When the ACT Government acted to force community based Manuka Child Care Centre to relocate, it could not have anticipated the ensuing battle. Camille Howard shares the David-and-Goliath advocacy tale.

(This article first appeared in Rattler 119, published by Community Child Care Co-operative (NSW). To purchase a copy, go to: www.ccccnsw.org.au/shop)

It’s a tale we’ve probably heard before: the all-powerful government handing down an edict to force a small organisation from their location. In this case, Manuka Child Care Centre (MOCCA) was operating on government land, and the government wanted it back.

Led by Robby McGarvey, MOCCA director, a dedicated team of educators, families and the local community stood up to the government, highlighting the strength of a community united.

Such community connections have existed for the life of MOCCA: from the early days when run by volunteers, followed by the days of government operation, to the community based outfit it is today. Built in 1955, the building MOCCA has called home for more than 50 years has had a strong connection to the community in Manuka since it became home to Canberra Mothercraft Society in 1963.

As the population grew, so did the building and the needs of the community, with a dedicated group of volunteers providing care for local children until the Australian Government took over the overall operations with paid staff. In 1988, the newly-formed ACT Government then awarded families and parents the tender for an independently run community organisation, and Manuka Occasional Childcare Centre Association was formed, and has been known affectionately as MOCCA ever since.

With this strong history, then, it came as a shock to the community when, in September 2014, the ACT government announced MOCCA was to be relocated as part of a land swap deal with Canberra Services Club and Defence Housing Australia. (The Services Club had lost its building in a fire several years earlier.)

“We were basically told that the government wants the land back for future development,” says Robby McGarvey. “We weren’t told why, only that we would need to move and relocate to a suitable site.”

Although there was no offer of a provision at that time, the ACT government agreed to help find a suitable location in the local area, and a new site was found nearby. Unfortunately, it required Telopea Park School to relocate its tennis courts, a fight McGarvey says the school had fought twice before.

“The school weren’t happy about it at all. Even though they were being offered $800,000 to put new tennis courts on their school block, with their growing need they really didn’t want to give up their tennis court. And nor should they.”

Not wanting to push the school off its grounds, MOCCA and the school formed an alliance (alongside other community groups) to fight the move.
It worked, with the government backing down from the Telopea Park School swap in August 2015, suggesting an alternative site for MOCCA’s relocation. But after this new site also faced community objections, the argument for staying put in Manuka became stronger, especially as it was clear that the $5 million cost to move was one that MOCCA was going to have to meet, without financial support.

On the surface, it appeared the government was going to fund the move. McGarvey recalls a local newspaper interview in the early days: “The interviewer said to me, ‘You must be really happy that you’re going to get a brand new building’,” she says.

This wasn’t the case. “It was just beyond belief that they would think ‘give up the land and do your own thing’,” McGarvey says.
MOCCA was offered two options: to build and operate a new service itself, or lease a new facility from a commercial developer. Neither was financially viable.

So, when meeting with the ACT government’s Land Development Agency (LDA), McGarvey insisted that MOCCA “be given a fair and reasonable deal”, which included asking the government to provide a new site and building for MOCCA.

It turns out, the issue of fairness was one that resonated with the community.

Ground roots campaign

Like all good community campaigns, the fight to save MOCCA started at a grassroots level, calling on staff, families and the local community to join the effort. McGarvey held meetings with committee members and educators, formulating a plan to move forward, and established relationships with community groups.

These community connections proved invaluable. “We had the Inner South Canberra Community Council come to us and ask if they could support us in any way. We got the same support from the Kingston Barton Residents Group and the Griffiths Narrabundah Community Association, plus the Telopea School P&C,” McGarvey says. The French Australian Preschool also came to their aid, having faced a similar experience.

“Before this started I didn’t know [some of] these groups existed and once we met everyone and started to become connected, we really felt that power and strength in the community.”

The experience from these groups proved particularly influential. “There were very experienced people who had worked with government and also who knew the legalities around zoning and different things that you needed to know about the different sites—what could be done and what couldn’t. Some were in a position to ask questions of the ACT government as well. When you’ve got people on side who actually know the different laws as well, it’s very, very powerful.”

Being respectful and available is also powerful, McGarvey says, as is staying on message and ensuring their advocacy reflected their community roots. “We never ever forgot to mention why we feel we are a benefit to the community. And at every opportunity we would talk about our community, our children, our educators, putting forward what was really important about why we should stay in the community.”

At the same time, McGarvey says it’s vital to be mindful about what other people need as well. “It was very clear from the beginning what Telopea School P&C needed as well. And having that open mind and not being solely focused on what you need, you then realise that the community is a lot bigger than you are and if you’re working collaboratively I think that’s where the win/win comes in.

“These were people we hadn’t met before but different people on these committees also had prior connections to MOCCA and they were very interested in ensuring that MOCCA got a fair and reasonable deal.”

The idea of a fair go echoed through the community. “I think the outcry from the community in general was just how unfair it was,” McGarvey says. “We could see that the Canberra Services Club needed a home after theirs burnt down—there was never any argument about that—but we just expected to be treated just as hospitably and charitably as they were. We thought we were worthy of equal attention and support.”
So when the ‘I love MOCCA’ campaign was created, there was buy-in from around the community. “We gave everyone stickers with the I [heart] MOCCA and they’re all around town and all on people’s cars.”

A squeaky wheel

To get community buy-in for an advocacy campaign, you need to create plenty of noise about your cause. The ‘I love MOCCA’ campaign worked well here, as did the relationships with other community organisations. But getting media attention gives you an even louder voice when spreading your messages. Widespread coverage in The Canberra Times helped MOCCA reach a much wider audience. The newspaper gave plenty of coverage to the land swap, and came to every event MOCCA held, proving to be a valuable ally.

The story of the David versus Goliath battle captivated the community and McGarvey seized on every opportunity to share MOCCA’s story and draw more support.

So when AFL franchise GWS Giants and developers Grocon had a meeting to discuss plans to update nearby Manuka Oval, McGarvey used the opportunity to raise awareness of MOCCA’s plight. “Even though the oval had nothing to do with us, I just thought it was a great opportunity actually to speak up for MOCCA,” McGarvey says, “and they passed a motion in support of us, and that MOCCA would be financially supported should we need to relocate.”

News of MOCCA’s predicament even reached the World Forum on Early Care and Education, and MOCCA was subsequently selected to be one of the design projects 2015 World Forum on Design conference in Rotorua, New Zealand. McGarvey used this opportunity to share MOCCA’s story with an international audience.

Keeping it civil

The key to winning any fight against the government, McGarvey says, is to open up lines of communication with representatives and keep it respectful, even in the face of differences.

“It was a matter of them getting to know us and us getting to know them as people and community members. I think at one stage we also learned about their families, too,” McGarvey says.

“And I can remember sitting in a meeting and saying ‘You know that our ask will always be to ask for more’. It was very honest, very open, but very respectful.”

Because of this mutual respect, people were willing to meet with MOCCA whenever McGarvey called to discuss problems or concerns with the process. “There was definitely a willingness to work with us, which was fantastic. I don’t know what would have happened had we gone right to the end but there was definitely a certain amount of respect that was developed between MOCCA and the ACT government, plus all the community groups, which is fantastic.”

McGarvey also made sure to keep government supporters close. “There were certain people who we built quite a solid relationship with from the outset and they were willing to come to nearly every community event that we held,” calling out local members Shane Rattenbury and Steve Doszpot, who championed their cause.

“From the outset we knew we had to keep the community connections up and to keep our story in the news and in the media and work with the ACT government as much as we could.”

Check yourself

During a campaign that was full of feeling within the MOCCA community, it became important to keep emotions in check, which McGarvey says presented some challenges. “It can be challenging when working with a group of passionate people, like our committee, who all have different focuses and different drives.”

She says the key was to allow people to have their say, without being rude or disrespectful. “At one stage we had to stop things and prepare a preamble so that people could take stock of things and think, ‘Is this really how we should be treating each other?’ So you have to do those checks and then look at why people are getting upset, what are the challenges, how can we help each other and help ourselves get through this challenging time.”

And keep communication lines open. “Have as many meetings, coffees, get togethers after work as you need to. It’s quite a harrowing process. For me personally, working face-to-face with people works best, and we gain so much from having these little meetings and keeping in contact and checking in and making sure everyone is okay. I had wonderful support from my educators. After a big meeting they would say ‘Are you okay?’.

We’d check in and we’d ring each other. It was the same with the committee—we were always checking on each other.”

After each little win, it was important to celebrate, too. When Telopea Park School won their victory, MOCCA also secured a commitment from the government that they were safe from having to move, for five years at least. “That was the first win and had us all cheering,” McGarvey says. “At least we had five years and now we could plan the future for MOCCA.”

That plan involved continuing their fight, and in July this year, their almost two-year campaign ended after an article about the controversial land-swap deal ran in The Canberra Times. “The article broke in the morning and that night the government rang and said ‘We just wanted you to know that we’ve responded to the article this morning and we’ve let The Canberra Times know that MOCCA is no longer required to move, now or in the future, if MOCCA does not want to.”

It was a huge relief to all at MOCCA, though McGarvey will insist on getting an agreement in writing. “We’ll be pursuing a written lease for MOCCA and also upgrades to our building,” referring to a government promise made before the land swap was raised back in 2014.

To top off the triumph, MOCCA was recently awarded an exceeding rating across all quality areas. “We feel valued and we feel loved for the early childhood education and care service we are and for what we provide for the children and for the community.”

The assessments and rating process was lovely, says McGarvey, “because we were able to just focus on what we love about our service and our learning environments for the children”.

And that’s McGarvey’s final piece of advice for any advocacy campaign: don’t let it distract you from your core role. “The day-to-day has to keep going, and having a strong team that can carry on with it, as well as being a strong and patient leader, will help.”

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