Tecoma residents have made it clear: we do not want McDonald’s in our small community. Our ongoing fight has brought the best out of all of us
I’m often asked why my community is fighting McDonald’s. It’s quite simple.
Living in Australia’s Dandenong ranges is an honour and a privilege. I should know, because last week I notched my 54th year here. I was born here and spent my childhood collecting lizards and frogs in the near by national park. I was married in the shadow of Mount Dandenong, bought my first home on one side of a hill and my second on the other side – in a small town called Tecoma.
On sunny days, I like to remind myself how good I have it, watching Kookaburras in my garden surrounded by nothing but trees, and listening to the whistle of the iconic Puffing Billy locomotive. It’s not a suburb; it’s very much a way of life.
So I was very much surprised when I first found out McDonald’s wanted to build a 24/7 take away drive through store only 400 meters from my home. It was obvious that such plans in no way fitted the character of Tecoma. It was too close to the school and kindergarten, too close to the national park, and in a precinct that closes at 8:30pm each night. It made little sense.
My community confirmed my feelings: 1,170 people wrote objections to the council, and the council listened. They voted it down 9 to 0. The people had spoken, and democracy was in working condition. That should have been the end of it, sadly it wasn’t.
McDonald’s felt they knew better than the locals, and challenged it at the Victorian civil and administrative tribunal. They chose to launch the appeal a few days before Christmas, perhaps hoping to take advantage of the fact that many were off on holidays and wouldn’t respond. Regardless, 400 managed to pull together submissions from what was now a passionate community. In mid 2012, the tribunal heard our submissions, but they also heard from a large multi-national that had deep pockets and could engage experts and highly paid planning lawyers.
McDonald’s won, and a community’s heart was broken.
At that point, something wonderful happened. A lot of people would have shrugged their shoulders, resigning themselves to the outcome. Tecoma did not. We came together and stood up. Everyone agreed that our democratic process had been breaking down.
A community garden was swiftly planted. The garden became a rallying point for what has become the most talented, tenacious and organised community most will ever see. I watched people offer their talents in a plan to move the battle away from the traditional courts, and in the court of public opinion: we would make McDonald’s understand that they are not wanted and not welcome.
McDonald’s quickly tried to counter the sympathy we were generating by claiming that “whilst only a vocal minority are against the project, the vast community are supportive”. We were gob-smacked: at best, it was clumsy PR, and not at all reflective of our experience. So census takers volunteered to knock on every door in the town. Our results showed that nine out of 10 people did not want them in our town.
People offered us money, further support, and asked about marching and protesting. It was something we had not considered, but immediately planned. We hoped to get 400 to 500 out in the streets, instead 3,000 turned out. It was a major tipping point. CNN picked up our plight and our story was tweeted to millions of Twitter users.
Tecoma, the little town that roared, became an international cause.
Since then I have seen my community very much punching above its weight. When McDonald’s tried to demolish an iconic building on the site some 17 days ago, we hoped to hold them off for a day. We are still holding. Our blockade consists of soldiers, doctors, teachers, builders, salesmen, nurses, the young, the old, the serious and the funny. In other words, a community.
Today the radio news led with the fact that McDonald’s would try and stop our blockade through the supreme court. A guy in a business suit came to the blockade and asked, “who’s in charge?” He then opened his wallet and handed over $250. “I just heard on the radio, that’s for legal fees, I’ll bring more money and friends. Someone has to stand up to these bastards”.
Yes, Tecoma is special – its people are testament to that.