Can the City of Sydney survive?


Last Wednesday, the ALP’s sole City of Sydney councillor, Meredith Burgmann, announced a plan for the party to use an open primary to choose their candidate for Lord Mayor of Sydney.

The following day, the Greens preselected Cr Irene Doutney as the party’s lead candidate and Lord Mayoral candidate for the election, which is due in September.

The ALP and the Greens, along with the Liberal Party, are all placed in opposition to the local juggernaut of Clover Moore and her allies. Moore has served as an independent member of the Legislative Assembly since 1988, and has served as Lord Mayor of Sydney since 2004.

She has been a popular Lord Mayor, solidly holding her state seat and easily retaining the mayoralty in 2008. Five of Moore’s supporters were elected to the nine-member council in 2008, along with two Greens and one each from the ALP and the Liberal Party.

As Lord Mayor, Moore has clearly appealed to the left-wing voters in the inner suburbs that make up the majority of the City of Sydney electorate, in suburbs like Glebe, Paddington, Surry Hills, Ultimo, Pyrmont, Redfern and the suburbs of South Sydney.

While this has allowed her to maintain her hold on her seat and her mayoralty, it has made her unpopular with the right-wing Sydney press. Right-wing shock jocks like Alan Jones and the Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph have targetted her policies, in particular her plans to encourage cycling in the city by building an extensive network of cycleways. She has endured similar attacks from Premier Barry O’Farrell and his ministers.

At the 2011 state election, Liberal candidate Adrian Bartels outpolled the Labor and Greens candidates, and reduced Moore’s two-party margin to 3.1%.

The Liberal Party clearly are aiming to see Clover Moore removed from power. Her agenda stands in direct contrast to the new Coalition government, and current figures suggest that the Liberal Party would be well-placed to gain her seat of Sydney if she was removed.

The first part of the Liberal Party plan has already begun to unfold. The O’Farrell government has announced plans to ban Members of Parliament from running for local government elections.

There are currently a large number of councillors sitting in the NSW Parliament, including Liberals, Greens, Labor MPs and Christian Democrats. Amongst all of these councillors, Clover Moore appears to be the only one who plans to stand for another term.

If the planned legislation is passed, Moore would likely resign from Parliament before September, allowing her to continue as Lord Mayor. This will result in a by-election, which will likely be a contest between the Liberals, the Greens and possibly a Moore ally.

The puzzling element of this plan is that, while it gives the Liberals an extra seat in the Parliament, it leaves Moore solidly in control of the City of Sydney, and may indeed cause a backlash against the Liberal Party at the next council elections.

If the Liberal Party really want to remove Clover Moore’s influence over the City, I expect they will do the same as the last two state Coalition governments. Both the Askin government in the 1960s and the Greiner govenrment in the 1980s started with a large City of Sydney covering similar territory to the modern City, and then broke it in half, creating another municipality in the southern parts of the City.

Since most local government boundaries in the Sydney region were redrawn in 1947/1948, most local governments have not seen another change. Concord and Drummoyne were merged in the early 2000s, and there have been some other small changes. Apart from these, the only changes have been to the City of Sydney and its neighbours. In the late 1940s the City of Sydney expanded to cover a number of small councils covering modern-day South Sydney and other neighbours.

Since that time, every new government has redrawn the City for its own interests. Askin’s government shrunk the City, and then the Wran government expanded it. Under Greiner, South Sydney was restored, covering most of the suburban territory now part of the City of Sydney. Most recently, in 2003-2004 the Cities of Sydney and South Sydney were sacked and then merged, in the expectation that the ALP’s Michael Lee would be elected Lord Mayor. Lee was defeated by Moore, who had been a member of the expanded City of Sydney prior to its sacking in 1988.

There is intense speculation amongst local councillors around NSW that the O’Farrell government is planning a new round of amalgamations of local councils, but I don’t think that is their plan for the City of Sydney.

Any expansion of the territory of the City of Sydney in any direction would likely see Moore retain her control, as she is popular both amongst the Liberal voters to the east and the Labor and Greens voters to the west in Marrickville and Balmain. She would likely eat into the other parties’ votes in those areas, and would remain Lord Mayor of a more powerful and richer council.

If the government really wishes to undermine Moore, they would do what the last two Liberal governments did: cut it in half. Moore’s base is strongest in suburban parts of the City of Sydney. If most of these areas were broken off into South Sydney, or handed over to neighbouring councils such as Woollahra, Leichhardt and Marrickville, then the City of Sydney would be far more dominated by the Liberal-voting CBD and a small number of neighbouring suburbs.

If Moore wished, she could then seek to serve as Mayor of a new suburban council, but this council would govern without the prestige or the financial boom that comes from governing over the Sydney CBD. It is likely she would walk away from local government in such circumstances. If the Liberals have already forced her out of the Parliament, this would leave her without a platform, and the Liberals with a far more agreeable City of Sydney.

I expect this is their plan. It is the same as has been done by every conservative government since the War, and it would effectively end the rule of the City of Sydney by a populist centre-left politician who caters to the inner-city suburbs rather than the businesses in the CBD. It may only be a matter of time.

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  1. One would doubt any amalgamations will happen in the Eastern Suburbs or North Shore. If it does happen, it would likely to be the consolidation of councils in the Inner West and Greater Western Sydney.

  2. They should do something to change Botany Bay council. Merge it with Randwick or something. Or at least change the electoral system.

  3. I could be wrong but seem to recall that after Wran/Unsworth dismissed Council a report was commissioned that proposed scrapping local govt for CBD altogether!

  4. Well, now we have part of our answer – the O’Farrell government has just moved to partially take over the traffic management planning powers of the council.

  5. The big question for me as a greens member is why aren’t greens supporting Clover Moore instead of competing with her and playing into the hands of O’Farrell (and ALP)? She is delivering a liveable city and surely this is in line with many Greens policies even if not perfect. I dont think the Greens in city of Sydney have a realistic chance or the depth of talent to displace her. Sometimes I think opposing her policies is mainly about ego.

  6. Clover has done an excellent job , borrowing Green ideas, compared to what went on before her.
    the Greens will do even better!

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