Geoff Brooke-Cowden


Interviewee: Geoff Brooke-Cowden, born 1944

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 22nd Dec 2008

Transcription: Glenys Murray, Jan 2009

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee


Medicine is a very jealous mistress and as much as I can I’ve tried to divorce myself from twenty four hour a day medicine and just mixing with medical people and doing medical things. Which I don’t really appreciate or get into when I’m not actually practicing I don’t like to be involved with medicine or medical people. I’ve had a lot of fun times as president of the P&C at Jasper Road Primary School where my children went. That’s obviously the reason you join a P&C because you’ve got your kids there. At a very interesting stage where they integrated the handicapped unit into Jasper Road Primary School. That was a very tense often bloody conflict with the Department of Education. We managed to get a lot of concessions from the Department which significantly enhanced the facilities and the infrastructure that we were able to offer the children at that particular point in time. I really enjoyed that, it’s a marvellous school with a marvellous school community. As you have daughters growing up, daughters in this district tend to play netball and Dads tend to be involved to some extent. So I coached netball for quite a number of years with the Winston Hills Sporting Club and then St Bernadette’s.

We did well with ordinary girls not superstars. We won a few grand finals but they weren’t superstars. I enjoyed that very much. You move on as your children grew up. There was an opportunity to start the Life Education Movement in the Hill’s District. This is a marvellous initiative started by Ted Noffs from the Wayside Chapel. A remarkably good programme but it completely failed to translate into high schools. All of the good work and there’s a huge amount of good work done by us and others just literally came undone. Almost as soon as the kids went to high school you see a similar thing today if you look at kiddies in the playground. They’re so dedicated to wearing their hats and being sun safe but the minute they go to high school no hats, no sun safe it’s all gone in a flash. So there are few problems in the disconnect between these two levels of education which really need some looking at. We started off I think with one and a half teachers and one mobile van that we put on the road. In the end we wound up with four vans on the road and nine teachers and we were servicing the whole of the Hills District and also the Parramatta district. Seeing something like forty thousand plus kiddies per year. It was self funding too by the way.

Is this the Life Education programme?

Yes it is it was self funding so we never put our hands out to anyone. We did have some marvellous initial sponsors who got us going. Principal amongst which was the dentists whose objectives in public health very closely mirrored our own. They gave us in those days $40,000 to start with which I would say was a huge, huge sum of money. It got us up and running very, very quickly.

Aerial view of subdivisions in Crestwood Baulkham Hills west of Windsor Rd 1966

Now let’s talk about The Hills Shire a little bit. How long have you actually lived in the Baulkham Hills Shire area?

Goodness since 1971.

Were you already married by that stage?

Yes I was. I had two tiny little daughters. My lovely Julie and lovely Kalissa. We’d just shifted over from Western Australia. I wanted to live in Wahroonga. The reason I wanted to live in Wahroonga is coming from the west coast the beautiful lush vegetation and trees of Wahroonga just spellbound me. I can remember going to see an estate agent and he asked me how much I had to spend. He had this huge book of listings in front of him and when I told he sort of turned over to the last two or three pages and said “I have a charming little cottage”. Which we went and saw and I said to him “this is smaller than my home unit”. He said “well sir this is Wahroonga”. So I caught an advertisement a couple of weeks later about a place in Baulkham Hills and came out here, looked at it, loved it. Just what I wanted and we’ve stayed here ever since. Baulkham Hills and the Shire have been very good to me and my family, very good.

So what attracted you to the Baulkham Hills of 1971?

Economic circumstances I think the ability to buy a house and a decent block of land at a price I could afford, which in those days was not very much at all.

So what were the attributes that you valued most about living here in Baulkham Hills?

This is a fantastic community. Initially and still to some extent it’s like a big country town. Everyone knows everyone else. It’s very relaxed, it’s familiar. The people out here are almost all hard working middle class people who have never put their hand out. They’re doers there’s a tremendous community spirit here. If you want to do something with a P&C, service club, sporting club whatever. You could always get arms and legs to come and help you. This is a community of volunteers. I rate it as one of the best communities you’d find anywhere.

Paddock in Olive Street 1970 became shopping centre in 1979

You’ve been living here for 37 years. What sort of changes have you seen in demographics and employment in all that time? How has the Shire changed do you think?

Well if you consider that when I first shifted out here the population of the Shire was I think just over 30,000 (The Hills Shire population was actually 57,373 according to the 1971 Census). The street I settled in sort of central Baulkham Hills wasn’t even curbed and guttered. There were active dairy farms half a kilometre away. There were no bottle shops there was one hotel, there were no restaurants. The only food outlets were a hamburger bar. There were no shopping centres as we know we used to shop at North Rocks or at Seven Hills. The mall at Baulkham Hills that used to be a lovely stretch of open ground we used to get circuses come there every year. The kids used to love going to the circuses. Of course there was no transport whatsoever they stopped the last train in 1929 or something like that. Which was a terrible tragedy and we’ve never had an adequate transport system since. Of course we now have vast shopping centres at Baulkham Hills at Castle Hill at Rouse Hill. A somewhat just somewhat improved public transport system. A population of 170,000 just in that short period of time and we have huge industrial complexes here. One of the interesting things when I was mayor was to look at statistics and realise that we employ greater than 50% of our population nearly 60% of our population actually live in this Shire. So they don’t go outside of the Shire for employment. When I was mayor this was the number two hotspot in NSW for economic development behind Sutherland. We were the number four hotspot in Australia at that particular time. Went from a very rural type of community very close knit through to a very large vibrant dynamic and go ahead community that we have today.

Well, phenomenal growth isn’t it from 35,000 (actually 57,000) to 170,000?

With my first term as mayor I think our total budget was 47 million. In five years when I left it was 70 or 80 million. It’s now creeping up towards 200 million. It’s phenomenal growth. This is the problem that we have out in this district. Whereas you have a development along the Windsor Road corridor out to Rouse Hill and on both sides of the road Baulkham Hills and Blacktown you’re essentially creating a city the size of Canberra but with no transport infrastructure. It’s just appalling it’s terrible.

That’s right there were supposed to be railways coming here, been promised and then they’re being reneged on?

Well it’s very easy to do when you run out of money and there are no votes out here. That’s always been the problem I guess it is too in very safe Labour seats. If you don’t have to spend money to win seats money doesn’t get spent. Money gets spent on marginal seats and for electoral advantage. How long is it since we’ve seen in this country a grand scheme like the Snowy Mountains Scheme or something like that. It’s just shocking as one of my state colleagues put it to me. Any major project takes two and a half electoral cycles we probably won’t be there then so why do it. We won’t get the kudos then. I mean that’s pathetic.

Sporting facilities at Bruce Purser Reserve Rouse Hill 2008

How do you evaluate the life style that the citizens of the Hills Shire live, is it a healthy one?

I think so I think across the board it’s healthy. I’ve visited many places in NSW suburbs, shires, districts, far west everywhere. We have a very active community. Our community is lucky we have great sporting facilities out here we have a lot of sporting infrastructure and a lot of people getting involved in it. I think the standard of living here is very high which means nutrition is good so we have much less of the type of diseases like diabetes, heart disease than comparable suburbs with a poorer socioeconomic status. Let’s face it socioeconomic status is directly linked to patterns of health.

Let’s talk about your career being in local politics when did you get the urge to run for Council? Did anyone suggest that you do so?

No this was my own decision. Because I lived and worked in the area I got to know a lot of people in the area. Also got to know a lot of people that worked at Council and in the late 1980’s things were grim at Council. There was a succession of what I consider to be overly punitive investigations by the Department of Local Government and the Ombudsman. Which crippled the progress of the administration absolutely and utterly crippled it. People were concerned about job security, future we were going out backwards. Debt ratios were bleeding. At that stage there were seven people resigning from Council (not standing for re-election). Seven out of the twelve I thought basically this Shire had been so good to me and my family and offered us so much opportunity it would be a good thing if I put my hand in the ring. I had some very fixed ideas about what I wanted to do if I eventually got onto Council and became mayor. So I had quite a number of objectives right from the word go.

What were some of those objectives, can you tell me?

The first of which was to stabilise the financial situation and to do that fundamentally meant that I had to put quality management through all aspects of Council. We couldn’t afford any huge expenditures we just had to make sure that everything we did was more cost efficient and a lot smarter. The second thing was to put environmental management through all aspects of Council activities and that was something that needed to happen. The winds of change had been sweeping across this country with respect to the environment for a long time and this was the way of the future and it was the way I thought we should go. Set an example for other councils not that we were the first to do it.

Did Baulkham Hills Shire have any environmental constraints in place already or not?

No virtually none. There was virtually no orientation to environment at that time.

You had a wide open field?

It was but you see this was the ethos of the 1970’s and 1980’s. It’s all right to reflect and throw stones but this was the governing ethos of the time. We might turn around today and say well that’s objectionable and shouldn’t have happened. We’ve got a saying in medicine the retrospectoscope is a very sharp instrument. The value of hindsight is very, very good.

Castle Hill Show 2007 with the Hills Centre in background

So what was your motivation? You wanted to introduce environmental laws and restraints but what else did you want to do? In terms of what you think you could achieve?

First of all if we put quality management through the Council I was quite sure that we could get Council back on a firm economic footing. I guess a lot of people don’t realise how desperate the situation was. Debt equity ratio was 20% I mean one dollar in five was going on interest. We had a 7 million dollar debt on the Hills Centre. Remember I said that our budget was 47 million. We had unfunded liabilities in Section 94 of over 13 million and we had no reserves, zero, no reserves. I mean were we say a private organisation you probably would have had one of your suppliers filing you for bankruptcy. The situation was that dire. We had an administrator in charge of Council it really was backs to the wall time.

Right there’d been seven resignations among the councillors as well hadn’t there?

As I said there’d been a protracted series of investigations some of which I thought were overly punitive.

So how could it blow out so much your budget? The previous Council before you joined must have taken their eye off the ball don’t you think? What would you say?

I think they were gripped by the fever of the 1980’s. If you remember back then it was the time of the Bond excess and everyone was making money. It’s the same as what is happening to us now. It was just the good times were never going to end. As day by day went you received more income you borrowed more money against the prospect of more income in the future. You never banked on a slow down, you never looked sideways or behind. You only ever looked to the front and when the bubble burst in 1988 of course everything crashed including our Council and quite a lot of other councils too. They were just enjoying the good times and they’d been rolling for nine or ten years.

We’re in exactly the same situation now?

Exactly, exactly and it just staggers me from time to time that people have demonstrated the inability to learn the lessons of the past.

Bernie Mullane Baulkham Hills Shire Councillor 1959-1991

How did you find attending Council meetings? Was it onerous or did you enjoy it? Tell me about your reaction to your first Council meeting?

I was on a very steep learning curve in respect of procedure I was somewhat fascinated by some of my colleagues. It was very interesting learning the game.

It’s a game is it?

It’s the best game in town, politics, the best game in town. But to win it you’ve got to be two jumps in front every time at all times. That means you’ve got to do you homework, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about, you’ve got to research, you’ve got to have the information. If you’ve got the information you can always win an argument. But I gathered about me a group of colleagues who were all independent and they got me in as mayor. That was an incredibly exciting time it was exciting restructuring the Council. I wouldn’t allow any retrenchments if people wanted to leave they had to resign. Everyone was guaranteed a job even though we were restructuring and going through difficult times. I’m very proud to say that we only lost 12% of our workforce during this very difficult period. But with my colleagues all being independent and not belonging to a political party there was no caucusing and if I or the officers wanted to get a project up it had to meet the requirements of my other six colleagues. If it didn’t it didn’t happen.

You were also an independent weren’t you?

Oh absolutely and I think this is a blot on local politics that it has become so politicised and so party driven. One of the characteristics of the Council, my Council and the Councils before me was that they would stand up to Phillip Street and Sussex Street on behalf of their community. That’s all going to go it’s all going to be the party faithful. If the head office in town says this is the way you vote that’s the way you vote. That’s dreadful it knocks out initiative, it doesn’t allow you to argue the merits of cases. I think it’s an extraordinarily retrogressive step.

You described to me last time we met that there were two types of Councillors or two types of people with different motivations. What were they?

Well I think this applies right across the board. This applies to P&C associations, sporting club groups and politics at all levels. The first thing you accept is acquiring a political position equates to the acquisition of power. Let’s be very, very basic about it. That’s what it is. Now regrettably the majority of people find acquiring such a position an end in itself. Now by that I mean it gives them a social acceptance and status other than likely they would have achieved in their normal day to day activities. Having arrived at that position they’ve got nowhere further to go this is their aspiration. There are a few and regrettably not many who recognise the acquisition of power as a means to affect change and affect development agendas and all that sort of thing. That’s basically what all levels of politics are about. You get the odd few people who say no I’m going to get to the top because this is what I want to achieve.

So which kind were you?

I would like to think that I used my position well. Of course it’s not for me to judge that’s for others to judge.

Knights Baseball Field at Fred Caterson Reserve Castle Hill 1999

What was the best thing about being a Councillor before you became the mayor?

I think the involvement with the process of Council. Council is an extraordinary complex organisation. In my Council we had forty six major functions I think and at one stage had five hundred and ninety key performance indicators. It’s extraordinarily diverse from community care through to parks and gardens, development it’s a very, very complex organisation. It was a lot of fun learning how a government organisation worked.

What would you say was the worst thing about being on Council?

Politics when I joined Council I was a Councillor for three years. Then became Mayor for five we had our backs to the wall. There wasn’t a great deal of politics in it but once I’d turned the Council round and got our debt equity down to 3% with an aim of being debt free in two years. We had our reserves running at 25% of operating expenditure the kitty was full in fact it was almost overflowing. Then when the severe protracted financial stringencies were lifted from Council’s primary objective then the game of politics and nimbyism (not in my backyard) and all that sort of thing started creeping into it and that didn’t interest me in the slightest.

Now you’re rather famous for shortening the length of Council meetings. Tell me how did you manage that?

Tactics, knowledge you had to know your business paper backwards. You had to sense where arguments would come from and why. As I said a lot of people see this as the apex of their achievement so they do like to have their five minutes in the sun once a week. You tactically have to give them their five minutes in the sun in the early part of the meeting where it’s not going to cost a lot of money, where it’s not going to have a huge impact. Once they get that out of their system and they’ve had a good time in front of the gallery generally the rest of the meeting went pretty smoothly. I always used to bury the very difficult, complex, sensitive and expensive projects towards the end when everyone got tired.

That’s scheduling the agenda is it?

It’s critically important I know my Council sessions used to go for an hour and half two hours no longer. I know as a teacher people’s concentration spans are about forty, forty five minutes. I know that. The prospect of having people trying to make important decisions at 1.00am in the morning is absolutely insane, that’s ridiculous. So I engineered the things and worked the agendas and the tactics out very, very carefully so that we got through all the business with a minimum amount of deferrals in the shortest amount of time and left everyone happy.

So how much do you think you might have been able to shave off the Council meetings of your predecessors?

Three to four hours, truly.

So you have to be really tough to stop people talking once they’ve had their five minutes?

You’ve got to control the meeting. You’ve got to be absolutely and utterly ruthless to keep people on track. You can never deny an argument if a person’s on track but you’ve got to concentrate very, very hard because you’re the chairman. You’ve got to keep them focussed and if they start to wander then I’d say “Councillor would you just explain what your end point is please”? That used to either bring them back into line or make them sit down.

Tough job I would think?

It is a tough job, it’s not an easy job and after five years I became incredibly tired because I was earning a living in practice as well as being the mayor and I became very, very tired.

Go To Part Two