First published Feb 16

Adriana Taylor, Huon Valley Council ‘Commissioner’ – ie, one-person Huon Valley Council – sat mostly in silence at the Huon Valley Rate Payers’ and Residents’ Association candidates’ forum at Huon Town Hall on Tuesday evening. But then she stood up and said something incredible: that local councillors were unnecessary.

Not being a candidate, her presence was, on the one hand, anomalous: were she just a Huon Valley Councillor, she wouldn’t have been there. But as nine councillors rolled into one, she carries a significant amount of power and many of the issues raised overlapped with local and state government. (Taylor was appointed to run Huon Valley Council by Minister for Local Government, Peter Gutwein MP, after the councillors were defenestrated in 2016 following years of questionable activity.)

As you’d expect, most of the questions went to the Franklin election candidates sitting either side of Taylor: Liberal Premier Will Hodgman MP, Labor’s David O’Bryne and the Greens’ Rosalie Woodruff MP.

Although the majority of the questions were about the state of local roads, the elephant in the room was the proposed Dover woodchip port. But no one was asking Adrian Taylor anything about it. This seemed strange because, as the one-person local council, she ultimately decides the fate of the project.

Towards the end of the evening, with Ms Taylor not having been asked a single question, I asked her this: “It’s bad enough that one appointed person replaces a democratically elected council but you are on record as saying that the Huon area needs a port. That seems to be a glaring conflict of interest. For these two reasons, will you now undertake to defer any decision on this controversial project until after October 2018, so that it can be properly assessed by a democratically elected council?” The premise of the question being, regardless of what you think of the project, given it’s so contentious, it should be decided by a properly-elected council.

Ms Taylor arose, saying “Ah yes, I thought this might come up. I’m glad it has.” But her response was as lacking as it was troubling.

Ms Taylor said she thought that she might have been misquoted but then went on to say this didn’t matter because, although she did want a southern port she hadn’t determined where. Ergo, it was perfectly fine to consider this proposal for … a southern port.

She seemed not to understand or to care that she would be assessing the Dover woodchip proposal with her mind already half made up. The notion that you could consider the project objectively, without having already decided that there needs to be a southern port, seems not to have occurred to her. She might not think this matters but it does. It’s a glaring conflict of interest and represents flawed decision-making and an already compromised planning ‘process’. But worse was to come.

The second point was the issue of local democracy: a single person deciding the fate of the controversial project instead of nine councillors. Again, this was blithely dismissed. Taylor’s jaunty logic, such that it was, was that she would simply abide by the advice of the council planning department. As this, in her view, was simply what responsible councillors should do, she saw no difference in one person making this decision instead of nine democratically-elected councillors. Trouble is, she was wrong again.

Good councillors will interrogate a proposal, ask for more information, reject some assertions, seek clarification – in short, do everything they can to assess, analyse and consider a proposal to ensure that it’s in the best interests of the local area. It’s not simply about abiding by the advice provided, as Taylor suggested. Planning staff will provide advice and recommendations but these are not the same as decisions and nor are they infallible. Nor, either, are they sacrosanct: good councillors, with good reason, can overturn them. But not according to Ms Taylor.

And if good councillors and a single (good?) commissioner are so indistinguishable, what’s the point of Adriana Taylor anyway? One person simply cannot do the thinking of nine. Subject to confirmation otherwise, Ms Taylor only has one brain. Ms Taylor’s assertion that local councillors are simply box-tickers is wrong, undemocratic and dangerous.

Her argument undermines the tenets of local democracy: that we elect our local representatives, who will always be imperfect (sorry, guys) but, to quote Winston Churchill, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” But according to Taylor the function of elected representatives is simply to follow the advice of council staff. So what are local councillors for? Don’t we just need council staff and no elected representatives? Taylor seems to think not.

The solution to problems with local government isn’t less local democracy, it’s MORE local democracy. Across Tasmania people want to be part of local decision-making but are repeatedly shut out. State and local governments keep on treating residents like fools. Just look at Clarence Council and Kangaroo Bay; Glamorgan Spring Bay Council and Lenny’s Point; and most recently, Will Hodgman and kunanyi/Mt Wellington cable car. They don’t seem to understand that decisions that harness local wisdom will inherently be stronger, more democratic and more supported than those made in the dark among a small coterie.

Ms Taylor should defer her decision on the contentious Dover woodchip port project so that a democratically elected council can consider it properly. And Peter Gutwein or whoever the next Minister for Local Government is, should immediately call a local election, just as happened with Glenorchy City Council. Why is Huon Valley Council being treated so differently? Huon Valley residents deserve to treated equally, not as second-class.

*Tom Allen is a campaigner for The Wilderness Society.