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Fiddling around the edges of influence

Is the highly sought after position of lord mayor really worth winning? Joe Poprzeczny assesses its limited powers and offers recommendations on how to improve the role.

IMAGINE, on September 11 this year, a Jumbo jet destined for London via Singapore lifts off from Perth International Airport.

As it ascends over Kensington-South Perth, three masked terrorists gain control and the fully fuel-laden aircraft peals-off northwards and crashes into buildings along

St George’s Terrace and William Street.

Who would respond by taking overall control of the emergency relief work during such a catastrophe?

When precisely such a tragedy befell New York City on September 11 2001 it was that city’s mayor, Rudy Guilliani, who promptly grasped the reins of power to lead from the front.

He immediately left city hall to be near his city’s policemen and women, firemen and other emergency workers at the already doomed World Trade Center’s towers.

Mayor Guilliani’s actions deeply impressed many people worldwide – so much so that some councillors from Australian cities even wrote to commend him.

“Warrnambool City Councillors resolved at a meeting on Monday to send a message to New York Mayor Rudy Guilliani, commending him on his leadership of the devastated city since the air attack two weeks ago,” their statement of September 27 2001 said.

If a similar attack was witnessed in Perth, a lord mayor would never become so involved.

Rather, it could well be Health Minister, Bob Kucera, or Police Commissioner Barry Matthews, or even the on-duty Perth Fire Brigade or State Emergency Service chief.

If the exploding jumbo doesn’t damage the lifts in the Governor Stirling Centre Tower on St George’s Terrace, where the premier’s office is located, perhaps Geoff Gallop would oversee the rescue work.

Pondering such a hypothetical and horrifying event starkly demonstrates how powerless Perth’s lord mayor really is, despite holding a prestigious historic office that, on the face of it, resembles Mayor Guilliani’s.

The post of Perth’s first citizen was inherited from 16th century England and Ireland where London, York and Dublin gained lord may-ors, and therefore a degree of independence from the Crown.

Scotland – and Perth has a Scottish city’s name – has Provosts.

Unlike American cities and counties, WA’s cities and shires don’t have powers over police, education, health and legal services because state governments have retained these from colonial times.

Like other Australian States, WA has never seen fit to delegate significant powers to local authorities, whereas in 1900-01 all States permanently delegated an array of powers to the newly created Australian national government now sitting in Canberra.

Perth emerged and grew with the State and all State governments have tended to see the capital’s council as little more than an old-style country road board.

American cities and counties, on the other hand, more closely resemble Australian States – they are, in fact, like mini States, with elected officials whose powers resemble those of Australian States.

American mayors can be similar to Australian premiers, and in several cases represent many more people than any premier.

American counties and cities administer the law and have sheriffs, police commissioners and judges. They administer education and so employ teachers; they administer public health, fire brigades, transport and so on.

That’s why Mayor Guilliani, not New York State’s governor, was the key man coordinating rescue and relief during the September 11 2001 disaster.

Perth’s lord mayor has virtually no power.

Perth’s lord mayor is elected primarily to chair monthly council meetings, and so is a prestigious gold-chain wearing ceremonial figure-head.

And if, by chance, an incumbent fails to gather a clique of like-minded councillors, meaning getting a caucus of four or more of the eight councillors on side, he or she would be an impotent committee chairperson.

Current Lord Mayor Peter Nattrass has ensured he leads a faction of four councillors. He dominates, not simply chairs, council meetings, since he also votes and even has a casting vote, meaning his clique wins even when one of his backers is absent.

But that’s about as far as things go, after taking into account the overseeing of council libraries, garbage collection, rating, parking, and planning applications pertaining to the city’s town plan.

Beyond that plan a range of State government agencies – the Transport Department, Planning Commission, the East Perth Redevelopment Authority and Westrail – have the determining say on the shape and format of WA’s capital.

The most powerful person in relation to Perth city is, therefore Planning and Infrastructure Minister Alannah MacTiernan, a former Perth City councillor, but now someone who sits in parliament because of voters in Armadale and environs, and who holds her ministerial post because of Labor factional horse-trading deals.

This was starkly shown in July 2001 with Ms MacTiernan’s announcement that the Mandurah-Joondalup railway line would pass along Kwinana Freeway, not via Kenwick, and then through the very heart of Perth city in a tunnel below the CBD segment of William Street.

Perth city’s contribution in terms of ideas to this costly initiative prior to its announcement was nil. All the

planning and proposing was carried out by the minister’s boffins.

And that’s how things have essentially remained to this day on this huge project, despite much dissatisfaction about it among several councillors.

 Only after the railway tunnel plan was unveiled did Ms MacTiernan convene a city railway committee – a committee to which Dr Nattrass and another councillor were appointed by the minister, rather than elected by the council.

Let’s also not forget that Ms MacTiernan’s railway CBD tunneling plan failed to include concurrent sinking of the Perth-Fremantle railway line, meaning the complete redevelopment and enhancement of the CBD’s ugly central precinct was not part of the original plan.

Instead she’s proposed tunneling beneath the Perth-Fremantle lines, with the William Street tunnel surfacing at the intersections of Lake and Roe streets.

This limited approach caused considerable disquiet within Perth Council, since it meant the derelict railway yard would remain undeveloped.

In a rare show of independence council responded by convening an expert committee chaired by Councillor Bert Tudori, which wants the Perth-Fremantle line sunk to the Mitchell Freeway so the city’s heart is simultaneously redeveloped.

Although Ms MacTiernan is slowly moving to perhaps accepting the Tudori Committee’s enhancement proposal, a final decision has yet to be made.

If she doesn’t agree there’s nothing Perth City Council or a lord mayor will ever be able to do, despite the fact that its keen to contribute for the cost of the sinking of the lines, up to about $100 million.

A lord mayor will simply have to grin and bear it, showing once again the powerlessness of the position.

This is strange indeed because it was non-CBD or outer suburban Armadale voters, not Perth rate-payers, property owners and occupiers who elected Ms MacTiernan to her position of power.

But everything hinges on Ms MacTiernan agreeing. She may, but she may not.

Candidates at lord mayoral elections who trot out traditional platforms such as the combating of street crime, planning reforms, or as presently being done, the sinking of the Perth-Fremantle line, have no power over such issues, so their promises are meaningless gestures or, at best, hopes.

That said, there is another way lord mayors can make a mark.

This calls for incumbents to develop a distinct media persona, something Dr Nattrass hasn’t done.

Only one Australian Lord Mayor, Brisbane’s Sally-Anne Atkinson, who held that post between 1985 and 1991, has succeeded in this regard.

By successfully projecting her personality and views Ms Atkinson greatly assisted Brisbane in a range of campaigns and initiatives that propelled her capital forward.

Another to perhaps fall into Sally-Anne Atkinson’s category, though he was only mayor, was Bruce Small of the Gold Coast.

Mayor Small, a successful businessman of Malvern Star bicycle company fame, and later MP for Surfers Paradise and a Sir, projected a progressive image for Queens-land’s then budding Gold Coast.

Like an American presidential candidate he conducted orchestras, kissed babies, pressed the flesh constantly and ran for election with Australia’s catchiest ever political slogan – “Think Big, Vote Small”.

The nearest Perth has come to this was when former Liberal Senator Reg Withers served as lord mayor.

Because he was nationally known – being a key Canberra powerbroker during the tumultuous Whitlam Labor years, during which time he became known Australia-wide as ‘the toecutter’ – Mr Withers brought some benefits to Perth, and therefore WA, though it’s difficult to quantify these.

Apart from him, Perth has never attracted a forceful individual to its most prestigious but weak number one position; weak because that’s the way all State governments – Labor and Liberal – have wished it to remain.

If Perth city councillors were serious about their role in the governance of WA’s capital they would move to fundamentally restructure the balance of power and responsibilities in the planning of the city.

They would insist to all the political parties that a joint city-State planning commission (JCSPC) be created and that the council and State government agree to bind them-selves to its visions and planning outcomes.

Such a commission could include three councillors; the MLA for the Seat of Perth; one representative each of the premier and the planning minister; the heads of the Department of Transport and the State Planning Commission, and most important of all, the lord mayor.

And this new JCSPC would have its own expert staff.

Until that happens, Perth’s lord mayoral position may well remain prestigious, but it will always play third fiddle to State planning ministers.

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