New South Wales doesn’t know it yet but it’s been taken for a joy ride by its northern neighbour. In five weeks time a round of the World Rally Car Championship will be held in the Tweed and Kyogle shires on the far north coast, despite widespread local opposition to the event.
In a startling display of cynicism, Garry Connelly — the man who fronts the event organisers, Rally Australia — has brazenly admitted to a motoring magazine that the last laugh is on NSW.
He was asked: "Given from where you expect most of the spectators to come and the influx of money from just across the border, you’re actually running a Queensland event but getting NSW to pay for it."
He answered: "But it’s based 100 per cent in NSW."
"Sure," the interviewer replied, "but you can see what I’m getting at."
"You think it’s being a bit cheeky?" Connelly answered. "Well, it is!"
Meanwhile, the Tweed Shire Council, whose power to control the rally was unilaterally stripped away by the State Government last month, continues to implode.
A report leaked on Monday by Tweed Councillor Katie Milne reveals the Tweed Shire’s own officers have misgivings about the ecological impact as assessed by Rally Australia’s independent review.
In particular, they say Rally Australia conducted its field work in Autumn when animals — especially koalas — are less active, whereas the event takes place in Spring, a peak time for activity.
Meanwhile, Tweed Council General Manager, Mike Rayner, steadfastly and stubbornly refuses to acknowledge there is a clear conflict of interest in him being on the board of Rally Australia. He says he got approval from the NSW Department of Local Government to accept the position, which is unpaid, and maintains he is lobbying for the Tweed.
Last week the mayor, Joan van Lieshout, a Liberal, admitted she was wrong in not stepping in last November when Rayner got the nod from councillors to accept an invitation to be on the board.
At the time he failed to disclose that in August 2008 — when Tweed Council was under administration — he had been given delegated authority to negotiate with rally organisers. This included authority to contribute $120,000 per event, provide free office space for four full-time staff, allow council workshops to be used for scrutineering and "to exercise other in-kind support as may be considered acceptable and as identified over time".
A pretty wide remit.
The mayor has now admitted to fellow councillors that she has some "misgivings and concerns regarding this decision". In other words she got it wrong. She introduced a motion that would force Rayner to resign from his position.
But the council, rather than fronting up to Rayner, threw the motion out five to two, with support coming from the only Greens Party member, Katie Milne.
Joan van Lieshout is a newcomer to politics and is no friend of fellow councillors Warren Polglase (the former mayor) or another member of the old guard, Phil Youngblutt.
Polglase was a member of the disgraced council sacked in 2005 following a government inquiry which revealed that council members had been in collusion with developers.
When elections were called for the Tweed last September, Polglase was quick off the mark, making no secret of his desire to get back in charge, and was apoplectic when he failed to secure nomination as mayor.
In a deal brokered with the three remaining councillors, Lieshout won out unopposed. But almost immediately her problems began, with sniping from Polglase and Youngblutt as she tried to come to grips with running a council.
She now finds herself isolated — and her relationship with general manager Rayner is non-existent. She does not expect to win re-nomination when her term expires at the end of September, a couple of weeks after the rally cars have left town.
It doesn’t help that she cannot talk openly about what’s going on after councillors agreed last week to gag themselves.
In a motion supported by all but van Lieshout and Milne, an extraordinary decision — perhaps without precedent in local government — was passed, barring councillors from talking to the media. This is Australia and not the pre-war Soviet Union.
It is no wonder the community here has almost lost confidence in the majority of its elected representatives.
The mayor heads to Sydney this Friday to make a pitch to the NSW Government to try to salvage something out of this mess. Meanwhile, Rayner faces community backlash at his intransigence and high-handed behaviour.
Those opposed to this event, to be held here every other year for the next 20, are preparing to take advantage of the tens of millions of worldwide viewers the organisers claim will watch the three-day event starting on 3 September.
There will be peaceful protests on the streets of country town Murwillumbah during night-time special stages. There may also be other forms of dissent — one campaigner has promised to start a hunger strike, another to sit in the road in front of the rally cars.
They argue this region is of national environmental significance and home to a number of endangered species, including koalas, and is simply an inappropriate location for a car race.
There are already fears of a huge police presence, while the use of taser guns by NSW police has begun to worry some of those planning legal and legitimate protests.
This farce still has some distance to run.
*This article has been edited for accuracy since it was published.
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