Christine Forster

It was always going to be fierce battle for the high profile position of mayor of Australia’s richest council, Sydney. The lead up has been plagued by growing levels of vitriol.

The incumbent Clover Moore says the Liberal state government has tried to rig the election by opening up votes to business at the rate of two votes each. This after changing the rules so she could no longer hold a concurrent role as a state MP.

Chief contender for Moore’s job, Christine Forster, is a Lib and supported by premier Mike Baird and most recently deputy premier Gladys Berejiklian. She’s also the sister of controversial former prime minister Tony Abbott.

From Moore has come accusations that Forster has no significant policies, and from Forster that Moore is autocratic and lining up with a team of “celebrities”.

But where does each stand on sustainability?

Forster, on the other hand, declined a telephone interview and instead agreed to emailed questions and answers.

The first indication of her policies was in a media release of 24 August. From our perspective, the goals looked distant, weak and seemingly ineffectual (it was a media release, we accept).

The focus was on a bike hire scheme (despite the failure of similar schemes elsewhere in Australia), reducing the number of dirty trucks trundling through the municipality collecting rubbish and a curious focus on the untidiness of Sydney.

“Litter on our streets is unpleasant for locals and affects how tourists view us,” Forster said. “Internationally, Sydney has to compete with clean, green cities like Vancouver and Singapore.”

There was also mention of financial incentives for rainwater tanks and solar, and a predictable dig at Moore’s failed trigeneration scheme, but details were scant and the policy was devoid of targets, measures or even the level of incentives.

However, in response to questions and counter questions to probe details and methodologies of the strategy, the Forster camp went a long way to fill in the gaps, significantly so. (The disturbing thought though – not for the first time and certainly not related just to this instance – was that here might be evidence that it’s media reaction, rather than genuine research or logic, that drives policy development in politics.)

Among Forster’s initial fray was an attack on Moore’s track record in sustainability.

“Despite Clover Moore’s rhetoric, Sydney is nowhere near on track to meet its very ambitious sustainability targets,” she said.

She later elaborated that Moore’s policies affected only council operations, which were just one per cent of total emissions in the electorate.

“Yet Clover has made a huge deal over reducing this small portion, even using it as an excuse for a junket to the Conference of Parties in Paris.”

(It’s understood that the Sustainable Sydney 2030 strategy refers to the whole municipality.)

We asked more about the impact Foster’s policies would have on the 99 per cent of emissions, and for more details on the subsidies.

“We’re doing our best to calculate from that … scope and cost it out, but we don’t want to propose anything unworkable. There are many, many ways you can reduce emissions across an electorate. They need to be worked out from detailed knowledge.”

Other councils would be consulted, including Manly and Adelaide, which were attracting significant attention with innovative sustainability policies.

Bike hire

On the failure of bike hiring schemes elsewhere, particularly in Melbourne, we suggested this was believed to be because of the requirement to wear helmets. But what about the antagonism to bikes in Sydney?

“Our feedback from the community is that people have negative experiences with speeding bicycles which flout traffic rules and sometimes endanger pedestrians,” Forster said.

“We want to create a more European bicycle culture, in which people use bicycles as a basic form of transport for trips around the city and villages.

“This begins by encouraging more cyclists onto our underutilised bike paths, but also by enforcing speed limits and road rules on irresponsible cyclists.”

And helmets would be included in the bike hire scheme.

Subsidies

On subsidies for sustainable outcomes, Forster said, “Meeting our targets will require empowering individuals to do the best they can, to build on the actions council has already taken. I will introduce incentives in the form of rates rebates to support households and businesses that choose to install rainwater tanks and solar panels.”

The scope of this emerged as up to $1 million in subsidies. Later this was fleshed out at rebates on council rates, capped at $250 for each household for up to a total of 4000 households.

Of the 75 per cent of residents who live in apartments and would not be able to benefit in this, Forster said the City of Sydney already had a sustainable apartments initiative which she supported.

“We will be open to ideas and suggestions from the community on how we can strengthen this program, which is currently focused on education and access to small grants.”

Waste

On waste Forster said she would install public recycling bins to help people do the right thing. “At the moment, there are no opportunities to recycle rubbish in our parks and streets,” she said.

There was also the now familiar tilt to what cousin Melbourne was up to.

Not only was Sydney untidy, Forster said, but, “What’s worse, Sydney has not even thought about adopting the same innovations as Melbourne, which now has local government-funded bins that compress waste prior to collection and reduces the number of truck trips required into the CBD.”

(On the Melbourne thing, Moore herself has been far from bashful when it comes to looking south for ideas, famously sending a bunch of scouts to see how Melbourne did its laneways – not a bad idea, given how Sydney’s street life has since improved).

Planning and incentives

On the broader issues of planning and improvement to the quality and sustainability of apartment buildings Forster said this was a state matter.

“Apartment quality standards are set under state planning laws. Naturally, we want our buildings to meet the highest possible design standards and I will be looking to ensure that through council’s planning processes.”

The Bays Precinct and Central to Eveleigh were, again, state responsibilities: “These projects will be developed by the state government, and it is important that the City has as much influence as possible in that process.”

Business would be helped

Forster was enthusiastic on the opportunity to stimulate business activity.

“We have released a number of policies to support existing and new businesses, including abolishing outdoor dining fees to encourage small businesses which add to the vibrancy of our communities and affordable offices for start-ups.”

And there will be digital sharing

“We will also appoint a digital director to make Council more efficient and easy to deal with.

“We want to be a genuinely consultative government, which is why we will also establish and fund community forums in each of the eight villages, to encourage communities to realise their opportunities. Council planners and decision-makers will staff listening posts in the community to ensure that the people taking decisions at Council receive direct feedback from people affected by their decisions. I will personally ensure that this feedback is acted upon.”

Car share

One issue quickly dispatched was the rumour that Forster intended to rid the city of car share spaces. Well, car share spaces took up parking spaces, she said; it was better to encourage the use of existing cars through schemes such as Car Next Door.

But car share would stay under her watch; it would merely be subject to more competition.

Process

Key changes in governance would be the introduction of portfolios for councils, similar to City of Melbourne’s system.

The Clover Moore Party, she said “seems to believe that it knows best for Sydney, but under her watch important cultural precincts like Oxford St have become wastelands. The city has a rat problem and businesses are crippled by Council red tape and petty bureaucracy that have led to ridiculous situations, like 18 months to obtain simple approvals. While regulation is necessary, it has gotten out of control. We will impose a common-sense test to reign in bureaucratic overreach.”

Clover’s biggest failing was that she had “started to believe that whatever she wants is what the residents and businesses want. Sydney has become a gigantic vanity project. This is unlikely to change if she and her celebrity ticket are elected.”

The views of a resident activist

In the view of one City of Sydney resident activist on sustainability, Michael Mobbs, Moore had been strongly supportive of some of his sustainability work including the street cooler project to lighten the colour of the road to reduce the heat island effect. The council had funded a trial outside his Chippendale house and the project was now being trialled in neighbouring Marrickville.

However, the most powerful way to influence sustainability, he said, was through financial incentives, and this had been strongly resisted by the Moore team.

“There is not one financial incentive that council is offering building owners to carry out their own energy work,” he said.

He pointed to the work of Adelaide’s council in partnership with the state government to subsidise sustainability initiatives (by up to $5000).

Sydney, he said, was Australia’s richest municipality and needed to go the same way.