Corporate structures, new industries, tourism and roads – in short, all the issues that confront local government every day – were canvassed by the five candidates seeking the mayor’s role for the Blackall-Tambo Regional Council at a public forum this week.
Organised by the local community newspaper, two candidates from Tambo – electrician Max Barlow and grazier Andrew Martin – and three from Blackall – solicitor Peter Skewes, businessman and current councillor Tom Johnstone, and incumbent mayor and fellow businessman Barry Muir – answered questions for two solid hours.
Both communities have been reeling from the effect of ongoing drought, a lack of cash circulating locally and a population drain, leading to a concentration of questions about revival at the forum.
Cr Muir placed heavy emphasis on the need to support and revive the wool industry in the region, when questioned on what he would do to encourage jobs for young people.
“We had an industry that created a lot of jobs – the wool industry. That needs to be put back in order,” he said, pointing to wild dogs as the main issue to work on.
Cr Johnstone told the forum he was in discussion with government representatives regarding a feasibility study on kangaroo processing, and he wanted to look into hosting a correctional centre, while Mr Martin proposed secondary industries such as stock feed supplements and water bottling as well as employing a business development officer.
Both Mr Skewes and Mr Barlow looked to the technological age, with Mr Skewes suggesting an electronic call centre and Mr Barlow saying there was a lot of opportunity through internet marketing.
Whether any of these ideas would be up to council to initiate or whether they should be up to private enterprise and receiving council support wasn’t made clear by the candidates.
One of the differences between candidates that emerged at the forum was when they were asked how they would address the perceived division between the two communities.
Cr Johnstone said he would like to see a system where each town had its own budget, and he would want to have a senior works supervisor in each town.
Mr Martin’s solution was to give people hope through greater employment opportunities, and to talk with people rather than at them.
The need to keep both communities well informed was Mr Skewes’ suggestion, as well as being sensitive to the different needs of each.
Mr Barlow blamed the lack of vision of the current council for any division that may have arisen, while Cr Muir said division was only perceived.
“We’ve always had a close relationship, except maybe when it came to football,” he said.
It was no surprise that roads were top of the list for all candidates when quizzed on rural issues.
A system of road representatives was proposed by Mr Martin as an “early warning” system, with graders strategically located, and he wanted all rural roads to be bitumened or bitumen-ready.
Mr Skewes said effective government lobbying for more road funding would be important, while Mr Barlow slammed the lack of concessions given out in leaner times, when other councils had frozen rates, and he said the move to quarterly rates payments was disappointing.
Cr Muir said the last three years of drought had made road maintenance difficult but upgrades were an obvious priority.
Cr Johnstone believed a strategy would be to push for a “fair share” of the federal and state government money for wild dog cluster fencing being managed by the Remote Area Planning and Development Board.
Tourism a top priority
Candidates all recognised a value in encouraging tourism, with two of them, Cr Johnstone and Mr Martin saying they would like to see a dedicated tourism officer appointed.
Mr Martin added that he would be investigating ways of promoting the wider region as a destination if elected and would lead a business and tourism association in Blackall similar to the one that operates in Tambo.
Mr Skewes said it was council’s role to support tourism rather than enter it themselves but said encouraging a locally-based tour operator would be a priority.
Mr Barlow advocated a strategy of “getting the boat people” or fishing trade, saying they had money, while Cr Muir said he would renew efforts to open up the aboriginal rock art treasure at The Palace, amongst other things.
Voting in the Blackall-Tambo Regional Council election is by full postal vote. There is no provision for absentee voting at other shires in the state but pre-poll voting will open from Monday, March 7.
Voters will have to contend with two different systems, thanks to council’s undivided status. Voting for the mayor will be optional preferential while voting for councillors will be first past the post.
Vote in QCL’s polls