March 4, 2012
Thanks to Dr Patricia Gillard for this survey, reprinted from Coppice Communication. Dr Gillard will be standing as the number 1 candidate for Community 1 Independents in Ward 2 at the September Council elections.
A survey of Save Our Figs supporters was conducted online in February 2012. The survey gave a snapshot of what supporters did and why, during the campaign. Results showed that members were very active with about 60% attending at face-to-face meetings and protests, reading email and joining the Facebook site. 40% intend to change their vote in the September Council elections.
Views on what Council should have done and supporters’ work for the future focussed on reforming Council to ‘listen to the people’ and care for environment and heritage.
The purpose of the survey and how it was conducted
The survey of supporters of Save Our Figs was conducted online. February 4-15, 2012. It was designed to give measures of the people who took part in the campaign: their reasons, actions, issues and thinking for the future. The survey did not reduce the issues to ‘opinions’ but focused on behavior and provided space for supporters to frame their own thoughts about what happened and its significance.
Zoomerang.com provided an online platform to conduct the anonymous survey. Supporters were given a link to the survey through the email list and Facebook site being used by supporters during the campaign. Questions were designed by the researcher, Patricia Gillard after discussions with others and a pilot test with a few supporters, conducted in the rain in Laman Street. Paper copies of the survey for those without Internet access were distributed on a few occasions where larger numbers of supporters gathered.
The survey was anonymous and open for 10 days and resulted in 201 usable surveys. There were ten questions and participants could make comments in all but three (those asking age, sex and the Council Ward lived in). The survey site was closed on 15th February and most analysis was done online by Patricia Gillard, using the survey software. Elizabeth Sprott assisted in discussion of the results. The spreadsheet data was inspected. Respondents who did not fill in all questions (17 ‘partials’) were included in the analysis. This accounts for the slight differences in total respondents for each question. There were five respondents who identified themselves as non-supporters by their comments. Their content was read and noted but survey data was excluded because the survey’s purpose and invitation to participate was clearly directed to supporters of the Save Our Figs campaign.
The value of this report is in drawing together comments and views of those who participated. It gives a picture of this group that is based on systematic fieldwork, not anecdote or media reports. However, no claim is made that findings represent all supporters or the broader Newcastle population.
Who were the supporters?
There were more women (73%) than men (27%) and the age group 45 to 54 years was the largest with a spread of ages from 18 to beyond 65. The bar charts for questions 7 and 8 show this in detail (see Results Overview).
The majority lived in Ward 1 (40%) which includes Cooks Hill and suburbs closest to Laman Street where the trees were being cut down (See Q 9 in Results Overview). Fewer came from Ward 2 (15%) Ward 3 (12%) or Ward 4 (4%). The 29% who did not live in the Newcastle City Council area was initially a surprise. Comments revealed that some were from Lake Macquarie or the Central Coast; others were now living elsewhere or working overseas but they could be active supporters online. Results for question 1 confirm the importance of email and Facebook for participants.
One hundred and three (103) people gave information about community groups where they were active. Numbers for each kind of organisation were:35 Environmental , 23 Sport , 18 Political or Advocacy , 18 Religious , 15 Music, drama, dance, art or craft, 13 Education, 13 Local community, 12 Social welfare, 1 Indigenous, 2 Legal, 3 Business, 3 Animal welfare, 3 Service. A few examples were:
St Vincent de Paul, Hunter Business Chamber, Landcare, Lifeline, Cooks Hill United Football Club, Nippers, Community Choir, Legacy, Autism Spectrum Australia, Save Our Rail, Baptist Community Church, Valentine Soccer Club, Uniting Church, Hunter Animal Rescue, St Andrews Community Preschool, Newcastle Hang Guiding Club.
While environmental concerns featured in this list, the diversity of interests attested to a broad range of involvement across the community. The demographics and activities define a group of people who are a resource for the community. Unless they (and groups like them) continue to care, and assert what is important to the work of Council it risks becoming irrelevant or antagonistic to what people value most.
Supporters were very, very active and involved. (See Q 1 in Results Overview). Most used the email list (64%) and Facebook (64%), picketed or demonstrated (62%), honked their car horn (62%), attended events (57%) and contacted officials by phone or email (53%). Involvement was high for writing to a newspaper (41%), attending the special 16 January meeting (43%) and other Council meetings (48%).
One fifth of respondents went on to list further activities. These included praying, crying, photography, two musical contributions, organisation of events like the Big Fig Gig, legal work, collecting petition signatures, campaign strategy, and occupying a fig tree. One person commented,
‘I kept the home fires burning while my wife emailed 7 hours a day and visited every picket line and demo and Council meeting. This was very hard work.’
Reasons for action to Save the Figs
The second question asked participants what were their two strongest reasons for supporting the campaign. Eight statements were provided (See Q2, Results Overview). Other reasons could be added by respondents.
Nearly half (48%) gave as a main reason their distrust in the Council risk assessment. Two other reasons related to Council’s behaviour. Twenty-nine per cent (29%) protested the loss of this ‘precious public amenity for no clear purpose’ and 23% supported Save Our Figs’ campaign in order to ‘assert public participation in democracy’. Additional comments confirmed the prominence of issues of governance, transparency and honesty in galvanising broad support.
The second strongest reason related to Council’s treatment of the natural environment. Over a third (36%) opposed the ‘vandalism of natural heritage by City Council’. One person wrote of:
the need for established urban forests to be protected and maintained.
One fifth selected ‘preserving the culture and history of the area’ (20%). Over 10% were moved by concern for destroyed animal habitat (13%) or mourned the passing of this most beautiful city centre (12%). One person wrote:
Because I believe that the fig trees have aboriginal significance as they appear in many dreamtime stories, and I can’t stand the look of the library.
5. How could Council have behaved differently?
One hundred and sixty people answered this question. Five alternatives for Council’s action emerged strongly and a few people listed most of them within their 300 character limit.
Adhering to their initial resolution to retain the figs would be a start. Listen and engaging the community for solutions, genuine interest in retaining the trees, respect for heritage and community values….
Listen to the people
The largest number (67) said Council should have listened to the people and this should be with respect, using an open process of community engagement.
NCC could have been more community inclusive & shown respect for the community they are supposed to represent… address the connection that the Newcastle community feels for the figs in a more sensitive and intelligent manner.
The worst thing is having our concerns being ignored by our own council and having the riot police set upon us for speaking up against this great wrong. I was threatened with arrest for trying to put flowers on the fence for goodness sake!
Providing genuine processes for channelling community concerns…Allowing working party groups (particularly the Laman Street working party) to not be hijacked by NCC staff having voting rights.
Obtain an independent assessment
The same importance (66 responses) was given to Council obtaining independent assessment of the fig trees.
… could have had several independent arborists assess the situation and then compiled their findings, could have not wasted tens of thousands of dollars on ‘security’ by using common sense!!
…they needed to listen to the thousands who simply requested an independent assessment. They needed to accept O’Farrells assistance and the Insurance Co’s offer of paying for independent assessment.
Be honest and truthful
Participants required Council to be honest and truthful. Some were forthright in their criticism of Councillors or Council administrators based on their experience of a lack of integrity.
They should have been open and honest from the start about their intentions. Then they should have listened to the people and had the courage to admit they were wrong.
Council employees- more honesty with councillors. Councillors- more guts in enquiring of doubtful reports presented to them by council employees.
They could have been honest – and taken time to reveal their true plans via community consultation – so that the community could vote on the issue.
They should have shared information promptly not ordered community information to be obtained via FOI… Listened to the community not misused/distorted charrette community information and the Road Act. Realised the true value of this place to community. Considered generations of Parks& Playgrounds staff plan.
Respect heritage, trees, animals
The focus of 24 people was on respect for heritage values and the care of trees and animals.
… Council’s own Fauna report advised against chopping down the trees between December and June because it is both the breeding and feeding period for important native fauna.
They could have valued the Laman Street Figs as a vital city asset.
Could have been honest and left our healthy life giving trees where the majority community wanted them: exactly where they were.
They should have listened to the voice of reason. Not only has the landscape of Laman Street been irrevocably destroyed, but also the whole of Civic Park looks bare and it is devastating to witness.
Transparent, democratic process
A similar number (25) called for transparency and a respect for the democratic process with decisions consistent with planning and evidence.
… Councillors split on this issue (7/6) and so was a reflection on inadequate evidence. Council should gather as much evidence as possible (decisions made on the basis of fact not on predetermined decisions)…
… 2. Remember government serves at the pleasure of the Community, it does not rule by force. 3.Councillors are elected, Council staff are not. Council staff should not act independently of and overriding elected Council
Laman St Trees are a feature of Official Plan of Management for Civic Park Precinct and removing trees was contrary to PoM. This required the proposal to be Exhibited to the public for comment and a Public Hearing before an independent notary.
5. Future actions – reform Newcastle City Council
When asked about ‘possible actions to change the future’, the results were very clear. Over three quarters (76%) chose ‘Political action to reform Newcastle City Council’. Nearly a third (30%) wanted recurring tree planting and 21% supported the idea of co-ordinating knowledge across local organisations for the environment. More than a tenth supported a participative democracy think tank (18%) and annual arts events to remember the trees (13%).
Voting in the September 2012 election
Answers to question 9 showed a big difference between wards. The majority lived in Ward 1 (79 people, 40%). This reduced to 29 people (14%) in Ward 2. There were 24 people (12%) and 8 people (4%) in wards 3 and 4 respectively. Fifty-seven people (29%) did not live within the NCC area. This meant that answers to questions about voting (questions 4 and 5) had to be re-analysed for NCC residents only, to make any sense.
The question, ‘how important will be issues about removing the fig trees in deciding who you vote for? (Q4 . See Results Overview) was analysed for the 141 residents. The result was decisive, with 88% (124 people) saying ‘very important’.
A related question (Q5) asked, ‘Will you change your vote from last time?’ A large proportion, 44%, said ‘yes’ they would (63 from a total of 143 NCC residents for this question). In Ward 1, 41% said they would change their vote from last time and in Ward 2, 64% said ‘yes’ to a vote change. Many supporters would already have voted for Labour or Green candidates in the previouselection, so the finding that over 40% may change their vote this year suggests major shifts in the 2012 elections are possible. However, a survey such as this that looks into a single community of supporters cannot be used to predict how much their views will be shared by the Newcastle population at an election in six months time.
The 201 supporters of Save Our Figs who answered this survey were diverse in age, interests and involvement in the community. Email and Facebook, face-to-face meetings, protest and information sessions were used in combination to share knowledge and to give personal support. The central focus was reform of Council to be honest, transparent and democratic. Environmental and heritage concerns were also uppermost. The supporters now want a Council that will ‘listen to the people’. However, they are very attuned to deliberate manipulation when they experience it.
NCC must be transparent and honest in all its dealing with public issues. How dare they believe they can do whatever they want without community consultation? How dare they believe they can concoct a story/reason and that the community will believe them? It is the deceit that I am most angry about.
Council could engage the knowledge and motivation of this group as a resource, to be more effective in community engagement. An alternative approach would see Council reorganising its engagement strategies around the concerns and priorities of citizens, including those that arise unexpectedly, and adopting a transparent process that acknowledges the interests of all parties. Creative solutions could be drawn from collective discussion. On the other hand, moves to quarantine issues by labelling them as confidential, security-related or operational will be seen for what they are; manipulative and self serving. Imposing the will of Council administrators or Counsellors without honest dialogue will continue to foster disengagement and cynicism: that is in no-one’s interest.
‘NCC could listen to its constituents and just admit when they have made a mistake rather than pushing something through to assert their power. The city must be served, not the egos of these little little men.’
Thanks to Dr Gillard for this fantastic work. How fantastic she would be on Council.