Sydney might still have Moore coming

11 September 2015

Local council elections happen in New South Wales in about a year’s time.  There’s been talk that many local councils mightn’t even exist when elections come around, with the State Government looking to merge councils everywhere.

I’m not convinced that council mergers, forced or otherwise, will play that heavily on the minds of voters.  In terms of what local councils do, you’d think of them as the bodies responsible for garbage collection and street repairs, and from whom you need approval if you’re looking to build a new house or extend an existing one.  There have been several council mergers across NSW over the last decade or so, but despite a lot of hype, they don’t seem to have mattered much to voters in the end.

My mind goes back to the forced merger of two councils in Sydney’s inner west, creating a new council named Canada Bay, which came about despite local opposition.  In those days, the Labor Party was governing in NSW, and the merger was talked up as a major issue.  But when local council elections came years later, Labor won several seats on the merged council, and also won the mayoral election, which was by popular vote, quite easily.  This dispelled the notion of local anger over council mergers.

Only one council merger in recent memory has caused local resentment – the merging of Sydney City Council and a neighbouring council in early 2004.  It catapulted State MP Clover Moore into the job of Lord Mayor of Sydney, and she looks like staying forever, despite the efforts of many to get rid of her.

Moore’s election of Lord Mayor of Sydney City Council, which only takes in a relative handful of suburbs in inner Sydney rather than a vast part of the Sydney metropolitan region, was basically a backlash against what inner urban voters saw as grubby politics.  The State Labor Government of the time merged two councils to create one larger council taking in the Sydney CBD and surrounds, and sacked the elected councillors.  It was thought that Labor was trying to stack the council with people more likely to approve projects, specifically new buildings and office towers, which major property developers were really keen to construct in order to make a quick buck, regardless of whether their proposed buildings would fit in with the character of the CBD, among other reasons.  Voters saw Labor, and the Liberal Party for that matter, as beholden to big businesses, or “the top end of town”, which they resented.  Sensing the resentment, Moore chose to run for the Lord Mayoralty of the merged council, and won.  She came across as some kind of “voice” of “little people” against “big people”, despite concerns about possible clashes over the mayoralty and her existing job as a State MP.  Inner urban voters have elected her again and again ever since.

Because of this popularity, Moore has seen fit to pursue ideas like replacing streets’ traffic lanes with bicycle lanes and light rail.  She clearly thinks that voters will support her and her ideas, largely because they distrust the major political parties.  The dedicated bicycle lanes, known as cycleways, have annoyed many business owners, because they’ve taken away parking spaces and disrupted flows for vehicular traffic.  But despite the existence of many small businesses in the inner city, voters seem to think of big business when they hear the term “business”, and see business as caring more about a quick buck than ordinary people’s needs.  Credible or not, this is perhaps inner urban voters’ collective attitude regarding business, and might be why they trust Moore.  Both Labor and the Liberals have tried various things to get Moore out of politics, but she’s beaten them every time.

This might be why the Liberal-National Coalition, which has governed NSW since 2011, has pursued ideas such as building light rail lines through the CBD, despite the inevitable disruption to vehicular traffic and some long-held resistance from the business community.  I sense that the Coalition is trying to paint itself as sharing Moore’s ideals, because it knows that voters seem to like what she’s for, and copying her ideas might be the only means of ending her career.

But I suspect that Moore will stay on, rather than retire.  Light rail will take time to build, and with local council elections a year away, there might be suspicions that the Coalition is only copying her until election time, in the hope of confusing voters into tossing Moore out, before ditching her ideas.  I think that Moore will stay on until her vision of light rail and cycleways and other stuff is complete.  If you’ll pardon the pun, there’ll still be more, or Moore, coming soon in terms of what features Sydney might have.

The trust of Moore in inner Sydney stems clearly from distrust of the major parties.  I can’t see even merging Sydney City Council with other councils or splitting it up as likely to bring Moore down.  Distrust of major parties will probably give Moore at least another mayoral term.

Significance of some issues overstated at election time

16 August 2015

This month marks five years since Australians woke up in limbo, after a Federal election which had failed to produce a clear winner.  With the Labor Government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Liberal-National Coalition Opposition led by Tony Abbott both falling a few seats short of winning the election of August 2010 outright, people had to contend with a hung parliament for the first time since the 1940s.  And some people would argue that the Australian political scene has never been the same since then.

After Gillard somehow secured a majority with the support of crossbench Independents and the Greens, who’d won a seat in the House of Representatives and enough seats to hold the balance of power in the Senate, Abbott engaged relentlessly in a campaign of negativity and attacks, to try to convince the crossbenchers to withdraw their support for Gillard and put Labor out of office.  Despite Abbott’s ferocious negativity, Labor managed to govern with crossbench support for three years, until the next election came around its expected time, but Abbott expectedly won the election easily.  Aggrieved at how Abbott became Prime Minister after years of attacks and negativity, Labor has repeated Abbott’s tactics from the Opposition benches, without really inspiring anyone.

What ultimately irked me personally about the 2010 election was Gillard’s promise to fund the missing link of a railway project in northern Sydney.  This shouldn’t really have been for Gillard to get involved in, because responsibility for public transport projects such as railways is normally for state governments.  At that time, Labor was governing in New South Wales, but despite promising a new railway link for northern Sydney and building half of it, paranoia about the cost of building the link had spooked Labor into putting the other half, from Epping to Parramatta, off indefinitely.  So when Gillard suddenly offered funds to build the Epping-Parramatta rail link, it was seen as an attempt to bribe, or “pork-barrel” in political terms, voters in a marginal Labor seat in northern Sydney.  I was annoyed because I’ve long believed this railway to be essential for luring commuters out of their cars – now it’s seen as a joke.

In a sense, this questionable promise by Gillard showed how insignificant public transport would seem in voters’ minds at election time.  Having followed elections for years, I’ve seen few opinion polls suggesting that concerns about public transport would sway voters’ minds.  Strangely, however, the perceived need for more roads and motorways to reduce traffic congestion hasn’t always seemed significant to voters either.  I suspect that transport generally doesn’t register as a high priority for voters at election time, but it’s not the only issue to appear big at election time and end up with its importance looking to be overstated.

More recently, I’ve come to conclude that, despite much media hype, mining and coal seam gas extraction on prime farmland aren’t as significant at election time as they seem.  This year there have been elections in both Queensland and NSW, where there’s been much noise about those issues, but the noise has changed little.  Apart from the loss by the Nationals of one seat to the Greens in northern NSW, neither state has seen other seats change hands because of mining or coal seam gas.

In the Darling Downs region around Toowoomba in Queensland, you’d have thought that the desecration of prime farmland was going to cost the Liberal National Party seats over recent years.  Yet the LNP has won every seat in that region over the last two elections.  Not even the vocal presence of radio broadcaster and mining critic Alan Jones has prevented the LNP from winning seats there.

And there have been other instances when the significance of some issues was overstated at election time.  The forced amalgamation of two local councils in inner Sydney, about fifteen years ago, was thought likely to see seats in that area change hands at the next state election – in the end, nothing happened.  And after questions were raised about the handling of bushfires by ACT authorities in the 2003 Canberra bushfires, I’d thought that ACT voters would revolt against the Labor Government there – yet at the next election in the ACT Labor actually gained a seat and a parliamentary majority, having governed with crossbench support before the election.

These instances show how the media can overstate the importance of some issues.  Maybe voters don’t always think as they might be expected to.  Media hype can sometimes end up meaningless.