Meet the Mayor – East Gippsland’s John White

Cr John White was elected to Victoria’s East Gippsland Shire Council in 2016, and became Mayor in October 2019.

His involvement in the local East Gippsland community, particularly through local sporting clubs and the Country Fire Authority, dates back to the 1970s.

Together with his wife, Leanne, Cr White operates a sheep, cattle and cropping farm in the Lindenow South and Fernbank area.

Q: What drew you to service in local government?

I was drawn to nominate at the last Council elections because of community dissatisfaction with the serving council at the time. I also stood for election because I believe that a community-minded, middle-of-the-road approach could make a difference to Council and the community.

Q: What aspect of your job do find most satisfying?

I find it satisfying to be able to help the people who feel they cannot be heard, and the people who are heard but not listened too.

I thoroughly enjoy engaging with the community and, in particular, volunteer service groups and sporting organisations. It has been wonderful to know that I have played a part in helping people within our community to rebuild their lives after the devastation of the Black Summer Bushfires.

Q: Are there any aspects of being mayor that you would be happy to forgo?

No, not really. While we certainly could have done without the bushfires and Covid-19, these events have really highlighted the important work local government and elected representatives do on-the-ground in our communities.

Q: What is the most rewarding project you have worked on during your time in local government?

There are several projects that I have seen come to fruition during the past four years, most recently the Bairnsdale WORLD Centre (sporting complex), Bairnsdale Airport Masterplan, Bullock Island Lakes Entrance, the almost completed Rural Land Use Strategy and bringing projects forward that have been important to community that have been sitting on the back burner, in some cases, for decades.

These are all projects that will have a lasting positive impact on East Gippsland. 

Q: Your council is among the many that bore the brunt of the Black Summer bushfires. What are the lessons, looking ahead, for disaster preparedness and mitigation at the local level?

There are many lessons to take from the Black Summer bushfires. Possibly one of the most significant was the isolation that resulted from the fires.

Many communities were isolated as fires impacted roads (and it took some time to remove fallen trees and restore road access) and this was compounded by loss of power, telecommunications and in some cases loss of water pressure.

The duration of the fires meant that some communities were threatened repeatedly, and some were isolated for extended periods.

While Mallacoota and the large number of campers in Mallacoota were the highlight of much media coverage, there were many other communities that were isolated and, in some cases, also directly impacted by the fires. The Princes Highway was closed for weeks.

The questions that arise from this are:

  • How can we make our infrastructure more resilient (eg, roads, telecommunications, power, water) more resilience and less likely to fail during the next event?
  • How can we support communities to support each other when they become isolated? Eg, are community halls and other facilities fit for purpose during an event?

Each of these is the subject of ongoing work.

A further important issue is the compounding impact of the fires and Covid-19 on community wellbeing.

Q: The coronavirus pandemic has created serious financial headaches for councils. What can be done longer-term to ensure local government funding is adequate to provide the services residents, businesses and communities expect.

It is unfortunate that local government seems to have been left to bear the burden of some of the costs resulting from this virus without a lot of support.

As an employer, we are not eligible for job keeper support payments, or tourism-support payments that have been made available to other operators, yet we have worked hard to ensure that we have passed on whatever saving possible to our community, with fees being reduced or waived in many areas, including business registration, planning fees and membership fees. 

It is also worth noting that in East Gippsland we had already decided to pass on significant rate relief following the devastating bushfires of the 2019-20 season – so in a way we have been double impacted. 

We are pleased that we have been approved to participate in the Working for Victoria program; this program will create jobs for our community and help our economy, however it will not support any of the other significant costs that LG has had to bear as a result of Covid-19. 

We have worked really hard to support our community during these challenging times, and I think that we have been reasonably successful, but generally a greater consideration for the important role that LG plays in community and an understanding of the impacts is essential for longer-term sustainability.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you have received regarding local community service as an elected official?

At a council meeting early in my term, I wanted to ask a question and a fellow councillor gave me a little jab in the ribs and said “no you can’t, it’s too late” and a bit later in the meeting he gave another little jab in the ribs and said “go on, now you can ask”.

My reply was “I don’t have anything to say now!”

If you have never been a councillor before, you are in for a steep learning curve. Read as much as possible and attend professional development opportunities so that you have a full understanding of meeting procedures and your role as a Councillor.

Q: Would you recommend to other people serving on local government?

Absolutely. If you are a community-minded person it puts you in a place where you can influence decisions to the best advantage of those you serve.

Q: What is your favourite place, and why?

Where I live on the farm because I love where I live. But also less than an hour’s drive from home is one of the most amazing sights you could ever see and which is changing constantly … coming over the hill at Kalimna (Lakes Entrance) to view the Gippsland Lakes, the entrance and the ocean.