I’VE always been proud of Wonthaggi. I grew up here. It wasn’t a wealthy town but there was great pride in the town and the community.
A dozen to twenty years ago something seem to change: we lost our pride and passion for our town.
But look at us now! Suddenly a lot of people are proud to call Wonthaggi home.
In my other life as a real estate agent I deal with people coming here from Melbourne or other places. They can’t believe what we’ve got here. They mention the facilities, the beaches, the landscapes, the shopping, the clubs, the cinema, the arts society. We’ve even got a café culture at last. Work has started on a new high school and our hospital is set for a $115 million upgrade. The place is buzzing.
It’s funny the events that you only realise later are turning points.
Wonthaggi’s turning point came at the new council’s first serious meeting in February 2017. There was a motion for Bass Coast Shire to contribute towards a highball stadium at the future high school site. The state government had agreed to put in $2.5 million for the stadium on condition that the council contributed “up to $2 million”.
The new councillors, most of whom had been elected on a platform of cutting costs, voted five to four not to proceed.
The next day my email and phone were running hot. Unbeknown to most of the new councillors, the school and basketball communities had been working on the stadium project for several years. And they were furious!
By the time the April council meeting came around, these hard-working people had contacted every councillor and made sure they understood the background to the project.
At the meeting there was a motion to rescind the original decision and to support the stadium. This time it passed unanimously.
I thought at the time that vote was important. In retrospect I realise it was the start of Wonthaggi’s revival.
In times past the local community would have shrugged their shoulders and said “What did you expect?” Most locals had come to believe they didn’t deserve much. After all, the last major project in the town was the swimming pool and that was in the 1970s.
But this time a passionate community campaign persuaded councillors to change their minds and it had a surprising flow-on effect.
It marked the start of work on the new high school site in the education precinct. Since then, of course, we’ve had a visit from the Premier Daniel Andrews to announce funding of $32.5 million for the new school.
I wonder if that would have gone ahead if we’d knocked back the original funding for the stadium. Or would the government have thought, “Why should we help them if they won’t help themselves?”
The school announcement, after 10 years of hard work by the school community and advocacy by the council, really lifted the spirits of everyone in the town.
The one we didn’t see coming was the hospital upgrade. And smaller successes such as funding for the Wonthaggi SES ($2 million) and the Cape Paterson Lifesaving Club ($2.3 million).
All this after no major government spending in Bass Coast for the past 15 years. Liberal governments never spent any money here because Bass was a safe Liberal seat. Labour governments never spent any money here because Bass was a safe Liberal seat.
So what changed?
In a word, politics. At the last state election the Liberal primary vote slipped from 56 to 45 per cent. Credit here to my fellow councillor, Clare Le Serve, who stood as an Independent candidate and won enough votes (10.8 per cent) from the Liberal Party to make the seat marginal.
Sometimes the things that seem hopeless causes make a big difference. The ALP now sees the seat as winnable and we’re the beneficiaries. It would almost be embarrassing … but it’s not before time.
There’s also the fact that due to a lot of very hard work by council’s finance staff we are now in a position to put up our share of funding to attract government funding for local projects.
So many things have been crossed off our advocacy list but there is still a long way to go. I want to see opportunities for local tertiary education for those of our young people who don’t want to go to the city.
We have our eyes on the high school site once the high school moves in early 2020. The Government hasn’t made any commitment but we are confident we will get the site for public use: a cultural precinct, perhaps the new library, perhaps a regional art gallery ...
Look at us now! The pride is back.