Our communities are important to us.
It’s one thing to say that, and it’s quite another to put that into action – but action is what we do. Our Community Engagement team works across Australia to ensure that the communities in which we operate have a voice.
Mieka White is one of our Community Relations Managers. She works across New South Wales – primarily with communities surrounding the renewable assets we operate in Broken Hill, Silverton, and Nyngan – working directly with residents in these communities to make sure their opinions, ideas, and issues are fully heard.
It’s a job she loves – but like many Australians, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forced a rethink of how she goes about doing it.
More than a meet-and-greet
‘The hardest thing for me is that most of my work isn’t structured,’ Mieka said.
‘We run a lot of events in our communities, and we have a presence at a lot more. But there’s more to it that just formal networking. It’s going out and listening to people’s concerns and their voices – and hearing them.
‘I’ll end up also talking to them about their livestock, their health, and the weather. It’s been a lot harder to engage with the community, not being there in person. Most people would rather have a cup of tea and a nice chat than read newsletters or websites.
Mieka White (far right) in a less socially distant time
‘We’re still doing everything we can to talk with people, but a lot of it is happening by phone now. That’s a bit trickier than being in the community – there are 18,000 people in Broken Hill, for example.’
Like many regional communities across Australia, the towns Mieka operates in – Broken Hill, Silverton, and Nyngan – have been hit hard by COVID-19 and the restrictions that followed.
‘We normally support a lot of tourism-focused initiatives, like festivals and events – including the Broken Heel Festival and the Perfect Light Film Festival in Broken Hill,’ she said.
‘We haven’t been able to do much of that, and towns are really hurting.
‘Tourism is a huge industry in Silverton, for example. The town is where they filmed Mad Max 2 – so it has the Mad Max Museum, as well as the Silverton Hotel and Silverton Bakery, and galleries for local artists and photographers. A lot of places have had to close their doors for a significant period of time.
It’s a workplace with an amazing view.
‘Local sport has also been hit hard by the pandemic and the restrictions. Sport is such a massive part of our culture – and especially so in regional towns. We have traditionally supported local sports teams but they haven’t been playing for a long time. It’s been really hard for our communities through this.’
Community consultation during a coronavirus crisis
As intrastate restrictions have eased, though, the tourism industry has begun to pick up again. It’s also given our Community Engagement team the opportunity to look at how they can start a return to normalcy – while still maximising community safety.
For example, the Silverton Wind Farm’s Community Consultative Committee (CCC) – a voluntary committee that is facilitated by AGL which provides a forum for the community to discuss ideas and issues around the project – had to rethink how they would hold their meeting in June. Some committee members had raised technical issues and flagged they wouldn’t be able to join the meeting virtually.
‘We had to think outside the box and create a COVID-19 safe-space,’ Mieka said.
‘Rather than a traditional meeting or a purely virtual meeting, Mieka organised a new format with a mix of in-person and virtual attendance. All face-to-face attendees had their temperature checked, followed social distancing, and used hand sanitiser.
‘The face-to-face engagement is still important, but we’re adapting to the changing world we’re living in,’ she said. ‘We’re taking on board government advice and lessons learned from our operational sites.
‘We hired a staff member from the local Silverton Hotel to clean and disinfect the Chambers, and to launch the Skype meetings for us.
‘This meant all of the other committee members, the Independent Chair, and our AGL people were able to dial in successfully – which was a substantial cost saving on travel.’
The success is pushing the Community Engagement team to seek other ways of engaging in an uncertain time – like looking at holding Broken Hill’s Perfect Light Film Festival in November at the drive-in, rather than in a cinema.
‘That’ll certainly take care of social distancing,’ Mieka said, with a smile.
The Community Team recently launched a dedicated section on AGL’s Community Platform, for local communities to ask questions, provide feedback, or discuss anything about AGL’s operational sites and the communities in which we operate.
This dedicated forum for local communities is based on the forum established for our Gas Import Jetty Project at Crib Point, which has allowed local community members to continue to reach out to us without attending face-to-face events.
Lachlan Sturt is AGL’s Community Relations Coordinator.
‘The team has focused on expanding this idea to suit our different sites, stakeholders, and approvals – and established a standardised protocol and procedure to answer community enquiries,’ he said.
‘We wanted to ensure that if we were going to get this forum online, we also invested the time to get the process right and give it the best chance of success.’
The team reached across to another side of the business to see if they could adapt an existing AGL crowd-sourcing program, coincidentally called ‘Community’.
David Powles is our Digital Community Engagement Lead, and he has extensive experience in managing the platform for AGL.
‘The Community platform is a really flexible and scalable way to engage groups of our customers or stakeholders,’ said David.
‘There are already guidelines in place for using this platform, and it only takes a couple of minutes for anyone to get started, so it saves time and keeps costs low as well.
The platform has also been adopted by the Camden Gas Project CCC to evaluate applications for their Community Fund – and has proven to be a great way to post documents and facilitate discussion about grant applications.
Walking the talk
With so many different projects in so many different communities across Australia, it’s true in community relations that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution or event.
But Mieka reckons there’s one exception to that rule.
‘Talking to people is important, and it’s universal’ she said.
‘People in the regions have been doing it tough, and they still are. But it’s also inspirational to talk to them. There’s a huge amount of resilience happening in our communities. It’s been such a tough period for everyone – but they are all absolutely taking it in their stride.’