Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has picked a high-profile group of challengers with specialties in key community and urban issues to run with her in the City of Sydney local government election to be held on 10 September and help her beat a concerted effort to unseat her after 12 years in the position.
The independent ticket includes medical profession Professor Kerryn Phelps, architect and urban design advocate Philip Thalis, lawyer and current councillor Robert Kok and arts curator Jess Scully.
In the sustainability field, the team includes young and rising sustainability advocate Jess Miller, currently involved in the 202020 Vision campaign to increase green space in urban areas, and Catherine Lezer, a property and finance expert who has become an advocate for green strata reform.
We spoke to the two candidates about their decision to run, and their vision for the council if elected.
Jess Miller describes her lead-up to running with the City of Sydney “like dating”.
You think you like each other. You’re a little bit nervous. You test the waters, then pluck up the courage to ask them out, she says. Her date with the council has lasted for around 10 years, during which time she’s worked on “some pretty amazing projects”.
Miller, who holds a bachelor of arts and international relations from ANU, has been involved in a long list of sustainability initiatives, including 202020 Vision, the Bondi Gobbler project with Michael Mobbs, community engagement strategies at Barangaroo, the governance framework development for the Goods Line, TEDxSydney and most recently the Directory of Good Design and the Black Book of Green People, which features The Fifth Estate managing editor Tina Perinotto.
Miller was also involved in the election campaign that saw Ms Moore returned as Lord Mayor in 2012, amidst a strong counter campaign.
The City’s work in the sustainability space, and its independence from the traditional political parties, has been a drawcard for her.
“I think in terms of urban greening and sustainability policies, the City is incredibly progressive and definitely leading from the front,” she told The Fifth Estate.
However, for Miller, getting elected is less about pushing a particular agenda.
It’s about “making sure that we’re protecting what’s already been created in terms of a strong vision and a thoughtful, democratic process of implementing that vision”.
Engaging the community in local government is what she’s most excited about.
“The critical thing is getting people to vote and engage,” she says.
“Local government is an incredible institution. You’re at the coal face and you’re accountable to everyone.”
It’s where people’s votes can really have tangible outcomes too, she says.
“If you really want to do something and see your life directly impacted, [voting in] local government [elections] is where it’s at.”
Miller dismisses any notion that Moore has chosen candidates based on their public profiles.
“I think the ticket and team is so strong not because it’s a bunch of people with profile, but because it’s a bunch of people who are active in their communities and who care deeply about the issues.”
And they’re people she believes the public can see “not as politicians with an agenda but as people that care about improving the lives of everyone”.
Miller wants people to think, “I could do that too.”
“You shouldn’t have to be rich, well-connected or a member of a political party to be involved in government.”
What’s of critical importance to her is that the city stays in independent hands so it doesn’t fall victim to a particular political or ideological agenda.
Another interesting sustainability contender is Catherine Lezer, a property and finance professional who has been active in green strata reform as director of Strata Community Australia.
With 75 per cent of the city’s residents living in apartments, and the ramping up of apartment sustainability in the City, Lezer is a logical choice for the ticket.
“I interact with a lot of different councils, and some of them are not paying attention to sustainability in strata at all,” Lezer told The Fifth Estate. “And City of Sydney you could say are the leaders in sustainability.
“The way they’re pushing the envelope and the targets they’re setting in terms of sustainability are very ambitious, and they understand that with strata being about 75 per cent of their buildings, they have to impact that level.”
Lezer says strata sustainability is a hard conversation to have because decision-making can be notoriously difficult.
“Very often, it’s sad but it’s true, strata is left in the ‘too hard’ basket. What City of Sydney are doing is helping not just at the ‘this is what you can do’ level … but they are actually helping people with the decision-making.”
Lezer has personal experience pushing for strata sustainability, driving upgrades at two apartment blocks where she is chair of the owners’ corporation.
She says the attraction to running with the independent team was due to a lack of strong policy around building sustainability in the major parties.
“I had to fit with the independents because of that.”
Other issues Lezer is interested in promoting if elected include amenity, open space, transport and urban renewal.
She says property and the environment are her major passions, which have informed her decision to run, as they are at the core of local government.
Business voting changes could have an impact
Moore says her team needs to be re-elected with a majority if the progressive nature of the City of Sydney was to continue.
“This team is incredibly important – if we want our progressive work at the City to continue then I need to be re-elected with a strong majority,” she says. “I’ve chosen people I strongly believe are best placed to work with me to lead the City of Sydney now and into the future and I am proud to stand alongside all of them.
“Everyone on my team has proven their mettle as experienced leaders and powerful advocates in business, planning, creative culture, sustainability and governance. They come with formidable reputations and a passion for our city.”
Just how well the independent team will go will be closely watched, following changes passed by the state government giving business two votes to a resident’s one. The change only applies to the City of Sydney local government area.
Miller told The Fifth Estate there was a real risk to democracy from the reform, which many have labelled tantamount to gerrymandering, with the change, passed by the Liberal Government with support from the Shooters and Fishers party, expected to direct more votes to the Liberal Party.
“If the intention behind those changes was to funnel more votes to the Liberal Party, I think that residents should be really concerned,” she says.
“People who live in the city should have just as much say as businesses.”
Whether businesses will turn away strongly from Moore is still unclear. Lezer told The Fifth Estate the city was “very well respected” in the business sector, and she credits Moore for revitalising the CBD, which has increased business opportunities dramatically.
“When I first moved to Sydney 20 years ago, the CBD was pretty dead,” Lezer says.
“Now it’s thriving. People are around all the time.”