By Cam Lucadou-Wells
Public health researcher and council election candidate Rhonda Garad is no stranger to crisis.
Dr Garad is standing as effectively the replacement candidate for the departing councillor Matthew Kirwan in the Keysborough South ward.
She is studying the profound impacts of climate change and Covid-19 on mental health as part of a joint Monash University, Deakin University and ABC project.
The massive disruption of Covid has a synergy with catastrophic climate change, Dr Garad says.
It’s easy to forget after months of staying at home that bushfire smoke pollution had already forced many into summer hibernation.
“People were saying they were hibernating in the house because of smoke then going into quarantine because of Covid.”
Compliance with public health measures like physical distancing or climate action depends on people seeing a direct benefit, she says.
“But people are also easily swayed, like now we’re seeing the Victorian LNP deliberately sabotaging public health messages.”
Cr Kirwan showed her what could be achieved locally to mitigate climate change, such as moves to increase tree canopy shade in Greater Dandenong.
“It’s really heartening. That’s one of those issues that people do get – the rubber hits the road when it’s in their yard.”
With no vaccine in sight, the morphing Covid-19 was likely to stay with us for a long time, Dr Garad said.
The role of council was to work closely with the State Government and build knowledge and resilience of communities.
“People need to know there’s a strategy in place and that they can be confident that they are safe.”
Dr Garad hopes that joining forces with Cr Kirwan may gain her “traction” in an election campaign that will depend on savvy social media marketing.
But on a “shoe string” budget, she concedes it will be an uphill battle to claim the Keysborough South ward seat in October’s council election.
This is especially the case with the State Government dividing the council area into single-member wards – so elected councillors require 50 per cent of the vote.
In her favour, Keysborough South’s “fairly affluent” demographic fit well with her professional background.
Also at the 2016 council election, Cr Kirwan polled 51 per cent at the Keysborough South booth.
“The turn-up to the local meetings on the proposed waste-to-energy plant was quite extraordinary,” Dr Garad said.
“There’s lots of smart and engaged people.”
High rates were another issue for highly mortgaged residents, who were also financially hit by the Covid-19 recession, she said.
“People pay higher rates in the area and they do expect that the council responds to their needs in a timely way.”
Other issues include traffic, a lack of public transport to train stations and main arterials, the Keysborough South Community Hub and protecting the Green Wedge.
Dr Garad says the Casey Council IBAC investigation into allegedly corrupt dealings between councillors and property developers “really rocked” her.
It showed the need to reduce the “corruptibility” of councillors and to make electoral donations more transparent.
“Otherwise it lowers trust in councillors, which undermines democracy.”