WITH 110 participants representing individuals, organisations and viewpoints from across the Shire, South Gippsland Shire’s Sustainability Forum – held at Leongatha last Wednesday as the final community input to the development of its Sustainability Strategy – resounded with the discussion of ideas.
The forum’s guest speaker, political economist Professor Peter Fairbrother, clarified the context in which the Sustainability Strategy was required, in terms of connection both to wider Gippsland and the world situation.
He also gave reasons as to why sustainable preparations should be made and indicated how the process of dealing with inevitable and unavoidable change could progress.
At the end, when facilitators of the 12 different topics summarised the input they had recorded during two workshop sessions at the forum, it was clear that there was a mix of optimism, inspiration and hope, but also polarised views about the situation and what should be done, plus a varying level of realism and understanding of Council’s resources and what was already on the ground.
Experiences of participants at the forum ranged through:
- Thrilled about the consultation opportunity.
- Buoyed by the face-to-face meeting with great people and useful networking contacts.
- Calls for the forum to be held annually.
- Glad they attended; “It was a good thing.”
- A feeling that individuals could “help do something” towards sustainability.
- Praise for Council “giving sustainability a go” and talking to the community.
- Pleasure that community discussion on the topic has seriously started.
- Pride that the district contains people with such good credentials.
- Uncertainty that Council would get anything useful not already obtained via the sustainability survey.
- Reluctance to participate again due to feelings that responses were being unnecessarily restricted or channeled.
- It was a waste of effort because ideas were not being listened to.
- Council or its staff have already made up their mind on what should be done.
- The approach was patronizing and ‘do-good’ that won’t work because most people won’t change their behaviour until they are forced to.
Professor Peter Fairbrother combines a background in high-level research in Australia and overseas with the RMIT University Centre for Governance, Work and Technologies, social enterprise (Eureka’s Future) and sustainability, with local connection to the area, having grown up at Mirboo and now living part time in Leongatha.
His talk stimulated the forum’s mood and challenged participants prior to their involvement in two workshops of their choice out of the 12 topics under discussion.
He spoke about the developments of climate change, oil supply decline/fuel cost increases and patterns of consumption as requiring debate so communities could eventually reach agreed positions for change so that development for the present “does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Without pulling punches, Prof. Fairbrother said that debate and subsequent policy development towards a vision that addresses inevitably complex issues would be difficult due to a diversity of views and interests.
On the positive side, he noted the changes could lead to a better lives and communities that are more capable of adapting to major changes.
However he emphasised the necessity of involvement in such a process on the grounds of moral obligation [it affects everybody] and depletion of limited resources, which combined with the simultaneous impacts of climate change, would force imminent and massive changes to the current operation and organisation of human societies.
Looking around the large audience in Leongatha Memorial hall, he expressed pleasure at the “groundswell of community concern and desire to take practical steps to live more sustainably.”
Due to its proximity to the Latrobe Valley’s coal-generated power industry and the carbon emissions from South Gippsland’s agricultural industry, Prof. Fairbrother anticipated that transitional changes and knock-on impacts would be substantial for the entire municipality.
On the other hand, although acknowledging that the future was uncertain, he saw the Latrobe Valley as having great opportunity for conversion to a ‘green economy’ and South Gippsland’s thriving dairy farms, major dairy manufacturing companies and natural climate advantages as tremendous strengths that could be harnessed to create an optimistic and sustainable future for both locals and the region.
He suggested that ‘Locality Action’, a cooperative approach between industry, local government and community with support of education and State Government, was a positive direction that South Gippsland could take.
By means of carrying out green economic solutions through joint ventures, locality action is expected to move “debilitating effects” from impacting unevenly on individuals to being a burden more broadly and capably shouldered by the wider community.
Given a prediction that the cost of crude oil could rise from the current price of around $75US/barrel to $200US/barrel in 2013, he underlined that there was also a degree of urgency in preparing for changes to production, consumption and distribution of food and goods.
- As a way forward, Prof. Fairbrother envisaged the procedure as:
- A strong emphasis on bottom-up activity.
- A determined attempt to build robust partnerships.
- Recognition of the importance of local ownership.
- A genuine attempt to secure joined-up governance.
- An evaluation methodology which stresses outcomes.
- A recognition that community involvement takes time; and
- An on-going debate.
Interestingly, attendee perceptions of Prof. Fairbrother’s talk ranged from “too conservative” to “too involved with the unions” and from “unrealistic expectations” to “made good connections from the global to the local situation.”
Just a few examples of ideas generated at the forum on the topics discussed at the workshops (and which may or may not be taken up by Council) were:
1. Renewable energy/resource efficiency – Support community-owned small-scale energy cooperatives; Assist with bulk purchasing of renewable energy equipment (e.g. solar panels).
2. Promoting sustainable partnerships/networks – Council to promote farmers’ markets, food swaps, locally-grown food box and transition towns/sustainability groups in the community.
3. Sustainable agribusiness. This area had a long list of comments, including – An annual South Gippsland Sustainable Farm award; Facilitation of value-adding to products; Development of a ‘grown in South Gippsland’ brand; Organisation of one businesses’ ‘trash’ as another’s ‘treasure’.
4. Community-supported regenerative agriculture – Develop community gardens and local food networks as a high priority.
5. Sustainable business/tourism – ‘Green’ branding for tourism businesses and for resource efficiency in other businesses.
6. Resource minimisation (water, waste, energy) – More public education on reduce/reuse/recycle approach; Council to instigate possible options, especially in regards to waste.
7. Sustainable transport/mobility – Return of rail to at least Leongatha; Council to take lead in advocating on behalf of public transport user groups.
8. Promoting discussion on climate change adaptation – Council sponsoring speakers and workshops at accessible locations right around the Shire.
9. Building resilient communities – Adopt Heyfield’s ‘sustainable flag system’ in South Gippsland communities to show growth and progress of sustainability awareness and action in households and businesses; Support community kitchens and cafes.
10. Sustainability education/involvement for young people – Annual award for young sustainability practitioner of the year; Young Farmers groups to network with other youth groups; Organise businesses and government agencies to take on young employees/work experience students.
11. Natural resource management – Improved management of remnant vegetation on Council owned/leased land; Only plant indigenous species in Council plantings.
12. Sustainable population/settlement/land-use planning – Protect high value agricultural land; Improved landscape and settlement planning.
Council’s Sustainability Planner Christine Hamilton commented that it was beneficial having a range of staff from engineering, health planning, economic, waste management and community departments to facilitate the discussion tables because it brought a fresh approach, gave cross-departmental education of staff about strategic sustainability issues and community involvement, and allowed the community to meet people at the Shire.
“While people could pick holes in what we achieve at today’s forum, I hope they will focus on the progress and positive things that come out of it,” she said.
During the forum, Mayor Cr Jim Fawcett said that personally, he “had no doubts about the need to work towards sustainability” but he did have “doubts on how to do it, the financials, and what the community was looking for.”
He looked forward to the Sustainability Strategy and its consequential flow-on through Council’s budget, Council Plan and applications for grants from a variety of State and Federal Government funding programs (such as Resilient Communities, Climate Change, the Sustainability Accord) as clarifying these uncertainties.
The Mayor continued, “We’ve got to stop using ‘it’s not our responsibility’ as an excuse to avoid an issue, instead we should use it as an explanation of who we have to approach to deal with the issue.”
Council’s Sustainability Director Andrew McEwen opined, “There are clearly opportunities for South Gippsland to become sustainable, pre-eminent in food production for Australia and providing green jobs in the inevitable transition to a low carbon economy.
“There are very practical things we can do that would be a win-win for Council and the community, such as following the example of Goulburn Mulwaree Council’s [NSW] ‘City to Soil’ bio-composting program and participating in pilot projects with the Gippsland Waste Management Group.
Mr. McEwen anticipated that the Draft Sustainability Strategy would be put to internal and external reference groups, hopefully to Council in October for adoption and subsequent six week public exhibition and final Council approval by end of February.
“The forum has put sustainability into mainstream discussion,” he said with delight.