Elizabeth Farrelly.

Architectural critic, author, academic and novelist Elizabeth Farrelly is having another tilt at turning her extensive knowledge and strong opinions about Sydney’s future into a political channel that might have some clout in shaping NSW’s future.

She’s considering running for a NSW upper house seat in the next state election.

In February she tested her political wings to stand in a byelection for the state seat of Strathfield and the result was enough to encourage her to go again, she tells The Fifth Estate.

“We did astonishingly well – 10 per cent support of the vote. That was amazing – it placed us third, higher than the Greens,” she told her supporters in an email urgently more voters to sign up as party members, ahead of a very early deadline next week.

In the teal-like platform she’s developed Farrelly has focused on sustainability in the built environment and “decency, intelligence and truth back into government”.

It’s not going to be welcomed by a significant and particular cohort of people that she needled in her regular long standing column in The Sydney Morning Herald, where she maintained a “take no prisoners” approach to a broad range of issues from planning to government probity and general societal trends.

The structure for her campaign will be The Open Party, renamed and repurposed from its former iteration as Keep Sydney Open, designed to rid Sydney of its lockout laws.

The party is necessary she says because NSW’s electoral system for the upper house is heavily stacked against independents.

But the trick is that to keep the party’s registration active, she needs another 150 members or so. And it’s an EOFY deadline, by 30 June. But still that should not be an impossible task, given that her column was immensely popular and the reason many readers said they bought the Saturday Herald every week.

There is no commitment and no fee associated with filling in the form, she assures, but still, it’s a challenge.

“Obviously a lot of people who naturally support independents are sort of reluctant to join political parties, and I consider myself amongst them. So it’s a slightly uphill battle,” Farrelly told The Fifth Estate.

Cities as a sacred place

Farrelly says the key message of her campaign will be “that we really need to start to understand our cities as our home and as a sacred space – to recognise that we can build real social meaning into our neighbourhoods”. 

“That’s not impossible, and it just takes a little bit of political will. It’s really that reinvestment in your city, and in your local urban village.

“That idea of the city as home is critical, and it sort of extends really to thinking of the planet as home.”

While the campaign’s policy platform is still being fleshed out, some key points will include: 

  • support for anti-corruption legislation
  • an embargo on new coal mines 
  • immediate, planned transition to renewables and clean jobs
  • an ambitious carbon reduction target for NSW by 2030
  • support for electric vehicle infrastructure
  • support for public, social and affordable housing
  • more teeth for ICAC
  • more strength to the arts
  • a royal commission into the development industry

What about the SEPP?

On the state’s now-abandoned Design and Place SEPP proposal, which is shaping up to be a key state election issue, Farelly says that there were “promising moments” in the policy, particularly around the ban on dark coloured roofs.

However, she’s sceptical of former planning minister Rob Stokes’ principles-based approach to planning policy, on the grounds that it risked giving developers more sway in terms of determining their own rules.

“The unceremonious dumping of the SEPP was, in many ways, a sign that the idea of creating a sense of place or having any kind of real environmental responsibility in planning had completely been abandoned,” she says.

Building meaningful communities

The idea of a 10 minute or 15 minute city, made up of walkable neighbourhoods, is at the core of building communities with real social meaning, she says. 

“The way that the development lobby has pretended to counteract the car dependency of our suburbs is by saying ‘okay, we’re just gonna do high density by putting towers everywhere’.

“But it hasn’t really stopped people being car dependent, because towers by themselves don’t generate anything in the way of walkable neighbourhoods.

“Yes, it provides a lot of density, but you don’t automatically get decent streets or places or shops that people walk through, or any of the other amenities – cinemas and pools and local eat streets – that people can and will walk to.”

Citing Sydney’s inner-west neighbourhoods of Glebe and Newtown as examples, Farelly says  the key was to embrace a “gently denser” model of townhouses and low-rise apartments, which allow people to walk to everything they need to survive in a dignified and urban way. This includes things such as restaurants, cafes, and wine bars.

“I think if you can do that, which is not very difficult, then you not only make better streets, you make quite big inroads in our carbon footprint because people will start walking and cycling places which otherwise they would drive to.” 

“You generate a sense of community and connection that people start to know their local shopkeepers, their local greengrocers and become friends. 

“People, in that old fashioned way, pop out to the local shops, say hi to the local shopkeepers, have a bit of a talk, buy some carrots and some milk and a newspaper, and then walk home again.”

The Upper House is elected by proportional representation across the State, meaning that a 10 per cent vote statewide would be enough to elect at least one and perhaps two members in 2023. 

Helping is as easy as joining her new party with an email, Farrelly says.

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