Oral Histories of Phillip Island
Hello I am Dr Andrea Cleland and today on 14 January 2022 I am talking to Anne Oswin on Phillip Island in Victoria.
This interview is part of the Oral Histories of Phillip Island project, with the Phillip Island & District Historical Society.
[This interview was conducted over the telephone with Anne in Phillip Island and Andrea in Canberra. It was recorded at the height of rising COVID cases in Victoria due to the Omicron variant].
A: Andrea Cleland, interviewer
AO: Anne Oswin, being interviewed
Thank you Andrea
Early years and family background
A: Can you tell me when and where were you born, and a bit about your family?
AO: I was born in Melbourne but grew up in country Victoria. My father was a school principal and so we moved about with new postings but ended up in Melbourne. I matriculated in 1965, went to Teacher’s College. My first teaching appointment was Westgarth Primary School in Melbourne for two years, and after that I married in 1970 and moved to Phillip Island with my husband John Oswin. We had met in the summer of 1966 while I was on holiday here with my cousin. We were staying at the old Continental Guest House (where North Pier now is) and went to the old Post Office dance on the Esplanade, which is where many a holidaymaker like me was to meet her future spouse.
John did not live here at the time. He came from a farming background at Swan Hill and he was also on holiday. But his parents had a long association with the island, and their family spent a lot of time here. His family connection started in the 1920s. His father was sent to be cared for by his aunt Florence Oswin Roberts, who was a very famous Phillip Islander, after his mother had died suddenly when he was just a young child. As was the way in those times, young children were sent to female aunts to be cared for as a farming family would not be able to look after them. Florence had no children herself, and ran the Broadwater Guest House on Lovers Walk in Cowes, which was also quite famous.
Florence was fiercely protective of the island’s unique flora and fauna, and famous for her lifetime efforts to protect and conserve it, and this love of the island was passed on by her to a young Jack Oswin, before he returned to his family farm in Swan Hill when he was a teenager. He married Coral, his wife, and raised two boys, my husband John and his brother Rex. The family regularly came down to Cowes, holidaying at Broadwater with Jack’s aunt, and were always strong supporters of conservation endeavours which included her establishment of the Florence Oswin Roberts Koala Reserve.
He took her place in time on the Phillip Island Koala Reserves Committee which met quarterly, to maintain and care for local reserves and wildlife. This meant frequent trips to Cowes and retention of his strong commitment to carrying on the work his aunt was involved in over decades here. His formative years with his aunt had instilled in him a deep love for and knowledge of the island and its unique natural assets, which remained with him all of his life. He continued her work to preserve the island’s natural assets He was quite a famous islander too as it turned out in the end.
So that was the background when I came into the family when I was married in 1970.
John and Anne on their wedding day. Anne Oswin collection
My in-laws had by then sold up at Swan Hill and retired to a farm they had bought here at Ventnor. They built a house in Cowes at the same time, leaving John and his brother to run the farm. So that’s how I came to live at Phillip Island, on a sheep farm at Ventnor.
I taught at Newhaven Primary for the first year, resigning just before the birth of the first of my four children.
I was fairly useless when it came to farming, but I did enjoy farming life.
A: Did your children enjoy growing up on the farm?
AO: Yes, very much. The kids loved farm life but we’ve got a long way to go before we get to that part of the story.
Your next heading here is about community involvement so I will continue to talk about that.
AO: Initially I felt isolated at first, away from my large and extended family in Melbourne and not knowing anyone much down here. I used to go home to Melbourne a lot. But gradually I began to meet people. Pam and Donald Cameron lived on the farm across the road, and we had children at about the same time and became firm friends, so that was great. Once my children started kinder and then school, I began to settle into and enjoy island life and meet women of my own age.
I also really enjoyed the inter-generational friendships that are made in country life.
John and I played Saturday tennis with teams from the island – this was before I had children – Newhaven and San Remo competing, so you got to know the whole island. There were only about 1200 or 1500 people living there in those days. It was a very social way of meeting people of all ages. Home team players had to take afternoon tea. I was no cook and would labour all morning trying to produce something presentable to take along because these were country cooks with magnificent sponges! I could barely boil an egg.
The older ladies were great. They were very encouraging to we young mums, and handing out advice with amused benevolence on how to get babies to sleep, to tips on cooking. I still use the fail proof sponge recipe they gave me. But learned not to put the brandy they suggested in the baby’s bottle to get him to sleep, because it actually made him roar around all night. Our age group really appreciated those lovely older women. Full of fun but paving the way for us to take our place on community committees and mentoring us into community life.
But it was not all smooth sailing.
I learned the hard way not to respond: ‘I don’t’ in my very early days here when asked “if I liked living on Phillip Island” because initially I didn’t. I didn’t know anybody and I just wanted to go home.
On one occasion, my sister in law and I, as unknowns in the district – we were both newly-married and didn’t know anybody – were asked to be the judges at the Cowes Primary School fancy dress ball. We were quite chuffed and thought it quite an honour. Until we realised with horror that we had been handed a poisoned chalice as we looked down from the old hall stage into a sea of costumed children and their beautiful young faces looking up at us with happy anticipation . . . and then you could see their mother’s steely gaze . . . and we had to pick winners out. I am glad these days that everyone simply gets a certificate for participation and nobody has to be told they are not as good as the others. Much better idea from where we were looking.
The island community enjoyed a rich social life back in those days, with community occasions usually related to fundraising for special causes. There was an annual ball for Warley Hospital, a hospital garden party, the Woolamai picnic races. The Lions Club held an annual flower show, the school its annual lunch with a high profile guest speaker coming down. Spectator sports like footy, netball, cricket and the like brought people out and together.
I slowly became involved and found myself serving on kindergarten, school, sporting and the Warley hospital committees. I joined Toastmistress which was a new group that started in the 1970s. The founder was Julie Reith with strong encouragement from her mother in law Elaine Reith, mother of Peter Reith, who lived here at the time and went on to become a minister in the Howard government. Elaine’s aim was to assist women to develop confidence to take their place in the community at all levels.
A simple thing like understanding correct meeting procedure, how to move motions at meetings etc was taught as well as encouragement and support given with getting up and our public speaking. Those sort of skills helped – even on the school mothers’ club committees, sporting clubs and so forth – where many of us didn’t have these skills. The meetings were fun, and designed to help us overcome nerves and gain the confidence to get to our feet and contribute to community debate. There were many women here who needed no such assistance and were extremely capable and active and outspoken in community affairs. But there were many others who like me who were shy and lacked confidence. Even today all those years on, those of us who benefitted from Toastmistress remember Elaine’s efforts with gratitude.
Sadly she died young and suddenly while still in her fifties.
A: Can you talk a little about how you became interested in the activities of local government?
AO: It was Elaine Reith who encouraged me to run for council. It was something that would never have crossed my mind. Toastmistress and other friends supported me to do that. I was there for five years. I resigned a year early because of the demands of young children and family life. In hindsight I was not much value on council, still in my mid-twenties and without a strong knowledge of the major challenges that were facing Phillip Island in the 1970s and the ramifications of the planning decisions being made then.
I would offer much better value these days as I’ve learnt a lot over the years. I think I was fairly useless. On social issues, I was probably able to better contribute. I do recall talking council into NOT bulldozing the Rotunda on the foreshore when that was under discussion, which is probably my only claim to fame.
At that point in time when I went on to Council, Phillip Island lacked a lot of basic infrastructure that was taken for granted elsewhere, and it was a period of infrastructure development. There was no recreation centre, an old library was under the very old shire hall, and the shire offices consisted of just a few rooms at the front of the hall that opened on to Thompson Avenue, the main street.
The infrastructure that the island did have such as golf course, tennis courts, footy clubrooms, bowling clubrooms and yacht clubs, had largely been developed by community members through fundraising, volunteer labour and lots of and blood, sweat and tears. Past councils had supported these endeavours but much and most of the work had been done by club members.
I came to learn the longer I lived here that is what Phillip Islanders did.
In the early days Warley Hospital was established and supported entirely by the community without a penny of government money for over 60 years. A community committee established Melaleuca Aged Care Lodge and still run it. A Nursing Home annexe was built at the hospital, and Newhaven College was started and run by a committee in a portable building in a paddock in the early 80s. It is still run by a community committee and now has 1,000 students.
What that showed me as a city slicker very early on was the people in those earlier times had an amazing can-do attitude here on Philip Island. When a need was identified, people banded together and worked hard to achieve whatever it was they could see was needed. I also observed the same tenacity over the years, in a different way, when it came to the protection of the island’s natural assets by people in the Conservation Society and other individuals, when special places came under threat from developers swooping in.
But back to the five years that I spent on council because I diverted there.
It was a period of very strong infrastructure development, although I can take little credit for that. I was more cheer squad and supporter than instigator. The credit belonged to fellow councillors, and especially to the shire engineer of the day Jock McKechnie. In that five year period, a new Civic Centre was built in Thompson Avenue, along with adjoining library and heritage centre. It was the pride of the council back then and the community, and it was bulldozed last year. The Cowes Recreation Centre was also built in that period, so that was the first time that the kids and young people had a basketball and squash courts plus a gymnasium. Stage 4, a pool to be built at a later stage, was planned in my time but did not eventuate when amalgamation of councils intervened and the commissioners threw the plans out.
Phillip Island Council meeting during Anne's term. Anne obscured at left in this photo. Anne Oswin collection
The Phillip Island Senior Citizens Club was also built in this period. It was initiated by the sole island doctor here, Ben Weiss. He had observed frail elderly residents on the island who were malnourished, and approached the council to establish a Meals on Wheels service to address this issue. Government funding was available to do this, but only if the service was delivered from a Senior Citizens Clubrooms. There was a Senior Citizens Club but no rooms, and so those members worked extremely hard fundraising madly to assist with cost. Council built the clubrooms. Delicious meals were prepared in the kitchens there daily by great cooks – usually married ladies who would go in the morning and cook great meals – for frail and elderly residents. The meals would then be distributed by community volunteers, including me when I was quite young. We were rostered on once a month to deliver around the island. After amalgamation, however the new Bass Coast council closed the service unceremoniously and transferred it to delivery from Wonthaggi and certainly the standard of meals went down.
I was the only female councillor until Ruth Partridge joined me toward the end of my term.
Unlike today, elections were held annually. It was a nine member council, with three councillors coming up for election every year on a rotational basis. It was a good system, in that three newcomers would have the benefit of the experience of six sitting councillors as far as background when issues came before them. Elections are now held every four years, and it is possible for a council to be voted out entirely, with little continuity or knowledge of ongoing projects or past decisions still relevant to future deliberations.
Voting day was always a great community day on Phillip Island. It really was good fun. Everybody that was standing and their supporters would be handing out ‘how to vote’ cards. Somebody would be making money with a sausage sizzle on the side. It was a good way to get to meet the candidates and hear their views and it was a good shire thing that went on. It was fun. Today, you get a thing in the mail with 100 words and that’s how you get to know who to vote for, or decide who you should vote for.
A: It’s quite difficult to get a handle on council candidates' personalities.
AO: It certainly is and that’s where we come in as newspaper people [both laugh]. We do our level best to give the community a much better idea who each person is and what they are standing for and what issues they are against.
A: Did you face many challenges raising a family whilst working and being a councillor? Was there any support for mothers and parents at that time?
AO: I was not working while I was on council, although I did run the Devonshire teas in January over summer. I had four young children, the youngest was born in 1977 while I was a councillor. It was not all that challenging in the first place when my children were young. It was very different than today. Two meetings a month and a few committee meetings was all that was involved in those days. Demands on time were not as heavy as that faced by councillors today. In those days, it was an island council so travel was not a problem, today they all have to go over to Wonthaggi. The odd meeting over on the Peninsula or in Melbourne as an island representative was not too onerous and we used to be able to combine that with a shopping trip or something.
A: Were there issues mainly to do with the Island itself?
AO: In those days, the issues remained the same today as they were then. Planning was very much an important part of all council meetings. Councillors determined every planning application. Now, councillors delegate their authority to office staff or bureaucrats. So that’s one major change.
I will go on with the question you asked.
I had strong babysitting support from my parents in law who lived in Cowes. Friends would pick up from kinder and school, and the baby would come to meetings with me on the odd occasion in a bassinet if no-one was available. I remember Lizzie my youngest crawling around the chamber at times.It was no big deal, and no-one cared.
In the 1970s there were no day care facilities at all. Young mums would babysit for each other if family help was not available. This worked well. A baby sitting club was established here in the 70s. There was no money involved. Members earned points, if you were in the club, by caring for another family’s child, and then you would redeem your points when you needed your child babysat. It was run by a committee who organised the bookings according to who needed to pay back points. Whoever had used up the most points by having their children babysat, then had to be the ones to do next lot of babysitting. It was a fair system and quite successful. But as my kids got older and involved in sport, Scouts and Guides and the like, I found it quite difficult. I left council after five years when actually my term should have gone six. Perhaps the demands of council were also increasing.
A: What years were you on council?
1976 - 1981
The next thing you wanted to know was what were facilities like at the time to support parents and babies.
There was no such thing as nursing and baby change facilities in those days. Never had them and so carried on as everyone had always done. Subsequent generations facilitated change, which was great. Young women here in the 80s instigated (and that was after my time) and ran a childcare centre at the newly established PICAL, the Phillip Island Community and Learning Centre. Sue Chadwick and friends led that push. Once again this involved a huge amount of hard work and thousands of hours of volunteer labour from both mums and dads before success was finally achieved. The dads had to go in and make a very old house for the kids habitable. There are many tradies down here so it was a huge community effort with volunteer labour. Those women and men worked very hard.
A childcare centre had been resisted by council for many years. Mainly by men who said that if their wives were able to stay home and mind their kids, so should everyone else, and a childcare centre was not required.That was the prevailing view.
A: That’s extraordinary.
AO: Yes, probably when I was on council. Anti-childcare attitudes were firmly entrenched in my day. But the thinking slowly changed thanks to the advocacy of our local young mums of the day who were very active and vocal and successful in the end. But that all happened after my time.
Anne retiring from council, being presented with a bouquet by staff member Michael Lobascher. Anne Oswin collection
A: Can you please describe other aspects over time of your community involvement – for example, school, hospital et cetera?
AO: I was very involved in Cowes Primary School while my children were there. I served on the School’s Parents Club and also on the Primary School Council. I was a member of the Warley Hospital Committee for a long period of time. I was involved pre Newhaven College in efforts to get it off the ground. I was president of Phillip Island Netball Club for a while and other sporting things.
Business - Trenavin Park
A: As part of this project I interviewed Heather Hamilton, who spoke of their years at Trenavin Park. I understand that you came to later own that property and I believe you had a successful Devonshire Tea business there.
I love Devonshire Teas so I am very interested to hear about your experiences.
AO: Trenavin Park was a very happy time for us. But busy. It was a lovely old home and we had the bright idea one day when chatting with our neighbours Fergus and Viv and Donald and Pam Cameron that we should use its appeal to start up a tourism business.
So we settled on Devonshire teas and we started it in a partnership. We opened in the summer of 1977/78. I had four children, Pam had two and Viv was yet to produce Dugald and Hugh. Trenavin Park was a big old house. We bought it from the Hamiltons. The Devonshire teas were served out of the kitchen window, on a tray to the customers who were lining up.
John, Donald and Fergus made the tables and stools that we set up on the lawns.
Each table had a colourful umbrella to provide shade. We provided free Aeroguard to customers in an attempt to ward off the never-ending flies. Inside was a flurry of activity with the kitchen renovated to accommodate stands on either side of the window so we could assemble a tray quickly and pass it through the window to its recipient. On the tray was a teapot, milk and sugar, a basket of scones that we made and jam and cream. We had flavoured milk for the children.
Pam, Viv and I took it in turn to make the scones each day. And we all worked together from 1pm to 5pm in the Christmas and Easter holidays initially. It turned out to be a very popular tourist attraction. I think the appeal of the house which could be seen from the road had a lot to do with people turning into the kilometre long driveway. And once in, they enjoyed our Devonshire teas. On cool days we were frantically busy. We would go through 40 dozen scones in a day. On hot days, we had a reprieve as people went to the beach.
It was a very simple operation. We loaded the tray and sent it out the window, and the customers were trained to pack it up and brought it back when they had finished their afternoon tea.
Anne receiving returned tray through the serving window, Trenavin Park Devonshire Teas. Anne Oswin collection
We washed dishes madly so we did not run out. We were all novices and sometimes had a queue a mile long. People were patient and wandered around. John, Fergus and Donald would take people on hay rides when they were not busy on their respective farms. We had three buffalo in the paddock and so the ride would go past them down to McHaffies Lagoon and back up the hill again.
This involved opening a farm gate and on one occasion, one of the buffalo bailed Donald up and it was between him and the tractor pulling tourists sitting on hay bales on the cart. It was a bit hairy – although I don’t think the customers were aware of the danger – it made us aware of the fact that they were dangerous animals and not to be trusted. We sold them after that.
The kids had a sideline going selling lavender. We had a few hedges of lavender. The older kids would pick them and put them in small bunches, and send out their younger and cuter siblings to sell them for 20 cents each. It was in the days when people still smoked a lot and my children can say that their first paid job was picking up butts, not in Bourke Street but on the Trenavin lawns.
On one occasion I greeted a customer at the window who was gasping and looking quite terrified, but speechless and unable to utter a word. I looked out and between her and me –
I was inside and she was outside – was a rather large copperhead snake. We also had a goose we called Gough Goose (after the Prime Minister of the day) and he was initially well behaved. But people used to throw him pieces of scone and after a while he had guests screaming up on the table with Gough hissing at them for a tidbit.
So that was the end of him too.
We carried on in summer for about ten years. It was a very busy time as we also had a houseful of cousins over summer, aunts and uncles holidaying with us. It was basically all hands on deck between 1pm and 5pm. Everyone pitched in and it was a happy time. We operated over January and weekends until Easter.
We also used to hold fundraisers at Trenavin and the annual Cup Day function to raise money to help get Newhaven College up and running, and this was a memorable occasion each year. We had a chicken and champagne lunch on the lawns, a fashion parade, sweeps, and Rick Banfield (who opened Banfields Motel and Cinema which unfortunately is also now gone) would act as bookmaker throughout the day. There was always heaps of helpers and we did all the cooking and serving ourselves. Red tape was not a worry in those days.
The beautiful setting of Trenavin Park garden for a Newhaven College fundraiser. Anne Oswin collection
A PMG staffer (I better not say his name because it was highly illegal) would come out and connect a phone line to Rick’s table so he could lay bets off (I don’t really know what that means but mobiles were yet to be invented so that was the only way that he could operate). The constabulary steered clear of Trenavin on the day so as not to disturb the operation, and the bus driver from school obligingly dropped the school kids from Cowes off at the front gate so that their parents would not have to leave early to collect them.
It was innocent fun devoid of red tape and the money raised was substantial.
We also set up a B and B in an older part of the house. It was the first on the island, and if not the first on the island, then one of the first. It was the part where I had experienced what I believe to this day was a ghost. After that occasion, I always enquired of the guests when leaving how they had slept, but nothing untoward was ever reported.
Did Heather actually say whether she saw a ghost?
A: No she didn’t, but I can always ask Carol, she grew up there.
AO: My daughter and I were both aware of the presence of a little girl.
Anne and daughter Lizzie in the Trenavin Park garden. Anne Oswin collection
Phillip Island and San Remo Advertiser
A: Can you tell me about what led you to establish a local newspaper and set up the Phillip Island and San Remo Advertiser?
AO: I’m doing the interview and the answers, that’s being an editor [both laugh]!
The Advertiser was established purely by chance after the Phillip Island Sun, run by the Leader Group, was unceremoniously closed down by the Murdoch press in 1988. The community was devastated – as was I – it was a great source of local news. I had often contributed articles on behalf of the various clubs I was involved in, and loved reading the paper weekly to catch up on what was going on.
A few months on, Brian Blake, the owner of the regional paper the Sentinel Times which covered Phillip Island decided it would be a good time to start a newspaper on Phillip Island, and he was aware of articles I had contributed in the past, and that I could write, and rang and invited me to form a partnership to open this new paper.
I should mention here that another enterprise had also started up at the same time, but closed the following year.
A: What skills did you draw on to become a journalist and editor of your own newspaper?
AO: There’s two basic skills. The ability to write reasonably well, which I had, and a strong connection and knowledge of the local community and I think Brian recognised that. I think during my time there has been four papers start up against us. None of them had lasted very long and I do think you need to live here and have strong local knowledge to succeed. But the ones that started up didn’t and they came in and thought they could. Anyway, we’re still here and they are not.
My goal was to produce local news, tell local stories, and to provide the community with a voice for advocacy for Phillip Island, when this was going to matter. Our aim was to present the widest possible diversity of views and opinions on matters of public interest, and cover the comings and goings of as many organisation and groups as possible.
A: What were the challenges you faced to get the paper up and running?
AO: The challenges were many. But they were eased by the experience of our Sentinel partners. Production was in their hands, so news and advertising was up to us. We didn’t have the difficult side of production to contemplate or deal with. They were the experts in that. Our job was to compile newsworthy stories and photos each week. Basically, would the community accept our new masthead was the biggest challenge. I don’t think the Advertiser would have succeeded without the guiding hand of Brian Blake and Noel Ludgrove, our Sentinel partners.
It would have been beyond us, I now realise. I went into it blind and had no idea what was involved. It wouldn’t have succeeded without them, we were very fortunate that they wanted to come over here and be involved with us. They were responsible for the physical production of the paper and had a lifetime of experience. Their advice and patience was invaluable. Their best advice to me was to hire local people with local knowledge and who lived in the community and to have an open door policy always. They were very good men and they were very involved in their communities and they knew how it should work.
Anne Wright took on the job of advertising sales, and was given huge assistance by Margaret Hill, who had held this role at the Phillip Island Sun before it closed. Margaret wanted to go on and do something else but she was a huge help to us and one of the other reasons why we succeeded was that Margaret’s advertisers trusted her, and Anne’s job was made easier through Margaret’s introductions. At the end of the first year, we had covered all our costs and made a profit of $4.
Without advertising sales, there is no newspaper; it is what pays wages and costs.
We worked in the small Phillip Island Sun’s old office in Bill Berry’s legal practice. We certainly couldn’t afford to go out and have a shopfront. The old Phillip Island Sun we used to work out of was a little office that Bill Berry the lawyer allowed them to have. So, we went and asked Bill (as the office was empty) if we could use that. Bill, who was to become a firm friend, said later, that he agreed to have us because he thought we’d be gone in about three months. He did not see us succeeding at all. We worked there for many years before being accommodated again by Bill when he bought a property in Chapel Street. We all moved across the road together and we’re still in those premises. Sadly, Bill died last year but our friendly relationship and kitchen sharing continues with his successor David Luscombe and team, after 30 years.
Brian’s advice on day one to was to always have an open door policy and give everyone the time of day, which of course we do. Everyone and anyone is, and was, always welcome to drop in. That policy has stood us in good stead. Community members have dropped in over the years and are always welcome with whatever snippets and news they have. No-one is ever turned away and we wouldn’t have succeeded without that sort of assistance from the community.
Our motto is: If they think it is interesting, so do we. Irrespective of any personal views.
No matter what we always find a way to use it.
An excited gardener producing an oversized tomato to photograph is as welcome as hard news. And we can guarantee that another person will always turn up with a bigger and better tomato next week to feature in the paper. Such stories engage people, and they become involved. Which is our aim. We cover every event where people want coverage. Special birthdays, sporting victories, local stalls and fundraisers. It all goes in. We want to be relevant to each dynamic within our community. Not everyone follows the council. Not everyone follows sport, but we want to have something for everyone. From the deep and meaningful to the fun and frivolous, it will appear on our pages.
A: I also understand that your team were all women. Was that a conscious decision, or did it just come about because you were all friends? What do you think having an all-women staff brought to your office environment?
AO: It was not a conscious decision. Anne Wright worked for us and when we needed a third person and her sister Margaret was available. It just happened. They were fourth generation islanders and well connected to the community. That was the important consideration in selection – that they knew the island. It didn’t matter if they were male or female, it just turned out that they were female and we didn’t consciously decide to do that. It was not deliberate, but having said that, it works well all the same. It probably makes for a harmonious environment in our office, which we have always had.
A: How did you and your small staff juggle family responsibilities and challenges with having to get an independent newspaper out on time every week?
AO: Much the same way as everyone else in the workforce. We have all had young children and availed ourselves of babysitting, after school activities and the like. The kids would come into the office after school on their way home. Sam Docherty, AFL player and captain of Carlton, used to do our supermarket shopping for us at times after school when he called in to see his mother Annabelle on his way home..
A: What were some of the key moments of your time of involvement at the Advertiser?
AO: This was more back to the council matters you asked me about earlier.
There were a number of key moments that I recall so I’ve listed the main three.
Number One. The announcement that Phillip Island had been awarded the staging of the International Motorcycle Grand Prix in 1989 was up there as one of them.
It created enormous division initially but has subsequently been accepted as a major economic advantage for the island and is welcomed and looked forward to annually.
Number Two. The handover by the Kennett government of Point Grant, do you know the island Andrea? With a name like Cleeland I assume you do?
A: I’m actually not related to the Cleelands, but yes I’ve been coming here since the 1980s.
AO: The Nobbies but I am referring to Point Grant, it’s official name. The handover by the Kennett Government of Point Grant, a pristine area and major spiritual place, to which our community had a deep attachment, for development by private enterprise, was another key moment in our history. That decision and threats to close the Summerland Road was made in the face of huge community opposition. I think almost every man, woman and dog opposed that.
As it turned out, the community was right.
The enterprise was a flop, but the magnificent area has been completely despoiled in the process and we’ve been left with an ugly eyesore in the form of the glass building and concrete jungle that now exists there. The issue kept our pages full for months and even years. God nearly exacted revenge. The building was subsequently hit by a water spout and nearly destroyed. It should have been demolished but they rebuilt it. The whole ill-conceived exercise cost taxpayers close to $100 million in wasted dollars.
It also cost the Jeff Kennett government at the next election.
The seat of Gippsland West, a safe Liberal seat – one of the safest in the state in those days – fell to independent Susan Davies, who was one of the three independents to determine government in a hung result back in 1997. The backlash against what the Kennett Government had done with that Nobbies development saw Susan win the seat, with die hard Liberals here on the island refusing to hand out how to vote cards for their own candidates on election day, such was their disgust at what had happened.
Liberals would not vote Labor, but they sure could vote independent!
A: What were the top three or four matters you think that the community was most connected with over the decades?
The loss of Warley Hospital in 2008. It was a huge issue which took the community years to recover from.
The proposal to industrialise the iconic Cowes front beach area and pier to facilitate the establishment of a vehicle ferry between Cowes and Stony Point in 2010.
The launch of the Stand Alone movement after the failure of amalgamation on Phillip Island.
Those three have been very major issues that we have covered and the community have been strongly involved in.
A: Do you think these issues were polarising within the community?
AO: The loss of Warley – funnily enough, we had many polarising issues, there’s no doubt about that – but I would think in this instance it pretty much bought the community together as opposed to polarising it. The loss of Warley Hospital was sorely felt and we all marched over the bridge with placards and tried very hard for years really to save it. Interestingly enough, it was Daniel Andrews as Health Minister of the day that refused the sum of $2.5million that would have saved Warley Hospital. It has cost them tens and tens of millions over the subsequent 10 years before we had anything here at all before to replace it. Carting people by ambulance up to Melbourne and over to Wonthaggi on a daily basis for a decade was very costly. It was a very poor decision and it cost taxpayers a huge amount of money, as well as a beautiful little hospital that had served the community 24/7, very well.
A: It was very much loved.
AO: It was. Specialists used to come down once a month on what was always called ‘operating day’ where they could do elective surgery, and also consult.. We had a surgeon, Mr Hendrickson who would come down if we had an appendix or things like that, that could not wait. He would drive down from Melbourne and do the op at Warley. Of course anything major, you had to be sent up to Melbourne, as you do with most country hospitals and then you would be sent back to recuperate at Warley. It was also wonderful for palliative care. Things like that that we do so miss. A lot of people say well you didn’t really need it, particularly newcomers to Philip Island. I don’t think they understood what Warley Hospital did mean to our community. Also, Warley existed in an era when we didn’t have helicopters whizzing all over the place. The Ambulance Service only started in the 1980s. Prior to that, community volunteers undertook first aid training and drove the ambulance as required.
To answer your question, no I don’t think the fight to save Warley polarised the community. It united us.
Same with the proposal to industrialise the iconic Cowes front beach. I don’t think anyone is against the car ferry but they sure as hell are against it being established on the front beach. If you saw the plans, they had this great industrial car park on the beach. What you see now, where you had people enjoying a beautiful north facing safe beach and pier; swimming etc, you would have had concrete and high rise. It was just incredible. So that issue absolutely far from polarising us, united us. I find it weird that this very thing keeps going on when we had a 35 car vehicle ferry here back before the bridge was opened and we had it for 20 or 30 years. There were various old island ferries – the Killara, the Genista – that came, plied the bay, came back and forth bringing 35 vehicles at a time. Then they simply drove off the pier and went their way. Why it is now rocket science is beyond me. Why they can’t just do something similar which they did very nicely all those years ago is beyond me. It is 35 cars, not 200. But anyway, we’re about to launch into that again.
There’s a definition of insanity. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
I personally think that you could have a car ferry modelled on those old days when there’s only 35 vehicles involved. it’s not like we’re having 100 vehicles. That could be easily worked out in my view but anyway it’s very complicated these days, isn’t it.
The other thing was the launch of the Stand Alone movement after the failure of amalgamation. The first Stand Alone movement, same thing – the entire community had had enough of the deterioration of Phillip Island and inequity of service and got behind that. The second Stand Alone movement in 2012 was different. That did polarise the community a bit. To me, they are the three main things that have affected us.
A: What role did the Advertiser play in reporting council amalgamations in 1994, and what were the major issues raised by the community about amalgamation and what that would mean for Phillip Island?
AO: Your last question, I have actually gone into that fairly heavily as I think it’s had the most terrible effect on Phillip Island. Its improved now. I think the second Stand Alone movement in 2012 – even though it failed— it had the effect of making council for the first time sit up and take note of what was happening and that equity was not being delivered. Phillip Island paid 48% of the rate. We got about 22% back. After that, I think there was a bit of an attempt and we can still complain about the place looking neglected and goodness knows what, but as far as money being spent over here that was the first time that equity began to be delivered. Up until 2012 it hadn’t been. I’ve probably gone for five minutes on this one because I do feel strongly about it.
A: Please continue.
AO: Brace yourselves (both laugh).
While amalgamation turned out to be the most momentous decision made in my time to affect Phillip Island, in my view, we did not know this at the time it was actually proposed. Our role as the newspaper was to report what had been proposed, and to reflect the community views.With the state government informing councils early in 1994 that it intended to reduce the number of municipalities in Victoria from 210 to “about 100” the amalgamation debate dominated the community agenda on Phillip Island for the first half of that year.
The Advertiser did not support a view either way. It reflected the diverse views of the community at the time. It also was an issue that did not grab the whole community – unlikethe three issues I just mentioned to you – because a lot of people (a) had no clue about what was actually going to happen. Many people aren’t particularly interested in political affairs which is probably the way they saw it.
The council of the day in the end accepted amalgamation although their preferred scenario was rejected. The proposal did not actually engage the broader community widely at the time, because the adverse effects on Phillip Island only became obvious much later down the track.
A: One of your regular jobs was to attend and report on council meetings. Did your own time being a councillor earlier help with that later reporting? Did the logistics of attending and reporting on council meetings change over time?
Yes. I think my time on council did help with reporting because I had a better understanding of the operation of local government and also had an ongoing connection with the shire staff and also councillors which helped when I was seeking information on issues. My time on council in the 70s certainly has shaped my views ever after. It was a smaller town in those days so you sort of knew all the councillors, you knew the shire staff and their families; our kids went to school together and everybody was friends. Even though you might have had a bit of battle in council, then you went and picked up their kid to have a play with your kid after school. It was a fairly friendly time.
Council in those days was an open, transparent and inclusive space. Yes. Debate was uproarious and aggressive at times, but this reflected the passion of participants, and gave ratepayers an understanding of the stance on issues of their elected representatives. Once again, the people on council were very accountable to everybody because you played tennis with them. You saw them regularly at clubs and school.
Democracy was certainly alive and well in the council chamber in those days. Councillors in the main were respectful of each other and meetings invariably ended with a friendly drink and no hard feelings, albeit with the odd exception.
To answer your question, yes, council logistics have certainly changed over time, and very much for the worse in my opinion. I started reporting in 1988. In those days, staff and councillors freely – this was before amalgamation – responded to questions and this open approach enabled us to report comprehensively on the issues of the day. Council used us to get information and messages out to the community and we were happy to oblige and we co-operated. And certainly divisive issues were covered and council came under fire on many occasions from community members. But always, the press in those days could rely on a comprehensive response from officers and councillors to tricky questions, and a professional attitude when critical articles were published.
Our attitude was always: that we report without fear or favour and give everyone who wanted it a voice. We followed JFK’s line of: ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight for your right to say it.’
Our stance remains unchanged and has done so over the 30 years we’ve been in operation.
Reporting at times was difficult in a small community. Individual councillors and community members were often at loggerheads, over one proposal or another. It made for colourful coverage, and sold lots of papers I imagine. In those days council was very much in touch with its community, and accountable to the community and responsive to the community. There were two council meetings held each month. There was a night time planning meeting (which dealt with planning applications) and planning certainly dominated the agenda in those years with so many applications coming in for a sub-division and weird and wonderful developments that were going to come up. I think we were going to have the Queen Mary moored off Churchill Island at one stage. There was never a dull moment really in those days.
There was also a day time meeting which started at 9 am and often went through to mid- afternoon.
A tea lady served morning and afternoon tea very graciously to everyone, including gallery members, as the meeting progressed. And the lunch break was used to give council the opportunity to meet over a delicious meal, served by members of the Seniors Citizens Club – who were madly fundraising to pay for their building which I mentioned earlier – and representatives of the island’s various organisations were invited along on a rotational basis. At lunch time you had community members invited in from key organisations – or any organisation –and over lunch, the councillors were able to hear directly from them about their work and how they could help. This was a great way for council to connect with its community, learn about the work carried out, and how it could help if required.
The press, that was us, we were always invited to attend and you could chat over an issue and say ‘what do you mean by that’ and discuss it quite comprehensively. You certainly had a better understanding and you were able to give a better report to the community because of this. Council officers from across the various departments attended, for example the health officer, the local laws officer, etc; they popped in as the meeting progressed to give a brief report on their activities and operations over the past month. In this way councillors and the gallery heard directly from health, local laws, outdoor, roads, planning etc staff and what they were doing, and had the opportunity to ask questions. Everybody was pretty well informed and what were the problems they were facing. Councillors could make some suggestions on what should be done and I thought it was a very healthy, democratic, open and transparent system. We would report on it all to the community and there were people in the gallery also listening.
Slowly, over the years, I have observed successive councils becoming less open and transparent, resulting in disconnection from the community that the council serves. In fact, it’s almost a complete disconnection today. That happened slowly over the years. Today, the Bass Coast Council – the amalgamated council – conducts one meeting open to the public per month, and the duration of this meeting is usually between one and two hours. Before this meeting is held, we know council has already met behind closed doors to discuss the items on the agenda, and they’ve made their decisions. The gallery in attendance is then treated to a very sanitised debate, with the decisions to be formally made pretty much as pre-determined in advance. Questions from the gallery are permitted, but little interaction is permitted, with the current CEO, I am absolutely amazed to observe, she reads the responses by rote. I’ve never seen that done by a CEO before. You don’t really feel that you’ve been heard. They read it out. Plonk. Next question. Read it out, plonk. To me, democracy is almost dead in the current local government council that serves us.
Council now has policies preventing officers from talking directly to the press. Well, so did the previous one. Questions must go to a media department, which responds with a very limited response of one or two lines, with little substance or explanation, even on issues of major concern. In the old days, I would just ring up and often an officer would explain and once you did have that explanation, your mind would change completely the direction the report was going to take. You understood something that you didn’t understand previously.
This is a terrible shame when one considers the advantages of a two way conversation as far as information sharing with ratepayers on issues important to them goes. I do believe accountability and transparency are the losers in the way it operates at the moment.
To go back to your initial question. Have logistics in council reporting changed, the answer is no. We attend meetings and report on who says what. What has changed in my view is the trend away from transparency and accountability of councils to a more closed shop approach, which has resulted in a disconnected community and it makes our job of reporting very difficult. In fact, the council will often complain that they haven’t been given a say. They are always given a say. We would never print a story without ringing and saying, ‘well this is what he is saying, what would you like to say’. Then they give us two sentences, and complain about the coverage. It’s not a good system as far as I’m concerned, and it certainly was far more open and democratic and transparent in earlier days.
A: The whole point of council is to engage with their community. If you haven’t got that dynamic, that must be very difficult.
AO: We would love to engage with them, but it’s pretty much a defensive and closed shop approach with them.
A: How did you decide what type of stories the community would be most interested in for each edition?
AO: News evolves on a weekly basis and is an ever changing environment. Hard news is always given priority by us. Be that a tragedy or accident that has occurred, a contentious council decision made, or an opinion aired on a matter of public interest. We have a role to play in holding local government accountable, and will always shine a light on council or government actions that affect the lives of local people, so these are the stories that are prioritised. Advocacy on behalf of individuals badly done by authorities is also seen in the same light and get priority And a robust Letters Page we consider to be important and of interest to readers.
Our community also expects weekly feature stories about local people, event coverage, sporting results. We have a dedicated entertainment page/s and four permanent pages dedicated to sport. The aim is to remain connected and relevant to all dynamics in the community. In 2018 the island’s 150th birthday was marked with weekly features of historic interest. We found people really loved that. Stories that are date dependent can sometimes be held over for a week or two if space does not allow. But they all get a guernsey in the end. We get a lot of contributors’ stories which we are thrilled to get. Sometimes we can’t always use them in the week we get them because of space. The pages that are produced in the paper are governed completely by advertising. We have to cover costs. So if we can only have a certain number of pagesto break even or to make a profit, then that’s what we do. Those stories get hold over, but they always get used. We don’t ever leave anything out. Sometimes it occasionally happens but we try not to.
A: So what trends have you observed over time? How has the role of reporting local news changed over time? The Advertiser has always had strong elements of community input – for example individuals like Barry Hayes with their own columns under pseudonyms, sports articles submitted each week by club members, and Rod Carmichael’s popular Mower Man advertisement cartoons, and so forth. How did that strong community input come about, and what do you think it added to the paper?
AO: The community have been very good to us. Being a one and a half woman editorial team for the past thirty years, we could not be out at every meeting and taking photographs after hours every night nor attending football and other sports events. But we wanted to cover these stories. So we would invite organisations to send in a report, and lent out cameras to photograph events. In the day before digital photography, we had about four cameras and people would come in and take them to whatever their do was and bring them back the next day, and we would either do the story with them or they would have written a little report.
It was probably good the footballers did their own stories. The best we could write about footy would have been that the boys looked smart in their uniforms as they ran out on to the ground, so it really was best that a volunteer from the club covered the game for us. In return, because they really did a good job and they wrote comprehensive reports of the matches all through winter, we offered sponsorship of a certain amount of money. We would say to them, we do expect you to send us a report and some photos. This worked well and enabled wider coverage than would otherwise have been possible. Although with the footy sometimes we’d say, well who did they play against because they would forget to do that, they would only talk about their own side and forget to say who they played against. Nevertheless, we soldiered on and we’re still continuing as we started. Maybe a male in the office might have been handy from that point of view. These days with digital photography, it works even better.
Anne (centre, 2nd row) with her current and former staff celebrating 30 years of the
Phillip Island & San Remo Advertiser business, 2019. Anne Oswin collection
A: Can you tell me about the technological changes you have experienced at the Advertiser?
AO: Technological change over the past 30 years has been massive. I started out handwriting stories for Margaret to type and send across to production. My typing was hopelessly slow. Now I am quite quick but still two fingers. We used the Cowes Primary School dark room to develop negatives on deadline day in our first few years. These would be driven across with the ad copy which was all on paper to Korumburra for production.
Now it is all completely digital and computerised.
Fax machines were our modus operandi initially. No such thing as a scanner then and info coming through had to be retyped onto our computers. Emails evolved and replaced snail mail. The contents could be instantly edited and transferred which was a huge time saver.
This and digital photography made a huge difference and presented savings in cost as well.
Cut and paste production was replaced with digital production methods.
I was very slow to comprehend and use the technological changes that revolutionised the office, but fortunately the girls in the office coached me along until I finally got it.
Having said that while we have a large online subscription base, the majority of our readers still prefer to buy a printed version each week. We sell more papers than we have subscribers.
A: How did the Advertiser adapt to survive over time? What did moving the newspaper online mean, and how did you achieve that?
AO:They say necessity is the mother of all invention and that is true for us. We had no choice but to go online if we were to maintain our readership and attract newcomers. Thanks to our very talented staff, we managed to do this when Covid struck and kept going without missing a week. No thanks to me. You might as well have asked me to fly to the moon than to do what the girls managed to do to get us online. We determined at the beginning of Covid that no matter what we were going to get the paper out each week because the community would probably need news and information more than ever in lockdown.
A: What problems do you see the news industry currently facing? What are the opportunities?
AO: All newspapers are affected by a major drop in advertising revenue that has come about with the advent of social media. As you know, many of them have gone. The advertising dollars that would have come our way have been diverted to social media. As it is advertising revenue that pays wages and costs, it is inevitable that newspapers will close when break even is no longer possible. As far as opportunities go to increase our chances of staying in business, we have published a book recently featuring island farms and restaurants this year which we hope will be a profitable venture. It’s been very well received by the community and we’ve actually sold out and ordered a re-run. And we have produced a visitors magazine for the first time. Whether either are cost effective remains to be seen.
The problems the news industry faces are ongoing but we’re all trying very hard to face the challenge. I do notice, and I don’t know whether it’s just because of these Covid times, our public notices pages have gone back to being two pages where they had dropped off entirely. People were using the computer to advertise for staff but I think it’s so hard now to find staff that they have reverted back to using newspaper advertising. So who knows if that is just a flash in the pan while Covid is going or whether it’s a trend back. We’re hoping it is but we don’t know.
A: What do you see as the factors that have contributed most to the longevity and success of the Advertiser, while other local newspapers across many parts of Australia have closed?
AO: Our longevity can be attributed I think to the fact that we are the only publication to produce island news. Community members are keen to stay connected to news happenings and local stories, and social media has not replicated what we do. I think there is a degree of loyalty to us as for three decades, we have gone in to bat for the island on issues of public interest and community importance. We have been fortunate to have had the support of a number of engaged and active citizens who use our pages to motivate their fellow citizens, and to scrutinise or resist municipal or other proposals in order to achieve the best possible community outcome.
You would know if you’ve been here since the ‘80s that there’s some great people in our town. They stand up and they are counted when issues that can affect our lives arise and they help us enormously with their research etc. We are very lucky to have so many passionate people in our community prepared to stand up and speak out, and stand up for what they believe in with their well-considered arguments and put those to the community for their support. Through them the community gets a say in what’s happening. This contributes to making the paper of interest to our readers.
A: What do you think are the current challenges being faced by the Phillip Island community and by the business community in particular?
AO: Covid. The effects of the pandemic are far reaching. A number of businesses have gone to the wall and more may follow. It’s certainly not over. It’s very hard for local business. Jobkeeper in that first year was a wonderful initiative, but not for everybody and a lot of people struggled.
A: It seems to be getting worse. It seems to be the toughest season this one and there has been a few tough seasons before.
AO: Yes even though we’re out of lockdown, businesses can’t open. I’ve got grandchildren working as waitresses and serving ice-creams, and those businesses, even if they’re open, they have to close down two or three days a week because they can’t staff them and they can’t all just work seven days a week. It’s too exhausting. I’ve never seen the likes of it before, it’s terrible. I don’t know where that is all going to end up. I haven’t done much shopping but apparently the supermarkets are pretty slim too.
That’s what I see as the biggest challenge at the moment.
Memories of Phillip Island and hopes for the island future
A: What do you see as the most memorable changes to Phillip Island in your time of living here?
AO: The most memorable change to Phillip Island was amalgamation of councils, which has been to the ongoing detriment of Phillip Island. Remote control by a Wonthaggi based bureaucracy has not worked and is not in our best interests in my view. Councillors mean well but it is the bureaucrats these days that wield the control.
A: Do you have a favourite memory or story that you like to tell about Phillip Island?
AO: I will tell you this one but if you don’t use it, I will understand .
I could tell a memorable story about two council terms ago when the Bass Coast Shire attempted to reign us – that is The Advertiser – in by refusing to advertise municipal notices in our paper. This was because they did not like our coverage of them. We would argue our coverage may have been unpalatable to them, but was accurate and no errors were ever pointed out.
I’ve always figured that if ever we got anything wrong, people would ring us – and we do get things wrong – we will always, always correct them and put in an apology. The council never said that what we wrote was incorrect, they just didn’t like what we wrote.
To damage us financially, they were prepared to punish the community by denying them information relating to immunisation dates, planning notices, consultative opportunities and the like. Such notices must legally be published in a paper circulating in the district. Bass Coast Council decided to use the Sentinel Times with a circulation of about 800 on the island, for island notices, in preference to our publication with a circulation of 3,000 plus. The ban went on for a year, until seven of the nine councillors were turfed out at the next election. The new council reinstated advertising notices in a Phillip Island paper.
A: What are your hopes and concerns for the future of Phillip Island?
AO: My concern is that overdevelopment will kill the goose that laid the golden egg. We have forever got to be alert. Hopes as far as our paper is concerned is that we can still continue to be able to tell it like it is. If reliable reporting disappears and social media is the conduit in the future for news, all I can say is God help us.
That’s the end of your questions. I have finished.
Anne Oswin, c.2022. Anne Oswin collection
A: Thank you. At the start of our interview, if you are wanting to answer this, you obviously didn’t like Phillip Island necessarily when you first arrived, has that changed? Do you feel like an islander now?
AO: Yes, yes very much. I was plain lonely. I was 21 years old. All my life and friends and family and everybody were in Melbourne. I was a city person that came down to the country and onto a farm. So I didn’t know anybody much and then I had a baby so I was home all the time. I used to go home to my mother a lot! Just to go back to Melbourne with friends and family. I didn’t find people particularly friendly around here initially. But when Chris my oldest was ready to go to kindergarten, Fran Reith who lived out at Summerland rang me up and said, ‘look I heard you live out there and there’s a kindergarten meeting on tonight which I’m going into, would you like me to pick you up?’ Well, I thought I had been invited to a gala ball.
A: It’s nice when you get that first ‘in’ to a community.
AO: I’ve always made a point since of trying to do the same myself when I’m aware of people that have moved in. Simply because of my own experience. Fran picked me up and of course I met other new young mums and they said, oh do you live out there, look I’ll come for a coffee tomorrow. And then you are away, you’ve met a few friends and you’re happy. I just loved Phillip Island after that but it just took that little while to settle in and meet people and feel comfortable living here and not feel such an outsider. Occasionally in those first years we would go somewhere and people would say do you like Phillip Island and I very foolishly would say, no I don’t. You would see the shock horror and the withdrawal on faces so I learnt not to say that and of course three years on, my response would truthfully be I love Phillip Island. Now of course, yes, I think Phillip Island is a wonderful place. I love living here. I came in 1970 so have lived here for the last 50 years.
A: And just one final question, do you think people have a very distinct Phillip Island identity that live here compared to being a Melbournian or Victorian?
AO: I do in a way. Yes, I think maybe the fact that we are surrounded by water and that we’re an island, maybe we are literally (both laugh) and metaphorically speaking ‘an island’. I think we do have a connection because we’re islanders.
A: Thank you very much for your time Anne.