As a reserved, unassuming farmer with few ambitions in local government, Moyne Shire councillor Ian Smith makes an unlikely mayor.
Cr Smith stepped up as a candidate last month to break the electoral deadlock that had left Moyne Shire mayorless. He never sought the role, but was happy to help, he says.
The lifelong farmer from Pura Pura in the north-east corner of the shire says he joined the council in similar circumstances.
"People came to me saying they wanted a representative from the regional portion of the shire," Cr Smith says.
"I hadn't given it a great amount of thought, but had to make a decision in a very short time so I put my hat in the ring."
The public events and formal meetings that fill a councillor's calendar were a new experience for the man known to many as 'Snags', a nickname he says has nothing to do with his love for Lions Club sausage sizzles.
"When I was at school my brother was 'Snagdog Smith' and when I came along I was 'Little Snag', so it's just stuck with me. It's just one of those silly things in life," he says.
The Smith family has farmed in Pura Pura for three generations, but the new mayor says there are fewer and fewer independent farmers left.
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"The population decline in the northern part of the shire is a major problem. Farms are generally getting bigger, consolidating, with not a lot of new farmers moving in," he says.
The steady decline has had knock-on effects for social events and organisations, too.
"Once there were tennis clubs, football clubs, but with the population decline these have gone by the way," he says. "Now the fire brigades are really the last organisations left in the districts."
In his five years on council, Cr Smith has quietly advocated for issues that matter to ratepayers north of the Hamilton Highway, where things like the condition of local roads are a consistent bugbear.
As mayor, roads will be a focus, and he wants to ensure the $10.6 million in annual road spending in the shire gets where it's needed most.
"It's the only thing we haven't come up to speed with in the customer satisfaction surveys during my time on council," Cr Smith says.
"We can do better."
But the top priority will be COVID recovery.
"That means working with businesses throughout the shire seeing what we can do to help them," Cr Smith says.
"There's a $200,000 outdoor dining package we are rolling out at the moment and we've had two rounds of grants to help businesses refurbish their shopfronts."
For many businesses, the road back from the depths of lockdown is more complicated than putting some tables and chairs outside. Cr Smith says a regional labour shortage is the biggest issue.
"The key worker shortage is a big problem and unless we have somewhere for them to live we're not going to get them there," he says.
"No matter what industry you talk to, the first thing they say is the shortage of labour."
The COVID pandemic saw city folk flee to the regions, but many appear to be white collar professionals who have made the move because they can work from home.
While the influx has pushed housing costs higher, it hasn't alleviated the shortage of hospitality workers, care workers and labourers. Cr Smith says it doesn't help that there's a lack of land available for building.
"We've got our planning officers going out to areas like Hawkesdale and Mortlake to speak to people who may be wanting to subdivide land and help them do that," he says.
"There are a lot of vacant blocks but if you try and buy one you can't."
Even if new lots do become available, it won't be a quick fix, with waiting times for new builds stretching beyond a year in many cases.
One thing that won't be high on Cr Smith's agenda is the environment, an area where he argues Moyne already does more than its fair share.
"Moyne is already wearing a big percentage of the wind energy projects throughout the state," he says.
"We need renewables but we feel we are sharing too big a load in Moyne. We already have up to 700 turbines on the drawing board."
Cr Smith says the shire isn't getting the financial benefits it deserves from the wind farms, and the state government needs to lift its game.
"We had a meeting with (Minister for Planning) Richard Wynne last Friday and he was very accepting and listened to our concerns," he says.
"When you've got $500 million in projects going on around you, is it unreasonable to say to the state government 'we need our facilities'?
"We don't want to feel like we're being taken for granted."
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