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COMMENT: Newcastle City Council public change room anger shows how we do things matters as much as what we do

Controversy: The new Nobbys Beach change facilities which have sparked public anger among beachgoers. Picture: Marina Neil
Controversy: The new Nobbys Beach change facilities which have sparked public anger among beachgoers. Picture: Marina Neil

HERE’S a message for politicians and bureaucrats after Newcastle City Council made a nice old mess of “upgrading” Nobbys Beach pavilion: how you do things matters just as much as what you do.

Changes need to be clearly, openly and transparently explained, with plenty of time for community feedback and revising plans. If changes are going to have an impact on the public, then the public is entitled to know why.

In the case of the Nobbys Beach pavilion changes – where users are overwhelmingly unhappy with the loss of a public change facility, despite the addition of more toilets – please don’t throw child protection into the mix at the last minute, when the proverbial is hitting the fan.

The council certainly announced plans to refurbish the 1931 pavilion early – in April, 2016 – and made clear the “public change rooms will be demolished and replaced by more accessible facilities”. But there was no mention of public change rooms as a potential child protection risk, despite numerous cases of people being charged with offences in public toilets and change rooms in NSW even in the past five years.

They are a child protection risk which Newcastle Council, like many other public authorities and institutions, must consider when providing public infrastructure. The problem here is that child protection as one of the reasons for the significant changes at Nobbys pavilion only surfaced as a “rumour” in the past few weeks after people complained, and was only confirmed by the council on December 31.

Before then the pavilion upgrade was linked to the council’s coastal revitalisation program, and any changes put down to the age of the building and restrictions imposed by its heritage status.

Child protection’s late arrival on the scene – at least in public – is extremely unfortunate given it now seems like a desperate last bid by the council to counter criticism. It plays into the hands of people who jump on the “political correctness gone mad” bandwagon at the slightest opportunity. It also makes risk reduction seem like an imposition on the community, a challenge to traditions and an affront to commonsense, rather than a logical response to a royal commission’s five-year demonstration of the need for our views to change.

Child sexual abuse is not new. We know that. Prosecutions of church offenders in the Hunter and elsewhere have included numerous cases of children being victims of offences in public toilet facilities, including shared change rooms.

There are many child sex offenders living in our community. That is a reality. They commit crimes against their own children. They are prosecuted, but often many years after the offences. They don’t wear signs on their heads. They often have respectable jobs and hold positions in society. 

They are also a risk. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse taught us many things, but the chief lesson was that where the care of children is involved, their protection must be a priority.

Public change rooms are being reconsidered across the country because of the clear risk they can pose, but public authorities have a duty to explain what they’re doing, and why. If it’s child protection, say so early and clearly and include the community in any changes. The alternative risks a kind of moral panic, or worse, public resentment, just when we need clear heads and calm statements most.

This story Nobbys toilet controversy could have been avoided first appeared on Newcastle Herald.

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