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Issue #1535      15 February 2012

Council doesn’t give a fig!

The Newcastle Council called in riot police and abandoned its occupational health and safety obligations in its rush to cut down trees prior to changes in the Roads Act.


Part of a protest against the felling of fig trees in Newcastle.
(Photo: Bernadette Smith)

In another example of the state using the police force for the benefit of conservative forces, determined Newcastle Council staff spent millions of rate-payers dollars erecting fences and hiring security guards to make certain that the Fig trees in Laman Street, Newcastle NSW were chopped down (the trees are Hill’s Figs – ficus macrocarpa Ver.Hilli). The Council made some bizarre allegations regarding the trees, including that they were unsafe for the general public. The felling of the trees was against the wishes of the local community and in spite of expert opinion that the Laman Street Figs were safe.

World renowned tree risk assessment specialist, Professor Michael Ellison, whose risk assessment methodologies (QTRA, Qualified Tree Risk Assessment) are the accepted worldwide standard, assessed the figs in Laman Street twice, the last time being in December last year. At a public meeting held on January 16, 2012, in a conference call from the UK, Professor Ellison stated that those particular fig trees had 1 in 700,000 to 1 in 2 million chance of falling down and a 1 in 10,000 chance of a branch failing. He stated that the risk of a fatality from one of these trees/branches failing was 1 in 170,000, well within acceptable parameters and therefore the trees should be considered safe.

Professor Ellison has an impressive list of qualifications and has worked in Arboriculture for 34 years. He has honorary life membership, in his professional association, in the USA, UK and Ireland. Professor Ellison’s report was given to Newcastle Council who ignored his expert opinion and instead relied on the opinion of the qualified, but considerably less experienced, Dean Simonsen from “Treelogic”. Mr Simonsen was contacted by the writer but he declined to comment stating that he “no longer works for Treelogic” and that Council had asked him “ to write the report” and that because he no longer works for Treelogic it would be “inappropriate” for him to comment.

Professor Mark Stewart, the Director of the Centre for Infrastructure, Performance and Reliability at the University of Newcastle, specialises in risk assessment. Professor Stewart critiqued the initial risk assessment, completed by Dean Simonsen, and stated to the aforementioned public meeting, that Mr Simonsen’s report was suspect. He stated that, had the figures been accurate in Mr Simonsen’s report, that 6.5 of the fig trees should already have fallen down; pointing out that all the figs remained standing.

According to Dr Caitlin Raschke, from “Save Our Figs”, David Lonsdale had written the textbook, that Mr Simonsen had relied on for the figures in his report. She reported that Mr Lonsdale had made a written statement in which he said that “certain aspects of the assessment deserve reconsideration” including the following;

  • Assessment of the probability of failure of the various trees;
  • Assessment of the occupancy of the target areas;
  • The severity of pruning that might be required to reduce the lever arm of the trees enough to improve safety to a more acceptable level.

The Newcastle Council itself was divided on the felling of the Fig trees, which led to some very heated council meetings. The vote, to fell the trees was carried by Council by only one vote and was based on the questionable risk assessment by Mr Simonsen. Many Council members, including Michael Osborne and Newcastle’s Mayor John Tate, voted to keep the Fig trees and these two councillors attended the protests, along with many outraged Newcastle residents.

Expert and public opinion ignored

As the Newcastle Council ignored both expert and public opinion, has relied on suspect reports and used millions in rate-payers money to destroy healthy Figs, many are calling for a public inquiry into how this travesty was carried out. These tactics, used by Council staff, are indicative of the current trends of governments in their use of police forces, bureaucratic procedures and outmoded laws to attack their own citizens. In particular this is the case for those of working class background, or the poorer sections of the community, as seen in the way the recent Occupy movements and industrial/ strike actions have been dealt with. This is also symptomatic of sharper class antagonisms both nationwide and around the world.

Members of the Newcastle community attempted to stop the Council by taking the issue to court. The “Parks and Playground Movement” took the matter to the Land and Environment Court and managed to briefly stop the felling via an injunction. According to John Sutton from Save Our Figs, the Roads Act was used to fell the trees because the Act overrides any other law which may have been used to save the figs.

The NSW Roads Act is currently under review and there is a possibility that the Act will be changed to stop this law from being used in this manner, to remove healthy trees or trees that are not an immediate danger to the public. Mr Sutton stated that if this issue occurred in Victoria their Roads Act could not be used in this way. He stated that the Victorian Roads Act includes a section that states that in the case of non-urgent cases, other processes/laws regarding the removal of trees apply. The Newcastle Council were aware that the Roads Act could be about to change, as soon as a few short weeks away, which appears to have been the catalyst for their hurry to fell the trees.

Safety flouted

In their hurry to remove the trees, Council staff showed a lack of concern regarding the safety of the workers involved in the felling. Many onlookers and protesters were horrified by the lack of adherence to Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) procedures during the felling of the trees. Many noted the lack of safety goggles, particularly on the first day, but more seriously onlookers noted that the workmen were working in the rain on metal cranes, near to, or directly above live power lines without any wrapping around the wires to prevent electrocution.

Police, including the Riot Police, were forced to stand directly under one tree that was being cut down, without protective hard hats on the initial day of felling. The public gasped with horror when a very heavy tree branch swung back towards a particular workman in the tree, narrowly missing him.

Many complaints were made to the Workcover officer in Newcastle who stated that it was alright for workmen to cut down trees over live power lines in the rain. He stated that “we had made certain that the company involved were professionals”. Another Workcover officer stated that they had “spotters” who watched to see if the crane came too close to the power lines.

Onlookers were not convinced that OHS regulations were being enforced due to the fact that even the obvious wearing of protective goggles and hard hats were not being adhered to. It was obvious to onlookers that the workmen were being hurried to complete the job as they continued working in heavy rain.

Many protesters and other members of the public were also concerned that there was no attempt to remove, or even to look in the trees to see if any wildlife needed to be rescued prior to the individual trees being chopped down. The trees were immediately placed into a woodchipping machine without any attempt to rescue animals or birds that may have nested in the trees.

In a bid to excuse money wasted on fences and the deployment of Riot Police, certain council members misinformed the broader Australian media about the protests, alleging that Riot Police had to be “called in” in order to prevent protesters attacking police and the workers who were engaged in the felling. Media reports stated that the library had to be closed because of the protesters.

However, the workmen were on site prior to the protesters arriving and there were lines of Riot Police and fences erected in between the protesters and the workmen. At one stage there were three lines of police in between protesters and the workmen. Library workers had been asked not to go to work prior to the work beginning and the library was closed. The protests were peaceful with only one or two people arrested but not due to any violence.

No policemen were attacked nor any workmen. When one of the police fainted, possibly due to heat, the perfect opportunity presented itself for protesters to rush forward into the open part of the enclosure. However the protesters, concerned regarding the welfare of the policeman, made no attempt to move forward and organisers suggested that people stand clear to allow the man medical support.

On the final day of the felling even more people arrived at the protest with drums, trumpets and other items to make themselves heard. Members of the public drove past honking their car horns in support of the protesters. It is significant that the protesters, outside of the Council chambers itself, yelled “this is what democracy’s like!” Many made the point that their right to protest and be heard by Council, the right to have an opinion, was being thwarted by the few Council members who some say only went ahead simply to prove that they could.

As the final tree was felled the last post was played and one protester stated to me that he thought that this action by certain sections of the Council is possibly part of a larger plan to divide the Newcastle Community and to disempower protesters in order for the easier implementation of other dubious plans. These plans could involve the expansion of the coal and coal seam gas industries. There are plans to establish hundreds of coal seam gas wells around the Newcastle area.

However, if indeed it is the case that there is the intention to disempower the Newcastle community then it appears that the plan has failed. On the final day of the protest more and more of the Newcastle community joined in the protest as they walked or drove past.

To quote the final chant at the protest: “The people united, will never be defeated!”  

Next article – Zapatistas: 18 Years of Rebellion and Resistance

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