• Tony Bosworth

Cool burning discussion turns hot, spills out of council onto social media

You might reasonably expect a Hawkesbury Council meeting discussion on how to best look at Aboriginal cool burning techniques to be relatively straightforward but it was anything but when an argument between the Mayor and a councillor blew up.

At the council meeting this week, Cllr Barry Calvert put a motion forward to have cool burning – an Aboriginal method of regularly burning that gently burns the forest floor and aims to never have smoke rise above the tree canopy – looked at by the four-councillor Environment Committee and then the results of that be passed to the full council.

Aboriginal woman Erin Wilkins – she gave an Aboriginal Australia Day speech at Council’s event back in January – was asked by Deputy Mayor Mary Lyons-Buckett if she would like to speak to the councillors before the debate, and she did. Ms Wilkins asked why the subject had come up now.

Cllr Calvert said he had been meaning to bring it up a while ago but then the bushfire emergency had come along, then the floods, followed by Covid, and more floods.

“During the bushfires many people spoke to me about cool burnings or cultural burnings, as I understand them and asked why weren’t we doing this,” Cllr Calvert said.

“People who asked were ordinary residents and some were high up in the RFS – they were pushing for this as well. I said I will try and bring this back to council and see if we can facilitate this discussion.”

Other councillors - Greens and independents - supported an amendment put forward by Cllr Danielle Wheeler which would have seen the whole council discuss the issue and invite first nations locals to take part and share their knowledge.

Cllr Wheeler said it was vitally important local Aboriginal people were part of the process and their words and experience listened to.

“We have the problem of that we are 12 white people sitting around a table now looking at the implementation and practice of an indigenous practice and it makes me uncomfortable that we are the ones in a position to make these decisions and recommendations.

“This is fundamentally first nations’ knowledge and the question for us has to be how we can enter into a conversation with first nations people about the implementation of this knowledge as a facilitator and partner, and they lead the process,” said Cllr Wheeler.

“I don’t think the Environment Committee has the expertise to prepare that discussion paper. Again, it’s for white people who don’t have any expertise in cultural burning writing about something that is not theirs.”

Deputy Mayor Mary Lyons-Buckett supported the amendment and said it would have been respectful to include Aboriginal locals in any discussion.

“I am a supporter of cultural burning completely. I think it is a very vital part of Australian land management. The issue that came up from me was why we would be deciding on it without first consulting our Aboriginal community on whether we should be moving forward in this regard.”

But Cllr Nathan Zamprogno said the notion that cool burning was more important than any other process when it came to land management was not true.

“I don’t think any segment of the community has any special place to express any concern about how land management practices are conducted based on some cultural primacy,” Cllr Zamprogno said.

“We should only really be focussed on what makes the bush safer, not only for the preservation of those ecologies but also the humans who live near.

“It is true the indigenous community have a long history of land management practices and they are part of that process but I do dispute any form of language that says they have some cultural veto on what land management practices are decided upon.”

Cllr Tiffany Tree also spoke on the issue.

“For the last over 200 years people like us have worked pretty effectively in trying to crush culture and I think we have opportunities now because we are supposed to be a little bit more enlightened and to understand we can be part of a reconciliation process whereby we empower people from indigenous communities to make decisions and lead these processes. Because if we don’t, we are just saying we don’t care, and I do not think that is acceptable.”

Cllr Tree suggested some of the points in the amendment be added to Cllr Calvert’s motion around indigenous locals being part of the process.

But the issue became heated after Cllr Sarah Richards said, “It’s important to be culturally sensitive, 100 per cent it is, but I think the intent of this was to bring it through the committee process. I just would like to point out to some other councillors in the room that complaining about not being on a committee that you had every opportunity to nominate for, or was saying it needs to go to a committee that has all representatives of council, being the Disaster Committee”.

The new council committees have been a smouldering issue since Liberal and Labor councillors –with the casting vote of the Mayor – got their desire to see new councillor-only committees without local or expert representatives on them. Because independents and Greens councillors did not agree with the new committee structure, they decided not to stand for any of the positions, leaving each of the new committees firmly in the hands of only Liberal and Labor councillors.

Cllr Pete Reynolds had a heated discussion with the Mayor after Cllr Richards had finished speaking.

Cllr Reynolds said, “Misrepresentation Mr Mayor.”

He was referring to the fact that he had earlier asked why the cool burning issue wasn’t being considered by the Disaster Management Committee, which all councillors are members of, instead of the Environment Committee, given the subject was about fire mitigation. Cllr Reynolds did not get an answer.

Picture - Tetyana Kovyrina

Cllr Reynolds was not complaining about the committee structure as such in this instance, just that he considered the Disaster Management Committee would be a more appropriate forum for the discussion.

Mayor Patrick Conolly said, “there is no point of order, carry on.”

Cllr Richards: “and also the environment committee – “

Cllr Reynolds interrupted. “Point of order. I’m claiming misrepresentation.”

Mayor: “There is no point of order. I have dismissed your point of order.”

Deputy Mayor Mary Lyons-Buckett said, “It’s a claim of misrepresentation.”

The Deputy Mayor was referring to the fact that she believed misrepresentation was not a point of order, as defined in the Code of meeting practice, so she believed the Mayor could not invoke a point of order on the issue.

But the Mayor continued: “There is no point of order under the Code. It was applied quite differently in the past…

Cllr Reynolds: “You don’t have to be named to be misrepresented.”

Mayor: “You have asked for a point of order. I have declared there is no point of order. You can either turn your microphone off, you can move a motion of dissent.”

Cllr Reynolds to the Mayor: “It is a pity we’re all videoed now or I would do something.”

Cllr Richards then asked, “Is that a threat? Unbelievable.”

Cllr Reynolds said, with his microphone off, “take it as a threat if you want to. You will anyway.”

The meeting voted on the amendment, which was lost, and the motion carried, so cool burning will now be discussed by the four committee members – all Liberal and Labor councillors - and a report given to full council. Members of the public can attend the committee meetings and arrange to speak on subjects connected with the discussions.

Cllr Richards later took to Facebook and posted a meme featuring pictures of herself and Cllr Reynolds with their brief exchange. She said on the post, “I wonder what he would have done had he not been on camera?”

The post was followed by numerous comments from Cllr Richards’ supporters calling for Cllr Reynolds to be variously reported, struck off council, and roundly castigated for his words.

Cllr Reynolds said after the meeting he regretted what he’d said in the heat of the moment but that all he would have done were there no video was give the Mayor a finger gesture. Cllr Reynolds admits that is not really appropriate either but says, "I did not threaten Cllr Richards. My comments were not a threat and they were directed at Mayor Patrick Conolly.

"They stemmed from my deep frustration over a debate that allowed racist and culturally inappropriate comments to go unchecked."

Despite the often heated discussion, Cllr Calvert's original motion, with a couple of tweaks following discussion in the chamber by all councillors, was passed by 10 votes to two.

The Environment Committee will now investigate the possibility of carrying out cool burning trials in the Hawkesbury. The committee will consult with the local Darug community on the best way forward for potential trials.

Darug people, plus the RFS, National Parks and any relevant State and Federal departments will also be invited along to contribute to a report to be passed to the full Council within four months.

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