Interviewee: Sonya Phillips, born 1947
Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
for The Hills Shire Council
Date of Interview: 17 Dec 2008
Transcription: Glenys Murray, Feb 2009
This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee
So looking back at those days back at Bankstown Council what sort of skills do you think you picked up there?
Certainly a lot of skills so far as just the way local government works. It is a service industry to the community and if people think they can come in and make it a profit making concern. It certainly has to be sustainable but it is about service to the community and has a certain ethic and ethos. I learned that very quickly. I learned the ropes of politics at that time it was a council of twelve with a mayor elected by their peers. There were four Labor, four Liberal four independent so it made it very interesting the debate on the floor. Because I could write shorthand I was often the minute clerk so I learned my debating craft I think from a group of councillors. One particular councillor who was the deputy mayor actually introduced me, her name was Jill Barber, she introduced me to Australian Local Government Women’s Association. That was a really good schooling for me while I was there and I became the conference coordinator both for Bankstown and more latterly for the association itself. So the skills I guess I took to the job were the standard skills of shorthand, typing and normal office skills. Certainly I learnt a lot of other skills while I was there.
Now in 1995 you changed to Baulkham Hills Shire Council as it was called then?
Yes that’s right as an elected person.
So what’s the big difference?
Well you find out where the power is. It’s with the bureaucracy. The big difference is I think that being in the bureaucracy you have to work within the policies and procedures set by the Council. When you’re an elected person you get to set the policies and procedures. I think some of those don’t have to be huge. I think helping people strategically, globally, from the point of view of things that affect their lives is very satisfying. Not only that you leave the community in a better place you can help people from having a pothole in front of their street to having less of a carbon footprint or having a better waste service. It’s about setting the agenda and leadership being on the elected side takes a bit of visions and courage.
Bernie Mullane Baulkham Hills Shire Councillor 1959-1991
Tell me what was the Baulkham Hills Council like when you joined it in 1995? Can you describe the Council?
Council had just come from the leadership of a Shire President for about 22 years. Councillor Bernie Mullane and after Bernie had left the Council had gone into a severe financial decline. When I joined in 1995 we were just coming out the other end of that. We were managing growth with hard financial decisions. The growth had really just begun nothing like it is now. The Council I think was in my opinion in those days was a less outward looking organisation and more an inward looking organisation. That may have been because of the financial constraints. However I’m really delighted to say now here we are thirteen and a half years down the track that the Council has been debt free for some time and have our investments going quite well. It may not always be like that because of the demands on local government and sustainability. But it was a different Council. It was a Council that was just beginning to emerge as I say as a growth area. Apartments were virtually unheard of and of course now they’re contained to set areas. It’s a lifestyle now people don’t want to live in villas or townhouses. They want to live in apartments which are like a luxury lifestyle where you’ve got your pool and it’s like a resort. So we’ve had to manage that over the time to what now the Council we’ve changed its name which was one of my last legacies from Baulkham Hills to The Hills. Which geographically places us, we’ve become a tourist destination, and we’ve become well probably the second fastest growing local government area in NSW. We’re dynamic and I keep saying we but I’m not there any more. I guess that’s the hangover for forty years in local government it’s that inclusive we. When I didn’t seek re-election in this year 2008, Baulkham Hills Council then, now The Hills was the fourth most desirable place to live in NSW. So that change that metamorphosis over a thirteen year period which in the life of a council that is only 102 years old is quite a quantum leap. To be part of that that’s the exciting part out there driving the change and having people come on the journey with you. That’s the important thing.
Now you started in Council not long after they were declared bankrupt and an administrator going. What was the reason for all that disarray that happened then?
Well I wasn’t part of that thank you God. I came in after that but there was obviously less able to meet the repayments on their borrowings than had been thought. This is what gets Council into a bad reputation with the community. It was a time that was very difficult and I know the Shire President at the time was Peggy Womersley (Councillor 1987-99, Mayor 1991-94) and she guided it through a fairly difficult time to get it back on track. The Council was never sacked but they did put an administrator in, Richard Connolly, absolutely charming man and very astute. He got it back on track financially over a couple of years with hard decisions. Then handed it back and a new general manager was appointed. It was certainly well on track by that stage and the hard decisions had been made. Then I was elected. We were really just cleaning up the end of that. We just didn’t have the savings to spend but we certainly could balance our budget and become more prudent. It’s probably days that are best in the archives of Baulkham Hills Council as opposed to lauding them. Because they weren’t days of great decision making.
Peggy Womersley Baulkham Hills Shire Councillor 1987-1999
You’d never been on Council before when you joined the Shire Council?
No I was one of the rookies.
What was it like being on Council? How did it strike you?
Well I recall my first meeting which was interesting. Expecting to ease into the elected side it was seven planning items that had not been determined by the previous Council. The Mayor of the day dealt with these seven planning items. I think he thought it was going to be in a regimented fashion, that they would all simply go through. So the very first vote I had to take I was the only one out of twelve that voted against it. I can assure you at that time when the Mayor called for the vote and said those in favour and eleven voices said “aye” and those against and I said “against”. I was given a pretty stern look but that’s what I hung my hat on. Being elected to Council to put the community first and that’s the way I’ve always stayed. I didn’t agree with the vote. I still don’t agree with the vote to this day on that particular item but I was prepared to stand up and be counted. You begin to learn your craft very quickly when it’s the cut and thrust of politics. You learn to count very quickly during the debate. You learnt that there’s a whole new dimension to local government. You just have to stand up for what you believe. You’re not always right but if you believe in your heart of hearts that you’re right and you’re doing the right thing by the community. Well that’s all you can do, nothing more and nothing less.
Now were you the only woman on the Council?
Not at that time there were two women on the Council at that time. The next Council we had six women and six men which was great. Only for the debate I mean people debate differently. There is a different dimension between men and women and thank God for the difference because very often men are more practical, women are probably a little bit more pragmatic. Regularly when the debate is heard you can find somewhere in the middle that’s a good solution. So that Council I think worked very well even though there was not always agreement on everything. I was Deputy Mayor for a couple of years during that Council. Then the last Council that I just retired from there were eleven males and one woman. That was me and that’s an interesting situation to say the least. Sometimes the testosterone levels in the chamber were quite high. All the senior officers are men and eleven Councillors are men but we managed it, we got through it. Sometimes with some robust debate and regularly with a sense of humour, regularly with a sense of humour. Had to.
Sonya Phillips was founding President of Friends of The Hills Libraries
Now you were an independent weren’t you, all the time that you were in local government?
That’s right, yes.
Is it the best position to be in?
I think so, I think so. I have over the time always subscribed to the Westminster System in state and federal politics. Put them in if you don’t like what they do don’t vote them in next time. But in local government I think the independent the better. Because what happens at least you can stick up for what you believe in and what the community wants your support on. You don’t have to toe party lines. I think that’s the shame of local government that sometimes it is simply used as a breeding ground so to speak for state and federal politics. Maybe this sounds like motherhood and apple pie but if you’re doing the right thing then that’s fine. But if you’re just there to use it as a stepping stone then I don’t think the community wins in that way. I think a fine example of this at the moment is for the first time ever the Liberal Party here in Baulkham Hills endorsed candidates. That absolutely polarised the community. They voted Labor or they voted Liberal. So the composition of the Council is now 8 Liberal and 4 Labor and no independents.
The present Council?
The present Council and I think from where I sit I just hope the “little man” gets his voice heard too and it’s not dictated to from Macquarie Street.
Were you always very vocal in voicing your opinions on matters?
Yes if I thought the issue was right. To be passionate about it I would. Very often I have particularly when I was on the floor of the chamber as a Councillor. I would regularly put in rescission motions so that the community could have a second chance at big issues particularly. Sometimes you’re never going to win on planning issues. You know that and it’s just a waste of time trying to have motions rescinded. But on a community issue if you’re going to close down a pony club then I think, yes you have to be passionate and you have to be vocal. I was never a media hound I didn’t ring the press. The press used to ring me and I got good press and bad press. But I’ve never hounded the media for press coverage. Look if you put yourself up in public life there’s a couple of things you’ve got to have. Pretty thick hide for a start and also you’ve got to be passionate about what you do. If that’s being vocal then yeah I certainly have been vocal over the time.
Bella Vista Farm homestead front view 2003 before restoration
What was some of the major issues that were debated in those days before you became Mayor let’s say?
Before I became Mayor? Well the one I just spoke about the actual closing of the only riding club we had. There was a number of pony clubs but this was the only riding club. Where people from three to eighty could ride closing that was a big, big issue. The issue that has been on the agenda as long as I’ve been on Council has been the completion of the eastern part of the ring road around Castle Hill. We’ve finally gotten that part way completed. Strategically the allocation of funds is always… everybody wants their little piece of the pie. One of the issues that I was very passionate about was actually changing the strategic way we did business. It was very much oh well we’ve got a bit of money left over here so let’s use that. There was little strategic direction. I think debating those issues to have it in a more regimented way and sometimes you simply just don’t win everything. Some of the things that we were able to change then, simple things like heritage grants. Twenty five thousand dollars a year for people doing up their homes that are heritage listed. Another big issue that springs to mind was when Council had to take over Bella Vista Farm Park from the State government. The State government gave it to us with a million dollars. Well that got soaked up because it is heritage listed and it really is a Federal issue. This is where Elizabeth Macarthur began breeding Spanish Merino sheep. The lack of funds to do Heritage Park where the Battle of Vinegar Hill commenced with the Castle Hill rebellion. Never having enough money to spend on footpaths, roads things like that those issues were always hotly debated.
But I think the one that springs to mind is when the Council wanted to close its six child care centres. A report came to Council from a new officer called the Human Services Manager and his first report to Council was to close the six child care centre. I can recall my opening remark in the debate was that “this report’s been written by the Human Services Manager and there’s nothing human about it”. At which stage the Mayor adjourned the meeting. As a result of that we actually still have the six child care centres under our control. I think what was probably the genesis which was that remark which probably wasn’t terribly complimentary but it served the purpose. We now have a whole new structure and these child care centres were individually buying food, individually employing people, individually having cleaners. So now we have the parents run an umbrella group. Joint buying of food, joint cleaning etc, etc they’re all accredited by DoCS (Department of Community Services). They run well and sometimes you have to stick your neck out a bit to make the change. In fact I’ve said many times “I think I should get the giraffe award” because I’m always sticking my neck out to make things change. But that one worked that was hotly debated as well.
Balcombe Heights Child Care Centre in May 2006 was founded 1984 - the first in the shire
They wanted actually to close them down or to restructure them?
To close them down it wasn’t a core business of local government.
It wasn’t a restructure?
No it was a let’s get rid of these we’ll save money.
I guess it wouldn’t have been very popular among the electorate then?
Some of them were economic rationalists. We have certainly had to restructure the senior citizens centres that we built under government funding. We still have them, we still run them but the use has been more adapted. So you have to be a bit proactive. A lot of things….heated debates and robust debates in chamber. Wouldn’t it be boring if everything got rubber stamped?
Now did your family feel the pressure of you being on Council? Did in interfere with your family life?
Certainly bad publicity I did go through a time when I was “under the pump” constantly both from the written media and radio. Unfortunately if you put yourself up for election you have to be prepared to take the bad publicity. It does have an effect on your family. I think people should be a little bit more perhaps I wouldn’t say generous if you were a journalist. But a little bit more thoughtful that there are other people out there that it does affect.
What sort of bad publicity do you mean? What would you get?
I’ll give you for example I was chairman of the Sister Cities. We have or we had I don’t know what they’re going to do in the new Council. We have a sister city in Wexford in Ireland and that’s through the historical links. We have a sister city at Cootamundra in NSW. We worked very hard with these people over the time. I used to drive up and down to Cootamundra regularly and of course nothing was said. We had a number of visits from the Irish people out here and when I went to Ireland well all hell broke loose.
I’m nowhere ashamed of sister cities I’ve had a long association with them. The one at Cootamundra we have a youth leadership camp every year. The students from their high school come up every Australia Day. We have these exchanges they go down for beach volley ball. I go down there for the Soroptimists Art Show every year which is their big fund raiser. That relationship has been going for ten years. While I was Mayor we had three golf days and we’ve left the committee with $25,000 in the bank.
Balcombe Heights Child Care Centre in May 2006 was founded 1984 - the first in the shire
You became Mayor in 2004 you had two terms also 2007 tell me a little bit about that time?
2004/05/06 then 07/08. Oh it was just great, just great being able to have some experience in local government. Knowing the background to the bureaucracy and having served a couple of years as Deputy Mayor. I was really able to hit the ground running those terms were terrific. One year of course was our centenary year 2006 so we had all sorts of wonderful things. We had a whole year of centenary celebrations. I had a wonderful Shire centenary rose developed by the Nati rose people here in the Hills. We had a great year of festivity. Just looking back over the way it’s progressed as I say being able to lead from the front and have people come on the journey with you. Restructured the Council made it more outward looking put a whole new division in just simply to support the community called Community Development. I hope that my term as Mayor has left the community and the organisation in a better place.
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