If you can judge a person by the quality of their enemies, then Clover Moore is doing well. Sydney’s lord mayor since 2004, she has spent her whole term fighting off attempts by the two major parties to unseat her and return city hall to its rightful place — in their pockets. The next election, on September 10, will show whether she can do it again.
Local elections are often crazy, but this one includes a bitter dispute between Tony Abbott’s sister and a former world weightlifting champion, which could split the Liberal vote. Lord mayoral candidate Christine Forster and Liberal apostate Edward Mandla are currently locked in a tiny version of the battle currently raging within the NSW branch of the Libs over factional dominance and the power of lobbyists.
Mandla, a 53-year-old IT consultant and electronic music fan, can lift 100 kilos over his head. In July, he defected to a minor party, saying that the Liberal Party was a “party of lobbyists in search of a policy”. He is now embroiled in a public war with Forster and his former colleagues, including allegations of fraudulent credit card use and claims that the Libs tried to change the boundaries to increase their vote.
The other two major critics of Moore’s administration have been The Daily Telegraph and broadcaster Alan Jones, who love to paint her as a bike-loving, car-hating greenie fanatic who stifles urban development. This unending (and fact-free) campaign has had absolutely no effect on the election results, which probably means they could now pack it in. The Tele could perhaps find some real stories, like Mike Baird’s plans for the greyhound tracks.
The City of Sydney municipality is only 26.5 square kilometres, but it takes in some of Sydney’s most populous and expensive real estate: the Sydney CBD and the inner ring of suburbs around it. It’s a progressive electorate, which has given Moore increasing majorities at each election; at the last one she won 52% of the vote, with Mandla (then a Liberal) second on 16%. The Labor candidate, Linda Scott, was third with 11%.
This time around, there are 108,000 residents eligible to vote and also 23,000 non-residents, whose eligibility stems from paying rates or rent in the area. In 2014 the NSW state government passed legislation giving two votes to the owners of businesses within the boundaries — a blatant tactic designed simply to get rid of Moore. ABC election guru Antony Green at the time described it as a piece of legislation “inspired by malice not public policy.”
‘‘Whoever’s putting this up is trying to rort the result. They do not want Clover Moore in [the lord mayoralty], that is the only reason this is being introduced,’’ he said.
The Labor Party has promised to repeal the laws, probably because they gain no advantage from them. The new law has resulted in a more than 13-fold increase in the number of non-residential voters who were registered in 2012; the effect on the result could be significant. The Liberals think this will get them across the line, but victory is not certain; not every businessperson will vote for the Liberal Party, as many of them support Moore. The most likely outcome is that she will keep her job but lose an outright majority, forcing her to rely on another party for numbers.
Moore, now 70, has become a lightning rod for opposition to several of Baird’s most unpopular policies, including the Westconnex motorway, council amalgamations and the hated lockout laws, which have ripped the heart out of the city and cost thousands of jobs. With half the residents aged under 34, it’s a big issue. She has said repeatedly that she opposes the scope of the laws and would like to see them wound back, while retaining some of their initiatives around safety.
All sides are also courting the gay vote. While there’s no reliable data on the number of gay residents, or even how they vote, the electorate does include Sydney’s gayest suburb, Darlinghurst, which has Oxford Street (Gay Mecca). Clover, the first politician to march in the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, has long been a gay icon, while Forster is in a same-sex relationship.
Forster, an inner-city resident, has been very careful to keep Abbott at arms length; he’s been seen at only one fundraiser, from which media were barred. Forster has the backing of conservative gay group LNProud, which supports same-sex marriage and has raised money in the past for Warren Entsch’s private member’s bill. The Libs are conflicted over the lockout laws; they have to follow official Liberal Party policy but would like to see them watered down.
Forster told me that, if elected, she would bring a change of culture to the council and a new style of leadership. “I’d be more collegial, consultative.”
“[Clover’s] idea of unity is ‘me, me, me’. It’s all about the lord mayor. She’s an independent, populist-style politician who has trumpeted all the stuff that is popular and taken no responsibility for the stuff that isn’t.”
The Liberal team is campaigning on supporting business by addressing red tape and improving turnaround times on development applications, she said. She wants to put recycling bins on the streets of Sydney and create a bike-hire scheme.
Dr Kerryn Phelps, a high-profile GP, is a candidate on Moore’s team. She told me that people should vote for her if they wanted a “city government which was free of corruption, financially stable and had a vision for the future”. It was important to have an independent council that was free of party politics and vested interests, she said, adding that it would be a “disaster” for the city if one of the major parties won the balance of power.
On Friday night there was an ALP fundraiser for Linda Scott’s team, which includes the first rugby league star to come out as gay, Ian Roberts, and indigenous elder “Aunty” Norma Ingram. Scott, from the Left faction of the ALP, has campaigned strongly on childcare and affordable housing.
Guest of honour, deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, told the crowd that “we can’t afford to say that local government is not as important as the other levels of government.” Labor was campaigning for a “fairer Sydney” which protects public housing, provides more green spaces and venues for live music, she said. She also said that the area needed more community services such as childcare and sporting facilities. Plibersek said that Moore was a “tough opponent” but saved her scorn for NSW Premier Mike Baird, saying he was a “third-world dictator” who had suspended local government elections and enacted the “gerrymander under which 23,000 businesses would have a say over the quality of life of the residents.
Sportsbet currently has Moore at $1.27 to win, with Forster at $4.00. Baird, who is now neck-and-neck with NSW Labor according to a weekend Fairfax poll, will be watching this election closely. Will his underhand tactic work, returning the council of Australia’s largest city to Liberal control? We will soon find out.