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City of Sydney election: the elevator pitch
Candidates in the 2016 City of Sydney election explain why they should be Sydney’s Lord Mayor in the space of an elevator ride.
The most novel policy on display is an uncosted tunnel under Oxford Street that is probably impossible to build. The campaign chief of one challenger has stood down after playing loose with a credit card. The Roads Minister says the incumbent is an idiot. And yet the place is booming.
This is the City of Sydney in 2016.
From the time Premier Mike Baird supported handing business a greater say in City of Sydney elections, September’s council poll was always likely to be pregnant with extra meaning. But an unlikely series of events have served to inject elections for the City of Sydney council with new levels of animus and local government nuttiness.
On one level, this is a council election like any other, about bike paths and bin nights. On another, it is about control over the most dynamic and lucrative land in the state, the country’s postcard to the world, and about 8 per cent of the national economy.
The stakes are high (even if standards of behaviour sometimes dip lower). Everyone wants a piece of the City of Sydney. Which explains why state governments of both persuasions have continually redrawn council boundaries for their own benefit. And why the Baird government backed controversial changes to voting rules that mandate the voting of businesses, and gives those businesses two votes.
The concept was promoted by a Liberal – 2012 mayoral candidate Edward Mandla. But Mandla had to work outside the parliamentary Liberal Party, which was initially cool on the notion, to push the idea over the line.
He approached the Shooters and Fishers’ Robert Borsak who, despite the lack of recreational hunting on George Street, maintains an outsize interest in the city, as well as Borsak’s fellow upper house MP Fred Nile.
Baird supported it after Borsak drew up legislation. “This is sensible reform, no one can oppose it,” Baird said almost two years ago to the day, arguing the voting model merely mirrored that of Melbourne. He was wrong about the lack of opposition.
One difference with the Melbourne legislation is that the Baird model imposes a requirement on the council to register eligible businesses to vote. The council has therefore added 23,000 potential business voters to the 70,000-odd residents who cast ballots four years ago.
There are other differences in the mechanics of the legislation which Bret Walker, SC, in advice for the City of Sydney, has suggested makes the roll vulnerable to manipulation. Baird’s government says it does not agree with that advice.
But the electoral impact of the 23,000 extra voters remains unknown. When residents (or company directors) come to vote on September 10, they will be casting two ballots. They will cast one for the mayor, and another for councillors. And while it is the mayoral poll that will grab the attention, much of the import of the election will be on which councillors are elected.
Voters elect 10 councillors on the City of Sydney, including the mayor. At the 2012 ballot, the lord mayor, Clover Moore, was elected along with four others on her ticket. The effect was to give Moore, and her casting vote, essentially executive power over what is nominally a council.
This dynamic has made it difficult for other councillors, such as the Liberal Christine Forster or Labor’s Linda Scott, to get traction with their own ideas. They can work the community, develop policies, respond to concerns, but the numbers have meant they have tended to strike a wall in council chambers. To be a non-Clover Moore councillor on the City of Sydney has meant a perennial frustration. (And even to be a Clover-councillor has mostly meant to roll with the flow).
It is the potential breakdown of that dynamic that could be one of the more interesting results of the poll. Moore, mayor since 2004, received about 58 per cent of the vote in the 2008 elections and 51 per cent in 2012. On this form, even with the extra business votes, she is likely to retain the mayoralty.
Her essential policy platform – Sustainable Sydney 2030 – remains a popular vision that includes well-serviced villages knitted together by transport projects like bike paths, and a strong emphasis on design and curated public space, such as the successful remodelling of Sydney Park. But should fewer councillors be elected on her ticket – say three instead of four – Moore could find herself in the relatively new position of having to compromise with councillors from other parties.
Councillor Forster heads the Liberal ticket. Forster saw off her main challenger for the Liberal nomination, Mandla, last year when he decided he did not want to replicate Moore’s workload.
“I’ve watched the lord mayor really carefully over the last six months and while I think she’s very stale in a policy area, she does chair 12 committees, and she’s at every single ribbon cutting and she’s delivering four to five speeches per week,” Mandla said in November. “I just don’t think that’s me.”
But Mandla has since gone rogue. He quit the Liberals last month to run for a rival independent ticket (under current councillor Angela Vithoulkas, who has promised the Oxford Street tunnel) and is accusing his old party of being beholden to factions and lobbyists. Handing the City’s keys to the Liberals “would be to hand them to vested interests who have the ability to pay for policy,” Mandla alleges. To make matters trickier for Forster, her campaign manager resigned this week after Fairfax Media revealed he had to repay almost $14,000 to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
The next four years promise to be a telling period for the City. Moore is touting her work in shaping the design of developments around Green Square – which will include parks, a pool and a library – as evidence of her capacity to guide the state’s development schemes around Central and Redfern stations.
Critics such as Forster say she is too quick to put the government offside. (The relationship with Roads Minister Duncan Gay has been particularly combustible.) And Labor’s Scott says Moore has under-delivered on essential amenities such as open space and childcare.
This could be the closest battle for Town Hall in some time. And if not, well, someone can always change the rules again.