All posts by Michael Burge

Journalist, artist, author, designer, digital publisher and mentor

Carol’s commonsense campaign

“There was a majority of men on the council and I really felt that women needed to have a decision-making presence.”

CAROL Sparks describes as an unlikely candidate for local government, but a desire for change in her community drove this former nurse into a political career that’s already made history in Glen Innes.

It was while co-ordinating state and federal elections for New England Greens candidate Mercurius Goldstein that Carol got a close-up look at public life.

“I went on the campaign trail and I spoke to lots of people,” she recalls.

“I realised I had a bit of a passion for it, to try and bring climate change to their attention, the problems with our waterways, and the environmental damage that was happening on the Barrier Reef.

“Then the council elections were coming up and I thought well, I could just keep talking to the people.”

Carol’s campaign for the Glen Innes Severn Council (GISC) elections in 2016 was conducted over a fortnight in a very grassroots manner.

“I just stood out on the street and said: ‘Vote me in for council’ and people liked that,” she says.

“There had been campaigning in this region in the past, but it had always been done in the newspaper.

“It was quite exciting and people were enthusiastic towards me. The community was feeling a little bit frustrated, they said we needed a change.”

A major driver for Carol was the under-representation of women in local government.

“There was a majority of men on the council and I really felt that women needed to have a decision-making presence,” she says.

“Dianne Newman was a councillor and she was feeling a bit isolated.

“I campaigned on health, women, water, and potholes. Unfortunately there’s still some potholes around, but we’re working hard on that,” she says.

Raised at Tathra on the far south coast of New South Wales, Carol’s mother’s family were dairy farmers and her painter father a Second World World veteran.

“I left school at fourteen and worked in a grocery store, before starting my nursing training at Bega,” she says.

“I went to the Keppel Islands on holiday and that’s where I met my husband, Badja.

“We sailed around the Whitsundays, got married, and lived in England for eight years where our children were born.”

After moving to the Glen Innes region in 1980, Carol and Badja established a local antiques and collectable business and a second-hand bookshop. The couple’s son Joe now owns The Book Market in central Glen Innes.

When asked about what sparked her political ambitions, Carol admits to having an internal drive that shocks a few people.

“I’m an old woman,’ she says, laughing. “And I wanted to have a change.”

“I was a registered nurse and working in palliative care here in Glen Innes for twenty years.

“There were needs in the community. We’ve got doctors on call, but it’s very different when you have a doctor right there when you present at a hospital.

“Towns in the bush tend to get poor services.”

Trial by fire

Carol served as deputy mayor from 2016 until September, 2018, when a majority of councillors elected her into the mayoral office. Looking back at her first years as a local representative, she describes the experience as a “trial by fire”.

“It still is,” she says.

“We had another lady who was president of Severn Shire Council,” Carol adds, referring to councillor Alice Clifford, who served prior to the amalgamation with Glen Innes Council.

“But we’ve never had a female mayor of the municipal council.

“That’s what women are facing all over the nation, and women are leaving politics in their droves. I suppose that’s writ small here.

“But I’ve tended to be a person who goes against the grain, and it’s been very inspiring to look at Dianne, who is now deputy mayor, and notice the changes that have happened for her whilst I’ve been on council.

“We could do with a couple more women, I reckon, just to balance it up a bit.”

When asked what she imagines her legacy will be, beyond bringing more gender equality, Carol is very clear.

“I think renewable energy, happy kids, more community gardens, and more sustainable businesses,” she says.

“We do have a tendency to be a bit old-fashioned. I’d love to bring the rail trail here, for example, with lots of backpackers coming from overseas,” she adds, referring to a proposal to alter the use of the closed rail corridor that runs from Armidale to Wallangarra.

“Volunteering is also a big thing in Glen Innes. We cannot survive without our volunteers and of course they’re all getting older, so encouraging younger volunteers is something I’ll be looking to do.”

On the issues that divide country towns along political lines, Carol is firm.

“If we care for our waterways and our creeks, we should create biodiversity and plant trees instead of cutting them down,” she says.

“To have healthy waterways is where we find most in common with farmers. They need water too, so we need to look after the environment.

“We come together though common sense.”

This article first appeared in New England Living magazine.

Heresy in the High Country for #NewEnglandVotes

“To turn this region into a true believer, New England voters need to decide if we want fossil fuel extraction in the energy plan.”

WHEN state member for the NSW seat of Northern Tablelands Adam Marshall put pen to paper in favour of renewable electricity generation in mid-2018, the news made barely a ripple in a media landscape apparently hungry for stories about alternatives to burning coal.

In his opinion piece for the local Fairfax Media weeklies, Mr Marshall ramped-up the religious rhetoric, calling renewables a “miracle” and himself an “agnostic” on the issue.

AGNOSTIC ADAM Adam Marshall, NSW Member for Northern Tablelands.

He also made a bold prophecy: that the NSW New England region — an agricultural heartland — could become a net exporter of renewable energy. Jobs, local economic boosts, and low-cost energy would be the outcomes of change the state minister claimed was driven by community sentiment in a Climate Institute survey.

Heady stuff, especially considering Mr Marshall is a National Party MP in a region more clearly associated with its federal counterpart, coal-loving conformist Barnaby Joyce, who calls renewables “a religion”.

Lest Mr Joyce try to claim credit for Adam Marshall’s renewables pilgrimage — he’s not above attending photo opportunities at renewable project sod-turnings in the region — it’s time to consider what this identity crisis for New England Nationals means for the federal election.

True Believers

After working in rural media in the United Kingdom, North America and Australia I moved home to the New England region in 2017. One of the greatest surprises of my return were the regular sightings of wind turbines and solar arrays.

As I soon learned, the locals all know about our Chinese-backed renewables miracle even if the Canberra press bubble doesn’t join the dots and ask Barnaby Joyce about it. If you ever get around to driving to Inverell from Glen Innes along the Gwydir Highway you’ll see some of the most iconic grazing land in the region, with an increasing number of wind turbines and solar panels hiding in plain sight of some very high-profile renewables naysayers.

Perhaps the real miracle is that this stretch of country has given hope to those who believe the links between pollution of the soil, air and water and global warming.

But to turn this region into a true believer, New England voters need to decide if we want fossil fuel extraction in the energy plan, and someone is prepared to ask us: newly-announced independent candidate Adam Blakester wants to know what constituents think, in fact he’s prepared to create his policy platform on our views.

It’s an unexpectedly abstract start to what may prove to be a refreshing campaign.

Sacred Ground

Without ruling out extractive industries, Adam Marshall, who also serves as NSW Parliamentary Secretary for Renewable Energy, stated: “I’m all for a sensible energy mix,” in his 2018 piece.

Agnostic, yes. Renewables purist, no; although his plan for the region to export renewable energy hints at the New England doing its fair share of heavy lifting in national electricity generation in years to come. If we punch above our weight with wind turbines and solar panels, surely that means we won’t have to allow more coal and coal seam gas (CSG)?

INDIE ADAM Independent candidate Adam Blakester.

Mr Blakester has sat at the table with Mr Marshall in this space, whereas Mr Joyce is firmly on the record as pro-fossil fuels. In 2018 he headed an inquiry into the mining sector aimed at increasing community benefits. As recently as the Wentworth by-election he was calling for the Snowy Hydro 2.0 project to be scrapped and the savings used to fund new coal-fired power stations.

Apart from publicly defending prime agricultural land at threat from the Shenhua Watermark project’s plan to mine coal on the Liverpool Plains, Mr Joyce prevaricates on how much extraction should be allowed in New England. A public spat with former independent member for New England Tony Windsor during the 2016 election campaign was fought around accusations about mining affiliations.

So the sacred centre ground on fossil fuels is available for Mr Blakester to occupy, although he’s waiting to see if New England voters will lead him there.

Energy Battleground

The city of Tamworth had strong leadership on energy innovation well over a century ago when it embraced a new form of power. The town was the first in Australia to generate electrical street lighting, in 1888, replacing gaslight with a municipal power supply. Advocated by mayor Elizabeth Piper, that push was bitterly fought through a local media war fuelled by vested interests.

We’re back on similar battle lines, although the benefits of new energy generation are only just starting to show. Community grants have been rolling out of the wind farm projects, and a recent NSW Valuer-General’s report attributed a 3.5 per cent increase in residential land values for the Inverell Shire area to increased demand due to wind farm projects in the region.

However, the more pressing issue for New England right now is the ongoing drought.

Pray For Rain

On what seems to be an unfolding tour of the region to launch his campaign, Mr Blakester will be unable to avoid climate talk. From the ranges above the Northern Rivers in the east, to the Western Slopes and Plains, we’re seeing local mass fish deaths and intense bushfires during such a severe lack of rain that it’s hard to find consensus on whether conditions signify the new normal or just business as usual in a dry spell.

Still, it’s positive to see our electoral options expand since country Labor announced its candidate Yvonne Langenberg in June, 2018 and Barnaby Joyce was preselected unopposed.

Adam Blakester’s public-vote approach to leadership is innovative, although starting with a blank policy canvas is a high-stakes move.

The non-executive Lock The Gate director has a track record in the sustainable governance and worked extensively on the New England Sustainability Strategy (NESS) with the company he serves as executive director of: Starfish Initiatives.

But what happens if this region’s voters tell him we want to extend our faith to, say, CSG?

This week, at Inverell, combined churches are eschewing earthbound leadership by praying for rain. With decisions due on the Shenhua Watermark project in 2020, New England voters are yet to see if we’ll get a federal candidate willing to speak what some would call heresy on the climate change benefits of renewables, while excommunicating fossil fuel extractors once and for all.

At the end of the day, a leadership drought during a big dry might result in business as usual at the ballot.

North Star artist set to shine

“It was such a relief to finally be able to devote most of my time to painting.”

ART lovers at Inverell’s town gallery noticed a vibrant new palette in two popular 2018 group shows: the colourful, highly organic work of Kate Owen.

One of her bold abstract canvases took home an Inverell Art Prize award, and another was acquired by the gallery during its contemporary exhibition. Yet despite this flush of attention it’s been a long journey back to the canvas for this North Star artist.

And now, she’s about to open her first solo exhibition at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, as the centrepiece of the High Country Handmade Showcase.

“I have always been ‘arty’ as have my two sisters,” Kate said.

“We all created art from a young age and I did art all the way through high school, earning the art prize in my senior year in 1988.

“I went on to do fashion design at college in Sydney and work in the industry for quite a few years before opening my own business in Moree designing and making bridal gowns and special occasion clothing.”

Not long after the turn of the millennium, Kate embarked on large-scale oil paintings, but admits to putting the brushes down when she “got busy with children”.

Her creative outlet as a young mother was through running gift, homewares and café businesses at Goondiwindi.

“I have always done something with a creative bent, however, I knew one day I would get back to my art,” she said.

“Along the way I did a few workshops here and there, mostly in acrylics in order to teach myself how to use them as the practical side of me liked the fact that they dry fast and are easy to clean up!

“A few years ago I made a promise to myself that I would get back to painting when my youngest son went away to boarding school and I no longer had children at home.”

That was at the start of 2017, and ever since Kate has devoted as much time to her art as possible in order to improve and evolve her work.

“It was such a relief to finally be able to devote most of my time to painting, if only to free my mind of all the stored up ideas and express them on the canvas,” she said. 

Life of its own

When asked about her painting technique, Kate said she leaves a lot to happenstance.

“I try hard not to concern myself with the final outcome before starting, because ultimately it is the process in getting there that creates the outcome which is never apparent to me from the start,” she said.

“Some paintings have many layers beneath which gives the final work more complexity, especially when glimpses of previous layers are left.

“I also love collage, I never throw away any bit of painted paper that could just be perfect at some stage for a particular work.”

Kate admits to being inspired by French painter Henri Matisse, a master at fluid form and bold use of highly-saturated colour. She’s also long been a fan of American illustrator Eric Carle’s The Hungry Caterpillar.

“When I want to create a body of work that has a particular theme I print pictures of photos I have taken and choose images that have particularly strong shapes,” she said.

“I look at these then put them away and then go to work on the canvas with just the memory of what I’ve seen.

“This is a technique I learned from Catherine Cassidy who I greatly admire. I was lucky enough to do a workshop with her in Sydney last August.”

COLLAGE COLOUR ‘Oasis’ (detail) by Kate Owen.

A particular inspiration for Kate is Elisabeth Cummings, the multi award-winning and highly collectible Australian artist.

“Her use of colour, line, texture and scratching back creates incredibly in-depth work,” Kate said.

“She states: ‘When I get going the painting has its own life and starts demanding certain things of itself’.”

“This resonates with me completely as often I feel that the painting controls me and not the other way around.”

Kate Owen’s solo exhibition The Happenings opens at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, at the High Country Handmade Showcase, March 3.

Feature image by Grace Cobb.