Proposed Lennox Head contest dumped by Council
Strange scenes in Ballina Council chambers yesterday afternoon. Surreal.
Ten councillors and assorted invitees discussing the inner workings of a global professional sport, followed by a round table talk about surfing, its various myths and mysticisms, parsed through the language of the bureaucrat: dry, rigid, and dull, devoid of the intangible aspects that beguile us.
Initially, it was horrible to hear surfing described in such terms, then it became novel, and then just weird. Like, there’s barely any crossover between the world of surfing and bureaucracy, but when the two worlds collide it’s surfing that must concede and, at least for a time, assume a bureaucratic form.
OK, I’m speaking metaphorically, but the vote at the end of the meeting was straightforward: 8-2 against the proposal.
It would appear to sink any chance of a CT event at Lennox Head, though the issue isn’t completely settled, but before explaining why let’s first take a look at how we ended up here.
Late last year, the Woz realised they couldn’t have another year of meaningless domestic contests and began structuring a CT schedule for 2021. Yet as the magnitude of the threat changed so too did the rules of international travel, making long-term planning next to futile.
Australia has had a comparatively great response to COVID, and it was the next leg after the US openers at Pipe, Sunset, and Santa Cruz, so to shore up the chances of a tour - meaning at least six or seven events - the Woz began scouting for a fourth and perhaps even fifth CT on top of the Snapper, Bells, and Margarets River mainstays.
North Narrabeen was mooted, with an approach made to Northern Beaches Council. The dalliance was short lived, however, when in late December a COVID breakout forced a lockdown on the Northern Beaches and put the kybosh on further negotiations.
South Straddie - which held a regional Woz comp last year - was also floated as a location, but ongoing border disputes also put it in the too hard basket. Considering NSW’s open border policy it would ideally be somewhere within that state.
Then last Tuesday the Wozzle approached David Wright, Mayor of Ballina Shire Council, with a proposition. On Thursday, five people from the League attended a meeting with Cllr Wright and outlined their plans. That being, an eleven-day contest, with seven extra days to set up infrastructure, all happening over Easter.
Meaning in just two months time.
An extraordinarily short period of time to do due diligence, to assess, liaise, and consult with all the various stakeholder groups, extract feedback, outline conditions, then jump through the many hoops requisite with co-opting public land for private use.
Despite this obstacle, it became clear that most of the councillors were initially in favour of the proposal. Being directly voted in by the community it’d be fair to say that approximately half the councillors are pro business and development, and the other half are more circumspect, yet such is the sunny messaging about a surf contest that even the latter didn’t appear to grasp the magnitude of community grievance.
Australia may be a saviour for the CT owing to our COVID response, however, aside from existing CT locations, the Woz will always find it hard to expand here because of local conditions.
Australia has a different surf culture to every other country that the Woz does business in. For one, the demographic is skewed towards older surfers, which means that, unlike newer surfing countries, we're less eager to promote our waves, and we're more circumspect about Wozzle boosterism.
Compare that to 80s Australia when we couldn't get enough of pro surfing.
Also, as a rule, Australians are a bit more savvy about the lingering effects of media, which is why the Big Wave World Tour could waltz into Punta De Lobos, Chile, and set up tents but they got run out of Streaky Bay. Similarly, every big swell in Hawaii and California gets the social media rubdown but a big swell in SW Victoria or the South Australian desert breaks in digital silence.
Our Federal government is generous when it comes to supporting professional surfing, but the sentiment isn’t shared by all surfers. One small statistic bears this out: It’s estimated there are 2.5 million surfers in Australia, yet Surfing Australia has fewer than 20,000 members. So just 0.75% of surfers have any skin in the competitive game via boardrider clubs or beyond.
Competitive surfing isn't something we do, it's something we watch - and many surfers don't even do that. The distinction isn't understood by non-surfers.
The agenda for yesterday’s meeting was prepared in the morning and available to read as a PDF. It outlined all the conditions that had to be met, feedback from stakeholder groups, and ended with an in principle recommendation to support the proposal. A decision based on accepting the Wozzle’s overtures in good faith.
The Woz claimed to have support from a number of organisations including Lennox Head Chamber of Commerce, Le-Ba Boardriders, Lennox Head Surfing Reserve, and JALI Local Aboriginal Land Council. In Andrew Stark’s speech he even presented the names of the people he spoke to.
Yet as the meeting progressed it became clear that positions had shifted, either individually or collectively. Expediting the event worked in the League’s favour as the default position was pro contest, but a concerted community campaign spread a forceful and persuasive message against the contest and those names presented by the League were effectively hung out to dry. Pitting a community against itself didn’t do the League any favours.
The short turnaround time may have been foisted on the League by COVID restrictions, but the council wasn’t going to wear that - due process had to be conducted. The League’s case was crumbling.
At times the councillors were befuddled by the proposal. They had no clear answer why Easter had been chosen, nor if it meant Bells Beach is off as Rip Curl has a contract to run that contest over Easter. The explanation, not fully understood by anyone, is that it was a matter of timing as a charter flight was due to land in Australia two weeks before that, though surely it’d be easier to change a lone flight than a whole contest.
As the meeting progressed a few councillors broke from script and addressed issues not noted in the agenda. Among them the thin edge of the wedge argument that this was a further invitation to overrun the town - which, at its heart, is the opponents argument all along - and also the pushy and duplicitous proposal by the World Surf League.
The news NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro was teed up to announce the contest before some councillors had even read the proposal was met with silence, and even over Zoom it was clear the silence was loaded. When a councillor pressed his microphone and said, “Let’s not forget that all these companies come here out of self-interest”, the meeting was as good as over. The League’s argument that it was doing a favour to the local people and local surfers slipped away.
Given time to show they didn’t want the contest that’s exactly the view Lennox locals expressed. It was done through word of mouth, by vetting stakeholders, and then calling their elected representatives who voted on the matter democratically.
It’s not the end of the story. If it wishes, the World Surf League can go over the head of Ballina Shire Council and reach out to the State Government, but it would take an almighty serve of chutzpah to front up and face the locals come contest time.