Warrnambool City councillors refuse to 'wave the white flag' on harbour management

It would be “premature” and “waving the white flag” to hand back control of Warrnambool’s harbour to the state government, city councillors say.

Councillors voted down a notice of motion put forward by Cr Michael Neoh four votes to three at their meeting on Monday night.

In pushing for the council to present government with an ultimatum – fund harbour upgrades or take back management – Cr Neoh said ratepayers should not be footing the bill for a state asset. 

“If they want to fund the harbour, we’re happy to retain ownership of it, if they’re not, take it back,” he said.

“It’s not blackmail. It’s a fair go for our ratepayers.”

Cr Neoh said the $3.2 million safer launching and retrieval project had been identified in the council’s plan and advocacy efforts and said the community and government knew where the council stood on the issue.

Two funding applications for upgrades had been turned down, Cr Neoh said, and any funding grants would now require matching council funds.

Cr Neoh described a $300,000 study into the precinct announced last month as a “stalling tactic”.

“This is an election, we want $3.2 million, not chicken feed for a study that is going to delay a decision and then put the responsibility on someone else to fund it,” he said.

“I’m happy for them (state government) to do the studies, I’m happy for them to fund an enclosed harbour, but not with ratepayers’ money.”

However, Cr Tony Herbert said he did not believe that the councillor group had done all it could in advocacy efforts.

“I don’t disagree with Cr Neoh’s objection, in my opinion it’s just slightly premature. We’ve had a couple of funding knock-backs… but to me this is sounding a little bit like blackmail,” he said.

“I don’t believe we can put our hand on our heart and say as councillors we have used all our options or used all our avenues.

“I might support it after we have pulled out all the stops and still not got anywhere.”

Cr Herbert said another issue was that the council and the community were on “different pages” when it came to their preferred option for harbour upgrades.

“The recent study announcement, I believe, actually needs to be done. Once and for all it stands a chance to realign the community and the council. Until this is done I think it stands the chance of maybe never getting the funding.”

Cr Peter Hulin said a lack of funding for the harbour precinct came down to advocacy. 

“This issue with the harbour has not just come about in the last five minutes,” he said.

“We have sat on our hands and we didn’t advocate for anything. We’ve missed the boat. We’ve got organisations like VR Fish that have been more than prepared to work with us to get the money... I just can’t believe we’ve had all these opportunities… and we’ve got nothing for it.

“Now, because we can’t get the money, supposedly, we want to give it back. To me, that’s just waving the white flag.

“Our forefathers would turn in their grave if they were here tonight listening to the proposition of handing the control of our harbour back to the state government.”

In supporting Cr Neoh’s motion, Cr Kylie Gaston said the issue was “really quite simple”.

“If we don’t receive adequate funding and resources to maintain such a valuable state asset with safety and heritage requirements I feel it’s responsible to give it back to the state to manage,” she said.

Crs Neoh, Gaston and David Owen supported the motion, with Crs Herbert, Hulin, Sue Cassidy and Robert Anderson against.