Minister for Corrections, the Hon Elise Archer MP, returned to Westbury to attend a public meeting to discuss the State Government decision to place the new Northern Regional Prison on a site close to the town. Hostility and cynicism dominated the meeting, which was attended by many local residents who are opposed to the State Government’s plans or angry that the decision was made without consulting the community beforehand.
Originally published in the January edition of the Meander Valley Gazette, this article highlights the community sentiment at the meeting held in Westbury last month, with the Minister for Corrections, Elise Archer, and the council meeting the week prior. As Archer has just been approved by the new Premier to continue holding this portfolio, we decided to republish to article now.
Also please see outgoing Premier Will Hodgman’s response to questions posed to him by Tasmanian Times in November. That response and John Hawkins’ thoughts are posted after this article.
Minister Archer in Their Sights
The State Government will survey all Meander Valley residents on the electoral roll about Westbury as the site for a second Tasmanian prison, Minister for Corrections Elise Archer told a rowdy public meeting in December.
The mailout and phone survey will be part of the government’s social and economic impact report being prepared by SGS Economics. The public meeting attended by around 300 people gave Minister Archer the opportunity to emphasise again that no final decision on the prison location had yet been made – and that any prison run by the Hodgman government would not be privatised.
But in a Westbury Town Hall visually dominated by signs saying ‘Dept of Joke’ and ‘Still no meaningful consultation, just spin’, hostility and cynicism were palpable.
People directed hostility not just at the State Government but at Meander Valley councillors (many of whom attended), and former mayor (now MHA) Mark Shelton. Many of the residents believe the council and Mark Shelton supplied information about the site through the government’s expression of interest process, contrary to residents’ interests. One resident held a sign saying ‘Council has sacrificed Westbury’.
When a woman questioned the impact on Brand Tasmania of a prison ‘smack in the middle of the route to the Western Tiers’, the minister replied that the site had been submitted to government – to one man’s shout of ‘Hang your heads’, directed at the Meander Valley councillors.
And when Minister Archer sheltered Mark Shelton from answering a question about his views on the prison, several people yelled ‘Shame on Shelton’.
Common themes among locals questioning Minister Archer were around residents’ security, the effect on tourism and the area’s economy and possible alternative sites. Lesley Pedley said her son, a prison warden in Derby WA, had his car smashed up and three home break-ins.
‘He told me, “Mum, if you get a prison there it will be the sorriest day of your life. It’s not the inmates you need to worry about, it’s the outsiders coming into the town,” ’ she said.
Another resident mentioned recent damage from Ashley Detention Centre inmates’ demonstrating, asking if the government couldn’t control children, would they be able to control adult prisoners.
The Minister dismissed his comment as irrelevant because Ashley is run by the Department of Health and Human Services, not the Department of Justice.
In reply to a question about potential jobs and investment loss if the prison stripped Valley Central of its current five businesses, the Minister replied that she had spoken with them.
‘I accept that it’s relevant and will take it into account. Independent assessors are looking at it,’ she said.
Concerns about property values emerged, with one woman describing Westbury residents as 70 per cent owner occupiers. Another commented on the low property values of the Victorian prison location, Broadmeadows. Phil Giles told Minister Archer that if a prison was built on the Birralee Rd site, he would leave Westbury, followed by others.
‘Towns taking on prisons get an initial economic spike but when the prison is in place the economic benefits level out and people begin to leave,’ he said.
Robert Bryant asked why Westbury was the preferred site when there were ‘good options’. ‘The reason we don’t want it is the element it will bring to Westbury,’ he said.
To loud jeers, Elise Archer replied that any potential sites next to a neighbourhood were therefore zoned residential.
Harvey Gee commented: ‘There is oodles of crown land in Tasmania, out of sight of tourist routes.’
‘When I asked you about this your answer was that the Greens have it all locked up. I put it to you; it’s only locked up when it suits the government!’
But although lone questioner Leigh Watts supported the prison, the meeting’s main attitude seemed to be that consultation with residents was fake and entirely focused on the government being able to say it had been done.
Frances Shaw said she and her husband Glen, born and bred in Westbury, working in Launceston, found it impossible to get an allocated time to talk to the Minister and needed to leave work early for the public meeting.
‘Why, when the public are so obviously against it, is all the rhetoric about consultation – but you’re going to go ahead?’ she asked.
The first questioner of the meeting threw doubt on individual consultation, asking why those meetings had not been recorded. Others said that the prison site was a done deal.
When one woman said residents were not being respected because the consultation was ‘around the wrong way’, the Minister said she was sorry. Many people in the room agreed with her. ‘It doesn’t feel right over here. We want to know who we can trust.’ After the meeting many people remained, standing in clumps, talking.
Minister Archer left immediately, escorted by Northern Tasmanian Development Corporation CEO Mark Baker and the director of Prisons, Ian Thomas, both of whom were silent throughout the meeting.
Meander Valley Council Meeting
Tensions over the proposed new prison site are rising among Meander Valley councillors, with one yelling and swearing in the December meeting and the mayor signaling that he is fed up with anti-prison residents taking up valuable time in council meetings.
After extending council question time in October and November, a grim-faced Mayor Wayne Johnston indicated that council meeting rules would now be enforced, limiting questions to the usual 30 minutes.
‘We’ve had enough in the last two meetings,’ he said. ‘Council understands that residents have questions about this project, however, council’s ordinary meetings must be conducted in line with local government regulations.
‘These meetings are not a forum to debate matters. There are many items on the agenda that must be dealt with in accordance with the Local Government Act. This limits time for questions from the public.’
In return, Westbury residents spurned the usual acting general manager’s answers to their prison questions, directing them instead to individual councillors.
Peter Wileman asked Cr. Andrew Sherriff whether he believed previous general manager Martin Gill’s touting for possible prison sites in the municipality was a reasonable process, Cr. Sherriff blew up.
‘The process is ___!’ ‘I’m not impressed with the process at all. Councillors were not aware of the proposal any more than you guys. I found out the location when you found out.’
When Mr Wileman asked when ratepayers could expect action over this, Cr. Sherriff turned the tables, implying his hard work was unappreciated.
‘I’m here for you guys! I’m on this table to listen to your concerns. We have no information on this proposal. We’ve got no application. We know as much as you guys do.’
‘We have a difficult role at this table and I’ll let you know I’ve lost a lot of respect in this community because of the way you guys have acted. We didn’t start this. I joined council after all this was in the pipeline.’
‘You put yourselves in our position as elected members, being chastised, emailed four times a day asking for information we have no idea about!’
‘People on this table live in Westbury the same as you. Do they have concerns? Yes they do. Do we know the information? No we don’t. Give us a break!’
In contrast to previous meetings, members of Westbury Residents Against the Prison (WRAP) seemed to set out to be provocative and take charge of the meeting. Earlier, Westbury resident Anne-Marie Loader asked whether she could video the proceedings because she believed council minutes were not an accurate reflection of events. Cr. Johnston’s reply in the negative, because ‘the council has no policy on videoing meetings’ and his instruction for the public gallery to ‘wait until there is a policy’, provoked jeers from the public gallery.
Several people continued videoing regardless, in a nod to former Cr. Andrew Connor who several times put forward motions on videoing council meetings, without support from any fellow councillors.
Opinion: Prison public meeting results in stalemate
THERE’S A saying dating back centuries: ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’
Corrections Minister Elise Archer should have remembered this when she organised December’s public meeting to consult locals at Westbury Town Hall.
According to members of WRAP, Westbury Region Against the Prison, the meeting was initiated on Minister Archer’s first visit to Westbury, at the Green Door Café.
‘We would only talk to her if she guaranteed she would return to Westbury for a public meeting,’ said WRAP president Linda Poulton.
‘She said she would, so we sat down to talk.’
WRAP contacted the minister’s office many times about a date for the promised meeting, offering to find a location, book it and set it up.
But eventually, when the date was announced, the Minister spurned WRAP’s help. Management 101 dictates that good leaders maintain control by involving people/followers/ employees in decision-making processes.
But Elise Archer, presumably in an effort to maintain control, did not involve her opponents.
She kept WRAP outside the organisation of the meeting, timing it when many people were still at work or travelling from work and limiting the meeting time to one hour only. Employing Kingston-based consultants Impact Solutions International to run the meeting may also have been a mistake.
Impact Solutions advertise as specialising in transforming conflict. ‘People call us when they don’t know who else to call’. It didn’t work with Westbury.
People walked into the hall to see chairs organised in the round rather than facing the stage. Ultimately this left Minister Archer in the middle of a circle of hostility.
WRAP members and others against the prison had no investment in the public meeting.
They arrived with aggressively- worded signs and banners, they disrupted with shouting and yelling.
Impact Solutions CEO Mary Dwyer and director Chris Rees as facilitators were ineffectual in keeping order, behaving as if it were the Battery Point School for Seniors.
They were nice but seemed unaware that Westbury residents believed their lifestyles and livelihoods were at stake. After the meeting, one resident commented that on seeing the circle arrangement, he expected a round of ‘Kumbaya’. This left Elise Archer the opportunity to move into the space vacated by putative chairs Dwyer and Rees. It wasn’t a good switch. And for a woman who has hung out successfully in the female hostile Tasmanian Liberal Party to become Attorney General and Corrections Minister, it wasn’t smart. Just as it wasn’t ideal to walk in to the meeting with Director of Prisons, Ian Thomas. Fair enough, he could have answered prison questions if called upon, but he wasn’t.
But this tall, shiny-headed man in full uniform, complete with shiny brass buttons and epaulettes, was intimidating. It looked like the Minister had arrived with the cops. Elise Archer must know she is inclined to be blunt and brittle on her way to achieving her goals. She isn’t the only person with these traits but she needed to appear sympathetic, to get Westbury residents on side.
Instead, she was defensive, snappy and impatient.
Minister Archer took charge when things were not going as she liked, barking out replies to questions and dismissing people without valid points. It didn’t help the hostility issue, it made it worse.
In the end, the Minister left with a computer full of Westbury residents’ comments and questions. Nothing she hadn’t heard before. Nothing residents hadn’t said before, but with everyone feeling just a bit worse about the whole prison situation.
Sharon Webb is the author of the article(s), originally published in the Meander Valley Gazette.
UPDATE: In our earlier coverage of the Westbury prison issue, columnist John Hawkins put a series of questions to then Premier Will Hodgman. We did finally get a reply:
Tasmanians will never know why our Premier resigned
by John Hawkins
Lurking in the political background is the payback that will benefit the principal players when the poker machine licences are rammed through parliament. These licences print money for the gambling lobby. To protect them the last Tasmanian state election was bought for the Liberals.
Will the Liberals under their new leader grant the licences to the industry on the terms agreed before the election?
It would be helpful to see the commercial-in-confidence paperwork evaluating the breakdown in the numbers of those who steal to feed a gambling addiction, the number imprisoned by mandatory sentencing and those convicted of drug related offences.
These so-called criminals, largely created by the actions of the state, are the principal driver for the proposed new prison at Westbury. In the interests of good governance would it not be better to treat or reduce exposure to these addictions, Mr Premier?
The problem is this would weaken the wedge you have over Labour and the Greens, a wedge that has kept the Liberal party in power.
The above letter states that “the Government will not comment on any privately owned sites which may or may not have been part of the expressions of interest process as this process was commercial in confidence.”
Hang on Mr Premier, the Westbury site is also privately owned. Thanks to the efforts of WRAP a scrap of Commercial in Confidence evidence has escaped into the public domain:
The owner of the proposed prison site owes $600,000 to the Meander Valley Council. This debt was incurred and agreed by one of the Liberals very own; the one-time Mayor of Meander, Mark Shelton MHA. Why was this matter left undeclared when Shelton addressed those who elected him at Westbury?
Why is it so important that this information was deemed commercial-in-confidence, Mr Premier? The corruption over due process that the prison has so far engendered could be addressed by a new broom without loss of face to the new Premier, Peter Gutwein.
As Premier and member for Bass you are beholden to the people of George Town in your electorate. A prison in the principal industrial centre of the north will be seen as supporting those most in need; it is these people who actually voted for your party.
In the electorate of Bass, the Bell Bay smelters are hanging on by the skin of their teeth using our electricity generated by the Battery of the Nation and sold to them at less than cost. All Tasmanians via their electricity bills are funding the two largest mining companies in the world, Rio Tinto and BHP in their efforts to smelt aluminium in Tasmania.
Mr Premier, your party and its PR spinners invented Tasmania the Battery of the Nation. Why not sell our electricity to the mainland at a proper price? Currently more than half of the electricity generated in Tasmania props up super-rich corporations who bend your political ears to the detriment of all Tasmanians.
As the new Minister for Climate Change I can tell you one home truth Mr Premier – rain will not fill the mountain lakes again in our lifetime. There are no votes in that Mr Premier.
Why should the people of Tasmania wear the costs protected by commercial-in-confidence of keeping the smelters running? The smelters and the price they pay for electricity is flattening the Battery of the Nation. This price is the biggest secret in the state, a top secret, a serious secret, a proper secret, a no-one-must know secret, a commercial-in-confidence secret.
One could surmise that Tasmanians would find you a warm and cosy cell in that lovely new jail if they ever find out the real cost of supplying the smelters at less than cost. A sensible Liberal politician would put the proposed new prison on the Gunns site and give employment to those who will be desperately in need of a job when the smelter business blows up in your face.
Forget the $600,000 and Shelton there are bigger fish to fry in the sea namely cables and gas pipelines!
Letter to the former Premier from John Hawkins on behalf of Tasmanian Times
The Department of the Premier and Cabinet
Dear Mr Hodgman
I am preparing an article on the Westbury Prison for Tasmanian Times. This internet newspaper will restart with my article to be published in three parts in successive weeks based around your answers or non-answers to the following questions:
- Does the State government have the money to build the prison?
- If not, will it be built under licence and will it then owned and built by the licensee?
- What is the proposed length of the lease?
- Will the build be put out for tender? I may wish to tender.
- Is the site at Westbury set in stone?
- Has the government considered the Gunns 2500acre site at Longreach, currently under offer by the Gunns liquidators Korda Mentha as a proposed greenfield electricity generating site using wind and solar, only 100acres would be required to be cut off for a new Prison?
- Are you aware that Rio Tinto the owners of the Bell Bay site hold a caveat over the Gunns site and that they have the right of veto over any new development at Longreach?
- Are you aware that if and when Rio Tinto decide to close their Bell Bay aluminium smelter some 300 workers will lose their jobs?
- If Rio Tinto use their power of veto to call for the new Prison on the site to allow for the employment of their retrenched staff would your government be in favour?
- Will you confirm that the Longreach Gunns site has not been considered?
- If the Longreach site was considered what were the principal reasons behind the exclusion?
I look forward with interest to your reply.
CONSULTATION PROCESS: WRAP and Minister Archer media releases.
PROTEST: WRAP action at Parliament House.
REMAND CENTRE AT PROSPECT VALE: WRAP statement on rezoned land at Westbury Rd, Prospect Vale.