May 6, 2016
BASS Coast councillor Kimberley Brown recently received an email from a resident, someone she had never met. “You disgust me …” it began.
The level of personal abuse she cops as a councillor still astonishes her. “I realise people have different opinions and some are more forceful at getting them across that others, particularly when they are passionate. You don’t have to like your representative, but you also don’t have to emotionally damage, shame, and bully people into your views.
“People often say to me, ‘You signed up for this’, and I say nobody should expect to be bullied or slandered or publicly shamed’.”
At the height of the dogs-on-beaches war a couple of years ago, someone gave out the address and home phone number of Cr Jordan Crugnale. She was called and texted at all hours of the day and night. People drove slowly past her place at night and dropped abusive letters into her letterbox. She eventually had to call the police because she was concerned about her family’s safety.
Maybe it’s due to social media, she says. “Everyone feels they can come up and say anything. I’ve had 60-year-olds giving me the finger. And they’re supposed to be the wise elders of our community!”
Asked how much the personal abuse affected her, Cr Crugnale shrugs and says, “I come from a dysfunctional family and worked in mental health.”
For all her equanimity, she still finds herself surprised by the reactions. “The issue becomes a catalyst for a whole series of things. On the surface, they seem disproportionate to the issues. Behind that seems to be a general distrust of any level of government, that you’re just pushing your own agenda.”
In 2014, when councillors were called on to decide on whether a special charge scheme for Cape Paterson should proceed to a vote by residents, the council gallery was packed with opponents of the scheme. As councillors voted six to one to advertise the scheme – ie. to allow the affected residents to vote on whether the scheme should proceed – there was heckling and jeering from the gallery. One man stood close to then mayor Neil Rankine and screamed in his face, “We’ll remember this, Rankine.”
Phil Wright believes Tony Abbott changed Australia’s political culture for the worse.
“Ultimately the decision will be made democratically,” Cr Rankine says, “but many just want to stop the process lest an outcome they don’t want ends up happening.”
As mayor in 2013-14, he bore the brunt of the Stand Alone campaign (for Phillip Island independence) when it was at its most strident. At a Stand Alone public meeting in Cowes in June 2014, he responded on behalf of the council, almost a lone voice in a very hostile gathering. As residents and ratepayers entered the hall, a song from Les Miserables was playing, over and over again: “Do you hear the people sing?/Singing the song of angry men.”
Cr Rankine says there is often a strong vested interest driving aggressive behaviour towards councillors, with the justification varying from personal gain or avoiding potential loss down to just being fed up or feeling undervalued.
“The great thing about our democracy is, of course, that those feeling disaffected have a right to express their views and seek to be heard. Almost invariably things haven’t been helped by either misinformation, or a lack of good information, or in the case of re-purposing of the Wonthaggi Centennial Centre, no information.
“The Phillip Island Stand Alone angst came largely from being fed selective, often inaccurate, information about the equitable distribution of council services, which in turn fuelled a desire to control their own destiny.”
He says different councillors have different ways of working through the issues. “All I can say is that my way is to get in there and provide the best information possible to all.”
Cr Phil Wright has no doubt about the topic that brings most abuse. “People who are normally rational turn illogical and aggressive on the subject of dogs.”
Now in his third term as a Bass Coast councillor, he is practised at diverting aggression and trying to turn it into something more positive. “The reality is that I really enjoy people’s opinions especially if they are well considered. I love being proved wrong.”
First off, he tries to start a genuine conversation. “How do you see the island (or shire) in 20 years?” He might point out that he has yet to see a submission from the aggrieved person, or to see them at a working bee.
If the subject is complex and there is limited time, he will ask for information to be sent to him so he can read and digest it first before discussing it.
“If it elevates, I ask them to move away so other people can’t hear. Most people calm down if there is no audience. I might ask them to please lower their voice. Finally, I might say ‘If you can’t show respect, I’m afraid I must walk away’.
Cr Brown says she tries to look past the abuse. “I work closely enough with the community to know that not everyone is like that. But unfortunately it is often those loudest voices that scare others in the community into not wanting to speak up too.”
She says that while it is “sticks and stones” to her, she knows of current and former councillors who have been broken and required counselling because of the personal abuse.
Cr Crugnale says councillors are often attacked for following democratic processes.
“Sometimes the people who are the noisiest think they represent the community, but our role is to look at a whole gamut of research and talk to a wide group of people. You have to stick to the premise that everyone wants the best for the community, we just have different views.”
Cr Wright believes the success of then Opposition leader Tony Abbot’s attacks – “no logic or content but repeated aggression” – on Julia Gillard, refugees and others changed political culture in Australia, from the federal right down to the local level.
“It seemed to unleash a social behaviour that was always there but always hiding in the shadows. His success made it acceptable to be rude, repetitive and irrational. There are no winners.”
Call them gluttons for punishment, but all four councillors interviewed for this article will seek re-election.
Our article on the personal abuse of councillors clearly struck a nerve, with many excellent comments from readers.
This is a poignant article. I disagree with much of what our elected council does and their perceived incompetence irritates me frequently, but they should not be abused for being human.
I do, however, feel that accusing Tony Abbott of creating, supporting or promulgating such abuse is neither correct nor helpful. Phil Wright has enough experience in local government to know what he is doing - stirring the pot - no doubt intended as a political backhander. "It is alright to abuse a conservative, they are the bad guys."
Tony Abbott is a scrapper, and is by no means perfect, but I don't believe he is responsible for the poor behaviour of others in our society, any more than Paul Keating or Bob Menzies. My recollections of the man are that he is generally direct but courteous. Those who oppose him are more often discourteous and mean of spirit.
The choice of photograph in the article confirms my thoughts that those in the media choose to portray our politicians in a certain light. The accompanying photograph suggests a snake or devil; deliberately chosen to direct our view? Tony eating an onion would have been more honest.
The real culprit is, I believe, the electronic media which allows subliminal messages of hatred to groom the morals of our society without proper check. Fast and ever-present coverage which always wants to cut others down. Tall poppies are getting shorter. We rightly spurn the 'anti whatever' hate-speak emails, but condone the abuse of our elected politicians on Facebook, TV, radio and elsewhere.
Television and radio news-bites tend to push an image which supports our Australian political tribalism. We, the anonymous public, are groomed to hate and disrespect those with whom we disagree. That may be why our councillors are abused.
Peter Brown, Glen Forbes
May 30, 2016
Re: Peter Brown's comments on the photograph of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a picture is said to be worth a thousand words. What I saw in the picture reminded me of the mischievous look you sometimes see in a six or seven-year-old schoolboy. Then again, maybe the look of someone who has had a drink or two.
I once saw a documentary about a photographer who was commissioned to do portraits of famous people. His goal was to capture the person's character in a fraction of a second, which could not happen while the subject remained aware of the camera's presence. He needed to catch them off guard, preferably thinking about something other than the camera. He said that sometimes he had to follow the subject around for hours, if not days, waiting for that lapse of attention.
While I don't accuse Tony Abbott of creating abusive and demeaning behaviour – it’s been around for some time now – he most certainly participated in it. While I, too, recollect Mr Abbott being courteous in front of the camera, I also remember the sometimes disgraceful manner in which he addressed political opponents under parliamentary privilege. Standing in front of the banner which read “Ditch the witch” also lowered the bar. I also recall at least two instances in which Mr Abbott was caught by an eavesdropping microphone being less than sincere and courteous. He introduced into parliament a bill giving Australians the right to offend one another, as if the right to be offensive in the name of free speech was all we were lacking. I give him credit for withdrawing the bill. I also give him credit for his firefighting and lifesaving. These activities seem to bring out the best in him.
We could be excused for thinking abusing someone is an acceptable form of expression and means of dealing with those who don't see things the way we do. Politicians, radio presenters, newspaper columnists, talkback callers and writers of letters to the editor ooze venom; some of it brutally blunt, some insidiously subtle and deceitful. And so ill-mannered behaviour and disregard for another person's dignity flows out onto the streets, into the traffic and retail sectors, finally ending up on a beach on the end of a leash that is not attached to a dog.
A couple of summers ago, I saw two unleashed dogs meet on a crowded Phillip Island beach. After a brief introduction, one took the other in its mouth. The owners of the biter had them separated before the owner of the bitee arrived on the scene. She was elderly, and unwrapping the leash from round her wrist, she began lashing out, attempting to whip the offending dog while screaming about a vet's bill. In a most undignified display, she fell over, continuing her angry tirade. That sort of explosion takes days to get out of your system and longer if you choose to. This topic warrants further scrutiny.
John Coldebella, Wonthaggi
May 20, 2016
Aggressive attacks on females in public office by the commercial media is part of a long tradition. Think of what Janine Haines, Joan Kirner, Susan Davies, Christine Nixon and Julia Gillard, to name just a few, had to endure.
The negativity towardsour own first-term councillors started with a beat-up front page story in a local newspaper about poisoned vegetables at Newhaven.
Despite their inexperience, I see the current councillors as the most listening, socially aware, broadly educated and up-to-date we have had.
The previous council had a free ride in commercial media, even when changing the coastal town boundaries without consultation.
The role of commercial media is to manufacture opinion, set cultural priorities and make people feel anxious, deprived and inadequate enough to turn to consumerism or retail therapy, thus increasing advertising revenue. Is there a correlation between consumption of commercial media and life dissatisfaction?
The message is to leave local government to establishment blokes and just buy stuff that’s in our ads. Perhaps a 45-square house will solve your problem.
Frank Coldebella, Wonthaggi
Our councillors receive the trickledown effect of this rewarded abuse and some people use this form of perceived validated communication so they can make their views heard. Our councillors really do need to have broad shoulders in their dealings with our community.
Jeff Nottle, Newhaven
I personally witnessed councillors being subjected to aggression last Monday night. We had four councillors in the room, and while I could always finds points to debate with them, they are all excellent people giving up their time to inform us residents. We also had the consultant who prepared the draft Tourism Strategy.
They were harangued from a point of view rather than facts. The CEO in his absence was also singled out for attack. These people came to a meeting just to put a point of view - not listen. While they are passionate, they are ill informed and their facts are one sided.
They are also condescending and rude; especially to councillors but also the rest of the meeting and in particular to the chairperson.
Michael Whelan, Cowes
This same phrase has been spat at me on two occasions years ago, while I was MP for Ringwood. Both by different middle aged men, at my face, with no one nearby. The first was in Parliament house dining room, delivered by an opposition MP, in response to a speech I had given on family violence. The other was at a local public meeting about work cover legislation. Both very public spaces.
This abuse was unexpected and shocking. I felt quite frightened for my personal safety. These personal insults , so full of hate, never leave you. Those men, at that time, felt they had won their argument hands down, because of the numbing shock I obviously felt.
Each of them felt it was OK to speak to me in such a degrading manner. These men feel an entitlement to reduce, shame, cower and ultimately silence women. They feel their voice is the only voice entitled to be heard.
No more! Today I would stand my ground, not shrink, look him in the eye, stand toe to toe (very hard when they are so much taller then you!) and say very loudly "This man is threatening me!"
Women everywhere - don't take this publicly unacceptable behaviour! (It is of course unacceptable privately as well, but a note of caution here! Women can get beaten mercilessly if they fight back.)
The councillors can and do expect a measure of robust discussion and responses to proposed council policy or actions, but I would never agree or accept that any councillor has "signed up" for outrageous unacceptable abuse, derision and threatening behaviour. No matter what the issue is, they are entitled to be addressed and listened to with respect.
Being an older person, I subscribe to the view that all manner of difficulties, disputes and issues can be negotiated and usually resolved over time.
I sincerely hope to see an outbreak of respect between us all in Bass Coast.
Kay Steches, Surf Beach
The community of Bass Coast is so divided, so fractured, and sometimes blinded by their own needs and desires for what they think is needed or wanted or correct in their eyes.
What if your publication ran a series of town hall tea and talk sessions? Visiting as many tiny towns and large ones alike in the shire. Have a meet and greet, be unbiased, use a white board or butchers’ paper. Gather everyone's concerns, grievances, praise, fears and feedback? Its a very diverse and divided shire with the “us against them” vibe strongly showing through. I believe the only way forward is a united, not a fractured, shire.
Imagine the joy in listing the good, bad and ugly that every tiny pocket of community see as their truths ... Oh the charts you could make.
A warm word of welcome and a smile goes a long way to bring folk together, I feel everyone needs to know it’s not just about Phillip Island versus the mainland. Gosh, who listens to Farmer Tom or that single mum?
So many towns, so many folk without a voice. It's an election year, the candidates need to hear their community's voices, I mean actually hear, not just say “Yes, I'm listening!” As thats a sign they are not.
I hear so much negativity on my days in Cowes. The district is losing great passionate people who just tune out. The holiday home owners are mostly uninterested. And people still don't understand the council doesn’t control the roads, did not close the hospital, and how will they pay all the fabulous district nurses.
I've not expressed any personal views. I see folk from the Stand Alone, the for and against, the greens, the carve-it-up crew, the close the bridge gang, the hills folk, and the we-need-this-and-that type.
We get the government we deserve, no matter what level of government it is.
Kylie Joyful, Hawksburn
Thank you, Catherine, for revealing what our councillors have to put up with from some, when these people's demands are not met. Personally, I am eternally grateful to people who are willing to sit through hours of what, I imagine, can be boring meetings to deal with the minutiae of day-to-day running of our shire, people who take the responsibility of budgeting with decreasing revenue and ever-increasing demands, who take the responsibility of planning ahead for the benefit of our shire, people who spend hours in consultation with their constituents when making decisions.
Councillors, I feel humbled and grateful for your tireless work to benefit our shire. I apologise for the abuse of disaffected people to whom Tony Abbot gave permission to be rude. Please know that there are many of us who appreciate and value your work.
Felicia De Stefabo, Glen Forbes
A former Bass Coast councillor contacted the Post to comment on our article - and requested anonymity for fear of being subjected to more abuse! The councillor responded to a series of questions from the Post.
Why do normally law-abiding and courteous members of the community think it is OK to personally abuse councillors if they don't agree with them?
- Frustration due to a belief that one is not being taken seriously or listened to. Frustration arises when concerns or ideas are not addressed by councillors, or only some aspects are addressed and other aspects ignored with no further intent to discuss, or councillors base their decision on personal likes/ dislikes/ impressions/ lack of corporate history, eg. dogs and Wonthaggi Information Centre
- The Community’s lack of understanding of the legislative requirements of the decision-making process, eg. special charge schemes.
- Inability to articulate a reasoned argument: Some people are not able to clearly and consistently articulate an alternative point of view and resort to verbally abusing their opponent.
- Tactical: Some people, who often operate out of self interest, see attacking a councillor publically over a period of time in local newspapers and on-line as a way of discrediting and undermining that councillor in order to have another person more in line with their thinking elected.
- Newspaper sales: If an issue sells papers it will be given prominence by the press. Unfair attacks on councillors are promoted and disguised as news reporting.
Is it effective in changing councillors' minds?
Quite the contrary. It may harden the resolve of the person being attacked.
Why are so many people so angry?
Partly because they don’t understand representative democracy and the role of the three levels of government. They want their elected councillor to do as they say or don’t realise that the authority to make a decision lies with another level of government/government body.
Some people may also be angry because they don’t agree with some of council’s decisions or the way in which some decisions have been reached but this is no excuse for personal abuse.
Should it be classed as bullying?
In some cases yes.
How did it make you feel when you were subjected to it?
It made me feel awful but it also made me more determined to review the situation and if I thought the decision was still the best outcome for the community, I would again give the reasons for a particular decision.