Irrespective of where we stand on the issue of the Gordon St. building, we inevitably share one thing, the experience of the process which has led us to our present positions.
By Julian May
It has been an essentially human process, and a human experience, and, as such will be understood in a multitude of diverse ways. The actions of those involved can be examined, and perhaps some lessons learned.
Before proceeding, let’s consider some pretty rubbery figures. For the sake of argument, I’ll propose a figure of 75 000 people for the Coffs community. If we surveyed adult members of the community regarding the project, I’d suggest that we would find a number extremely opposed, a number extremely favourable, and a very large group of people who fall somewhere between these extremes.
It is irrefutable fact that at least 15 000 people are extremely opposed to the project. It is also fact that as many as 200 people may be extremely keen to have the project completed in its planned form. We do not need to further interpret this data, since the numbers speak for themselves.
In any human endeavour such as the Gordon St. project, human nature will be the governing factor which determines choice and consequence, actions and outcomes. In examining the behaviours of those affected by the process which we have experienced, I’ll look at each of the three groups identified above, separately. First, though, I need to state my bias.
I am extremely opposed to the project. My opposition is founded upon three principal beliefs. In the first instance I objected to the inclusion of council offices in a cultural precinct, particularly in light of the fact that this would preclude access to government funding. Secondly, I rejected the location as unsuitable, on practical and aesthetic grounds, for a cultural precinct. Finally, I was angered by the actions of the mayor, in using the casting vote to prevent the community from accessing the democratic process, which she had already undermined by refusing to acknowledge the petition of 15 000 or to conduct a community poll.
My bias will undoubtedly affect my assessment of the process which we have jointly experienced.
I’ll begin by recording my observations of the Centre Group, by far the largest of the three affected by the progression of the Gordon St. project. The absence of scientific data inevitably leads me to speculate.
The population of the Centre Group will be extremely diverse in attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. With respect to the project, some are opposed, some are in favour and some simply don’t care. I believe that the intrinsically fluid nature of human groups has seen attitudes change during the course of the project. Some who were initially opposed or in favour, may no longer care. Some who were in favour may now be opposed. Some who were opposed may now be in favour. Some who didn’t care may now be in favour or opposed.
My observations of media interactions lead me to believe that views within this group have become more polarised. I suspect that there has been a significant shift within the Centre Group, towards opposition, and another towards favouring the project.
Of these two movements, I believe that the bulk of the Centre Group movement has been towards opposition, with a far smaller number moving towards approval, thereby leaving a lesser number within the “don’t care” category. I make this assessment based upon the number of new commentators who have joined the social media debate, and upon the strength of expression used by commentators.
Further speculation leads me to suggest motivations for the Centre Group shifts.
Movement towards approval for the project is possibly a compensatory reaction to the increased opposition, now expressed more often and more strongly. Since nothing significant has changed that would make the project more attractive, I can imagine only one motivation for the movement towards approval, that being the belief that Denise Knight and her supporters have been unfairly treated by their opponents.
Movement towards rejection of the project is possibly a reaction to the behaviours of Denise Knight and her supporters, which have tended to alienate more and more people. I firmly believe that the rejection of the project has been replaced by rejection of the behaviour of Knight and her supporters, as the principal reason for opposition.
I’ll next attempt to identify and suggest reasons for some of the behaviours exhibited by the members of the Opponents Group.
I consider myself to be a very strong opponent of the project, for the reasons which I have stated above. It’s my intention to use myself as a yardstick by which other levels of opposition may be judged.
Since our attitudes and behaviours are created by our personal experiences, it is perhaps reasonable to examine some of my attitudes as the basis for assessing my behaviours, with respect to the drama which the Gordon St. project has become.
My politics are those of social justice, and my attitudes towards injustice are deeply and strongly ingrained. I am a fervent believer in the democratic process, and a strong critic of that process as it is currently enacted in Australia. I am a fierce opponent of those who abuse their positions of power for personal gain. I detest those who discriminate against others on the basis of class, gender and race. I despise elitism as a social evil.
No surprise, then, that I find the behaviours of Knight and her supporters to be an anathema.
Having said that, I cannot claim to be pure as the driven snow where my own behaviour is concerned. Having discovered that some commentators were potentially concealing vested interests when promoting the project, I reacted too strongly with my criticisms of their actions. I failed to remain objective.
I believe that, within the Opponents Group, there will be many who share my views as to the suitability of the project, (wrong place, wrong purpose, wrong process) and the behaviours of Knight and of her faction, to a greater or lesser degree. Some will be mildly pissed off by the idea of spending tens of millions of dollars of ratepayers’ money on new council offices. Some will be more annoyed by the fact that Knight has dismissed the petition of 15 000, and considered the raised voices of opponents as a “noisy minority”. Others will be angry or incensed by Mayor Knight’s use of the casting vote to ram her plans through council. Like the people in this group, opinions will be diverse in nature and in degree.
It is within the Proponents Group that I find the most fascinating catalogue of human behaviours, and their reflection of the best and worst aspects of human nature.
I imagine that within this group there will be people who are in favour of the concept of a cultural precinct, even if the inclusion of a cultural aspect is simply a smokescreen with which in my opinion is used to conceal other purposes. These moderate proponents will look no further than the potential cultural outcomes, and will tend not to judge the inclusion of council offices, or the behaviours of Knight and her supporters.
Then there are those who can accept the “package deal” nature of the project and are prepared to also accept its potentially crippling cost. They may not agree with the manner in which Knight’s group have undertaken the process, but are not sufficiently disturbed by the behaviours used, to allow this factor to affect their support.
It’s the group of strongly committed and/or fanatical proponents which interests me most. The extreme nature of the actions of some these individuals speaks of an inability to think, speak and behave rationally. In seeking to explain the conduct of these individuals, I must again speculate.
In the interests of maintaining transparency, I must advise that I am one of many people who have been personally attacked by the most outrageous of these extremists, an experience which, for me, was more humorous than troubling.
I must also disclose that my opinions are formed solely upon my own observations and in the light of my professional experiences, and that I have no formal qualifications in the fields of psychology or sociology.
By sub-dividing this strongly-committed group into three smaller groups, it may be possible to more easily differentiate their behaviours and suggest their motivations. The first sub-group consists of people who are genuinely concerned at the surfeit of cultural outlets currently available for artistic expression in Coffs Harbour.
These are artistic, creative people, and those who are appreciative of artistic endeavour. They are people who see the arts as enhancing quality of life. They are specifically not people who see an alleged appreciation of the arts as imbuing the individual with some elite personal quality. In short, they are not snobs. They have expressed rational views in moderate terms, arguing principles, not personalities. In my opinion, the views of these proponents are also shared by the bulk of people who have opposed Knight’s project.
The second group contains those proponents who have something to gain which bears no relationship whatsoever to the promotion of the arts in Coffs Harbour. These are the individuals who stand to gain financially, or in terms of ego enhancement. A narcissistic empire-building mentally is evident within the members of this group. It will not be difficult to find numerous names which would fit comfortably within this categorisation.
The third group is the one in which we find the most extreme, outlandish, disturbing and potentially hilarious proponents.
Members of this group are also self-obsessed, but are devoid of the capacity for logical thinking. Here we find the narcissistic elitists, people whose self-image is immensely threatened by criticism or opposing viewpoints. These are frail individuals who will attack any perceived threat with overkill.
My observations lead me to believe that these are quasi-intellectuals, connoisseurs of all things “Art”, or individuals who will jump upon a bandwagon, regardless of the cause, in order to be part of a conflict. They endow themselves with superior intellect, which entitles them to forcefully express views which must not be questioned. This strategy is used as a mechanism for interpreting their place in a world in which they may have struggled to find secure identities. For these people, logic is irrelevant and attack is the best form of defence.
I believe that the members of this group may be regarded with disdain by their more moderate allies, who would never condone the extreme negative behaviours employed by this small group of camp followers. Opponents, particularly some of those who have been on the receiving end of an extremist attack, may see these people as disgusting, twisted, vicious, unwell or pathetic, or combinations of all of these.
However, it’s important to recognise that these extreme individuals have made a significant contribution to the effectiveness of the Opponents group. The wildly irrational behaviour, witnessed by previously uncommitted observers, may well have galvanised opinion amongst those uncommitted, not necessarily against the project, but against proponents of the project.
More moderate proponents may well have chosen to distance themselves from this radical element, and then been reluctant to express publicly their support of the project, for fear of being associated with the “ratbag fringe”.
The controversy created by the Gordon St. project has ranged from mild to wild, from serious debate on issues of principle and practicality, to fanciful and even farcical commentary. It has simultaneously polarised and united a community, and encouraged even reticent people to speak out.
So, what understandings can we take from this saga?
Whether it be a massively failed vaccine crawl out, a huge pork-barrelling exercise or an unwanted building to house new council offices, the actions of our governments can have huge impacts upon ordinary people.
Trust in our governments and in our politicians is often rewarded with lies, obfuscation and deceit.
Lord Acton said; “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Absolute power was conferred upon Denise Knight by her access to the casting vote, and by the failure of a government to legislate to ensure its legitimate use.
Access to the democratic process is a fundamental right of all Australians, but it cannot be guaranteed. This is due to the fact that some politicians will choose to manipulate the democratic process to serve their own ends.
The “human factor” is the single most important determinant of the delivery of justice to our community. Rampant narcissism, bullying, the prioritising of self-interest, and ethical and moral weakness, can contribute to the denial of our basic human rights.
We must be very careful when choosing those who claim to represent our interests, and we must be watchful of them once they are chosen.
The community, acting together, has the power to “keep the bastards honest”, but it’s much easier to do so when your election schedule is not consistently altered by a pandemic.
Social media is often considered to be a potentially evil machine which can destroy lives. It can also be an instrument by which to enhance community participation in the protection of its rights.
Being an activist is very often hard work. It can at times be unrewarding, but activists are an essential part of our society. Without them we would risk being subject to ongoing and unrevealed abuses.
It is a sad fact of life that whenever we take part in the democratic process, by voting in an election, we run the very real risk that we might end up electing a politician.