Noosa’s first female Mayor, Clare Stewart shares her thoughts with John Caruso on her first year in politics and the incredible story of survival and determination following a horrific accident almost twenty years ago.
The small screen on my phone comes to life and there on the other end of the Zoom call is Noosa Mayor Clare Stewart. Journalistically, one should always address an interviewee by their professional title, however Clare insists that there should be no Madam Mayor, and this sets the tone for the interview.
“If I could use one word to describe our first twelve months it would be challenging, however I must put a disclaimer on that and say we, the council, felt supported. It was unprecedented, there was COVID, four new councillors, we were coming off the back of the bushfires and we faced a deficit budget for the first time because of COVID,” explains Clare.
The knowledge and experience of senior members of the administrative team was invaluable as newly elected and re-elected councillors, settled in for their new term.
“There was a good Community Services team, a good Economic Development team, we were in a strong financial position and the teams all supplied us with great information and data in those early months,” reflects Clare.
Compared to other Australian states, Queensland has been lucky with regards to COVID related lockdowns, infections and death rates.
“Local government is still reliant on the state regarding health directives however we must be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of saying, ‘COVID? What COVID?’” Clare says.
“We still need to practice social distancing and good hygiene. We had a bumper season over January and February which was fantastic for our tourism sector and it’s business as usual in many respects but there are still challenges for us and we’re seeing that with the shortage of affordable housing, which really came to a head with COVID,” Clare says.
According to the Mayor, tourism operators are recording solid weekend and holiday numbers, but mid-week, especially in Noosaville, business is quiet.
“Businesses are finding it hard to get staff and then there’s the question of where would employees find affordable housing? While I was grabbing a coffee this morning a woman was telling me about a house near where she lives, three-bedroom, one bath, renting out at $890 per week! What family can afford that?
“These are the issues, since the inception of COVID, that are still with us. State member for Noosa Sandy Bolton is a vocal advocate when it comes to housing issues and I’m part of the House Action Group that Sandy instigated. Council is unanimous in its support of that Mayoral minute I raised in December last year to look at housing affordability and rezoning, even if we use ‘lazy assets’ to assist with this issue,” explains Clare.
Noosa has always been recognised for its focus on environmental sustainability and green credentials however when it comes to investing money in major green infrastructure, like the neighbouring Sunshine Coast Council’s 24-hectare solar farm in Valdora, projects of that size have been lacking.
“Supporting Tourism Noosa with their initiatives like Plastic Free Noosa is a great thing for us and council has a zero emissions target for 2026 which is very aggressive – ahead of state and federal targets – and as far as things like wind farms go, that’s certainly an option we should look at however we have to ask the question ‘are we swimming in our lane’? Is that not a federal issue?
“You might be surprised to discover that 63% of our gas emissions comes from landfill. So, for me the biggest problem we face is our waste and that’s what we should be looking at moving forward,” Clare says.
The Noosa Mayoral race last year in March was a ‘two horse race’ between incumbent Tony Wellington and political newcomer Clare.
“I was very surprised that there were only two of us. No one in Noosa knew my name when I announced I was running in October 2019,” she said. “Tony had a high profile and he was coming off the back of having been a councillor and then mayor. He’d dealt with bushfires and the start of COVID and all of these things favour the incumbent, so I recognised that I had a lot of work to do. I probably worked as hard campaigning as when I was doing my barrister’s course. It was a very back-to-basics campaign, walking the streets and door knocking, and because of my physical implications it was challenging and painful. The message I was getting when I was campaigning was that voters wanted a more open and transparent council. They wanted to feel like council was listening to them, plus there had been some issues with two former councillors and that hadn’t sat well with the community and the general sense I got was that people wanted a change. They wanted a shake-up,” she explains.
The election results were close and Clare feels a sense of justice to those that voted for her, also that there’s something to prove to those that didn’t and there’s work to do to gain their trust.
But this story doesn’t end with a look back at Clare’s first twelve months in the Mayoral office. A big part of her story is who she has become since 18 August, 2000.
“I did a business degree at UQ and then got a scholarship to do a law degree at Bond University and my long-term goal was to work in London, so a move to Sydney was a stepping stone for me,” she recalls. “I was working as a graduate at KPMG in the taxation area, living in Bondi Beach and jogging ten kilometres every morning. On that fateful day of the 18th, I left my apartment and 200 metres from where I lived there was a pedestrian crossing. I looked both ways and started to cross. A garbage truck was doing its rounds, and by the driver’s own admission, he failed to see me. I was struck and the truck came to a stop right on top of both of my legs,” Clare recalls.
Trapped under the vehicle for thirty-seven minutes and conscious the entire time Clare’s world was beginning to change, forever.
“An ambulance arrived on the scene very quickly and the paramedics put towels over what was left of my legs because, they didn’t want me to see the mess of blood, flesh and tissue,” she said. “I felt like I was going to die.
“They rushed me to St Vincent’s Hospital where I underwent a thirteen-hour operation and that was the start of a six-month hospital stay and thirty-seven operations. I had to learn to walk all over again,” says Clare.
There have been many guests on our podcast, Everyone Has A Story who have experienced tragedy and loss, and the most remarkable thing about going through something like that are the lessons that people like Clare take away from those experiences.
“I deal with the physical every day; my knee doesn’t bend, and my two ankles don’t work, however, that accident has given me the ability to dig deep for resilience and I’ve learned to overcome adversity,” she said. “There were days when I didn’t want to continue, but the love and care from others, especially my mum who was my full-time care giver at the time, my dad and the loyalty and support from my friends lifted me up. It put a strain on our family, however, it brought us closer together. Also, my faith in my religion as a Catholic has strengthened.
“I don’t want to be defined by my adversity! I feel it’s put me in good stead whenever I’ve faced challenges personally, in business and in politics,” says Clare.
Clare’s book Standing on my own Two Feet was released in 2013 and provides a fascinating insight into the tenacity, positivity and resilience of the lady who would become the first lady Mayor of Noosa.
With a new Noosa Council sworn in on 17 April 2020, Mayor Clare Stewart reflects on the first 12 month of Council’s achievements:
Council secured almost $4 million in State Government funding under the Works4Qld and COVID Unite and Recover. The funding is delivering almost 60 community type projects, ranging from upgrading Community Halls, sporting facilities, toilet amenities and playgrounds across the shire.
Council delivered the $3.8 million replacement of Orealla bridge on David Low Way at Sunrise Beach. This is a much stronger and wider bridge and is a legacy project jointly funded by Noosa Council and the Australian Government.
We have resurfaced more than nine kilometres of roads across the shire. Over six kilometres of these roads are in the Hinterland.
We finished the Black Mountain Road upgrade and also completed repairs to Cootharaba Road.
One of the busiest intersections in the shire – Hilton Terrace-Ernest Street was upgraded, as part of a $3 million project. Work was completed in late July last year.
The Business Roundtable continues to be a critical part of council engagement with local business operators across the shire. Initially set up as part of our COVID response, the six-weekly catch-ups are now proving important to giving council a gauge on local business needs and challenges.
In one of the most challenging budgets, councillors delivered a freeze on rates notices as part of a “grassroots-style” $125 million budget.
About 80 per cent of Noosa ratepayers saw no increase in their total rates charges in a concerted effort to guide residents and business on the COVID-19 road to recovery. Councillors were very frugal in developing the 20-21 budget to ensure we deliver what the ratepayers expect.
The additional support for COVID-19 recovery has resulted in a forecast operating deficit of $1.8 million for the 2020-21 financial year. Council’s financial plan shows a gradual return to an operating surplus position in 2023.
In a first for this council, we are seeking community feedback and input to help shape the 2021-22 council budget. Through an innovative on-line tool, residents have the opportunity to ‘balance the budget’ by showing what their priorities are and where they feel spending could be reduced.
Much of the heavy lifting was done by the previous council, but in July, we adopted a new planning blueprint for the future with the New Noosa Plan 2020. This was a significant milestone for our community and had been a complete re-write of the 2006 Planning Scheme with extensive community input.
We have received nearly $25 million in grants from both the State and Federal Government. On the back of community concern around Bushfires, we doubled our budget in the year 20/21 for cool fire burns and increased our budget by 75% for additional fire trails.
As emerged from COVID restrictions, we launched a new adult’s Come N Try sports program. What was a three-week program evolved into a Connecting Noosa initiative where a series of free and low-cost programs was provided to encourage the community to be active and reconnect.
In an effort to find a solution to the Kin Kin Quarry issue, I initiated a roundtable forum with all stakeholders and local business groups in the Hinterland. This has given the community some confidence in potentially finding some solutions.
We are working in partnership with the community to formulate a case for legal action against the operator. We have established a Community Liaison officer for the hinterland on this issue and it is a strong example of council and community working together for the benefit of residents.
In December last year, I tabled a Mayoral Minute to tackle Noosa’s housing affordability crisis. Unanimously supported by fellow councillors, we are looking at what we can do in regard to the planning scheme to kick-start more affordable housing projects. Council staff have started looking at planning scheme changes and potential affordable housing sites, so we can start to consider which housing models are most suitable for the shire.