From Maple Street Co-op News, June/July 2004 edition
Published by Maple Street Co-op, 37 Maple Street, Maleny, tel (+61 7) 5494 2088
Accidental Activism in Maleny
by Lori Sturtz
They cut 'em down
They hit the ground
That awful sound
The Brothers cut 'em down.
The horrific sounds of screaming voices and screeching chainsaws shattered the early morning peace. The killers left a wake of destruction and mutilation behind as they annihilated all in their path. People were dragged, shoved and harmed in the process.
This is not a scene from a new Tarantino movie. This is what happened in our peaceful, rural town of Maleny on Wednesday 14 April when the Deen Brothers came to clear land alongside Obi Obi Creek. Giant trees were butchered by earthmovers, the sound ripping through the air and our hearts and the ground shaking as they fell. Some folks climbed into the remaining trees while others gathered around the trunks, pleading for the destruction to stop. Seven brave protesters were arrested for trying to halt the carnage.
A huge contingent of police had been mobilised to protect the environmental vandals, and video footage shows the handshakes that sealed the deal. The Deen Brothers were acting on behalf of the land's owner and developer, Cornerstone Properties, which has a contract with Woolworths to build a supermarket.
On 7 November last year, residents put a stop to sample-drilling at this same site and the police were called. Cornerstone had commissioned a drilling firm to take core samples but did not have the proper permits. An officer from the Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy (NRM&E) then negotiated a drilling spot away from the creek.
So why, then, did the police not check to make sure the proper permits were in place on 14 April? Instead, they assisted the Deen Brothers and arrested people who tried to intervene against the destruction. The correct permit apparently was not in place, and so NRM&E began an investigation to determine the 'top of bank' and whether riverine clearing had been conducted in breach of the law.
Following its investigations, on 18 May NRM&E issued a Riverine Protection Permit (no. 178757) that allows Cornerstone to remove just exotic vegetation, but only after all in-ground construction on lots 1 and 2 has been completed.
This seems to be a classic 'catch 22' situation. The developer cannot build the planned structure because two native trees appear to be within the building footprint, and it cannot remove the exotics until the foundations are completed. It would seem that its options are a bit limited now. Cornerstone could take the Queensland Government to court, which would be expensive and time consuming. It could change the design, which would be costly and delay ridden. Or it could sell the site, which it has offered to Council (via Woolworths) for $1.89 million - almost three times what it paid. Cornerstone and Woolworths have given Caloundra City Council until 18 June to take up their offer to buy the land.
Platypus group spokesperson Jon Woodlands said he was quite alarmed when the permit was issued because he maintains that some of the remaining exotic vegetation should actually be protected. Nevertheless, to his astonishment, the NRM&E permit allows the developer to clear only after the foundations have been laid.
"This was a surprise, because I didn't think the NRM&E would act so responsibly," Jon said.
Apparently the Council is investigating a possible breach of its vegetation clearing permit on 14 April when Cornerstone cleared lots 1 and 2 to enable removal of the house on the site (which happened in mid-May). There is an ongoing investigation by the Department of Workplace Health and Safety into the Deen Brothers' attempt to fell a tree that was occupied by a protester at the time.
Local heroes make their mark
Unnecessary development has spawned thousands of "accidental activists" - people who'd never planned to fight big companies. Everywhere, including here in Maleny, people are fed up with developers and corporations who ignore the consequences of their actions - actions that have impact on water quality, traffic conditions, wildlife habitat, historic commercial centres and open spaces.
One of the last trees left on this site - the last bunya pine on Bunya Street - is still occupied by Daniel Jones, who has been there since 14 April and says he'll stay for as long as it takes. A Platypus Embassy has been set up at the site, staffed by volunteers who are handing out information and getting petition signatures from anyone interested in this protest. The tent is the rallying point for this protest and brings together a diverse group of locals. People from the Range, the coast, Brisbane and all over the world have signed the petition to show their support. A council worker has signed, as have a few Woolies employees!
Maleny local Lindsay Kruger told me that in his twenty years of working with community groups, he's never before seen people so united on an issue.
This tent represents different things to different people. It is also a lifeline for Daniel Jones, the ultimate accidental activist (this being his first protest). Daniel's vigil, the Platypus Embassy, the ongoing public support and media exposure have so far ensured the safety of the remaining trees. Cornerstone can't build the planned structure if the trees are there, but may well consider any fine for cutting them down to be minor compared with the cost of changing the plans.
Keeping the duopolists honest
We all need to be reminded that it is possible to bring about positive change. Let's take heart from residents of Armidale, NSW, who ran a successful campaign in 1998 to stop Woolies coming to its town. A public meeting was described by the Woolworths representative as "the hottest reception I've experienced anywhere". I wonder how he'd describe the Maleny welcoming committee! There are many more similar cases, although not all communities have fought the duopolists (Woolworths and Coles) and won.
Shops in rural areas provide social and community services that are often overlooked by the big duopolist retailers whose "if you can't beat them, buy them" policies remove the competition. The duopolists raise their prices when the competition is out of the way, local businesses and their customers being the real losers. Their prime concern is market share and profits at the expense of all else.
Between 1991 and 1997, 844 independent grocery stores closed because of duopoly pressures. Recent surveys of the major supermarkets confirm that prices rise without competition. There needs to be a viable, independent sector to keep the duopolists honest.
In 1996, Woolworths was valued at $3 billion and by 2002 its market capitalisation was about $14 billion. In the meantime, national competition policy delivered dairy farmers into the hands of the duopolists, whose buying power and price-lowering policies have crippled the dairy industry. Some of the profits were passed on to consumers as lower prices and the rest went to shareholders. This wealth transfer is extremely unfair to the farmers who do most of the hard work (just like workers everywhere!). Customers and shareholders should be concerned about this inequity and should be encouraged to adopt an ethical solution, even if they have to pay a little more and earn a little less.
Maple Street Co-op and the Maleny IGA buy lots of local products, but we can't expect the same of a Woolworths. Locals Paul Alister and Keith Murray confirmed this when they could only find two local items at Woolworths Beerwah compared to two shopping trolleys' worth at Maleny IGA. Rob Outridge, owner of the Maleny IGA, says that his sales of local products are in excess of $1.5 million and local donations/sponsorships exceed $40,000 annually. Here at the Co-op, at least 25% of our turnover comes from local producers, says Manager Alan Harrington.
Woolworths - control freaks
To be a Woolies "approved vendor" is ongoing and expensive. Woolies locks suppliers into one-year price contracts at the lowest possible price and requires goods to be delivered to a central depot. This would not be viable for most local producers.
It also buys produce from overseas, even though the same type of produce is already grown here. These imports could bring diseases and pests that could put some of our growers out of business.
Woolworths has very strict produce specifications. For instance, an organic Fuji apple must have a pinkish red blush over a green background colour, a red blush over 60 per cent of the fruit's surface, and yellow flesh. It must be slightly elongated and flatten out at the basal apex. The fruit can have no irregular curvatures or distorted shapes and should be evenly sized. Apples supplied in 2 kg pre-packs must be 64-67 mm in diameter. There is an entire page of specifications devoted to just one type of apple. I cannot imagine what our local suppliers would think if we insisted upon such requirements!
Woolies is also using biometrics (fingerprint scanning) to monitor staff working hours. Efforts by Qantas to introduce the same technology were thwarted by staff concerns about the unnecessary invasion of privacy. The Australian Workers Union, among other unions, is concerned that biometrics raises health and privacy issues that have not been properly addressed. NSW Council of Civil Liberties President Cameron Murphy says employees object to biometrics because they have no confidence that employers will protect their personal information and they're concerned about the accuracy of the technology. He suggests employees should act early because "protocols tend to be put in place after an incident, instead of before the technology is installed".
Do we really want these cold, impersonal business practices in Maleny?
Engaging at the community level
At the Co-op, we provide many services and relate to our customers on a personal level. We engage with people and offer more than just superficial greetings like "Have a nice day". We support this protest campaign because it's about more than just stopping one supermarket from damaging our local businesses, community and environment. It is also a stand against corporate greed, "profit before people" attitudes and socially irresponsible business practices.
This protest has received national and international exposure and has widespread support, especially at home. The majority of local people don't want unsuitable, unsustainable developments imposed upon them. Many are also wondering how this site is to fit in with the still-to-be resolved Community Precinct/ golf course/housing development proposed for across the creek.
A public meeting was held on Saturday 22 May, and the 250-odd attendees were asked to vote on three options for the future of the Cornerstone site. Option 1 (0%) was to do nothing. Option 2 (64%) was for Council to buy the entire site for a community park, which could include an ecologically sustainable development. Option 3 (34%) was for Council to buy only one lot and allow commercial development on the lot next to the hotel. A group was then set up to help formulate a feasibility study to submit to Council for consideration ahead of the 18 June deadline.
If Council decides not to purchase the land, it may be up to the community to raise enough funds to buy it. Local identity Steve Swayne has suggested a cooperative be formed to manage the land, which could include a café, backpacker accommodation, an environmental centre, among other ideas.
If you want to be a part of this movement, there are many things you can do in support. Firstly, you can find more information about the protest at the Maleny Voice website, http://www.malenyvoice.info. You can write a letter to Caloundra City Council, care of the CEO, asking it to buy the land. You can help the fund the site purchase by making tax-deductible donations to the Maleny & District Green Hills Fund, People's Park account (Suncorp Metway BSB 484-799, account no. 16-090508-9) (your donation will be refunded if insufficient funds are raised to purchase the land). You can visit the Platypus Embassy and sign the petition or just have a chat. There are badges, stickers, T-shirts, videos and DVDs available for a donation.
In the words of protest singer/songwriter Billy Bragg, "The revolution is just a T-shirt away".
• Sherrill Nixon, "School roll could be replaced with eye scan", Sydney Morning Herald, 8 March 2003, http://www.smh.com.au
• Laurence Aragon, "Show me some ID", 13 October 2000, http://www.zdnet.com.au
• Woolworths Produce Specifications, 1 May 2004, http://www.woolworths.com.au
• Queensland Retail Traders & Shopkeepers Association fax communication, 24 September 2002
• The Range News, 20 & 27 May 2004
• Al Norman, "The Case Against Sprawl", at http://www.sprawlbusters.com
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