Moreland residents present at last Monday night’s council meeting in Coburg (think Hawkie’s seat of Wills, Kelvin Thompson, Phil Cleary, etc) may well have thought they were watching an episode of Grass Roots as councillors gathered to elect the new mayor and to assign portfolios for 2010. The mayoralty carries with it a salary of $77,000 and a flash car. It is also an opportunity to rise in the ALP political hierarchy in Melbourne’s working-class northern suburbs.

Imagine an auditorium with about 150 members of the public facing the 11 Moreland councillors, as well as some council officers. Choosing  the mayor is an annual ritual, and an opportunity for the burghers to observe democracy in action, and then get stuck into the council-provided grog and tucker.

Last Monday night a clique of five ALP councillors came  with an agenda to install one of their own as mayor, as well as to help themselves to the council portfolios. The gang of five were hardly an inspiring lot, comprising the ageing Tony Helou plus four apparatchiks aiming to do their time on council before being parachuted into a safe ALP state seat: namely Lambros Tapinos, the boy wonder mayor for 2009, along with Michael Teti, Enver Erdogan and Oscar Yildiz.

The clique had decided that 25-year-old Erdogan was to get the cherry, despite an average attendance record and being out of his depth on some issues. Competence and effort do not always correlate highly with positions of public office in the ALP. The clique had also earmarked for themselves the most important council portfolios.

The ALP often votes en bloc in council, and the five plotters assumed the three ALP women would do the right thing and follow what the blokes told them to do.

Nominations were called for, and out-going mayor Tapinos immediately nominated the equally inexperienced Erdogan, which was seconded. The five looked like cats at a sardines-and-cream banquet as they awaited their prizes. To their great astonishment, Independent DLP councillor John Kavanagh, the brother of Victorian upper house DLP member Peter Kavanagh, made a counter-nomination: the ALP’s Stella Kariofyllides, which was seconded. The gang of five looked perturbed.

Kariofyllides is a middle-aged woman who was Moreland’s last female mayor — 11 years ago. She came under a cloud as a councillor when  her son ran up a large bill on her council internet account. She spent a few years in the political wilderness but returned to council at the 2008 election and has worked diligently.

Supporting her were the two Greens, Jo Connellan and Toby Archer, the DLP’s John Kavanagh, and two independently minded and capable ALP women, Kathleen Matthews-Ward and Alice Pryor.  Many council staff and residents would say that Connellan is the best councillor, but there is no way this ALP-dominated council would wear a Green or DLP mayor. Neither of the other two ALP women wanted the mayoralty at this time, so Kariofyllides really was the only option to roll the ruling faction.

So Kariofyllides was elected mayor, and gave a good mayoral speech. Now to the portfolios. The routed gang of five presented their list with, as expected, the key roles going to themselves. Matthews-Ward stood up and foreshadowed an alternative list, essentially the better-balanced 2009 list. Acrimonious debate followed. The gang of five were furious at being denied what they saw as their right.

An unusually impassioned Lambros claimed that the process was undemocratic, as the people of Moreland had chosen an ALP council, and it was therefore for the ALP to decide who was to be mayor, and who was to have which portfolios.  The counter-argument, supported by many in the gallery, was that the voters chose, first and foremost, people whom they expected to represent them competently. Party affiliation was secondary.

The place was in uproar. Kariofyllides as chair struggled to maintain control, with heckling from all sides. Members of the public leaped to their feet and yelled interjections.  Matthews-Ward’s partner ran to the front and tried to seize the microphone from Teti as he was speaking. Apparently Teti had been saying unkind things into his mike while Matthews-Ward was speaking.  Controversial former councilor El Hallabi yelled something menacing and stormed out. Quite a show for visiting dignitaries such as federal member for Wills Kelvin Thompson and state member for Keilor, George “Stacks” Seitz. A visiting delegation of civic worthies from Greece also looked somewhat taken aback.

The alternative list got up. The defeated gang then, one by one, rejected the portfolios that had been suggested for them. Helou actually rejected the same portfolio his own faction of five was suggesting he take. Teti walked out before the end of the meeting. Let’s hope the people of Moreland don’t suddenly find only six of the 11 councillors are prepared to perform the job they were elected to do.

The Moreland Leader is now pushing the chosen line of the vanquished — that the Greens are running their community.

No, it’s actually an unusual coalition comprising two Greens, one DLP and three Labor women who are fed up with blokey, careerist apparatchiks serving up average leadership in their community.

The strangest element has been the bond that has developed between the two Moreland Greens and the DLP chap, paralleling the growth of respect between the three Greens and the other Kavanagh in the Victorian upper house. Strange bedfellows indeed, which could make preference arrangements at next year’s state election very interesting.

Peter Fray

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