It’s a battle for Sydney’s Town Hall like none other. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown campaigning in the twice delayed council elections into chaos, confused voters and cast doubt in many candidates’ minds about the likely outcome of Saturday’s polls.
Even Clover Moore, who is fighting an all-women field of candidates to win a historic fifth term as the City of Sydney lord mayor, says the repeated delays and COVID-19 safety measures for volunteers and voters have made the outcome hard to predict. “I’m just numb, to tell you the truth because it’s been so challenging. It’s been such an odd election, ”she says. “Goodness knows what the result is going to be.”
Romping to victory with almost 58 per cent of the votes in 2016 and 51 per cent in 2012, Moore is expected to extend her 17-year grip on power at the City of Sydney council to two decades when voters cast their ballots this weekend.
At stake is whether she retains her majority voting bloc on council. Another victory will also intensify debate about which member of her team Moore, 76, will choose as her successor.
Moore’s challenge is that her incumbency is a double-edged sword: her record can help her, but it also raises questions about whether it’s time for a changing of the guard at Town Hall.
Her rivals are well aware they face an uphill battle at the polls.
Clover’s ratepayer-funded PR machine is her greatest asset. It’s also the greatest hurdle we mayoral candidates face during an election, ”independent candidate Yvonne Weldon says.
City of Sydney Liberal Councilor Craig Chung, who is retiring this election and is eyeing a tilt at the federal seat of Bennelong, admits Moore is a “formidable force”.
The dominant line of attack from Moore’s rivals is that it is time for a refresh at the council. “There are a lot of people saying 17 years is enough of Clover,” says councilor and Small Business Party mayoral candidate Angela Vithoulkas. “This is not an election where someone’s been a bad leader – it’s just enough.”
Her rivals’ argument does not wash with Moore.
“When they say it’s time for a change or refresh, I say well, what for?” Moore counters. “I had such a commitment to this work, and I still have it. It depends on whether people want me to continue doing it, but the feedback I get is they do, and some people say never retire. ”
The question is whether 2016 was the high watermark for Moore, and what that might mean for the political dynamic of the new council.
Voters elect 10 councilors on the City of Sydney, including the mayor. In 2016, Moore was elected along with four others on her ticket – Jess Scully, Philip Thalis, Robert Kok and Jess Miller. Those councilors are running again on Moore’s 10-person ticket.
Greens mayoral candidate Sylvie Ellsmore said the party hoped to pick up a seat, and all eyes were on whether Moore’s team would retain its voting majority on the council.
“We think there’s a real chance we could be part of that balance of power on the council. You get better outcomes when people are required to negotiate. ”
The independent team led by Weldon, who is the first Aboriginal candidate for Sydney’s lord mayor, could pick up at least one seat. Labor and Weldon’s team are preferencing each other. Labor’s candidate for the mayoralty is Councilor Linda Scott, who was elected in 2012 and is a former deputy mayor.
The Liberal candidates, on the other hand, run the risk of losing a seat, leaving them with just one on council. Unlike Labor and Weldon, the Liberals will not benefit from any preferences.
Campaigning on “time for a refresh”, Liberal mayoral hopeful Shauna Jarrett says COVID-19 restrictions have made campaigning difficult. Jarrett, a lawyer and executive, readily concedes it is nigh on impossible for her to win. Instead, her focus has been on increasing the Liberal voting bloc.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘I’m not going to vote for her [Moore]’, but then they do not know who to vote for because there is not the profile [among the other candidates] that she has got, ”Jarrett says.
As voters go to the polls, the impact of a once-in-a-generation pandemic looms large across the city. More than 18 months after borders were slammed shut, businesses in the central business district are struggling to recover as office workers resist calls to return.
Plans to jump-start the CBD are a critical election issue in the City of Sydney, where state government changes to voting rules in 2014 shifted the balance favoring local businesses by giving them each two votes. This year, more than 47,000 non-residential voters are listed on the roll, more than double the 22,972 in the 2016 poll.
If 2016 is any guide, however, the influence of the business vote might be muted. In Potts Point, The Little Candle Shop owner Patrice Ribault relied on his regular customer base to survive the recent three-month lockdown.
The elections are not top of his mind, but he points to a shift in sentiment. “Everyone is saying it’s time for a change – I do not know. I am not feeling the 17 years, ”he says of Moore’s tenure as mayor.
Further along Macleay Street, Potts Point Bookshop owner Anna Low is generally content with the council’s performance, and that of Moore’s. Though she adds: “I would imagine you would be looking for some succession plan. There are some really dynamic people in that team. ”
Ask Moore why she deserves another three years at the helm of one of Australia’s richest councils, and she emphasizes her team’s work to drive down carbon emissions, green the city, improve parks, and encourage design excellence for new buildings.
If handed three more years, she also wants to help the city center recover from lockdowns, open more of the harbor for swimming, and provide more social and affordable housing on sites such as Waterloo’s public housing estate.
She has vowed will serve out the remaining three years of her term, if elected. “Peter [her husband] will not let me even discuss that – he’s on board for the three years, ”she says. “And I do not ever like, at an election, to discuss what will happen at the next election because who knows?”
She is coy about who her successor will be, although deputy mayor Jess Scully, who is second on the Team Clover ticket, has been widely tipped. “I have a very talented team, and what I would do if I decide not to run again would be to have a succession plan, as I did when I was forced out of NSW Parliament,” Moore says.
Vithoulkas says City of Sydney voters should decide their mayor at the polling booth, and she wants the tenure for lord mayors capped at three terms.
“It’s not an anointment, it’s a position that has to be earned,” she says. “The biggest superpowers in the world have a cap on serving and that’s to protect democracy.”
Unsurprisingly, Moore is quick to scotch the idea.
“I think it’s a matter for people’s ability; and a matter of people wanting to support you, ”she says. “To do the stuff we’ve done you need time. Vision, commitment, hard work, stability and continuity has enabled us to transform the city, and I would not like to see that derailed. ”
WHO IS IN THE RACE?
Clover Moore, Clover Moore Independent Team
The favorite to win, Clover Moore has been the City of Sydney lord mayor for 17 years. She is a former teacher and state MP who was elected to the city council in 2004. Moore, an independent, is seeking to extend her grip on power at Town Hall to two decades by running for a historic fifth term.
Yvonne Weldon, Independent
Wiradjuri woman Yvonne Weldon is the first Aboriginal Australian to run for lord mayor in the 179-year history of the City of Sydney council. She was endorsed by former councilor Kerryn Phelps, who bowed out of the race for personal reasons. Weldon has spent 20 years working and volunteering in roles linked to education, land rights, health, youth justice and domestic violence.
Angela Vithoulkas, Small Business Party
Councilor and small business advocate Angela Vithoulkas was elected to the City of Sydney council as an independent in 2012. Her long-time business, Vivo Cafe, suffered during construction of Sydney’s light rail project and closed in 2018 after 18 years. She founded the Small Business Party four years ago.
Shauna Jarrett, Liberal
Liberal candidate Shauna Jarrett is a legal and governance consultant. She serves on the board of Sydney’s Australian Museum. She is the wife of former O’Farrell government finance minister Greg Pearce.
Linda Scott, Labor
Labor councilor Linda Scott is a former deputy mayor who has served on the City of Sydney council since 2012. For the past four years, she has been president of Local Government NSW, the organization representing the state’s 128 local councils. She is also president of the Australian Local Government Association.
Sylvie Ellsmore, Greens
Sylvie Ellsmore is a native title and environmental lawyer, researcher and community organizer who works as a policy coordinator at the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney. A former Marrickville councilor and NSW Greens campaign coordinator, she worked for a decade as an Indigenous rights advocate.
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