Councillor Hugh Fraser in conversation with freelance journalist Mike Hast
You were first elected to council in 2012 to represent Nepean Ward and re-elected in 2016 and have been a barrister for many years. What sort of work did you do?
Each decade brought a new challenge. In the 1980s, it was insolvency work. In the 1990s I acted for the trustees of major superannuation funds dealing with total and permanent disability claims in the courts. In the 2000s, I did a great deal of work for the Registrar of Titles in land and title fraud litigation – all intermixed with a host other matters including banking, finance, wills, estates, trusts, contracts, property, and misleading or deceptive conduct.
This work was mixed in with a stint as chairman of my list of barristers (barristers are organised into lists with a clerk as the administrator). Then I was elected by the Victorian Bar to the profession’s regulator in Victoria – the Legal Services Board.
There I worked with its chairperson Colin Neave. He later became the Commonwealth Ombudsman. Colin ran a brilliant, fast but very fair and even-handed meeting. I learnt from him how to efficiently and pleasantly work through a raft of complex issues within a limited meeting time.
But what about your early career in the law, before becoming a barrister?
I was an associate partner at Russell Kennedy (coincidentally now solicitors to the shire) and then an associate to Federal Court Judge Ray Northrop. I learnt a lot from him about the highest standards of integrity, “keeping court papers under control” (there is nothing worse than the sight of a barrister fumbling with his papers in court), precise use of the English language and the court’s reliance on counsel appearing before it.
He was a delight to work with (and later appear before) and I enjoyed my 20 months as his associate, working throughout Australia. One case was the celebrated case of Brian Adamson who wanted a transfer between Aussie Rules football clubs. The hearings ranged from Perth to Adelaide and Melbourne with top silks appearing before the court. Adamson obtained his transfer.
I then read for the Victorian Bar in the chambers of Ken Hayne. It is a sort of professional apprenticeship. He went on to the High Court and more recently was the Banking Royal Commissioner. It was no surprise to see how well he ran the commission – this was how he ran his chambers and later his court. Careless and woolly thinking, and poor presentation and paperwork were ruthlessly, but fairly, not tolerated.
How did all this experience translate to becoming a councillor?
It wasn’t easy at first. In court there are rules, ethics and procedures, courtesy and high standards of presentation. There is an independent judge who runs their own court and decides the matter according to the evidence and the law.
In a council meeting, a councillor can have the best argument in the world but, without the numbers on your side, it matters not a fig. Interruptions, poor behaviour and silly tactical points of order can be rife and disruptive. Rulings from the chair may go one way or the other depending on which way the wind is blowing. You need to adapt, be thick-skinned, focused and well prepared – with your papers in order! Individual residents’ concerns must not be overlooked or swallowed up in council management processes. This can be tough going. Councillors should have (and used to have) free access, like the community, to the shire administrative staff. This now occurs less often. Access is now highly regulated; there are policies and controls. Staff members are emboldened to resist. It can make councillor advocacy for residents very hard.
You refer to restrictive policies – what about psychological or physical barriers?
These barriers instinctively go up because of locked security doors, security passes and “confidential” information, and “behind closed doors” meetings. Some planning officers no longer present their reports to open council. Their bosses do it instead. It’s a cultural problem and is getting worse. It’s difficult to change and extract accountability – even more so now during Covid-19 restrictions with “virtual” meetings and staff behind computer screens in “zoom” and “teams” meetings.
How then does the work get done?
The shire is fortunate to have many hard-working, highly skilled officers, which I enjoy working with. Our professional engineers, climate change teams and community services staff deliver an amazing range of innovative capital works and services we can all see in the shire and community. It’s basic common sense to interest the officers in projects – to work with and not against them – to make it a pleasant experience – and take the flak from members of the community who claim to know better. Yes, community consultation is all-important but rudeness towards council officers should not be tolerated. I have read the most appalling emails sent by individuals to management.
How do you engage with the community?
There’s great satisfaction in community engagement, problem-solving and just plain “getting things done”. My monthly Nepean Ward “community coalition” meeting is a flexible, informal structure started by my predecessor, Tim Rodgers when he first came on council. Meetings are strictly 90 minutes and they work well.
I also meet with ratepayers by appointment on Monday afternoons at the Rosebud council offices to solve problems – although Covid-19 makes this impossible at this stage. Zoom is a poor substitute.
The community demand for capital works and services is very high, particularly with recent waves of longer-term visitors. Minds impatiently turn to roads and footpaths, playgrounds and other infrastructure that was adequate but is no longer.
It’s easy to underestimate the amount of work required for “simply” building a footpath. The popular Point Nepean Road footpath through Blairgowrie to Rye is a good example. It was constructed over almost 10 years and cost $3 million. It looks fabulous, winding attractively around native vegetation, but required major design with its bridges, boardwalks, retaining walls and many intersections to cross. It was all done with council money; no government grants for this type of project.
You’ve had an association with Nepean Ward for at least 40 years. How did this occur?
My parents built a house on a hill at Rye in 1971. My wife Clarinda and I bought it from them in 1995 and we added a large dining room to accommodate our large extended families. It has a view but can be very windy, especially in a nor’wester. It’s on the cormorants’ flight path from Somers and Tootgarook wetlands. Their V formations gliding over to Swan Bay at Queenscliff are a magnificent sight.
The Mornington Peninsula is a fabulous place to live and work with its bays, oceans and beaches (10 per cent of Victoria’s coastline) and its green rolling hinterland. It’s a precious, delicate legacy to protect and pass on better to the next generation.
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Authorised by Hugh Fraser,
12 Michael Street, Rye 3941