“Council race row,” screamed the page 14 lead in The Sunday Herald Sun this week.
Yes, it was true. Manningham Labor councillor Ivan Reid had indeed played the race card through the Murdoch tabloid against Green councillor David Ellis but the real policy and governance issue being discussed was virtually ignored.
These are tense days being in the minority on a council controlled by a Labor-led faction of five put together by the 26-year-old socialist left mayor Charles Pick.
The latest spat unfolded after deputy mayor Fred Chuah — one of two non-Labor members in the ruling faction — went straight to Labor’s state planning Minister Justin Madden seeking approval for a $10 million-plus tripling of the On Luck Chinese Nursing Home he chairs in Manningham’s “Green Wedge” zone.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
The formal request went in on January 6 and all councillors weren’t informed until January 22 that the Minister had given council until January 29 to lodge some “comments” before a decision would be made. It looked like game, set and match before the end of the Australian Open.
The Green was always going to go ballistic no matter who was the applicant and he put up an urgent motion (see page 237 of the minutes) at last week’s council meeting seeking support for our existing policies which prohibit such developments.
Next thing we know Cr Reid is alleging the Green is racially motivated and then making inflammatory claims to the Sunday Herald Sun, which even ran half an hour of council audio.
State Liberal MP for Warrandyte Ryan Smith then weighed in with a parliamentary contribution last Thursday, which talked of “secret deals made behind closed doors”.
The Ellis motion didn’t eventually fly after an alternative proposal was put for a site tour, briefing from On Luck’s CEO, Kim Au, who also happens to be married to Fred Chuah, and then a special council meeting last night, which unanimously backed the officer report criticising the process and the proposal.
Chuah was out of the room given the obvious conflict, Ivan Reid was a no-show and convention doesn’t allow the mayor to lead a debate, so it was left to Graeme McMillan to “reluctantly” support the officer report while speaking glowingly about the On Luck facility.
David Ellis and I spoke strongly against the process, calling on the deputy mayor, his board, political supporters and professional advisers to abandon the ministerial route and return to a more conventional council planning process that allowed for community input and didn’t create an unfortunate precedent we would have to grapple with in the future.
The government had given us an extension for the “comments” until last night but On Luck is pushing for a quick decision to strengthen its bid for some of the 150 new nursing home bed licences currently being offered by the federal Government to Manningham nursing homes.
Meanwhile, in other Manningham planning matters, our council legal team spent three days in VCAT last week fighting Westfield’s excessive 10-storey apartment proposal next to its flagship Doncaster shopping centre.
This $40 million pitch would be Westfield’s first Australian move into apartments. The matter returns briefly for a final VCAT hearing on March 3 but it was disappointing that the planning department and Minister Madden delivered a submission supporting the proposal, which was unanimously rejected by councillors last year after the officers said it was excessive and more than 130 objections were lodged.
With planning likely to be a hot issue at the November 27 state election, it will be interesting to see if the Brumby government ploughs ahead backing these two controversial projects in Manningham.
And one wonders if that $100,000 donation Westfield gave Labor last year comes into play in an election year?