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.