With over 25 years experience as a Ballarat councilor, Mayor and local Member of Parliament, Mr Geoff Howard is an assured speaker who responds quickly to UniPollWatch questions on Labor policies and his vision for Buninyong.
He is also more than happy to talk about his background as a teacher and his passions outside politics.
Mr Howard has two degrees, one in agricultural science and one in teaching. He taught agriculture early in his teaching career at Kaniva, and later science and mathematics in Ballarat schools from 1982.
‘I used to breed beef cattle and planned to plant grapes. My election [in 1999] saw the time to plant grapes disappear, and five years ago after another drought year, I sold my cattle and now lease out the farmland.’
Mr Howard now grows vegetables, fruit, ornamental trees and flowers on his 35-hectare farm at Waubra, 33 kilometers northwest of Ballarat.
With the campaign trail keeping him pretty busy at the moment, weeds have become the dominant garden feature. ‘My daffodil display was however pretty impressive this year and my flowering cherry is the special feature this week,’ he added drily.
Geoff Howard has been the sitting member for Ballarat East since 1999.
He is running as the Labor candidate in the new electorate of Buninyong, which has replaced Ballarat East.
In 2010, Mr Howard won Ballarat East by 1098 votes from Liberal’s Mr Ben Taylor, who is again contesting the seat.
He is quietly confident he will win.
Mr Howard has lived in central Ballarat for over 31 years and knows the region well. Recent electoral boundary changes means his home now falls with the electorate of Wendouree.
‘We’ve looked into moving but we’ve got kids at school so it’s not easy.’
Mr Howard’s interest in community leadership and politics stems from his high school days as a student council representative.
‘My grandfather, who was a Methodist Minister was a source of inspiration for me, both in terms of social justice matters and standing up for issues you believe in.’
He joined the Labor Party in 1987. This led to other opportunities in local politics and later, state politics.
Elected as a Ballarat councilor in 1989, he went on to become Mayor in 1993 and again in 1996.
On winning the seat of Ballarat in 1999, he served under former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks as parliamentary secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, and Agriculture as well as chairing the Education and Training Committee.
He is currently the deputy chair of the parliamentary Rural and Regional Committee looking into the development and provision of services to regional Victoria.
Mr Howard considers education and law and order to be the key issues in Buninyong. With drugs and ‘ice’ a significant problem, Labor intends to increase penalties for those caught dealing drugs.
On education issues and youth unemployment issues, Mr Howard said ‘We need to be inclusive as a community to ensure young people have a learning path and job opportunities in the future.’
Mr Howard played a key role in establishing the vocational training center at the Ballarat Learning Exchange (BLX) and a cultural services center at G Place Ballarat.
However, its not only local issues around jobs and education concerning the community. Federal government changes to higher education, HECS, climate change and GP health co-payments will have a ‘significant impact,’ on the state election, he believes.
‘People may take the opportunity to let the Prime Minister Abbott know they don’t want these continuing and may blame the state coalition government in some way.’
The environment is both a priority and a passion for Mr Howard. He is a keen bushwalker, regularly hiking with friends and family in Tasmania and regional Victoria.
He supports the creation of a multi-use park within the Canadian Forest. Labor pledged $2 million towards establishing the park.
He is also a supporter of wind farms and alternative energy sources in the region.
When asked by UniPollWatch what issue in Buninyong was unpopular, but he would continue to push for the long term benefit of the community, Mr Howard said that wind turbines were ‘a little contentious’, but were important for addressing issues on climate change and creating local job opportunities.
When asked what his proudest personal achievement was, Mr Howard said, ‘My children give me a great sense of achievement.’
‘I used to read to them in between spooning breakfast cereal in their mouths. Now I help with their homework when I can, but I am often not around after school time when this is done.’
Mr Howard spends his weekends taking his children to sports activities, bush walking or at his farm.
‘I’m also proud that as a teacher, I was able to assist in the development of many young people in the area.’
Mr Howard said he gained most political satisfaction from his ‘smaller achievements’ of helping local constituents ‘disenfranchised by the system,’ to resolve personal difficulties around health and housing.
As a local member in the former Labor government he was pleased to see a number of schools and sporting facilities receive major upgrades as a result of his lobbying.
While both Labor and Liberal candidates continue to announce new funding promises for the electorate, an emerging political tension appears to center on who has ‘new ideas’ and the ‘energy’ to get things done in the electorate.
One recent ‘new idea’ has the candidates at loggerheads. Mr Howard wants Buninyong to be a Neighbourhood Residential Zone (NRZ) with minimum block sizes of 800 square meters, while Liberal’s Mr Ben Taylor supports a General Residential Zone (GRZ), with minimum block sizes of 300 square meters.
In a number of recent community meetings Mr Howard told residents, ‘We will reverse the decision [by the Planning Minister] if that is what the community wants.’
When Mr Howard followed this up with a community letter-drop, he outraged Mr Taylor, who called on Mr Howard to apologise for ‘playing tired, old political tricks by running a scare campaign.’
Mr Taylor went on to say, ‘Our community needs fresh thinking, new ideas and the energy to get things done.’
Mr Howard’s position on zoning in Buninyong however appears to have had an impact, with the Ballarat Council now scheduled to discuss changing the residential zone to a NRZ in a meeting on 22 October.
When asked why people should vote for him, Mr Howard said, ‘Because of my demonstrated ongoing commitment to the electorate over many years, and to the community beyond that. Labor clearly does offer a much better alternative than we’ve been offered for the last four years, in terms of education, health, training and jobs and general support for community.’
Keryn Reynolds is a Master of Journalism student at the University of Melbourne