Direct democracy could have saved Gandolfo Gardens

February 25, 2020
The remains of the 100-year-old trees being chipped on site at the Gandolfo Gardens. Photo: Sue Bolton

Residents put in a huge effort to save the historic Gandolfo Gardens, in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg. But they were thwarted by a system that privileges bureaucrats who were never going to be directly affected by the destruction of the trees.

An alliance of environmental, residents, public transport and urban forest organisations campaigned since early last year to save this special place.

Even though we were evicted from the gardens on January 16, residents kept battling to save the park, which was created by locals in 1911 because of the lack of green space in Coburg.

What makes the destruction of the trees even more grating is that we know there were alternatives to the level crossing construction methods that could have saved the trees.

But the state Labor government and its Level Crossing Removal Project (LXRP) refused to budge: it had 113 trees in its sights, including some that were 100 years old.

Their intransigence shows why we need a system of direct democracy: the current system allows some bureaucrat, politician or boss, who is not directly affected, to sign off on a decision that devastates a community.

The people who are directly affected should be involved in making the decisions.

It is the same with workplace safety: bosses ignore unsafe work practices and treat workers as if they are being petty for insisting on them — until a tragedy happens.

Residents put up a valiant fight to save the trees. They participated honestly in the entire public consultation processes. The problem was that those processes were a sham — a box–ticking exercise.

The LXRP did not engage honestly with local residents about using alternative construction methods to save the trees.

Once the community ran out of other alternatives, residents maintained a picket for a more than three weeks from 5.30am–5.30pm to guard the trees. They put their bodies on the line to try to stop the destruction.

I am glad that residents stepped up and did whatever possible to save the trees. It meant that arborists, traffic management authorities (who acted like they were police throughout the dispute), police and John Holland site managers had to cross a community picket line to cut down the trees. They did not have community consent to commit this destruction.

Since the trees have gone, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union has been forced to return to the site at least twice because of John Holland’s unsafe work practices.

I am confident that if any other bad decisions are being rammed down the throat of local residents by government, council or big corporations, this community will step in.

[Sue Bolton is a Socialist Alliance councillor on Moreland City Council.]

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