It’s a small hamlet in northern New South Wales that has produced some of the state’s best rugby league players, but now it has a new moniker - the town that didn’t vote.
At least half of Tingha’s eligible voters snubbed the local government elections last Saturday - and those who did vote, nearly a third, made a mockery of their ballot papers, voting informal.
And in some ways, you can’t blame them.
Earlier this year, Tingha residents were told they would be moved from the old Guyra Shire to Inverell Shire (who wanted them with open arms). When Guyra was consumed by the new Armidale Regional Council, it included Tingha, in the far west of the shire.
The move for Tingha to Inverell (who held their council elections last year), was set in stone and backed by Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall.
But just three months out from the election, officials from the newly merged Armidale Regional Council came to Tingha and told the citizens that their council boundary could not be changed six months either side of a council election.
So when it came to Saturday’s local government election, most of the town either didn’t know they had to vote, while at least half of those that did, chose not to. There wasn’t even a Tingha council representative standing at the poll.
Tingha’s Audrey McArdle was Tingha’s Guyra shire councillor for 17 years, but when she was sacked after the merger between Guyra and Armidale, she took it personally and decided not to stand again. Anyway - she wasn’t sure which council she was supposed to be in !
She doesn’t blame a huge rump of Tingha’s population for not voting.
“People are very upset, so they saw it as a protest - ‘we’re not voting, we don’t care’. I know it’s a terrible way for democracy to be, but that’s the way it is,” Mrs McArdle said.
Latest NSW Electoral Commission figures record 358 formal votes with 102 informal votes in Tingha last Saturday. A vast majority of those formal votes were for the Guyra’s rural candidate Simon Murray, supported by farmers in the area. Also Armidale’s Margaret O’Connor received 115 votes. In 2012, council elections in Ward A based at Tingha, there were 800 formal votes and just 17 informal votes recorded with a massive 81 per cent voter turnout. There were about 1000 eligible voters in the ward.
Tingha Citizens Association’s Colleen Graham – the Northern Tablelands’ Citizen of the Year – said she witnessed people walking into the polling booth last Saturday, having their names marked off – and walking straight out again.
Mrs Graham said the blame for the electoral mess could not be sheeted home to anyone. The Armidale administrator Ian Tiley didn’t know about the six-month exclusion rule, Adam Marshall didn’t know about the exclusion rule and NSW Local Government minister Gabrielle Upton could not sign off on the boundary change because of the exclusion rule.
Mrs Graham said she had been told by Inverell mayor Paul Harmon that the change to Tingha’s status would still go ahead – and had been signed off by both Armidale and Inverell. But on Saturday voters were showing they were unhappy at the whole process.
“There was anger, frustration. People were asking me ‘why are we here?’, ‘this is a waste of time’, and well, I agreed with them,” Mrs Graham said. “But we are a town of great resilience and I’m sure the boundary change will go ahead.”
Tingha, which has a high aboriginal population, has produced some of the state’s best footballers including Nathan Blacklock, Preston Campbell, Owen Craigie and Peter Ellis.
Tingha is famous for hitting icy temperatures in winter and it’s amazing rock features, often likened to animals. So it would seem in the 2017 councils elections, the disappointed citizens of Tingha were caught between their rocks and the hard place of election rules.