IT WAS a David and Goliath battle, pitching a small community against the might of a minister of state. Seven years on, the Ventnor saga continues to make waves, with the Labor State Government gleefully wheeling 32 boxes of documents relating to the case into Parliament two weeks ago.
He did so at the request of a local developer with Liberal Party links who stood to make a killing from subdividing the paddock for housing.
The site had been an issue just three years earlier in the development of a land use strategy for the island. Ten years of community consultation had gone into the planning documents. More than 100 submissions supported retaining the township boundaries while just one was in favour of rezoning the land: It came from the owner, John Cadogan.
“The minister’s call came out of nowhere,” recalls Veronica Dowman, who was Bass Coast mayor at the time. “It was totally at odds with everything the community and council had been working on. The overwhelming desire of the community was to set the township boundaries to stop haphazard development spilling into the rural land.”
This was a watershed moment. Councillors and staff were united. “We thought we had nothing to lose. We’ll fight to the end. But I don’t know that we ever thought we would win it.”
Staff established an electronic data base with all the Phillip Island community groups and all the individuals who were active. “The Phillip island community came on board. They came out so strongly.”
On September 12, she wrote to the minister rejecting his intervention and asking for a meeting.
Then local Liberal MP Ken Smith backed Matthew Guy 100 per cent – “He thought it was a wonderful idea” – but did arrange a meeting at Parliament. Veronica Dowman attended with Alan Bawden and the head of the shire’s planning department, Hannah Duncan-Jones.
“Mr Guy had a bizarre explanation for rezoning the land: ‘to facilitate urban growth and address housing affordability in Ventnor’!
“They thought we would be arguing on environmental grounds – impact on shore birds, etc – and we went straight to the Victorian planning process.”
The visitors pointed out that Bass Coast was waiting on the Minister’s approval of an amendment to the planning scheme that would establish the boundaries for Bass Coast’s 10 coastal townships to ensure 15 years’ housing supply. Mr Guy made it clear he wouldn’t budge.
Back in Bass Coast, they worked the media. While there was immediate interest from the ABC – John Faine in particular followed the issue closely on 3LO – there was zero interest from the commercial media.
That was until American singer Miley Cyrus appeared on the scene. The girlfriend of Australian actor Liam Hemsworth, whose family had long had a holiday house on the island. Her tweet "Phillip Island is such a magical place, it would be a shame to see it change” went viral.
“Suddenly the commercial media took an interest,” Veronica says. “We had helicopters flying over the island and TV crews at our protests.”
While Miley’s tweet had a huge impact, she says there was an even more important factor: the Ventnor holiday home owners were mostly well-heeled people who lived in Melbourne’s blue ribbon seats.
“I think they just got onto [then Premier] Ted Baillieu and said ‘What the hell is happening?’ and Mr Baillieu said to Matthew Guy ‘I’m not going to lose the next election over a paddock on an island’. That’s what I think happened.”
Two weeks after Mr Guy had announced he was rezoning the land, hundreds of Phillips Islanders and supporters gathered for a last-ditch protest on a site overlooking Cadogan’s farm. The rezoning was due to be gazetted the next day.
Veronica was on her way to the protest when Mr Guy called. He said “Veronica, I’ve got a message for you to tell the people at your protest. Tell them I won’t be rezoning the land.”’ She recalls him as being relaxed and pleasant. He even complimented her on running “a brilliant campaign”.
“He said he would sign off on C93 immediately ‘And then I am assured you have adequate land for urban development and affordable housing! I’ve made that commitment. I’ve listened.’ Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth!
“We rang the CEO first. I rang [fellow councillor] Jane Daly who was already at the site. I rang John Faine to tell him the news.”
By the time she arrived at Ventnor, there were TV crews and hovering helicopters and a very happy crowd. “It was so exciting! Did we celebrate!
The cabinet documents tabled last week reveal that the Government paid $2.5 million in compensation and another $1 million in legal costs. Not quite the windfall Ms Nicholls had envisaged from a residential development at Ventnor but not a bad profit after all.
Anne Davie, president of the Phillip Island Conservation Society, agrees. “When you get wins like that, it does give you a great boost. That the community could unite to stop this. It was a defining moment and it was led by a woman!”
But she says it was also a reminder of the need for eternal vigilance to protect the island. “The minister stepping in to rezone the land rang alarm bells for other councils and community groups. People felt it right across the state.”
For former councillor Jane Daly there’s an abiding outrage that such in-your-face corruption could occur and no one be charged. “I can’t believe they got away with it!”
“I saw Matthew Guy on television the other day saying it was cheaper to settle the case than go to court.”
As for Matthew Guy, he was never prosecuted but the case continues to tarnish his reputation, with a little help from a grateful Labor Party.
Jane Daly feels no pity. “I hope it haunts and haunts and haunts him until the day he dies.”