Richmond Valley Council Survey Raises Serious Questions

Protest outside Richmond Valley Council Chambers in June 2008.  Council's "unified" rating structure led to people in the lower river area having to pay much higher rates than those in Casino,  a clear breach of Council's Charter under the NSW Local Government Act where rates must be fair and equitable.

Protest outside Richmond Valley Council Chambers in June 2008. Council’s “unified” rating structure led to people in the lower river area having to pay much higher rates than those in Casino, a clear breach of Council’s Charter under the NSW Local Government Act where rates must be fair and equitable and the council at the time could have made them so.

A survey commissioned by Richmond Valley Council and being delivered by Micromex is currently in progress.

Residents and ratepayers are being phoned and asked to respond to a large series of questions ranging from where they live to their views about many local government issues such as public transport and recycling,  and how strongly the individual rates these and council’s performance in delivery.

The opportunity is given to identify issues of importance.

CSG Question a Problem

However Dr Richard Gates said today that at least “one of the questions appeared to be loaded, a question on Coal Seam Gas”.   

“If I remember correctly I was asked something along the lines of: ‘if it was shown scientifically that there was no problem with Coal Seam Gas would you support CSG’? “

“This is not a neutral question” he said.  “It’s qualified.  Many people might be inclined to answer ‘yes’ because science would, in these circumstances, be seen to be giving support for the industry.   The problem then comes that the qualifier could be dropped so that those using the data could easily say:  ‘A question asked by Richmond Valley Council about support for Coal Seam Gas in an independent survey showed that 79% of respondents said yes’.  No mention of the qualifier.  This would be quite misleading.

A question about support for CSG should have been asked without the qualifiers: Do you support the CSG industry for Richmond Valley Council ?   Yes or No?   If Yes, what are your reasons for supporting the industry?  If No, what are your reasons for not supporting the industry and what additional information would you need to get for you to change your opinion?

Dr Gates said the current question was like asking “Do you support the building of a subsidised retirement village on the Evans Head Memorial Aerodrome which will cost ratepayers more than $15 million” when there are really three questions here which need to be separated out so that the problem can be really understood.

Focus Group Selection Could Have Bias

Dr Gates said that “what alerted me to potential problems with the current Council survey was not only the CSG question but the way in which the survey ended.  I was asked if I would be interested in being part of a focus group to consider the issues raised in the survey further to which I answered ‘yes’.  They then asked me my name and contact details which I gave them willingly”.

“Now here’s the crunch.  Once I had agreed to take part and had given my contact details and name I was then told that they would be ‘randomly’ selecting people who said ‘yes’ to participate in the focus groups.  Clearly not everyone would be asked”.

“This rang alarm bells immediately as it opened up the potential for selecting out those who might provide an adverse opinion to CSG or a view not congruent with council’s own view of the world”.

“Now I am not suggesting for one moment that the company hired to do the job for council would do this. To suggest this would be to shoot the messenger. But what I am suggesting is that there is potential for this to happen because of the way in which the survey has been structured.   This is an ‘Introduction to Surveying’ 101 problem which needs to be sorted out and quickly otherwise the whole survey and its usefulness to council for a variety of purpose could be lost.”

What Council Needs to Do to Rectify the Problem

It is our view that in the public interest Richmond Valley Council needs to:

  1. Publish the entire survey on its website so that everyone can see how it is structured and the range of questions being asked.
  2. Tell us who funded the survey and its cost and when councillors agreed to this survey
  3. Tell us whether the Coal Seam Gas industry or any agency related to the industry or government entity had a hand in the design of the survey and the questions about CSG.
  4. Tell us the basis of participant selection for the focus groups and who will be doing the selection.
  5. Publish the Brief given to the company doing the survey
  6. Change the CSG question so that it is no longer loaded and provide follow-ups so that council can begin to understand ratepayers thinking on the matter .
  7. Ask questions about the ratepayers view on the retirement village at Evans Head particularly with reference to the handsome subsidy being provided to RSL LifeCare at ratepayers’ expense.

Survey Not a Proxy for the Unfinished Community Strategic Plan

Dr Gates went on to say that “he hoped Council wasn’t planning to use the survey results as a proxy for community consultation about the unfinished Community Strategic Plan which lacks validity because council failed to meet the Brief signed off by councillors in September 2009”.

“The current survey results will clearly tell council about a range of issues that inform the Community Strategic Plan but it will not provide a clear view about the hierarchy of issues that are important to ratepayers tempered by the cost of having to pay for them”.

Council Pushes for Rate Cap Removal

This issue becomes particularly important given Council’s position on reform in local government that it wants the cap on rates removed, something the community knows nothing about because it has never been consulted on the issue. We could be up for huge increases in rates because council has signed us up for projects we can’t afford nor when push comes to shove really don’t want.  Aspiration and reality are usually two different things.


Dr Richard Gates


The Evans Head Memorial Aerodrome Committee Inc

21 February 2013

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