2020 Rockynats. Mayor Margaret Strelow.
2020 Rockynats. Mayor Margaret Strelow. Allan Reinikka ROK260619arockyna

Highs and lows of Strelow's career, told by the former mayor

It was the year 2000, a new millennium and Margaret Strelow was elected as the first female mayor of the Rockhampton region.

It would be the first of 16 years as mayor for Mrs Strelow.

The well known identity sat down with The Morning Bulletin last week for the first time since her sudden departure from the Rockhampton mayoral position in November.

She spoke with fondness and pride about her successful and varied political career, sharing the highs and lows.

Mrs Strelow first ran for a Rockhampton City councillor position in 1994 but was unsuccessful.

She was, however, successful at the 1997 election and was voted in for the northside division, around Lakes Creek Rd and Elizabeth Park.

"I had to contest a Labor Party plebiscite to contest the division I lived in then," Mrs Strelow said of her first term in the council.

"It was a tough term, the council was bitterly divided and political.

"The past is the past but it wasn't a pleasant experience for a person who is a member of the minority group."

Margaret Strelow in the 2000 election campaign.
Margaret Strelow in the 2000 election campaign.

In 2000, Mrs Strelow vied for the top job as mayor - but she never, ever thought she would win.

"I was fair dinkum going for it but I didn't expect to be elected," she said.

She defeated the incumbent mayor Jim McCrae by 1596 votes.

The other councillors weren't too receptive of Mrs Strelow being mayor.

"I had a hostile council and they made my life hell the first four years," she said.

While it was tough, Mrs Strelow took it in her stride and it paid off - she was re-elected in the following 2004 election with a more than 70 per cent return of the votes.

"I very much took the view that a divided council was a no-win for our community, I never criticised them, if I needed to state my opinion on something, I did so once the vote was taken," she said.

"It was my job very clearly to deliver what council had resolved."

The first eight years of Mrs Strelow's mayoral career were down to basics, upgrading roads, water and sewerage.

"Rockhampton was a standout for all the wrong reasons, main breaks and sewerage chokes, our roads were a disaster, we just weren't spending the right amount of money in the right places," she said.

"There had to be a whole journey of shifting council's focus back onto the basics.

"We are no longer the wrong end of the charts that we were back then."

Come the end of the eight-year consecutive term, there were talks of amalgamations and Rockhampton City Council was to merge with the shires of Livingstone and Mount Morgan.

Mrs Strelow made a decision two years before the end of her term to not run in the next election as she believed the amalgamation called for someone new to be mayor.

"It can't ever be about your own ambition, it has to be about what is right for the community," she said.

Under the new council, Rockhampton Regional Council, Brad Carter was elected and Mrs Strelow opened a bed and breakfast at the historic Goldston House.

"And there are many happy couples in Rockhampton who had their weddings at Goldston house," she said.

Mayor Margaret Strelow sitting behind the desk in her office after official announcement of her election in 2012. Photo Sharyn O'Neill / The Morning Bulletin
Mayor Margaret Strelow sitting behind the desk in her office after official announcement of her election in 2012. Photo Sharyn O'Neill / The Morning Bulletin

As the next election loomed in 2012, a proposal had been made to de-amalgamate the Shire of Livingstone from the Rockhampton Regional Council.

While she originally had no intention of returning to the council table, Mrs Strelow had several people approach her and toward the close of nominations, she put her name forward for mayor again.

"I thought 'I will put my name forward and if people want me they will vote for me'," she said.

"My mother's funeral was on the Monday of that last week, and to be honest, it was hard to face a campaign."

Mrs Strelow won the mayoral position by 3365 votes over Tim Griffin.

"Within weeks I was back in office and we had a huge job to do with sorting out the finances," she said.

Towards the end of her first year back at the helm, it was announced deamalgamation would take place.

Livingstone Shire Council was re-established on January 1, 2014.

"Our whole first two years of that four-year term was dominated by the partial de-amalgamation," Mrs Strelow said.

"First it was spent fighting deamalgamation and then doing the separation of stuff.

"There are some in Livingstone Shire who still dispute how the separation was done - but the truth is that they had representatives involved in the separation of both money and assets.

"And we went out of our way to make sure everything was done fairly.

"In fact we suffered badly, because we couldn't set direction, all of our key staff were tied up on separating the organisation.

"We realised fairly quickly that we were going to face a whole lot of financial difficulties as we were still responsible for most of the region's major assets.

"We realised that we would have to fight to be the desired place to live, the first choice, not just the city that does all the hard work while all the fun happens at the coast."

Independent candidate Margaret Strelow enjoying a cuppa at home after a long last day of election campaigning for the 2017 State Election.
Independent candidate Margaret Strelow enjoying a cuppa at home after a long last day of election campaigning for the 2017 State Election.

It was while on holiday at Hervey Bay that Mrs Strelow was speaking with someone at a shared table at a restaurant, and the lady said a line that would always stick with her.

This woman had moved from Maryborough after years in business there.

They had closed their business without finding a purchaser and had eventually just locked up their family home as well.

"We don't know how many good years we've got left, I want to spend them where there are people and there is activity and something to do," Mrs Strelow recalled the woman saying.

This quote became her mantra and vision.

"I came back and said 'okay, Rockhampton has to focus on lifestyle and our families', so that's when things like the riverbank project came along," Mrs Strelow said.

Planning for the riverbank redevelopment began before Cyclone Marcia hit in 2015 and it was originally planned to be staged, as the council could only afford to spend $3-4 million per year.

But then Marcia came along with ferocious winds and severely damaged the area.

While it was devastating, out of it came a $15 million grant from the State Government and $7 million from the Federal Government and the $36 million riverbank project was able to come alive.

Re-elected again in 2016, Mrs Strelow won by 3345 votes ahead of Michael McMillan.

Margaret Strelow ready to tear down the fences as Kershaw Gardens comes one step closer to revitalisation Photo Trinette Stevens / Morning Bulletin
Margaret Strelow ready to tear down the fences as Kershaw Gardens comes one step closer to revitalisation Photo Trinette Stevens / Morning Bulletin

Tallying off some of her favourite achievements, the list included the Mount Archer revitalisation, which she noted was led by Councillors Tony Williams and Neil Fisher, the riverbank project, Cedric Archer Park at Gracemere, the $14 million Kershaw Gardens upgrade, the Mount Morgan CBD revitalisation and the $31.5 million Rockhampton Museum of Art project.

"The real power of a mayor is actually quite limited - but you need to set the direction and have courage at the council table," Mrs Strelow said.

"If I had gone weak at the knees on any of those, they wouldn't have happened."

Council's economic and tourism development arm Advance Rockhampton, the Smartcity strategy and SmartHub at Customs Hub and the establishment of the Gracemere Industrial Area were also highlights.

Ms Strelow has been a long-time supporter of Adani and CQ mining.
Ms Strelow has been a long-time supporter of Adani and CQ mining.

Engaging with the mining industry and the commitment to Adani were also areas Mrs Strelow was heavily involved with and she said the region was already reaping the benefits as jobs begin to emerge.

Events were also something the former mayor was passionate about including Rockynats which is scheduled for Easter, and her personal favourite and absolute legacy, the iconic Rockhampton River Festival which began in 2015.

"There's different audiences, we needed something that gave people the sort of experience they might expect to have in Brisbane," Mrs Strelow said.

"We will keep losing our young people if they feel they are missing out.

"Investing in river festival was critical. For that first event, it was pouring rain but the people weren't going home, they were walking around pinching themselves, is this in Rocky, is this really in Rocky?"

Looking around the riverbank, Mrs Strelow was proud of what had been achieved.

"The investment in lifestyle and events and desirability of a place to live is what we are getting the benefit of now, we are seeing now that people are Googling and coming to Rockhampton," she said.

"Of course roads and water and sewerage are always core services of local government.

But there's no good in having perfect roads if no-one wants to live here.

"It matters where they live.

Margaret Strelow was known to bring breadcrumbs as a prop that the government only gave the Rockhampton region ‘breadcrumbs’ for funding compared to other regions
Margaret Strelow was known to bring breadcrumbs as a prop that the government only gave the Rockhampton region ‘breadcrumbs’ for funding compared to other regions

"We have to keep fighting for people to choose Rockhampton.

"There has to be one powerhouse that has the money to attract the jobs, to do concessions for industry, to argue with the government when you need to, you can't do that when you have a city in decline.

"You've got to keep Rockhampton as the desirable place to live and to do that you've got to grow the rates base.

"We'd done a lot of work on the finances, we'd started sorting out the debt, COVID's going to have messed that up quite a bit."

On November 9 last year, Ms Strelow tendered her resignation from the mayoral role, effective from that afternoon, after she was found guilty of misconduct by the Councillor Conduct Tribunal - a charge she fiercely refutes.

The resignation sparked national headlines as the existing new legislation meant runner-up Chris "Pineapple" Hooper would be mayor, however the State Government changed the law back and a by-election was held.

Mayor Margaret Strelow wearing her best defence against Chris Hooper potentially being in charge.
Mayor Margaret Strelow wearing her best defence against Chris Hooper potentially being in charge.

Mrs Strelow doesn't regret her decision.

"I simply could not, with any kind of personal integrity, agree with what they had written.

And so I could not stand up and apologise in some kind of charade for something that I didn't do," she said.

"I had listed the trip to the solar farm on our register of official hospitality where we would normally list things like that.

"The list the Tribunal talks about is the Register of Interests - which specifically said (at the time) that official hospitality does not need to be listed.

"They were making a special case.

"Even if they had managed to get their facts straight and had a true record of events in their documents - I would question their decision," she claimed.

Margaret Strelow just a couple of months before her resignation.
Margaret Strelow just a couple of months before her resignation.

"But they haven't even got the most basic facts correct. It's been an absolutely appalling process.

"And there was no win for Rockhampton in having a mayor at continuing loggerheads with the State Government. It had already been a harrowing two-year battle.

"The damage to my reputation has been out of all proportion thanks to the shenanigans that the state employed to interfere in the election process.

"That has been hugely disappointing.

"And I certainly haven't enjoyed seeing Rockhampton in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons."

When asked what her plans for the future were, she wasn't sure yet.

Aside from her political career, she has been a teacher, a childcare director and has four children.

"I will take a little time to work out what to do … I've got more degrees than any healthy woman should want," she said.

Mrs Strelow, with her husband Darryl, has just moved house and she hopes to spend a bit of time in the garden.

She said despite rumours - she had no plans to run in the Federal Government election and commended MP Michelle Landry for her hard work in the role.

"I think Michelle's done a mighty job, she's grown into the job, she's been out there really fighting for us," she said.

When asked about State Government aspirations, she said she might see what happens in four years' time.

"That's a long way in the future," she said.