Bandicoot’s heart goes out to the hardy pro-pool group who flocked to council on March 14 to revive community interest in the Southern Peninsula Aquatic Centre, the project that some even now forlornly hope will be built on the Rosebud foreshore.

Children would have been splashing happily in the aquatic centre that very day – and for the past six years or more – but for a group of obdurate councillors more interested in getting their way with where it would be built than achieving a result for ratepayers.

Be comforted: SPA is not forgotten. It remains on the shire’s back burner.

The SPA project was kick-started in 2000 and finally got knocked sideways in 2014 by the then state government, on the grounds that an aquatic centre was not foreshore-dependent.

It never had been a goer at the nominated site, but the then council faction known as the “rusted-ons” seemed to believe they could bully Spring St into caving in to them.

Local Liberal MP Martin Dixon campaigned for it at a state election. Greg Hunt also backed it, then seemed to retreat when he found out the facts.

Councillors Antonella Celi and Frank Martin would remember it well, having supported the project against Victoria’s coastal legislation. 

Former councillor Graham Pittock also remembers it – vividly. In a grotesque legal caricature he was found guilty of conflict of interest when an anonymous complaint was made against him … for voting against the controversial SPA foreshore location.

Brave folk, anonymous complainants!

Mr Pittock never voted against SPA per se – he voted against the foreshore site, being pushed by a band of obdurates.

Cr Pittock had a gym, you see, and a risible organisation called the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate (motto: “Integrity Matters”) acted on the anonymous complaint – as it is legally entitled to do – which resulted in now emeritus councillor Pittock not being able to vote on the biggest project in shire history for two years while the LGI sauntered leisurely towards a prosecution.

And what a wry laugh that case was. On the third day the LGI witness turned up, was sworn in, and … couldn’t provide the court with a dam’ thing bar name, rank and serial number. The LGI mind was a total blank. A shire witness, unfortunately away on leave, didn’t turn up at all. A second shire witness was as useful as a sunlamp in a snowstorm.

But, as often happens, Bandicoot has digressed.

Back in the distant past, somewhere in the first decade of the current millennium, the state government requested details of the SPA plan. This was awkward, because some of the information was going to be inconvenient to supply.

So the shire adopted a “wait them out” strategy – wait until Labor is ousted and the Libs get in.

For two years or so all was silence at Besgrove St. Then in came the Baillieu government, in late 2010, which was succeeded by the Napthine government, which got booted out by Labor in November 2014.

In September 2012 the rusted-ons got a shock – they were ambushed and outvoted by the minority on SPA while several rusties were, overconfidently, absent.

The then mayor Frank Martin was required by the quietly exultant majority to write to the then local government minister about the matter. He told the minister a resolution had been passed “in my absence and in the absence of two other councillors”. The words “in my absence” were underlined.

I am confident (the resolution) would not have been approved had all councillors been in attendance,” his letter stated mournfully.

Treachery! Cr Pittock had “specifically returned from [a] conference” to attend the meeting, the mayor wrote.

The minister was brusque. A letter came back: “…please note that any resolution passed by a majority of councillors present – at a meeting at which there is a quorum – is a valid council resolution,” the letter said unsympathetically.

Ironically, Cr Martin and an anti-foreshore councillor were at a conference in Coffs Harbor some time later when Cr Martin signed a letter seeking ministerial approval for SPA to be built on the foreshore. Oddly, he forgot to mention this to his colleague.

In June 2013 councillors, buoyed by the 2012 council election results and with the support of a rusted-on defector, voted to remove SPA’s foreshore site as the project’s preferred location, reversing a decision made in March 2012.

A geotechnical report that had revealed a number of problems with the foreshore.

Piles would have to be sunk 14 metres into the sand, adding 15 to 25 per cent to the centre’s total cost. The alternative site, over the road in Wannaeue Place, had earlier been bought – and is still owned – by the shire for some $8 million, as Bandicoot recalls.

Cr Martin said he had built two buildings at Port Melbourne and didn’t see the foreshore site as a problem. “You just drive the piles down until refusal,” he said.

Later that month the shire launched a design competition for SPA. Four firms were each paid $20,000 for “concept proposals, drawings and presentation images”. This $80,000 added to the mountain of money paid to consultants of all stripes over the years and years SPA had drained the shire purse.

In July 2014, a nine-page letter to shire CEO Michael Kennedy provided startling evidence about the substantial number who had said in a survey they were not likely SPA patrons.

The Nepean Ratepayers Association survey also examined people who wouldn’t, or possibly couldn’t, patronise the SPA complex for cost and proximity reasons. Recreational facility experts SGL Consulting telephoned 400 people in the SPA catchment area to build a picture of the possible client base:

* Only 39 per cent attended aquatic centres.

* 32 per cent of these used the shire’s aquatic facility at Hastings.

* 30 per cent attended the Peninsula Swimming and Aquatic Centre in Colchester Rd, Rosebud.

The NRA letter argued:

By any prudent measure, to justify the substantial capital and operational financial commitments that the ratepayers of the Mornington Peninsula Shire will be required to underwrite, our members would have expected that the overwhelming reason that 61 per cent of the persons surveyed do not currently use an aquatic centre would be there is a ‘lack of suitable facilities nearby’!

Surely the required percentage of prospective users wanting/needing these facilities should be in the order of 80 per cent to 85 per cent – if not higher – to justify that the delivery of SPA would clearly be satisfying an identified demand/need?”

The tide was now running fast against the foreshore site. In September, the shire got a letter from the state government confirming that SPA must meet its new, stricter, Victorian Coastal Strategy requirements.

The confirmation arrived as councillors again engaged in tense, sometimes highly emotional, debate about SPA, raised as urgent business on 22 September, the second SPA debate in a fortnight.

Then the tumbril started rolling.

Mayor Antonella Celi got a reply to a letter she was instructed to send environment minister Ryan Smith. She had asked him to withdraw coastal consent for the project. He responded:

Thank you for your letter dated 14 October 2014 requesting that I withdraw the consent issued under the Coastal Management Act 1995 for the use of the Rosebud foreshore reserve as the location of [the pool complex].

You have advised that the MPSC has voted that it no longer wishes to locate the SPAC on coastal Crown land and therefore no longer requires the consent issued under the Coastal Management Act 1995 on 8 May 2012 for the use of the Rosebud foreshore as the location of the SPAC.

Mr Smith added, with masterly understatement: “I understand that this has been a contentious issue within the community and I congratulate council on its dedication to actively engaging with the community in the decision making process.

I hope that the current decision will allow council to progress with the design and construction of an aquatic centre in the Rosebud area with the full support of the local and wider community.”

And that was that.

SPA is still on the books, possibly to be begun in the 2016-20 council term, possibly to be heated by underground hot water as part of the shire’s carbon neutral policy, to save the massive gas bill that ratepayers would otherwise foot, and almost certainly be served by the Portsea to Frankston bus service.

It may have a hydrotherapy pool, ditched when its costs became known, plus all a community pool’s modern amenities, such as a slide or two, children’s pools and play equipment and even a kiosk – a flash restaurant was mooted at some stage.

It may even be a full Olympic length pool if heated by an aquifer.

And it will undoubtedly include a gym, which should be named “The Graham Pittock Gymnasium” or “The Unknown Dobber’s Gym”, although Bandicoot hears he is not as anonymous as he would like to think.

Bandicoot will be glad when it’s opened. He will attend, equipped with modest swimwear and water wings. He hopes those who attended last Tuesday’s council meeting to push for SPA will also attend, and be well pleased with what they find.