Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Forum for Democratic Renewal

Regular readers will have noticed Landcare's monthly posting here taking a turn to the social side of Landcare. We continue that theme this month, but I'm determined by the end to get back to things green and lovely.

Several of us in Landcare have been supporting Rob Bakes, who lives out Kyneton way, put together the Forum for Democratic Renewal. His idea, and the project now of the band that has gathered around him, is to renew our democratic processes. It's pathetic of us to sit around and wait for someone else, particularly someone in authority, to lead the way. We the citizens need to get off our butts, work out what needs improving and start doing it. Here in the Macedon Ranges.

The relevance to Landcare is of course that the way Macedon Ranges Shire Council and the community environment sector (some 30+ community groups across the Shire) work together affects what we all achieve. The Shire's buy-in here reflects its commitment to generating lively democratic processes. Either we are collectively, a disjointed mish-mash of effort where important things that need attention fall through the cracks, or a sustained, negotiated alignment of collective effort around our sensing of what needs doing and the best way to do it.

My guess is that many of those in Landcare, Sustainability, Transition Town, Friends Of groups, and the food supply networks, would say our collaboration is dangerously close to the "mish-mash" end of that spectrum, despite our each doing many great things in our separate spheres.

Since my return from Montreal, (see "Striking up aConversation"), it's struck me that our notion of the public sphere is not of a shared social context that benefits all of us and that deserves to be cared for by all of us (the best of Montreal), but of an empty and open space within which we each "do our own thing". Our civic ideal is freedom from constraint. You do your thing and I'll do mine and we won't get in each other's way. That's the way we treat the public realm in Australia.

It's a pretty barren space, and it needs warming up. By the time this RR hits the streets, those with an interest will have gathered in Gisborne for the Forum there. We'll have completed one round of the towns of Macedon Ranges, and a collective statement as to what needs more attention within our public governance.

As to where to start improving things, we have these ideas from the Forum in Kyneton (photos above). Participatory budgeting, where citizens decide how the Shire's budget will be spent. Performance indicators that measure the extent of MRSC support for community aspirations. Participatory design of facilities like the possible Arts Hub in Woodend. The strengthening of discussion within our different local communities.

I'm particularly keen on the last one - local, regular, accessible discussion, about what people are doing for the public good, discussion too about contentious issues so we get to hear differing views and understand others even if we don’t agree with them.

Check Riddells Creek Landcare's blog "Nuts About Nature" for an update on these efforts, or google "Forum for Democratic Renewal Macedon Ranges". Join in!

That said and this month's column written, I've cleared the way to wake up tomorrow morning with a clear conscience and walk my favourite walk through Barrm Birrm. We're heading into Spring, and everything is beginning to wake up. I’m going to get out there and breath it in!

Ross Colliver

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Striking up a conversation

Landcare grows from a robust sociability. On holiday here in Montreal, I'm learning a lot about sociability. Walking with our friend Linda Rabin through her neighbourhood is a leisurely affair. She's lived in Mile End, Montreal, for 35 years, and she knows a lot of people. Georgio calls out from the veranda of his first storey apartment - his wife Anna had a dream about Linda last night and she's coming down to tell her about it.

We're happy to linger on the pavement. The houses are three storey terraces, a separate residence to each level, with a stairway entrance for each running down to the street. An area about five metres deep accommodates the transition from residence to street, and each building handles this transition with its own configuration of staircases, rubbish bins, bicycles and gardens.


Fences are low or dispensed with all together, so that the street frontage is an open, permeable zone, where private and public spheres overlap. Conversations are possible, with immediate neighbours and with passersby. As we discuss an unusual renovation, a man joins in from his doorway - the first two floors, he tells us, are one residence, the second two, another.

This easy sociability is the most remarkable feature of my three weeks in Montreal. People are helpful. Standing at the kerb of a major city street late one night, searching in vain for a cab, a passing public bus pulls over, the door swings open and the driver offers her help. Where are we headed? To Outrement? Jump on board then, she'll take us to a Metro station that will get us home. 

People are considerate of each other. Cars slow and stop as I prepare to cross at corners. Drivers look out for pedestrians, anticipate their movements and defer to them. People give each other space in queues, and don't barge in front of others. This care in the public realm flows over into care for the public realm. People are attentive to the quality of relationship. What happens between people matters to them. 

And the people I've met are great talkers, who are interested in ideas. Conversations begin easily, and move easily to matters of consequence. Standing at the bus stop wondering when the next bus will come, I get talking to a 50-something lawyer with a three day growth heading to his office late on a Sunday. We begin with the vagaries of the buses, then turn to the benefits of travel in loosening up one's expectations, then to the journeys brought on by his father's death this year, on the other side of the country. 

Montreal-eans move easily from 'bonjour' to the state of the world around them, and to their creative projects. For a traveller without connections, this matters. I’m not just looking at people, I'm conversing with them. My habits are slowly adjusting to the physical realities of a new city (stay to the right on footpaths, look to the right when cross the road), but the big stretch is social. There are deep challenges to my (Australian) expectations of disinterest and defensiveness in the public realm. 

The people I've met are thinkers, and makers, and contributors. They understand the social as a living thing that has to be maintained and cultivated. They seem to enjoy their shared social space as a collective achievement. It's summer, and they have made it through another winter (think 20C below). They are French-speakers in an English-speaking country. They stick together, and look after each other.

It's a good feeling to live in the circle of that care, to stand in the sunshine and strike up a conversation.

The start of democracy

Riddells Creek Landcare is embedded in a mesh of government plans and programs of government as complex as any ecosystem. Consultation mediates differences and connects local communities with government. Consultation is part of our politics, for the old presumption that public servants make decisions for others, independent of the community and politicians, has broken down. With the 24/7 news cycle, politicians have stepped directly into the activities of the agencies in their portfolio. The public narrative must be chivvied to chime with the Minister's, and consultation is the chorus between the verses of Ministerial pronouncement.

As a consequence, our humble Riddells Landcare group now finds itself subject to countless invitations to comment on the strategies of government agencies and programs. On offer are workshops and briefings, carefully engineered to present the options as the professionals understand them, and online surveys that ask yes/no, like/don't like of options that capture just a part of the complexity of living. And there's the emailed comment, where we can let loose with what we think, pent-up frustration spilling out as we hammer away at the smorgasbord of issues or draft recommendations put before us.

Excellent, I think as I hit the 'send' button; I've had my say. A storm of collective opinion is swept by a digital wind into vast strategorium cloudbanks, lining a distant horizon, simmering for months, eventually precipitating glossy brochures that rain down into our in-trays and letter boxes, with assurances that we have indeed been listened to.

Sometimes, but rarely, we are invited to speak directly to those who will make recommendations. The Macedon Ranges Protection Advisory Committee, set up by the Minister for Planning to decide what policy instruments are needed to protect the character of the Macedon Ranges, recently invited community members who had written their views, to come and speak to them. A rudimentary conversation was held.

What is missing in all of this is time where we talk with each other. What do you think? What do I think? What has been our experience around an issue like roads, or health services, or residential development, or recreation? Put those categories aside …. what is it like for you living here in Riddells? What is it like for me? Do we have goals in common?

These are conversations best run by the grassroots. Riddells Neighbourhood House is inviting community groups to hear each others' priorities. At the Forum for Democratic Renewal in Riddells Creek in April, 50 residents put their heads together on what they think needs attention by local government (google it).

These are places when we can talk with our neighbours, and listen, with no public officials or strategy in sight. It's here that we get a sense of who we are as a community, and what we want for our common life. These conversations are the start of democracy.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Rabbits demand deep cooperation

I was munching on a chocolate rabbit's ear, Easter Sunday, thinking about rabbits. We'd had a seminar on rabbit management at the Neighbourhood House, hosted by Riddells Creek Landcare, and they were on my mind. What a nightmare! The first rabbits that came with the First Fleet actually didn't survive in the wild and it took the dedicated work of The Victorian Acclimatisation Society, just down the road near Geelong, to get them established on the mainland. 24 rabbits were released on Christmas Day 1859, for hunting and to help settlers feel more 'at home'.

So now we have the perpetual task of killing enough rabbits to keep their numbers low enough not to reproduce and overwhelm us, but without ever being able to get rid of them completely. We heard that at Skipton, the other side of Ballarat, farmers are keeping rabbit numbers down below one rabbit per spotlight kilometre, but that takes total cooperation.

The rabbits are just half of the challenge. The last government staff left standing are trying to hold the line on rabbits, but their expertise is technology and information, and that only goes so far. They're stitching together a campaign to release a new strain of virus that kills rabbits in the middle of next year, and our little meeting was one stop on a roadshow encouraging the rest of us to be ready to destroy our local rabbit warrens just after that release, when rabbits are at their lowest ebb.

That is a massive task demanding cooperation between neighbours across the landscape, and while our three speakers on the night got us started with information, they didn't leave time for us to talk with each other to work out how we can cooperate to do this.

Getting our neighbours into the game is as difficult as finding the next virus that kills rabbits, and I have to confess I left the evening feeling I'd been given enough information to reach the point of despair, but without time to build with the other landowners there some possibility of hope!

Anyway, the Landcare committee will put their heads together to work out what to do next on rabbits. On a happier note, you'll have noticed the orange-brown patches of weed along roads around Riddells. That's the awful Carpetweed, or Galenia pubescens, turning up its toes after spraying by our contractor.

In a joint project between Landcare and Greening of Riddell, Lyn Hovey tracked down Galenia locations over summer, and she found several outbreaks in the new estates. This weed loves newly broken soil, where it moves in to smother everything else, but you can see it around town - beside the pedestrian crossing at the Primary School and by the Bakery, for example.

So the job's done for this year, not without a bit of grumbling from the Shire. The office people rang up to question who we had permission from, and who gave us the money, and did we know how to use the chemicals, in short, did we know what we were doing, as if we wouldn’t after 10 years of doing it.

Anyway Riddellers, keep an eye out for Galenia, now you know about it, email Lyn if you spot it ( and check out our map of its past locations, at the Riddells Creek Landcare website, under "Projects".