Kyabram Free Press
Gates right at home in the Campaspe Shire
Country life suits Colleen Gates, with the bushland surrounding her home in Rushworth a setting where she is able to balance her commitments to the 38,000 constituents of the Campaspe Shire.
The Kyabram Ward councillor lives in Rushworth with her husband, Brad, two cats and her beloved Beagle, Bella.
Local government was nothing new to the straighttalking chemical engineering graduate when she arrived in the area, having first served on the Hobsons Bay City Council in Melbourne’s inner west in 2012.
She spent eight years in the role and twice served as mayor.
Cr Gates became a home owner at just 24 years of age, purchasing a home in Laverton.
“I wanted to get to know my new neighbourhood and joined some local groups,” she said.
“This led to becoming involved in community infrastructure and building projects that involved cross collaboration with council and state government.
“Being able to negotiate better outcomes at a local level inspired me to think I could make a stronger contribution if I broadened my focus across a larger area of the municipality.”
She and Brad purchased the home in Rushworth almost five years ago, her work with dairy giant Fonterra making it a comfortable transition from the company’s Stanhope site.
Cr Gates grew up in Geelong and moved to Melbourne for university in the early 1990s.
She spent two-and-a-half decades in Melbourne before making the “tree change” to Rushworth.
The daughter of a primary school teacher, she attended Matthew Flinders Girls Secondary College in Geelong and paid her own way through university by working multiple part-time jobs in hospitality and catering.
“I started working parttime in the waste sector while I completed the final year of my degree, where I was able to move into an environmental management role,” she said.
A career unfolded from there, working in waste and resource recovery, contaminated land clean-up, and statutory and compliance auditing. Cr Gates has been Fonterra’s national environmental manager for the past nine years, supporting the organisation’s environmental compliance and sustainability goals.
A lover of the outdoors, Cr Gates focuses much of her “outside energies” on visiting the natural wonders of our world.
She has an enviable history of trekking activity, having tackled Kakadu and Uluru, along with the Inca Trail in Peru and Tasmania’s Overland Track.
“I love being outside, tinkering in the vegetable garden, working on projects at home and cooking with home-grown produce,” she said.
“A glass of wine on the verandah watching the sun set is also a winner for me.”
Her love of the outdoors is in keeping with the demands of her canine companion, who has acclimatised well to her bush surrounds and the opportunity to chase rabbits.
“Bella was a rescue dog who came to us at just 12 months old. She is now nine and has separation anxiety, which has been amplified by the effects of COVID.”
Cr Gates constantly has Bella by her side, explaining that leaving her at home alone would be a recipe for disaster.
Professionally she has a variety of projects to her credit, including working with Boral straight after her graduation as part of the team that managed a newly opened (and now among the largest) landfill sites in Melbourne’s west.
She had played a leading consultancy role in a broad range of environmental and planning projects before starting with Fonterra.
Her 20-year relationship with husband Brad involved many visits to family who lived in the Campaspe region, at Tongala, Rochester and Echuca.
“We would go camping on the Murray at Farley Rd and got married in Echuca on a paddle-steamer in 2006,” she said.
When the couple’s dream property came up for grabs at Rushworth, Cr Gates was still on the council at Hobsons Bay.
“We would come to Rushy on weekends, or I would arrange to work from Stanhope and stay for a few days. We had a five-year plan to relocate — COVID and getting elected to Campaspe council helped fast-track that timeline,” she said.
Pandemic life for Cr Gates and her husband hasn’t affected their employment, both in the essential service sectors.
“Being disconnected from family has probably been the biggest difference, even when the lockdowns are lifted we still cannot really have family or friends visit,” she said.
“We have many family and friends who live in metro Melbourne, so really we are waiting for that restriction between rural and metro to be removed.”
She said while the return of Melburnians to regional Victoria posed a greater risk of bringing COVID-19 into regional Victoria, the risk needed to be balanced by the importance of bringing visitors back to towns.
“Many people are suffering because of the lack of social connection and we are falling into a regime of eat, sleep, repeat,” Cr Gates said.
“I think we are all looking forward to a time when we don’t have to hear the words ‘jabs in arms’, ‘single bubble’ and ‘restrictions’ on a daily basis.”
Like many of us, Cr Gates has concerns about how much longer a COVID-19 restriction-enforced existence could continue.
“You can hear the stress in people’s voices as we are unable to reach out and support each other properly,” she said.
Cr Gates’ initial nine months on the council has also been Covid-19dominated, with no ability for groups, towns and the council to hold events or gatherings.
“It means I have not been able to get out and meet people,” she said.
“Phone calls and emails are not the same and I feel like I have let people down.
“I hope I can make it up when things improve — and hopefully that will be next year,” she said
The smile on Cr Gates’s face as she crossed Allan St to the offices of the Free Press, with Bella in tow, echoes her enthusiasm for this time of the year.
“When it is warm enough to get back outdoors in the sun, and the wattle and wildflowers are about, I am happy,” she said.
“I love the open space, wildlife at the doorstep and the friendly buzz that comes with shopping in the smaller regional towns.”
Despite an obvious passion for the environment, Cr Gates understands the wide-reaching passions that put together any community.
She is often humbled by her role in “greasing the wheels’’ of the communities she has served in her local government capacity, reflecting on her partnerships with everyone from arts and tree-planting groups to traders and small business owners to achieve a common goal.
“There are so many people and groups I would never have met if I hadn’t thrown my hat in the ring in the first place,” Cr Gates said.
“I am a very motivated person and not good at sitting still, so I thought there might be a similar contribution I could make in Campaspe. “And here I am.
“I am constantly amazed at how self-dependent and empowered our towns are.
“There is some real energy that council could tap into with the right mindset, motivation and relationship.
“I have the unique experience of having seen how things can or have been done elsewhere — both the great and the not-so-great.
“With the right resourcing, I know we are capable of delivering some amazing things for the people of Campaspe.”
Cr Gates said her priorities across the ward included roads, improving connectivity (both digital and physical) and more activities and opportunities for younger people.
The delivery of projects nominated by the community, such as rail trails and playgrounds, were also on her agenda.
She also explained that strategies to build economic development and jobs for the shire’s towns was important to the future of the region.
And as for her assessment of the council in her first year of working with the Campaspe team?
“I have seen a group of councillors who are working very well together,” she said.
“We have a common vision to support all towns across the shire, build better relationships with community and provide an environment for everyone to enjoy for the longer term.”
As for the POST-COVID-19 bucket list, Cr Gates said Tasmania’s MONA experience in Hobart was at the top of her list, while regionally she couldn’t wait to have dinner at the Colbinabbin Country Hotel.