What sort of leader does Perth need?

31/08/2020 - 15:00


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Candidates in the City of Perth's upcoming lord mayoral election should keep in mind that running a council involves a lot of saying "no", writes Simon Withers.

What sort of leader does Perth need?
The City of Perth has been without elected representation since 2018. Photo: Attila Csaszar

There is an interesting collection of candidates in the race for lord mayor of the City of Perth, not least of all because none of them have ever sat on a council.

If you have never worked in local government, it is very easy to say “Why doesn’t the council do this or that?”

Sometimes it is a good question, but most of the time there is a reason behind the council’s action or inaction.

Where change is a good idea, you cannot achieve it by walking into a control room and pressing a large green button.

The process is more like Australian Ninja Warrior in slow motion.

Here is a list of issues and questions to help voters assess the candidates, and for the candidates themselves to consider:


The main problem with the previous council was governance, or a lack of it.

“Good governance” is easy to put on a list of promises, but who has a track record in the nitty-gritty grind of delivering good governance?

Most candidates are running on platforms that emphasise revitalising Perth and say little about governance.

There seems to be an assumption that the new Lord Mayor, the new council and the recently appointed chief executive will hit the ground running.

I would like to hear a candidate say that they will spend the first year transitioning from suspension, getting the governance function to work effectively under the new council and nurturing the right culture in the organisation.


Do the candidates understand the role of lord mayor?

A number of them seem to think they are running to be the premier or a chief executive, promising to do all kinds of things if they are elected.

The City of Perth's lord mayor does not have executive power and cannot authorise spending or give orders to staff; that power resides with the CEO.

The mayor doesn’t even have oversight power, which resides with the council.

The chief executive takes direction from the council, which has nine elected members, whereas the mayor chairs the council meetings and supports the council’s decisions, regardless of whether he or she agrees with them.


From the outside, the role of mayor appears to be leading from the front and giving speeches.

Inside local government, effective leadership involves getting a disconnected group of people, each with their own agendas, to move forward in the same direction.

The mayor doesn’t get to choose who sits on the council - unless they run a ticket at the election - and has to deal with whoever is elected.

And thanks to the electoral system, there is at least one idiot on every council and a number of councillors who want to go in different direction.

There can be a lot of councillors who won’t follow the leader, which was demonstrated so well by the last elected council.

Many candidates talk about what “I” will do, but don’t talk about how they will work with the elected members and senior executives to get things done.

Can they work within the system?

Change doesn’t just happen. There are processes and they move slowly.

You also must have the capacity to read and absorb numerous, regular, lengthy, tedious agendas for council and committee meetings.

Many important decisions are buried in those agendas.

Time commitment

Being the lord mayor is a full-time job.

There are a substantial number of ceremonies and functions, and attendees to those functions expect to see the mayor, not a delegate.

And then there are council and committee meetings.

In most councils, the bulk of the work is done through committees, and if you are not across what is going through the committees, you will miss most of what is going on in the council.

Council and committee meetings are usually in the evenings, as are many functions, so a lord mayor should not expect to spend many evenings at home with their family.

Previous lord mayors either didn’t have children or their children were adults when they held the position.

Conflict of interest

Does the candidate’s family or employer have property interests in the city or commercial relationships with the council?

It would be great to have a lord mayor who was unconnected to commercial interests.


Does Perth need a wartime leader or a cheerleader?

Many candidates are talking about bringing people back to the city and creating a buzz, but is that realistic in a COVID-19 world?

What if physical distancing has to continue for years?

What if offices remain half empty?

Will semi-used buildings lead to a revision of the rating model and lower parking revenue, leading to lower council income and the need to cut costs?

If COVID-19 is not conquered, should the mayor be promoting policies that will turn the city into a densely packed Petri dish?

It’s easy to promise to bring more people into the city. Everybody loves that.

The question is: who is prepared to make the tough, unpopular decisions?

Who will stand next to the premier and support restrictions?

Who will stand up and tell the retailers, the restaurant, café and bar owners, and the landlords that life is going to be hard?

Finally, candidates should keep in mind that running for lord mayor the first time involves saying “yes” a lot, whereas running the council involves saying “no” a lot.

Simon Withers was mayor of the Town of Cambridge between 2007 and 2015.


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