Geoff Brooke-Cowden - Part 2


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

How did you manage to combine a busy surgical career with that of a mayor?

A brilliant secretary, two brilliant secretaries, my own personal secretary, my Council secretary Mary Knight a very understanding wife and family.

How did your family feel about you being mayor?

I don’t know I think that they just looked at it as one of those things Dad wanted to do. I’ve done so many diverse things and that was just Dad’s newest project. It didn’t really fuss them all that much.

So the family never felt the pressure of you being on Council?

No, no I absolutely excluded my family from that they were never, ever involved.

Talking about issues that came before the Council what were some of the more unusual ones that you’ve encountered? Were there any issues that you felt particularly strong about? That you wanted to make some changes to or handle in a particular way?

Not really I mean being Mayor you just have to make a succession of tough decisions continually many of which you know are not going to please people. If you try to please everyone you please no one and you go absolutely nowhere. If you’re honest to yourself and honest to your job you’ve just got to make the tough decisions. And wear the consequences of making the tough decisions. We had some controversies over land slip where it affected people’s investment in their property. That was a particularly tough unpleasant issue. The resident’s action group was particularly potent and I don’t blame them for that. They were looking at a possible devaluation of their properties. As a Council we had an absolute responsibility to put the information onto the certificates for people who might buy properties in that area in the future. That was probably the worst time.

Is the biggest issue the rates that people pay and the zoning of the land?

Rates no because rate pegging had been introduced so if we actually wanted to increase rates above the NSW State Government level we’d have to put a very sophisticated case. We did a couple of times when my predecessor Peggy Womersley (Councillor 1987-99, Mayor 1991-94) who picked up the chaos that had been left by the previous Council. Peg was a marvellous transitional President she was fantastic. We got one or two rate rises because our economic circumstances were just so dire. Apart from that rates were never really an issue. Zoning always an issue, always an issue, always a red hot issue it’s always in the end to do with money. Obviously people try to get as much value out of their properties as they can. You’ve got to stick rigidly to your zoning and planning laws. Developers were always trying to bend the rules a little again they’re commercial organisations they’re in there to make money for their shareholders. You’ve got to expect that, you’ve got to deal with it. We had some pretty contentious zoning issues but nothing out of the ordinary every council deals with that.

Peggy Womersley Baulkham Hills Shire Councillor 1987-1999

You’ve got a lot of people in this shire that have five acre blocks and would love to see it subdivided into quarter acre blocks?

Oh yes I fully understand that. Particularly out in the Rouse Hill development area that’s happened but there’s a lot of continuing angst over areas that not we but the government are finding difficult to reticulate and sewer. So it’s a limitation on infrastructure rather than saying “well we’re bloody minded and you can’t subdivide that and make money out of it”. It’s a matter of services and people find that very hard to understand. They’ve lived on that property for sixty years and they’ve had their septic tanks and rainwater tanks but they don’t want to recognise the fact that if you subdivide and put twenty lots on there there’s twenty more people that need water, sewage and reticulation. They’re always really difficult areas because you see as these people get older they’ve got this five acre block of land and they’re going to retire. They want a nest egg they want some finance to fund them into retirement. That’s their side of the equation which is pretty straight forward and very, very understandable. It’s very very tough to say to these people “no” it’s very tough indeed.

Now you said that you introduced quality management as an issue in the Council. Was there any friction from the bureaucrats within the Council to these sorts of measures?

You better believe there was. Just basically because it meant just totally restructuring the organisation I tried when I was a Councillor to get a pilot project in quality management going and I was laughed out of the chamber. That made me absolutely furious I never forgot that because I thought this was a perfectly simple, rational cost effective good thing to do. I just got laughed down. That stuck in my craw I can tell you. I can remember telling the general manager and the senior officers. I became Mayor rather unexpectedly I don’t think many people realised it was going to happen. I said to the general manager “I’m tired, I’m going home I’ll see you in my office at 7.30 in the morning”. He said “Mr Mayor I don’t start work until 9 o’clock” I said “Well that’s just changed”. He said to me “Mr Mayor can I ask you why you’re starting at 7.30”? and I said “ yes I actually have to work for a living and this is the time I can spare before I have to start work”. So I told the general manager and senior officers the next morning I laid out my agenda for the next twelve months. I said “absolutely number one priority is quality management”. With reluctance they agreed to do that and said “they’d set it up”. I said “no you won’t it will be an external consultant I don’t want anyone from within the organisation who might be subject to peer review or assessment on a twelve month basis. Their career being dependent on a senior officer, it had to come from outside” That caused a storm but we eventually got a superb person in from Australia Quality Council. I think everyone was frightened of change but once John Harrison was the consultant. John got us together as a group and started talking to us seriously about quality issues and how we could achieve it and what this would achieve. I could see the attitudes changing day by day and people reluctantly saying “oh yeah maybe it’s a good idea”.

Cycleway at Crestwood Reserve 2005

It worked brilliantly. I put a five to seven year time frame on it and we achieved it in three years. That was due to getting everyone involved, getting everyone behind it and everyone enthusiastic. These were the good times. I used to finish work at five or six at night and go up to Council and I’d get senior officers jump into my room and say “hey I’ve got a great idea” and I’d say “let’s hear it”. It either wasn’t going to fly or it was a good idea. Then we’d get excited and say “well let’s have a think about it do a bit of paper work, give me a draft submission and let’s see if it will run”. Those were exciting times they really were. That was the thing I missed. When I left Council I missed that sort of staff contact. I missed that enthusiasm the innovation. One of the other things I had to do, just had to do is period performances were due to occur in offices every twelve months. I had to allow people to make mistakes. Because if everyone’s so terrified of making a mistake they’ll work very, very slowly and they won’t achieve much and there’ll be no innovation. Making a mistake is not a problem it’s recognising that you’ve made a mistake and not making it again that’s a problem. So I had to twist the general manager’s arm quite severely and just say “well you can’t have people so scared of making an error and getting this in their copy book and being held against them. They won’t make a decision, they won’t do anything they’ll just keep referring it round and round in a circle”. So we got through that and out of that came innovation and enthusiasm and ideas. It was a great time.

Threatened species workshop group viewing the Endangered Ecological Community 2007

How did they take to your environmental introduction the measures that you put in that?

I was told that it couldn’t be done. That was very early on in the piece and I basically said “don’t ever tell me that you can’t do something”. I said “you just work around it and find a mechanism of doing it you go over the problem, around the problem or through the problem”. That’s what’s going to happen and we’re going to do it and you will find the mechanism of achieving it full stop, no argument.

You didn’t give much leeway did you?

No because these were difficult things and every time you bring about change or change in culture you make people uneasy. Ninety percent of people become frightened and insecure and you’ve really go to bear this in mind. These were dramatic changes I put through Council. It did upset a lot of people but that will happen in any organisation when you try to do these things.

No what sort of effect did the introduction of those quality measures have on the Council on the efficiency of the Council? Did you see a remarkable change after the introduction?

It was almost unbelievable I mean we got a Federal Award two years after we started this for the best performing council in Australia. We got up to around about 60% efficiency which was at the lower level of private enterprise, private industry. But for us being a political organisation and running community services and non profit stuff that was a remarkable achievement. It really was it was just absolutely outstanding. Of course that brought with it the turn around in the economic circumstances of Council.

Road Patrol at Baulkham Hills Shire Council Depot c2000

Now in councils there’s often a lot of adversarial feeling between outdoors and indoor staff. Was this also the case at Baulkham Hills?

Well it was but not while I was there because I wouldn’t permit that. Basically because these were “blue collar” workers they were detached from the main building. They really felt like second class citizens they were on much lower salary bands, much more vulnerable people. The first day I was Mayor I threw them a big barbecue down at the depot and continued to do that as long as I was Mayor. I made it very plain to them that…..I told them what I was going to do. I told them about quality management, environmental management. I told them that I needed their help to do it and that they would always have access to me as Mayor if they were in difficulties. I said “you must go through the relevant officer to redress problems but if that becomes impossible and you’ve honestly and earnestly done that then you have access to me and I’ll discuss the problem with you”.

So the situation improved did it?

Yes because I got their trust because I did what I told them I was going to do. I did see them, I did look after them.

Aerial view of The Hills Shire Council building 2005

While you were on Council the contract for the M2 Motorway was signed. Did you have any input into that?

Not nearly as much as I would like I was furious about that whole Greiner/Baird scheme that deprived us of west facing ramps in Baulkham Hills. I think that was extremely regrettable and it didn’t make common sense to me. I mean they had all the plant and equipment on the site. Why they couldn’t have built the west facing ramps at that stage I don’t know. So I had quite a say about that in the press.

So were you in agreement with the M2 design?

No, no not in the slightest.

But you couldn’t change anything?

Couldn’t change anything I mean the consultation process was an absolute joke. I mean who in the name of heaven would put in an infrastructure project like that with room in the middle of it for heavy rail and not put heavy rail in it and ban heavy rail for forty years. Only an idiot would go along with a plan like that. Every progressive development like Joondalup in Western Australia they put heavy rail in between freeways. That’s the way to design. That’s the way to give transport infrastructure. Nick Greiner’s government gave these tollway operators a forty year holiday from competition from heavy rail. Disgusting, I haven’t finished about the M2 either. I’ve got a lot of whinges about the M2. You have a look at the M2 all the bridgeworks and stuff like that that go across. They haven’t been put in with the prospect of adding extra lanes into the future hugely increasing the cost of modification. It’s a planning disgrace.

Aerial view of M2 motorway from Winston Hills looking towards Baulkham Hills 2001

Yes it’s not the best designed road compared to what we’re building now?

It is pathetic.

They also had problems with the concrete on that I don’t know if you know about that?

It always gets down to the lowest common denominator doesn’t it? The cheapest concrete batch they can use they’ll use. I’ve been in these arguments before oh yeah the concrete must meet Australian Standards I said “which standard, how much steel?” “Come on you know” “No, no it meets Australian Standard” I said “I won’t sign it, no, no” I said “you get me the quantity survey and the exact specifications then I’ll think about signing it but not before”.

Right so you were a worthy adversary?

It didn’t win me a lot of friends I can tell you that much.

You had particular problems with the RTA (Roads and Traffic Authority) as well?

Trouble with virtually every government department.

Do you think that the outcome is a bit better than it would have been if you hadn’t said anything?

Marginally we got some advanced money for Windsor Road from Carl Scully. We got an extra seventy two million dollars. I must say Carl impressed me he was right on top of his job and it was a pleasure dealing with him. I remember I went in there one day and Carl said “what are you doing here Doc there are no votes in you area”. I said “I want some money” and he said “how much”? I said “seventy five million”. He said “you can’t have it I’ll give you sixty one”. Because the officers had talked before hand about what we were going to do and the only money that he denied me from that was the Seven Hills roundabout the modification of that because he wanted Federal funding for it. So that was a perfectly reasonable argument.

The New Rouse Hill site on Windsor Road. Looking in a North West direction from Kellyville (April 2006)

That sixty one million, where did that go?

Oh various parts of Windsor Road the beginning of the widening of Windsor Road. That took us out to Rouse Hill or somewhere like that.

How do you feel about this railway that was promised by the government? The northwest railway and then cancelled.

Well there are two issues there. One I don’t think a Labour Government would ever intend under any circumstances to put rail out here through “blue ribbon” conservative seats. Secondly we do need it, we need it desperately. There are some economic issues though because the density of our population here is not like other areas that are serviced by heavy rail. So you’d have to be prepared to make this extremely cost effective or cost efficient to minimise the losses that you would inevitably incur. I can see a lot of governments and a lot of people saying “well we can just never run this at anything other than a colossal loss. That’s true so as much as we’d like it we’d have to plan it very carefully and run it very, very carefully indeed. But we do need it particularly with the development that is ongoing out in the northwest sector. We’ve got four lanes on Windsor Road now. I mean when I was talking to Carl Scully this is back in the 90’s. I said “we need six lanes”. “The planning has got to be for six lanes, you’ve got your four lanes in it, it will be gridlocked. I mean that’s what we need now today”. “But with the lead times in construction by the time it’s built you’re going to need six lanes”. I said “you should look for six or eight or at least relocate all the services out wide enough so that if you do go ahead and pop in an extra couple of lanes. You’re not going to be ripping up Telstra, electricity, gas all that sort of thing”.

This is what makes road building so expensive in this country. It’s lifting up services and relocating them and of course you’ve got the blight of having all the services water, sewage, electricity, Telecom, gas all insisting in having their own pits. Most people don’t understand this. You’ve almost certainly seen the same bit of road dug up repetitively over a twelve month period. That is because every instrumentality insists on its own access. Now that should have been obliterated fifty years ago. This is one of the problems with NSW and unions and craft groups and people with their own little personal prerogatives. It needs reshaping this sort of activity costs our community vast amounts of money.

Well for a surgeon you’ve picked up a hell of a lot about Local Government and the technical side of things?

It’s very interesting as I said at the beginning of the interview it’s quite a challenge and fascinating to learn how a government organisation worked. With its extremely diverse portfolio of activities.

Bushfire near first Camilleri property at Maroota Jan 1994

So what were some of the major events that you encountered during your period on Council and as Mayor? Were there any events in the Shire that had an impact on the way things were working?

No we had bushfires. They’re always a worry particularly out in the north. Our Shire extends for ninety odd kilometres from end to end and about thirty across. Out north when you get out towards Wisemans Ferry. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that land from the air but it is immensely steep gullies and ravines and getting fires in there it’s so hard to fight them. You can’t get men and material equipment safely into those areas and they can get out of control so fast. Those events always used to really, really worry me. We didn’t have any floods when I was Mayor thank goodness but we did have bushfires and we lost lives at Kenthurst.

Maroota as well wasn’t it?

Maroota, yeah.

So what achievements are you most proud of as Mayor do you think? Can you single any of them out?

I don’t really keep a mental list of achievements and that’s not really why I went into local government. To me enumerating your successes and triumphs is a little like putting notches on a handgun after you’ve shot someone. It doesn’t really mean a lot to me I really don’t want to go down that track.

On the other side then are there any issues that you voted on that you are not particularly proud of?

No, no I’ve always been very honest. I’ve always been able to get up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror and thinking “I’ve done OK I’ve done the right thing”. I’m a bit fanatical about that.

So you don’t have any regrets about any decisions you might have made in Council?

No, no they were all made honestly. If I made an error it was an honest error. I obviously must have made errors everyone makes mistakes. But there’s nothing that jumps out at me and says “you should not have done this under any circumstances”.

You’ve had a distance of about nine years since you’ve been Mayor and on Council. How do you now look back on that time?

As a great lifetime experience it taught me a lot about my community and government. I’ve developed some enduring and very close friendships as a result of that. I look back at those times with a pretty fair amount of affection.

Site proposed for Hills District Public Hospital eastern side
Old Northern Road north of Excelsior Avenue Castle Hill c.1963

Did it give you any extra insight into human nature and the way society works?

Oh yes as I said Council's like a P&C organisation, sporting club group, state government, Federal government. When they call Macquarie Street “the bear pit” I used to call Baulkham Hills Shire Council “the sand pit”. It’s just a level of degree.

So what decisions do you think that you’ve made on Council do you think you’ll be most remembered for?

Oh I don’t think I’ll be remembered at all to tell you the honest truth. The group I go around with now are called “The Feather Duster Club”. I mean rooster one day a feather duster the next. Out of sight out of mind there’s nothing so ex as an ex mayor.

Is that so? I’m sure that when you’re walking in the street people will remember you when they see your face they’ll know that you were mayor and probably greet you?

Don’t forget I’ve lived in the Shire thirty five, forty years and I know a lot of people through the various activities and medicine and whatever. Mayor is just a part of that.

So what do you think are the future challenges for the Shire?

Infrastructure is our biggest challenge. It is just such a problem getting people to and from work. Particularly those forty to fifty percent of people that have to leave the Shire to get employment they’re doing it really, really tough. Petrol prices being down by fifty percent now has helped but when the prices were up $1.60 a litre that was starting to have an awful impact on a lot of our people. There just is not the public transport to mop that up it’s just not there. You just can’t simply say buses are the answer. They just won’t carry enough people to anywhere in sufficient concentration. I mean the Hills Bus is great provided you’re not on the M2 in peak hour. Then it’s not great.

Hills Community Medical Equipment at Building 18 Balcombe Heights 2006

On the health side how does this Shire measure up to similar shires in terms of its facilities and hospital care?

That’s an interesting question because we fundamentally have public hospitals in all four corners of the Shire. We’ve got Hawkesbury, we’ve got Blacktown, we’ve got Westmead and we’ve got Hornsby. We don’t actually have a public hospital facility within this Shire which has always been a really big problem. Medicine is changing public medicine in NSW is on its knees it’s at absolute crisis situation. The private hospital system is progressively picking up a lot of the work that the public hospital system used to do. We’re getting a succession of high class facilities out here. Which will be of great assistance but you must always bear in mind that there’ll be at least 15% of your population that will be elderly or indigent who will require public hospital care and do not have it within this Shire.

As we were discussing with transport it is progressively difficult to get in and out of the Shire to get to these facilities. Particularly if you’ve got your elderly wife or elderly husband who’s at Hornsby or at Hawkesbury or at Blacktown how do I get there to see my spouse? It’s very difficult. I had hoped that they might put a public hospital at Rouse Hill. In fact I was part of the planning system for the old Western Sydney Area Health Service where we were talking about a medical facility at Rouse Hill. I kept on, till they got rid of me, belting them over the head about the necessity to acquire sufficient land in the area so that if and when the demand for a proper public hospital arose they would have the land. But of course they didn’t. Western Sydney Area Health Service didn’t take the long view. They bought the minimum of land. The best they’ll put up there is a polyclinic or a bandaid centre. I think it’s disgraceful because as I keep on saying there’s a population of 250,000 out there that need servicing.