“ALMOST nothing I say is going to please you,” said Rob Maclellan, “because I come from a different part of the world and from that part of the world we observe what happens here with a sense of disbelief.”
The former planning and local government minister in the Kennett Government was always a controversial figure who loved to antagonise his political opponents. You can see it in the devilish grin in his photo on the Victorian Parliament website.
He lived up to his billing when he crossed the bridge from San Remo, where he lives, to address the Community Plus forum in Newhaven on Monday. Billed as “an elder”, the long-time San Remo resident proceeded to insult, hector and entertain his sceptical Phillip Island audience, including two local councillors and the mayor.
It was a lordly performance. Mr Maclellan began by expressing his disdain for council restrictions on dogs on beaches. “San Remo doesn’t have any regulations on dogs,” he said. “Our dogs are free to chase the seagulls. We don’t have any regulations at all. It doesn’t matterwhat the shire regulations the council applies because we have our own foreshore committee. We don't have to worry about dogs because we don't have any hooded plovers on our beach."
To which a local hooded plover champion, Patsy Hunt, responded sardonically, "Perhaps that's why you don't have any hooded plovers", but nothing could stop Mr Maclellan once he had the floor.
Pressed on his childhood, he talked of visiting Phillip Island on the ferry and having to dig a long drop for the house when holidaying at San Remo. He grew quite maudlin as he talked about emptying the waste can and what a difference it made to a person.
At the time, I thought he was referring to growing up poor but when I went home and googled Rob Maclellan I discovered there was nothing poor about him. To quote from Wiki: “Robert Roy Cameron ‘Rob’ Maclellan AM (born 8 March 1934) was born in Melbourne to businessman Roy James Maclellan and Amy Catherine McMicking. He attended Melbourne Grammar School and received a Bachelor of Law from Melbourne University in 1966. He has also studied history at La Trobe University. He worked in the Victorian Attorney-General's department before teaching at Sunshine and Northcote High Schools, finally becoming a farmer at San Remo jointly with his brother."
The Wiki entry quotes an Age article of 1997 in which Maclellan argued “devolution of State planning powers to a large number of municipal councils ... resulted in an overemphasis on local aspects of planning and development at a cost to the wider community”.
That might explain why much of his talk on Friday was scathing about the council, either for doing too much or for doing too little. He reserved particular scorn for Cr Phil Wright who recently suggested we should be paying higher rates in Bass Coast so we could do more with them.
“My brother and I pay $63,000 a year in rates,” Mr Maclellan said, “more than our income, on property my grandmother bought before I was born. We pay more in rates than we get in rent. And he wants more!” He pointed accusingly at Cr Wright.
Picture: Victorian Parliament
“Well, I want more millionaires to pay rates. I want the Ports and Harbour house at San Remo used for three millionaires. I want more developments on more blocks. I don’t want a two-year delay to get a house permit on the other side of San Remo because someone in the planning department has got their nose out of joint.”
It was an audacious attack given Mr Maclellan’s involvement in a recent costly State Government planning fiasco on the island. In 2011, Planning Minister Matthew Guy over-rode the council to permit housing on a 23-hectare farm in Ventnor. Following a public outcry, he backed down and in 2013 the State Government made a confidential compensation payment to the purchaser and the seller.
The Age later revealed Mr Guy had become involved at the request of Mr Maclellan, a friend of the purchaser.
In question time, Cr Wright was quick to pounce. Mentioning the Ventnor farm, he asked Mr Maclellan: “Do you see the island as wall-to-wall suburbia?”
There was not a flicker of embarrassment from Mr Maclellan, who immediately counter-attacked. “Have a look at Cowes! It’s Springvale by the Sea. Where’s the boundary? Is it Settlement Road?
“No I don’t want wall-to-wall suburbia but I want more ratepayers. There are thousands of blocks already there. Put some trees on them. You are the councillor for gardenless Phillip Island! Every holiday house owner comes down and mows the lawn but do they plant a bush? “They are mowing ‘Hamer’s hedge’ [a reference to the green wedges introduced by Liberal premier Dick Hamer in the 1970s].”
Councillors were also to blame for the parlous state of farming in Bass Coast.
“I blame some councillors who have found it beyond their wit to allow a farmer at Bass to buy the land next door and excise the house. Tell your planners to give a sympathetic hearing to the excision of the house when land is sold to existing farmers.”
The final message to councillors: “Cut down on costs. Stop some of the silly things the council does. Get more ratepayers – don’t screw the existing ones!”
It was a scattergun approach with the occasional pellet of wisdom among the potshots at easy targets. When the targets tried to respond or reason or ask for solutions, he simply talked over the top of them. Of course it was unfair. Still, at the end of it, he was heartily applauded, even by those he’d insulted.
As Mr Maclellan put it, “These are the uncomfortable thoughts of one on the edge”.
The edge of what wasn’t spelt out.
“Springvale by the Sea”
The Wallis subdivision, San Remo
“We got $1 million from a developer. We’re going to use it for art work, a board walk under the bridge and a footpath going down the hill to Potters Road that will be used by almost no one. ... That’s where our $1 million disappeared to.”
Flooding at Silverleaves
“Council officers should be writing to the State Government about building a rock wall, like we have at San Remo.”
The former Ports and Harbours house at San Remo
“It’s been empty for 17 years. Why doesn’t the council buy it at valuation and subdivide it into three and sell it for $4 million?”
“It’s still empty. Lease it and turn it to good use, but stop agonising about it.”
“It’s not an airport … it should be producing more rates.”
“Why are we still wasting staff time on Chinaman’s Estate? Give it to Phillip Island Nature Parks. Give them the whole Phillip Island foreshore. They’ve got the money; why not give them the responsibility?”
Griffiths Point Lodge
“It’s running at a loss. One of these days our hospital board is going to say it’s had enough. That’s at risk but does it appear on our horizon? No.”
Port of Hastings
“I don’t have an attitude about the Port of Hastings because I don’t know anything about it.”
Rob Maclellan to Community Plus forum