Democracy Dies At The Wheel


This is a story about a car race, an autocratic state government and the abuse of democracy. It’s not a happy story, but it’s one that needs to be told. At stake is the very foundation on which this nation was built.

Last week, just before breaking for the long winter recess, NSW State parliamentarians rushed through special legislation to impose a round of the World Rally Car Championship on two rural shires that are as far away from Sydney as it’s possible to get: Tweed and Kyogle on the far north coast.

Ian Macdonald, as Minister for State Development, championed the Bill through the Upper House, having announced a few weeks earlier that the normal process of a development application being submitted to the local shire councils was being brushed aside. The opportunity for public debate and discussion on this event — branded as "the highest profile four-wheeled motor championship in the world after Formula One" — was summarily guillotined.

It doesn’t take much to read between the lines. This was just too big a fish to leave to local, amateur politicians. Not only that but there was substantial opposition from all sides of the community that needed to be silenced, and quickly.

The rally is planned for September, it’s already on the international sporting calendar and Macdonald was at pains to emphasise that such a major televised event was going to bring in $100 million to state coffers, as well as creating loads of jobs at a time of economic downturn. It’s unclear where that figure has come from since no economic impact analysis has, to public knowledge, been carried out. Nevertheless, Macdonald says the event will "provide a unique opportunity to showcase the spectacular Northern Rivers area and generate increased international interest in the region".

But why have the shires of Tweed and Kyogle been chosen to host this spectacle?

Tweed is no stranger to controversy: the council was sacked by the
State Government in 2005 because of allegations of deal-making between
some councillors and developers and placed under administration. The
shire is now back in the hands of elected representatives, but
incredibly, the General Manager of Tweed Council and one of the key
negotiators behind the controversial World Rally Car deal, Mike Rayner, accepted a position on the board of the event’s organisers in Australia — Rally Australia.

Tweed is a naturally beautiful environment, dominated by Mt Warning, and acknowledged as such by the Federal Government. It is even being promoted by Tourism Australia to lure tourists to enjoy its natural charm and tranquillity, the biodiversity and abundance of flora and fauna.

When this ecological initiative was launched in a blaze of publicity by Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett last year he said: "The National Landscapes program demonstrates how properly managing and taking care of our environmental and cultural assets can bring enormous long-term economic benefit to these regions and the broader economy."

Pity no one told the NSW Government, which had been working assiduously with its private off-shoot, Events NSW, to bring the World Rally Car Championship to the region.

Negotiations with the rally organisers, the Paris-based FIA, had been going on in secret for a couple of years, ever since the WA Government decided in 2005 that the race wasn’t economically viable and pulled the plug. According to Tweed Council documents, Mike Rayner facilitated a meeting between Events NSW and the NSW Minister for Tourism well before the rally was announced in September 2008 to Tweed residents and the NSW taxpayers. Rayner also secured significant support in kind and in cash for the rally from Tweed Shire Council without notice to Tweed residents and ratepayers.

No one knows why NSW was so keen to have this event and no one yet knows why it selected Tweed, and its neighbouring shire Kyogle, as the venue. Perhaps they thought two dozy little towns in the farthest part of the state would bend over backwards to host the show.

But if there is one thing people in this part of the world don’t like it’s being told what to do by Sydney-centric politicians. Having just got back the right to democratically elect their own council, people in Tweed especially were not going to take this lying down. They had waited three years for democracy and now the state was going to take it away again.

There’s more. In a hammer stroke the NSW Government’s special legislation would override the National Parks and Wildlife Act, the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, the Threatened Species Conservation Act, the Forestry Act, the Water Management Act, the Fisheries Management Act and the Local Government Act.

During the debate in the Legislative Council, Greens member Ian Cohen summed up the view of many when he said:

"This bill takes away the power of the people most affected by this rally to have any say through the normal planning process. The New South Wales Government wants this event irrespective of environmental or human concerns. If this event is such a good thing, as the Minister said recently in Parliament, why does the Minister need special legislation? The people of northern New South Wales should not have to cop deals this Government has done to appease an international motor racing organisation and underwrite a private company, Rally Australia. The State should not be creating special legislation for one single corporate beneficiary — it is undemocratic. The unique environment of the North Coast cannot be rented out to whoever wants to use it. The due planning process should be allowed to proceed."

Sue Higginson, a solicitor with the Environmental Defender’s Office Northern Rivers, goes further:

"Not only does the [Bill] prevent local councils and communities from having a say about the rally through the normal planning process, it also circumvents a thousand years of common law rights."

How’s that for a healthy democracy?


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