Independent journalist Terry Maher continues to lead the coverage of Melbourne’s historic first direct-election Lord Mayoral race and this is perhaps his best piece so far.

Deals were being done both within and without of deals. Ticket jockeys and backroom number-crunchers were playing snakes and ladders with the political fortunes of the 135 candidates standing for the nine seats on council.

This maleficent backstabbing and bribery session will continue right up to the 4.00pm deadline for the final indication of preferences and changes to the Group Voting Tickets (GVTs) on Monday (June25).

Then will come the great period of tears, gnashing of teeth and raw anger when the many candidates some sweet, some young, none innocent finally realise that in the process, they have been shafted or, worse still, they have shafted themselves.

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Early indications are that the Greens, People Power and the Civic Group will all preference Peter McMullin’s Living Melbourne ticket while So, Ferne, Lee and Chipp are tending to favour Peter Sheppard’s Make Melbourne Shine ticket.

Nothing, whatsoever, should be read into these early indications. There is more shifting sand out there than in the Simpson Desert. Always remember the old anarchist slogan that no matter who you vote for, a politician always gets in.

In desperation, your correspondent thought it would be a good idea to poll the lord mayor candidates on which footy team they barracked for. Melbourne’s citizens might be reticent about disclosing their political, religious and sexual preferences but they are not usually backward in coming forward about which AFL team they root for.

The results of this Crikey poll are incomplete but if you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can certainly judge a lord mayor candidate by the team he supports. Here we go: Peter Sheppard (formerly Fitzroy, now Brisbane Lions), John So (Melbourne), Don Chipp (played for Fitzroy, now Carlton), Harry Barber (formerly Fitzroy, now Bulldogs), Jane Nathan (Melbourne and Hawthorn, because of her kids), Peter McMullin (Collingwood), Clem Newton-Brown (Hawthorn), Stephen Mayne (Richmond) and Peter Ferne (Bulldogs).

I’m scoring this a narrow victory to the Lions over the Christians on first preferences, 05

In theory, one could, or should, judge all the candidates on their policies and character. But in this case, they all seem to have the same policies. And we hope we have already established, beyond reasonable doubt, that all politicians have charisma and character akin to that of a cockroach.

Crikey would like to judge them on their websites, candidate statements, photographs, dress sense, psychological profiles and preferences but little of these are at hand so early in the campaign.

Honesty, integrity and principles are good catch-cries for the politician on the hustings but what the electors really want to know is which side are all the “stooges” on so they can factor them out of their ballot papers. They also want to know who is paying the piper (who is paying the real costs of the election campaign) and who is calling the tune (what PR firms are they using).

Although I slagged her in a recent piece for non-specific performance after the candidates non-press conference on Wednesday, Andrea Carson, the urban affairs editor from The Age, did contribute a significant story on Saturday about the “stooge” factor in this Clown Hall casino:

“An analysis of the list shows people on different tickets living at the same address. It shows husbands and wives running on the same team, such as wine bar owners Allan and Judy Watson. It shows husbands and wives on separate teams, such as Kimberley Kitching and Andrew Landeryou. And it shows Catherine Ng running on a John So-sponsored councillor ticket while her husband, Douglas Campbell, vies for lord mayor on the Melbourne independents ticket.

“It shows brothers lining up on opposite sides, such as Joseph Long with the United Suburbs of Melbourne team and James Long running for Melbourne City United. It shows an uncanny number of teams sharing the word United in their titles. Five in total. Some sounding more like a British football team than a lord mayoral ticket. Concerns have been raised that while most candidates are serious, others may be stooges. Some are there only to pass preferences to real candidates,” said Carson.

Getting to the bottom of the three to thirty-something stooges among the 135 candidates for election will have to wait until the preference waters clear. Stooge candidates are bottom-feeders who rely on muddy waters to send their real preferences higher up the food chain to their ultimate owners.

Your correspondent has his suspicions about Kimberley Kitching’s Fresh Start councillor team, her husband, Andrew Landeryou’s (?) team and Peter McMullin’s Living Melbourne team for several reasons. One is that all three candidates are ALP members and that Simon Crean is endorsing the comely Kimberley. Two, is that the phrase “Fresh Start” features very strongly in Peter McMullin’s statement of intent in standing for election. Three, is this magnificent testimonial on Kimberley’s artful dodger: “The first impression of Kimberley is that she is just too nice to be going into local politics.”

Your correspondent couldn’t agree more.

The Age’s Andrea Carson quoted Brisbane’s LM Jim Soorley on Saturday saying the only difference between the Melbourne and Brisbane council elections is that “Brisbane council is a party political system.”

Neither the ALP nor the Liberal Party are directly endorsing candidates for the MCC but at least the Liberal-leaning Melbourne Civic Group are standing two tickets (business and residents) for council in their own name and not using the subterfuge of stooges, if that is what Fresh Start is?

On the question of electoral expenses, Peter Sheppard’s Make Melbourne Shine ticket seem to be the only ones with the honesty and courage of their convictions. Sally Finlay, The Age’s urban affairs reporter (not editor), quoted Sheppard last week saying he would spend at least $200,000 on his election campaign and that he would fund it himself (the other candidates on his ticket, kick-in the small change).

No one doubts Sheppard’s ability to fund the wherewithal of his convictions, but many questions are being asked about Don “keeping-the-bastards-honest” Chipp’s claim that his campaign (which has already included two half page ads in The Melbourne Times) will come out of this for only $2,000 from his fighting fund.

All the others are obviously either under-funded, undisclosed, underestimated or obtuse in their source of funding. A most unsatisfactory finding.

The battlefield spin doctors and media mangers named by Sally Finlay were Corporate Manoeuvres for Chipp, Weber Shandwick Worldwide and PG & JF for McMullin, Speechworks for Sheppard, Icon Art for So and Mediawise for Barber.

CPR Communications fulfill a mysterious role somewhere between Steve Bracks and Council CEO Michael Malouf.

Meanwhile, the first substantive issue of this MCC campaign was met head on by Peter McMullin late last week. Two weeks ago, LM candidate Peter Ferne claimed in The Sunday Herald Sun that Peter McMullin faced a potential conflict of interest because of his relationship to the Spotless Group of companies, which has contracts with the MCC worth about $47 million.

Your correspondent also queried this potential conflict of interest last week when he was not able to ask questions of the candidates at last Wednesday’s non-press “press” conference and McMullin did a fine job of grandstanding and dancing on the grave of current Lord Mayor, Cr Peter Costigan.

At the time of the initial report, McMullin flatly denied any potential conflict of interest, saying he had sold his shares in Spotless, which his father, Ian McMullin, had founded in 1946.

The Sunday Herald Sun story said that Spotless was a major service provider to the City of Melbourne in catering, cleaning, street cleaning and parks and gardens maintenance. Spotless also caters for the town hall’s food and liquor requirements.

The Sunday Herald Sun said that the MCC provided figures that portend to show that Spotless and associated companies had contracts with the council totalling $47,732,838 about a year ago. The contracts were for property maintenance services ($19,643,802), town hall venue management ($2,045,500), street cleaning ($15,839,536), management and maintenance of parks and gardens ($10,204,000).

The report said the majority of the contracts were awarded in 1999 and 2000-01 and their average value a year is more than $9 million. McMullin said he “had no connection at all with Spotless”.

What McMullin did last week was to go on the front foot. He issued a news release, on June 22, saying that he had declared his pecuniary interests on his website and challenged other candidates to do likewise “to demonstrate their commitment to transparency and accountability.”

“Mr McMullin said it was essential that a councillor acts and was seen to act independently, openly and without any potential for personal profit or loss. On the other hand, a register protected councillors against malicious rumor or gossip.”

Let your correspondent be the first to congratulate Peter McMullin on his perceived transparency and honest. He has indeed set a standard that other candidates and councillors should, and must, follow.

His declaration on substantial family interests says: “My father is the founder and director of the Spotless Group of companies. I am not a shareholder.”

However, my only question about this honesty and openness is how transparent is it?

Is there any possibility that Peter McMullin may be a beneficiary of his father, Ian’s, estate?

Is there any possibility that Premac Nominees Pty Ltd, RJM Managers Pty Ltd or the Barnato Unit Trust, which Mr Peter McMullin has declared a beneficial interest in, may not also have a beneficial interest in the Spotless Group?

I don’t know. All I know is that he barracks for Collingwood.