I attended the 80th birthday party of Valerie Axtens, a delightful and much loved Lismore matriarch, a few years ago. Midway through the afternoon the modest party was enlivened by the mayor, Cr Jenny Dowell, who marched briskly in and began greeting everyone warmly by name. I was astonished when she knew my name and enough about to have a short but genuine conversation – but that’s the kind of person the mayor of Lismore is.
A woman of impeccable integrity, she’s widely respected around NSW. Her public stance against Metgasco’s planned gas well at Bentley was evidence of this – in a political climate where city councils are endangered by threats of State amalgamation and outspoken mayors by the loss of their jobs, she’s never been afraid to speak out on behalf of her city.
Cr Dowell had never been to Lismore when her husband took a job at the University and she packed up her Melbourne home to move here.
“It was the best move we ever made,” she said. “It’s a great place to bring up children and it was the right move for us at the right time. My kids at that stage were young, now they’ve left home, they’re in their thirties.”
She worked with Aboriginal children with hearing loss for 14 years, before other voluntary work got her involved in community issues and she stood for council – and won, in 2004.
“I door-knocked three and a half thousand doors and got elected,” she said.
“I believe in being strongly connected to community and that’s what I’ve maintained in the ten years I’ve been on council.”
Cr Dowell’s been mayor for five and a half years now and a staunch advocate of community concerns among them unconventional gas mining.
“Our council looked at the CSG issue first probably about three or four years ago and it rang alarm bells, not just with me, but with others on our council. We started getting involved, learning about it, looking at the threats back then and I can still remember meeting a farmer probably about three years ago, a very conservative man, he’d been with his wife up to Queensland and he stood in front of me in a rural hall with tears in his eyes saying, ‘please don’t let that happen here’.
“So it was very personal for me and while I was concerned with the environmental issues I was more concerned with the social issues that has the potential for splits in our tight and supportive community and I’ve been involved ever since and proudly so.”
In keeping with her stance, she visited the Bentley camp twice.
“Out of respect for the mayor of the neighbouring Shire LGA I’ve gone quietly. I haven’t made it into a media circus. Previously I have made personal cash donations and done some baking for the camp.
“It was very well organised, like a mini-village. Everyone signed on, it was quiet, respectful, a very peaceful place where people had a quiet determination. It was very well run and I’ve seen nothing that would bring it into disrepute or that damages either people or the environment.”
Without an overt declaration, Cr Dowell made it clear that, should the Richmond Council successfully evict the camp from its territory, Lismore council would look favourably on a move into its boundaries. That stance did not endear her to pro-gas politicians and bureaucrats, but has not deterred her from talking with as many of them as possible on the issue.
“I’ve met with Metgasco’s general manager Mr Henderson. I’ve discussed the issue with local member Thomas George, our current and previous Federal members, with the mayor of Richmond Valley and their general manager, I’ve been available wherever I can.
“I’ve met with Jock Lawrie the Water Commissioner. I take every opportunity to point out how strongly our community feels.
“I can still remember the ex- Minister Brad Hazzard in my office when I pointed out the 306 scrolls of individual roads in our area saying they wanted to be gasfield free and I said our community does not want this, His quote over his shoulder to me was ‘they’re going to get it anyway’”.
Cr Dowell’s been verbally attacked by other public figures, some of which has been hurtful, but all of which demonstrates that the unified community position is one that has made itself felt in the circles of power.
“I’ve only copped flak from outsiders. I’ve copped flak from the previous Minister for Planning and the pro-mining industry but I’ve never copped flak from the community.
“The whole idea that we’ve been painted as extremists is hilarious on one hand but offensive on the other. I’ve been called ‘that ratbag mayor’ by people in the oil exploration industry. I certainly don’t regard myself in any way as a ratbag or a lunatic. That’s for others to judge of course but the community doesn’t see me that way either and our community is standing very strongly about this.”
In common with all the other women involved in the anti-gas mining movement, Mayor Dowell sees a unified community as a serendipitous side effect of this otherwise invasive and destructive industry.
“People who would normally not even share words and walk on different sides of the street – a very conservative farmer with a dread-locked environmental activist, they are standing beside each other. It is truly wonderful. Out of even the worst situation good things happen and this has brought our community together like nothing I’ve ever seen.”