14/08/2020 - 13:00

Big field in lord mayoral race

14/08/2020 - 13:00

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Controversy and celebrity loom large in what is set to be one of the most consequential elections in the City of Perth’s history.

Big field in lord mayoral race
At age 36, Brodie McCulloch (left) could become the city’s youngest person elected mayor. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

The parallels between the City of Perth’s 2007 and 2020 lord mayoral elections are imperfect if not appropriate.

Then, as now, candidates lined up in opposition to the reputation of the incumbent, with first-term councillor Lisa Scaffidi promising a break from the prickly style of then-lord mayor, Peter Nattrass.

Ms Scaffidi, running on a pro-development platform, had promised to be an approachable mayor if elected, an implicit break from Dr Nattrass, who frequently rubbished new developments and rarely granted interviews to the press.

Indeed, her victory in 2007 coincided with an influx of state and private investment into the city, with her re-election in 2011 – in which she captured 64 per cent of the vote against property investor Anne Bontempo – bearing out her popularity.

It wasn’t until 2015 though, when Ms Scaffidi won 56 per cent of the vote against Councillor Reece Harley, that popular opinion of her began to shift.

That election came as Ms Scaffidi pushed back against accusations by the Corruption and Crime Commission that she had failed to declare a travel gift from BHP to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

And while Ms Scaffidi successfully challenged a disqualification delivered to her by the State Administrative Tribunal in 2017, she was suspended, along with the rest of the council, in 2018 after years of factional infighting.

That paved the way for a more than two-year inquiry into the city’s council and administration, which referred 135 matters of suspected wrongdoing to state and federal authorities on its completion in June this year.

Commissioner Tony Power oversaw that inquiry, and said in his concluding remarks there was reason to believe the council and administration had engaged in improper and unethical conduct, with some councillors believed to have exploited their dining, clothing and grooming allowances.

It was Ms Scaffidi, though, for whom Mr Power reserved his most scathing assessment, referring to her as a divisive figure who encouraged factionalism within the council.

“The community deserved better,” Mr Power said.

Having been without elected representation for more than two years now, the city will hold elections for both its mayoralty and eight vacant councillor positions on October 17.

Much as in 2007, candidates are positioning themselves as a clean break from the incumbent, campaigning as alternatives in style if not substance.

Retired magistrate Tim Schwass has been the most notable candidate of this sort, premising his campaign on a technocratic appreciation for the state’s Local Government Act.

Tim Schwass (left) has campaigned aggressively on the issue of good governance. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

As he sees it, almost all the city’s failings in recent years can be chalked up to a poor understanding of the Act, whether that be the role it enshrines for the council or its relationship with the city’s administration.

His argument is that the council needs someone with experience and knowledge of the law to drive change in the city.

“What happened at the City of Perth … is that the council and the mayor started to order the staff around, which the Local Government Act is clear on the fact you can’t do that,” Mr Schwass told Business News.

“The only job that the council has, and the mayor for that matter … is the power to sack the CEO.

“The situation had become very fraught, but it’s a matter of understanding exactly what the roles are, and it all comes from the legislation.”

Others, such as Mark Gibson, have emphasised their independent status as an asset to their candidacy.

Mr Gibson, a former journalist and radio presenter who comes to the race with little in the way of executive or governance experience, has argued his experience living in Perth puts him in good stead to understand the issues affecting businesses and residents.

That includes a focus on major developments, such as a cable car from Elizabeth Quay to Kings Park, as well as efforts to improve liveability, like more cycle paths and street activation events throughout the city.

He argues his lack of political connections will make him well placed to unite the council should he be elected mayor.

“I haven’t hired a PR firm like some other (candidates), I’m just relying on my network of friends and contacts to strategise and come up with the best campaign,” he told Business News.

“No tickets, no teams, no corporate support; it’s just me.”

His presence in the race, alongside that of Channel 7 presenter and Mr Gibson’s sometimes colleague, Basil Zempilas, has helped draw further attention to the election in recent months.

Basil Zempilas has so far benefited from his near universal name recognition. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Mr Zempilas, who first began weighing a mayoral bid in January, has enjoyed largely uncritical coverage from The West since he officially declared his candidacy in July and is thought to enjoy a close relationship with Seven Group Holdings chair, Kerry Stokes.

He too brings no prior experience in local government to the race and has based his campaign on popular appeals, such as reducing homelessness, cutting red tape and cleaning the city’s streets and malls.

Mr Zempilas did not return multiple interview requests for this article.

While Mr Zempilas’ near universal name recognition has made him the presumed frontrunner in the race, most of his competitors were reluctant to go on record with their criticisms of his candidacy.

Some, however, expressed frustration with the extensive media coverage accorded to him in recent months, especially as he has refused to say whether he would relinquish his high-profile media spots should he be elected mayor.

Mr Gibson has made this contrast repeatedly, saying he will give up his own media commitments should he win the election.

“You can’t tell me you can do breakfast radio, afternoon and evening television, and find the time to be lord mayor,” he told Business News.

Still, Mr Zempilas’ appeal to the city’s Greek constituents – who are well represented in both the city’s residential and business population – is likely to drive support for his candidacy in October.

Veteran political journalist and commentator Peter Kennedy said these voters were generally well organised and uniform in their support, citing them as instrumental to Eleni Evangel’s upset win in the seat of Perth at the 2013 state election.

Whether that’s enough for Mr Zempilas to overcome his status as a political neophyte is debatable.

“People do like Basil, but he doesn’t have a track record in local government or administration,” Mr Kennedy said.

“That’s a potential problem in his campaign.”

Mr Zempilas’ status as the frontrunner is purely notional at this point, with polling of the race difficult given the peculiarities of local government elections.

Unlike federal or state elections, local government elections are conducted entirely by mail-in ballot, and are not compulsory like state or federal elections.

Electors in the city are also enfranchised differently, with residents and non-residential voters granted one vote apiece, and commercial property owners and business owners each granted two votes.

That process will this year require non-residential voters to submit an application to the city’s administration by August 28 for consideration ahead of the October election.

Increased representation for businesses and commercial operators also puts greater value on candidates to appeal to and turnout this constituency, with candidates such as Activate Perth chair Di Bain likely to benefit from this dynamic.

Di Bain came just a few hundred votes short of winning a council seat in 2017.

Ms Bain, who is married to financier John Poynton, ran for council in 2017 and ended up just 279 votes shy of winning a council seat.

She is the only candidate so far who will simultaneously run for mayor as well as a position on council.

Her platform largely emphasises finding new purposes for unused or derelict space in the city, with an emphasis on bringing arts and culture back into the CBD with investment into the Swan River foreshore and the creation of an Indigenous cultural centre.

In many ways, her campaign pledges are a continuation of initiatives she has championed while in the private sector, with her potential mayoralty an extension of her goals to drive the city’s revival.

“We need to restore business and residents’ trust in our city’s local government,” she told Business News.

“Once integrity and accountability and trust is restored, then we can start working out how to transform the city, and the key way to do that will be to leverage our unique assets, and that’s our artists, musicians (and our) culture.

“They’re the future for our city in terms of its narrative.

“From there, a whole lot of other things will flow; commercial businesses will want to set up here because their staff will want to work here because of the lifestyle the city (provides residents).”

While Ms Bain is likely to win a share of the corporate vote on the strength of her business record, she faces stiff competition in this lane from Spacecubed founder and managing director Brodie McCulloch.

Mr McCulloch is a first-time candidate with a compelling personal biography; if he were to win, he would become the city’s youngest ever mayor at age 36, as well as the first openly gay person elected to the role.

Much like Ms Bain, he is running on the strength of his business record, which for him includes about a decade managing 5,200 square metres of co-working space owned and operated by Spacecubed.

His major campaign pledge is to transform Perth into a “smart city”, with an ambitious target to reduce planning approval times by 50 per cent and transition the city’s energy use to 100 per cent renewables by 2030.

While he declined to compare himself with other candidates, he told Business News his experience made him a natural fit for the job.

“I’ve been delivering support to businesses in the city for the last eight years, and I’ve done that through coming up with a clear vision and then getting the support of my team and community to help make that vision happen,” he said.

“In the role as lord mayor, it’s the same thing.

“That’s my approach ... and it’s how I see Perth pushing itself as a global city.”

Further complicating matters for both candidates is the presence of Sandy Anghie, who announced her candidacy as this magazine went to print.

Celebrating the suburbs and neighborhoods of Perth will be key to Sandy Anghie’s campaign. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Ms Anghie serves as project manager to FJM Property’s Historic Heart Project, which has focused on reinvigorating Perth’s east end through social and cultural initiatives.

Her pitch largely focuses on improving the city’s liveability and celebrating the existing character of individual suburbs as a way to attract residents.

“When you think about the great cities of the world, whether it’s London, Paris or New York, they’re not so much just an amazing point of interest or cultural experiences, what makes them special are those distinct neighbourhoods that make them up,” Ms Anghie told Business News.

“We’ve got some great neighbourhoods already … that each have a distinct character.

“Through building this authentic identity in our neighbourhoods, this is what will make people want to live in the city.”

Challenges loom for whoever wins October’s election, including building a cordial relationship with the city’s chief executive, Michelle Reynolds.

Mr Power cited poor relations between the last council and administration as instrumental to the city’s governance failures in recent years.

Ms Reynolds assumed the role earlier this month and, as the city’s chief executive, is charged with managing the city’s 754 staff members, advising the council on the city’s functions and subsequently implementing decisions made by the council.

Effective relationships with the elected council will also be of importance to the mayor.

Just two candidates have declared they’re running for council so far: Mustang Bar managing director Michael Keiller, who’s campaigning on a mix of law and order and arts and culture policies, and Brent Fleeton, a former Liberal Party WA staffer who has previously served as a councillor at the City of Bayswater.

Neither candidate has endorsed a mayoral candidate, nor have most of the mayoral candidates endorsed any candidates for council, with most candidates vowing to come to their roles as independent figures.

The exception to this is Mr Zempilas, who will reportedly run on a ticket with four other councillors who will help enact his policies if elected.

With many businesses throughout the city still reeling from the effects of COVID-19, whoever is elected mayor in October will come to the role juggling economic damage and the burden of regaining the trust of the city’s residents after years of controversy.

According to Mr Kennedy, the challenge for all candidates will be in whether they can prove themselves effective operators after years of factionalism and infighting left the council ineffective.

“The challenge for the mayor … will be to unite the council and turn it into a cohesive unit,” he said.

“The city desperately needs it.”

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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