Terry Maher and Hugo Kelly provided the town’s best coverage of Melbourne’s first democratic Lord Mayoral race for Crikey in 2001, and they’re back to do it again. Today, they write the inside story of the political destruction of the one man who could have beaten incumbent Mayor, John So.

Peter Sheppard’s phone rang yesterday morning. It was former Melbourne Deputy Lord Mayor Clem Newton-Brown, and he wasn’t happy. “I’m quitting,” the Southbank barrister/barrista told Sheppard, the blunt-talking businessman who made his fortune selling shoes to society matrons.

Disgusted, Sheppard hung up on Newton-Brown, leaving his would-be running mate spluttering into the telephone. His mayoral race was finished before it even began. All it took was one throw-away line, one verbal indiscretion, and the best chance Melbourne had of a rival to the incumbent Lord Mayor was gone.

Newton-Brown called back later and said he was considering changing his mind. Maybe he would run as Sheppard’s deputy Lord Mayor candidiate, after all. But Sheppard, for all his faults, is a decisive man. He hung up on the vacillating Newton-Brown a second time, and drafted his statement of resignation.

Peter Sheppard’s fall was instigated by the man himself. It was simply politically unnecessary to denigrate the Lord Mayor for being unable to speak plain English, as he did in an interview last week – even if he was speaking the plain facts.

But the flames were spread by others. The hands of the Bracks media unit are all over this. The trigger for Newton-Brown’s decision to jump ship was this Friday night hatchet job on Sheppard by ABC TV’s Stateline program. Stateline played an interview Sheppard gave during his 2001 campaign. It was Sheppard’s first political TV interview, and he made a couple of bloopers. The show’s producers chose to preface them with the comment: “we’ll let you decide who has the better communication skills.”

It could have been a campaign ad for John So. It was a rough piece of journalism. We hope Stateline is equally tough on So for his indiscretions and failures. Just a reminder:

John So bought himself the Lord Mayorship in 2001. Spending more than $100,000 couldn’t even win him the popular vote. Sheppard polled more primary votes, only to lose on preferences, bacause So made some clever preference deals beind the scenes and ran – and paid for – a series of dummy candidates.

He brought in some pretty good players in his team. His deputy, Susan Riley, lead council candidate Catherine Ng, chief of staff, Kevin Louie – his “translation team” – have performed well.

But his public appearances have been embarrassing. During the Rugby World Cup, So couldn’t wrap his mouth around the key word: “Rugby”.”Wugby,” it became, like Bugs Bunny’s “wabbits”. The Lord Mayor was more “Wascally Wabbit” than dynamic civic leader of a dynamic city.

Sensibly, So has stayed publicly away from criticising Sheppard over the past few days. He’s let his underlings do that, and allowed Shoeman Sheppard to marinate in his own juices.

So’s a nice bloke who wears nice ties and runs a successful chain of restaurants (even if he finds it hard to keep the cockroaches out of
the Wanton soup as this Age story explains.)

But he’s a hopeless Lord Mayor because he can’t communicate – because he can’t quite wrap his occidental tongue around most words in his adpoted English language. During some radio appearances back in 2001, running for “election”, became running for “erection”.

Along the way, So has made some canny decisions, some stupid ones and some unforgivable judgment calls. Toeing the Beijing line over Tibet was a craven piece of local politics gone global. On that score alone, So should be thrown out of the Town Hall by voters and sent packing to clean up his kitchen.

But it is his very weakness that makes the State Government his greatest ally. Steve Bracks loves So because those who can understand him realise he does what he’s told by his Spring Street masters.

So is being whitewashed because Spring St doesn’t want anyone strong down the road in Swanston St who might be tempted to stand up to the lightweight Bracks Government Planning Minister, former ABC TV presenter Mary Delahunty.

Rather than removing both So and Delahunty ‘The Destroyer of Suburbs’, Bracks backs both and claims they’re doing a great job. Seriously.

John So’s close relationship with Beijing may have won him friends in China – but what’s Melbourne got from it? Any recent iron-ore contracts for Southbank? Regular visits to Melbourne’s sister city in China have blown out the travel budget. But that’s about it.

The Lord Mayor’s judgment is also clouded. He gave a character reference to corrupt former immigration minister, Andrew Theophanous, that didn’t spare him jail.

He might speak “a version of Swahili”, but he also talks perfect PR babble. “Under this council, Melbourne has become a vibrant
international city with a great future,” So said yesterday. Which means….what? What was Melbourne before So took over? A basket case?
It’s little thanks to So that the city is now booming, but the power of incumbency plus sheer weight of money virtually assures him a
second term.

We don’t think he deserves it. We don’t think Peter Sheppard is a racist. This is what he actually said: “If you were to ask the ordinary person out there, everyone says the same thing — he (Cr So) can’t speak English properly.”

And ain’t that the truth. But the Soandsos in Spring street used it to destroy a man who could have been a good Lord Mayor.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Hugo Kelly and Terry Maher have been covering Melbourne for a combined 50 years. Terry is a former editor of the Melbourne Times, Victorian political and economic correspondent for the Fin Review. Hugo, a 10 year Age journalist and former advisor to government and the private sector, has been with Crikey since the original jeffed.com days, and this year opened our bureau in the Federal Press Gallery.