MICHAEL McGOWAN: Port needs fresh start

Port Stephens mayor Bruce MacKenzie

ON Tuesday night, at the Port Stephens Council’s farcical meeting, the words ‘‘vote grabbing’’ kept coming up.

The councillors, in fits of indignation that kept bubbling throughout the three-hour verbal combat session, berated one another for putting on performances for the packed public gallery, and, presumably, for the ratepayers who would hear about it later.

The mayor, Bruce MacKenzie, accused councillor Geoff Dingle of vote grabbing for his opposition to the subdivision of 4.3hectares of Boomerang Park in Raymond Terrace. Cr Dingle, in turn, likened Cr MacKenzie’s support for it as same. If that’s true, they went about it the wrong way.

Tuesday’s spectacle was so unedifying that it would be hard to mount an argument that anyone in the room came out of it with their reputation improved.

From Steve Tucker’s public apology for disparaging comments he made about Peter Kafer before the state election, to Cr Kafer and Ken Jordan’s bizarre shouting match prompted by, of all things, their knowledge of crystal meth addiction.

Even some members of the gallery behaved churlishly, interjecting so frequently that at one point the meeting had to take a 15 minute adjournment.

From Newcastle, the view of the Port Stephens Council, when one is formed, is generally of an enigmatic basket case led under the quasi-dictatorial influence of Cr MacKenzie.

Events like Tuesday’s meeting might almost be dismissed as par for the course, but the truth is that it was a release that has been building. It was only the third meeting of its new term, in October 2012, that councillors voted to include a reference to Jesus in their council prayer at the behest of conservative Christian councillor Sally Dover.

Cr Dover had run third in the mayoral race and directed her preferences to Cr MacKenzie over Cr Dingle. The new prayer, and Cr Dover’s installation as deputy, were widely interpreted as part of the arrangement.

It was a cynical and predictably divisive decision, made only to appease an ally and assure an unbeatable majority in the chamber. It set the tone for the kind of forceful leadership that prompted Tuesday night’s unloading of grievances from the public, led by new Labor MP Kate Washington.

The imposing majority that Cr MacKenzie controls was detailed in the Newcastle Herald’s Bruce Almighty investigation last year, and he has shown no hesitation to use it.

When Cr MacKenzie states that he is confident a controversial issue will pass the council, it is a faith well-founded in fact.

This, of course, is not an issue in and of itself. Voting blocs exist in every council, though hopefully, unlike Port Stephens, they are more faithfully disclosed before elections.

And it would be unfair on Cr MacKenzie and his disciples to ignore that they have achieved things this term.

However too many decisions – most notably the awarding in 2013 of a Williamtown sand lease to a Nathan Tinkler-backed company against the recommendations of council staff, a decision that continues to haunt them – seem not to have been made with just the interests of ratepayers in mind.

So, back to vote grabbing. Whether anyone was performing for votes, which is doubtful, it seemed clear on Tuesday that the councillors had next year’s local government elections on their mind. The question at this point is, will the new council look any different?

Both Cr MacKenzie and his most obvious opponent, Cr Dingle, are coy on the matter of whether they will run again. The truth, though they would be unlikely to admit it publicly, is that if they do, they may be motivated by their mutual and seething dislike for one another.

Cr Jordan’s landslide loss in the state election after Cr MacKenzie publicly backed him is at least a hint that his once-legendary appeal has dimmed, and Cr Dinglehas as many detractors as he has admirers.

Of the others already on the council, John Nell is perhaps the only one who enjoys the respect of both sides, but he is unlikely to want the job. Cr Tucker and Cr Jordan, both Liberal Party members, are the obvious candidates.

Tuesday night showed that this is a council in need of fresh voices, unburdened by years of grievances and allegiances.

Protesters outside Port Stephens council this week.

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