April 17, 2024

Can Youth Politics Persuade Pundits? An Interview with Meander Valley Mayor candidate Benjamin Dudman

Benjamin Dudman is the young business owner, former antique auctioneer, unionist, lawyer, and Tasmanian LiFe Award Recipient of 2022 running for Mayor in the upcoming Meander Valley Council elections. He was also my first ever roommate and an avid KFC enjoyer when we lived together. We chatted over zoom about his upcoming bid for mayor, his activism, medicinal cannabis, and his favourite things about being a Westbury local.

Chelsea: You announced your candidacy for mayor of Meander Valley a short time ago, what has the community response been like so far? Are people excited about your platform?

Ben: They absolutely are. I announced my candidacy about nine days ago and since then I’ve been overwhelmed with support by people right throughout the Meander Valley. It’s been a very positive experience, there’s certainly been more support than I thought there was going to be. I always hoped and knew that I would have a level of community support, but the amount of support I have experienced has just been fantastic and I am really humbled by that.

In terms of my platform, people are really excited about getting more younger people into local government and about really freshening up council with new faces. Making sure that we are ready for whatever is to come from 2023 onwards.

Coming off the back of that, you have been talking a lot about preparing for the next generation of people living in the area. What does that mean to you and where do those changes lie at a council level?

I think a lot of the time, and rural communities often experience this, young people often move out of the area to move to the bigger cities or move to the mainland and they just don’t come back. I’m really passionate about changing that. I don’t believe that anyone should have to move away from the Meander Valley just to experience opportunity.  That is one of the main concerns that I have and what my platform really speaks about when I talk about preparing the Meander Valley for the next generation.

It also means we need to make sure that we have accessible housing, that our policies at a local government level are ensuring that we take climate action where we can to ensure that we do have a future for young people. It’s about ensuring that there is a Meander Valley for the next generation that is well prepared and well-resourced for whatever life throws at us in the future. It means that young people will no longer have to leave our area to get a job, to start a family, to experience opportunity, or experience a good and fulfilling life.

A lot of your public profile has also been around the area of mental health advocacy. Can you talk a little bit about how this sort of intersects with the council area as well as some of your other work in rural advocacy and LGBT rights?

I’m passionate about mental health, especially for LGBT people and especially for people in rural and regional areas like up here in the Meander Valley. Mental health is such an important issue, and it affects people in rural Tasmania in particular. It’s a core focus, and it needs to be a core focus for our community. If we have a mentally healthy community, we have a successful and prosperous community.

What council can be doing in this area is making sure there are programs and facilities to make sure that no person slips through the cracks. To make sure that if people are suffering from poor mental health there are resources there to support them and they are there to be able to reach out and get help when they need it. There are some great examples in Tasmania right now where councils are partnering with community groups, to make sure that there are networks available for mental health action, that people are getting the help that they need. Also, that in the advent of a suicide situation that the community is also supported and is able to help in the grieving process, understanding what happened and making sure that it doesn’t happen again.

We have organisations that operate in the area like Rural Alive and Well, but in terms of the Meander Valley it is certainly lighter on for mental health facilities and support networks, they’re more outreach programs. So, I think it is important that council takes a positive step forward in addressing that to make sure that we can keep up with a positive mental health environment as well.

What are some of the main issues you’ve been hearing from your constituents in the Meander area? How do you hope to address them?

A lot of the issues I’ve been hearing about truly are local issues, which is fantastic. I’ve been talking to people about fire dangers in the area, of course being an area that is covered in bushland. Fire is a big concern, especially bushfires.

Something that has also been overwhelming and something I have experienced living in Westbury myself has been issues with NBN access and internet connectivity. That is something that we absolutely need to focus on so we are prepared for the next generation, and so that we can link up with the world. To participate in the world that we are currently living in. We’re living in a technological age and as such we need to make sure that our access is up to speed. Compared to some areas in Tasmania and certainly across Australia we are really lacking in that. One thing I’ll be focussing on is making sure we are lobbying government to improve access to NBN services in the area. We do have a level of access to NBN throughout the major towns, but a large portion of the municipality is also satellite access. It can be good when there’s nothing else, but when there’s poor weather or something else happening it is easy for internet to drop out. Especially in covid times when a lot of people are relying on zoom and the internet, we cannot afford that.

There were talks of a Westbury prison site, much to the upset of many residents. Now we are hearing talk that the northern prison will envelop the Ashley Detention Centre site once it closes in 2024. Where do you stand on the Northern Prison issue?

The Westbury prison site was a massive divisive issue for our community here in Westbury and its one of the main reasons I feel we need better representation on council. First and foremost, I am a supporter of a Northern prison in the Meander Valley. I understand that a Northern prison is needed for our justice system. But also, it would be immensely popular for jobs and ensuring that we have industry in the area.

Wherever we have the prison we need to make sure there is proper consultation with the community and that’s what didn’t happen from the State Government or council level with the two proposed Westbury sites. The decision was made and then people were told ‘hey we’re doing this we hope you like it’. Of course, people didn’t like that there was going to be a prison just lobbed on them. It turned people’s lives upside down. While I am supportive of a prison in the area it needs to be done with proper consultation. People campaigned hard to make sure their voices were heard, and it was heard. The new site at Ashely as I understand it does have community support. Of course, I will be campaigning more in the area in the coming months and if that’s not the case then I will be more than happy to hear that. I think based on my understanding it is a positive step forward, but we need to make sure that we have transparent decision making and decision making that is made in consultation with community. That certainly is a big part of why I am standing for council, so things like this don’t happen again.

I suppose there is a perception that politics doesn’t belong in local government. You are quite political, and you make no apologies for being a Labor member and unionist. What are your thoughts on this sentiment that we seem to hear a lot?

I completely understand it. At the base level every person has a political leaning, a political understanding, and a political ideology. That is certainly the case for councillors. At the last state election two of our councillors were candidates for the Liberal Party. I am not running as an endorsed candidate from any political party because I believe that my decisions should be based on community will, not party lines. I’m not afraid to say that I am a member of the Labor party. I think it is important to acknowledge that. That way you know who I am and what my values are. I value access to healthcare, support for vulnerable people, workers’ rights, making sure that we do have secure jobs in the area. Politics is not something that should be entrenched in local government. What should be entrenched in local government is a community first mindset. To be honest I don’t care who is sitting around the council table with me should I be elected. I don’t care if they are liberals, greens, independents, or whatnot. Just as long as the decision that they make is in the best interests of the community, that’s what counts. You know that when you vote for me, you will be voting for the community interest.

Some might argue that the Meander Valley Council district is a lot closer to the global opioid crisis than many may realise. Tasmanian Alkaloids, now known as Extractas Bioscience, is a large employer in areas like Westbury. As of recent times they have also been licensed as a medicinal cannabis supplier. What are your thoughts on these industries so close to home, do you think they should continue to shift away from proven addictive prescription opioids into cannabis production?

Extractas Bioscience which was formerly Tas Alkaloids has been a massive employer in the region and has been for decades now. My father used to work at Tas Alks, and a lot of people in Westbury either used to or still do. I’m a big supporter of the industry. But you’re right, there is a change that is happening, and we are realising that opioids are a destructive form of medicinal support. A lot of the American market is supported by Westbury. We are a massive export at the moment, because so much has dried up due to the opioid crisis. We have noticed that Extractas has started to move towards hemp production and medicinal cannabis. I am a big supporter of that. I think that this is a just transition into a better science based medicinal support. I think the science is clear, the health advice is clear that medicinal cannabis is extremely good on many levels for things like pain management, support with epilepsy and other medical conditions. I am a big supporter of that continuing in the Meander Valley. We are currently transitioning, and I think that is a great step forward for us. I would like to see the industry grow, especially with hemp and its multiple uses in building, clothing. It’s a very versatile plant and industry. I think that will be a great thing for our community that will really improve economic growth in the region.

So, will that be one of the main industries that you suggest for bringing and continuing jobs in the region? What else are you looking at economically for Meander Valley?

Certainly. The prison site will also bring jobs in should it be accepted by the community that that is the preferred site. That will be a major industry once it is built. Tas Alks has always been a major industry in the area and will continue to be, I only want to see that grow. When Tas Alkaloids is performing well on the world stage Westbury is performing well on the world stage. When Westbury is performing well on the world stage so is all the Meander Valley. They are two major industries. Agriculture is also a massive industry in our area. We need to make sure that we are upholding our mantle as some of the world’s best producers for agriculture goods. I will certainly be meeting with farmers across the municipality to make sure that farmers are being supported, that council best supporting the agricultural industry. Small business is another major concern, making sure that we have business moving into the town rather than moving out. Making sure the council is endorsing an approach that encourages economic growth in our region. From large industries right down to small shops and cafes.

You are a small business owner yourself; you’ve talked a lot about bringing business back into the community.

I purchased an old pizza shop and unfortunately it closed around 2016. Since then, it has fallen to pieces, it became decrepit. One thing that happens in small regional, towns is that once one shop closes and the boards go up is that it has a domino effect. I bought the place on the main road in Westbury and have been renovating it with my parents and it is currently being rented out to a business which will be putting up their signs soon. The focus there was to make sure that we can bring business back into the community rather than losing business. This was a small way that I could positively contribute. I’m really excited for when they start operating very soon.

What are some of your favourite things about the Meander Valley area and what kind of prompted you to move back after your hiatus to study in Hobart?

I moved to Hobart to study law which I couldn’t do anywhere else in the state. What made me move back first and foremost was the community. It’s a close-knit, laid-back community up here. We all look after each other, we all know each other. You can’t walk down the main strip without having several conversations. It’s really that culture that brough me back. The small-town support systems that we have in place. We have a great community here which is just growing from strength to strength. That’s why I’m running for mayor and councillor because I want to continue that growth. To make sure that Westbury continues to be a great place to grow up in and live.

Thanks for your time, Ben.


Co-Editor of Togatus 2022, socialist and short king.