up here and was commuting to Melbourne. I had an apartment in Melbourne and a house here with my kids.

Willie: So you are saying you have been based on the Gold Coast for the last 10 years as a full time resident?
Clarke: Yes.

Willie: Well that adds a whole different political dynamic to your public image where people view you as riding into town to win an election, and on becoming the Mayor – you’re a relocated politician. Certainly not someone who has spent the last 10 years here?
Clarke: But what we did with regard to spending time in Melbourne, was that instead of earlier staying in a hotel while there on business, was to buy an apartment which made sense if you were going to be down there every second week. I’ve always been spending more time than I’ve got whether it’s doing my charity work or writing books. I published my latest book ‘The Measure of Success’ (Lothian Books) last February and the proceeds go to my charity. I like writing and this is my 13th book.

Willie: You wrote this latest book yourself, it wasn’t ghosted?
Clarke. No I wrote it myself and I enjoy writing as such.

Willie: That’s interesting because one Bulletin reporter suggested that your earlier letter attacking the Bulletin and myself that was published by us online, was in fact too good to be your own work based on the state of the copy that comes into their office, and was most likely written for you?
Clarke: What happens with that column that goes into the Bulletin is that it goes through the CEO’s office and they sometimes change it on me because they don’t want to have any problems with officer’s here. But otherwise no one has any right to change it although if I am critical of the paper that goes.

Willie: This falls into the category of “he says-she says”, or maybe somewhere in the middle lies the truth or not?
Clarke: That’s the worst thing about it. Where if they keep on repeating the lie, then people say “somewhere between the two must be the truth…and the truth is what I have said as far as I’m concerned. But then that gets twisted and manipulated and that’s what some of these critics rely on with their claims, so it becomes: “Oh well he can’t be telling outright lies or twisting it around to suit his opinions”, and therefore there must be something that the Mayor is compromising”?

Taking on his chief critic – fellow councillor Peter Young

Willie: You’ve drawn Crikey’s attention to what you see as a whole series of mistruths or incorrect facts as you see them. Then along comes Cr Peter Young with a very contrary point of view on some of those, so can we deal with his key points that contradict your own view of certain council history or events. Young claims you repeatedly voted in favor of significant council pay rises?
Clarke: No I voted against the councillors’ remuneration rise. I thought they deserved it but because of my election promise to keep both rates and council costs down, I voted against something I believed they deserved, which included comparing with other councils with much less responsibility.

Willie: Why is that? Had the council previously taken a pay cut?
Clarke: What I know is that they used to be tied to 80% of a state MP’s salary, while Brisbane City Council is tied to 100%. Then they dropped it back further after Gary Baildon got elected over Ray Stevens, and now they were trying to get back to that 80%. So I suggested after the election we stay at the current 71% as it was then, and then gradually increase it over the period of the term so that by the end it would be at 75% or something like that – with no increase in the first year which I had campaigned on.

(But subsequently the council moved to vote itself a pay rise after Clarke voted to keep it at 71% this year, when by a vote of 9-5 the council agreed to set its remuneration at 75% of the MP’s salary to take effect from August 9th this year. From July 1, 2005 a councillor’s salary will then become 80% of a states MP’s. Clarke voted against that according to the minutes of the council meeting on June 18th provided to Crikey by the Mayor, which clearly shows he voted against the motion along with Peter Young). But he subsequently supported the principle of better paid councilors by a set formula at a latter meeting.

Willie: The nuances as to your position in this matter seems to have even confused Young, so how hard is it for the public to understand what is going on when you are being simplistically portrayed as voting for a pay rise?
Clarke: And that’s why in the end overwhelmingly you don’t bother arguing about it – I just get on with it.

Another Peter Young claim in his Crikey letter

Mayor Clarke claims it is “fact that I managed to effect a general rates-freeze, the only one of its kind in the State, that I was able to have my advisory board concept accepted and implemented, that we saved Jabiru island from developers…”

In fact, all properties in the City have been subjected to a rate rise in the 2004-05 budget, and also to the introduction of new and increased levies and water charges.

Clarke: Ok on the general rates freeze. If you look at that I was after a 2.6 overall rise which was the same as the CPI – which is the same thing as a freeze. They started at a 5% property rate alone…but when you look at this you also need to get your definitions of rates correct and as far as I’m concerned, fixed charges are levies that Local Government imposes on its citizens. In other words rates aren’t just what are imposed on the house; it’s also the transport, garbage and water connection etc. Now you can either lump all the charges into a general rate or say here is the range of services which come with a levy, and a levy has become very popular with councils because they allow you to charge extra for other services.

But what it does do is allow you to recognise that each individual household living in the same area has the same individual services for sewerage and everything else. Now that’s what I regard as overall, and because I balanced the rate where they had voted on a 3.8% increase and they knocked me back on the 2.6 in the dollar against the UCV (Unimproved Capital Value). So on the rate this year it went up by a 3.8 property increase and given the CPI you could argue we had a very small increase. But because we also took away and reduced some of the levies we actually had a net reduction in the total general rate you paid.

What Young has done is taken one element of what you pay in rates and because there’s a rise in that – that’s a rate rise. What I am saying is what you pay as your total rate on the Gold Coast actually came down, and that’s not splitting hairs in saying that. Put another way if you paid a $1000 total rates last year and of that $600 was your rates applied against the value of your property, and then all the utility services and charges make up another $400, then I’m saying after you factor in all the charges as an overall rate then you might be paying say $990 this year because the reductions outweigh any increases. It went down in real terms.

Willie: Can you explain what lay behind your claim to helping save the Jabiru island development that he disputes on the basis you weren’t even around when they voted on it?
Clarke: Well yes it was originally voted on before my election, but in the knowledge that the applicant had a very good chance of overturning it in the Queensland Planning and Environment Court. If the decision had later gone against the council, it could claim that it was still seen to be doing their job for the residents, but now “it’s out of our hands”. But what I and fellow councilor Grant Pforr did post election was to work with the applicant to find an acceptable alternative for Couran Cove because we knew it so well. In the end we were able to assist an outcome that would benefit Couran Cove so it would back off the appeal, and thereby save the council significant costs in a case I believe we would have been certain to lose.

Mayor denies council has become overly secretive

Willie: Young in his Crikey letter was also querying your claim to conducting a more open council in support of the Bulletin (and this reporter) who charged the council had become more secretive since the election?

Cr Clarke claims “The Gold Coast City Council is the most open in Australia. All Council meetings, all the meetings of the standing committees and advisory boards are open to the public.”

In fact Mayor Clarke was instrumental in achieving a reversal of the previous Council’s decision that all budget sessions would be open to the public (minutes of the Budget sessions are not maintained on Council’s website). This issue was strongly fought out, and was reported in the Gold Coast Bulletin on 4, 5 and 6 May 2004.

Clarke: I think that basically relates back to a meeting regarding the appointment of various people who had applied to be appointed to advisory board chairs, and of course there was more than one to each and I didn’t want those names to be bandied about in public because we were refusing some when people were good enough to make an application to council to help, that they should not be discussed in open council if we were going to reject them. So that was important we do that. That was the only occasion I can remember when we closed it other than the first two budget meetings when you’re discussing sensitive matters which almost any council does routinely, but then we were open for other budget meetings anyway.

As to other suggestions by anyone about holding so-called “secret meetings”, I can only think this relates to a meeting attended by all the Chairs of the Standing Committees before each council meeting. It starts at 12.30, half an hour before the council is due to start, and lasts for no more than 20 minutes, and then I see the CEO some 10 minutes before the council meet. Only Chairs are invited and we run through the reports they are presenting to see if there are any minutes which need special handling or amendment. Everyone knows it takes place but it irks Eddy Sarroff and Peter Young in particular, because they believe all sorts of plots are being hatched.

If I wanted to organise any kind of secret meeting I would not locate it in my office, in full knowledge and view of all other councillors’ offices located around the same floor. Unfortunately it is yet another instance of the “persecution complex” these two councillors’ suffer, whereby they see conspiracies underlying every statement or vote. They cannot seem to believe or understand anyone who tells it straight and has no secret agenda or political ambition or affiliation.

Willie: He says Budget meetings previously open were then held in committee?
Clarke: This was the first committee I had ever, ever seen and in fact previously they had a whole lot of budget committee meetings closed, but the previous council under Baildon had opened them up, and it was chaos what with expectations and people showing off.

Willie: But this is the point Young is making…?
Clarke: Yes but that’s because you can’t talk budgets without being in committee, but after the first two where you are talking about all the guts of what you are going to cut, who are we going to save or chop out, we then opened up the next two which were more general.

Clarke supports councils not voting themselves pay rises but basing it on agreed formula

Willie: When council pay rise were being discussed – were they done in committee?
Clarke: What happened was that in my very first meeting with all of council, it was a dinner it wasn’t even a formal council meeting. It was supposed to be confidential but was as usual leaked by somebody. I was in the chair for the first time and what we were doing was electing the chairs of the Standing Committees while I was also informally getting to know them all. What I said then was I believed that councilors were being underpaid and during my term I would like to see the councilors looking at equality with other councils around the place. What I said was that whatever we decided we should do, we should have a formula from now on, that whether it was this council or any future council coming in, it should not decide or vote on their own salary, it should be automatic. But it was leaked to the Bulletin as something entirely different.

Willie: So this is how it came about that you were being accused of backing a pay rise even before the council had met more or less straight after your election?
Clarke: Yeah and the first thing straight away is that I wasn’t advocating a pay rise then as such. I said the Brisbane Council was on a percentage tied to state MP’s, and every other council I knew was on a percentage and we should look at what sort of percentage we should be on, and I asked our CEO to look into it. The whole reason for my suggestion was to take the decision out of our hands so we wouldn’t be voting on our own pay rise and you didn’t have this ritual farce of being put in an impossible situation were people were worried about the perception one way or another of having your snout in the trough, or some candidates were seen as self-sacrificing by advocating councilors take pay cuts which had happened. The previous Mayor Gary Baildon had said: “We will drop the pay back and also have a 10% cut in the rates, but he didn’t get the 10% rate cut but dropped the pay back. One thing I can say on my own behalf is that I have donated 25% of my own salary to charity through my charitable trust I have set up.

Willie: And this view of Peter Young regarding his charges relating to the council Advisory Boards.

The creation of the Advisory Boards has been a complete fiasco. The old Advisory Committees were thrown out, and with them those members of the public who had given invaluable time and expertise for many years to the City – without so much as a thank you. (I am not sure Mayor Clarke even knew they existed prior to making his election pledge for the establishment of Advisory ‘Boards’). Furthermore, mates of Mayor Clarke’s (and the pro-development bloc Councillors’) have been installed on the boards without any assessment of (or indeed the need to submit details of) their qualifications, expertise or experience in the subject area.

Clarke: The main thing is that he said I didn’t know about the committees. Well the first day, the very first meeting when we were electing the chairs, everybody was circulated with the list of all the committees including the Advisory ones, and all the other Standing Committees and chairs. He knows that every councilor saw that on the first day…and I had it before that as to who was on them and was made up from the previous year and we had to renew them all. So he knew that every councilor knew, and we sat down with them all.

Willie: His accusation that people were appointed without any reference to their qualifications or suggesting some kind of lack of corporate governance regarding such appointments?
Clarke: Yes we got the qualifications from them all…everyone who applied. The selection process was the chair of the Standing Committee, the CEO and myself…the three of us sat down with a list of about 15 or 20 applicants for every committee and chose 10 or 12 of them, and we then went to council and council was allowed to look at those 10 or 12 we nominated, they didn’t see the people we had nominated, but if they wanted to reject any of those for any reason, they were able to in a closed session. The practicality of doing it with everyone up for consideration was going to be impossible.

Willie: But were they given any kind of summary of who these people were or what were their qualifications?
Clarke: Well what we did was we just named where they came from and if anybody wanted to know who was Joe Blow we were able to say what they…

Willie: But what Young is saying is they weren’t supplied with qualifications?
Clarke: But every one of the councilors was given access to all the applications, and Dawn Crichlow for instance spent two days going through them to find out who we rejected, so they all had access to that. How else do you do it because you are not going to have a selection process whereby you have 10 committees and 12 people on each committee and then everyone on the council going “they have to be on or he has to be on”?

Willie: Also his point claiming that those removed from committees were thrown off without a thank you?
Clarke: No…they all got thanked…letters’ were sent to them all.

Tomorrow: In part two of the “Clarke Chronicles” we really light the torch paper as we save the best for last. We explore the complexities of conflict of interest and council voting protocol; look at the controversial existence of the so-called voting “bloc” and its nemesis “the chip”. He also provides a fascinating insight into his own council colleagues and how they tackle their jobs, and serves it up to the National Party running interference over the proposed, highly controversial Surfers Paradise Transit Centre sale and redevelopment. His problems and frustrations in dealing with the Gold Coast Bulletin and their parochial support for his main rival at the March election, and partisan on-going support for “the chip”. And he provides a fascinating insight into his deployment of two key Queensland political figures from opposite sides of the fence as valued advisors now helping him get the job done and cutting through all the red tape.