Politics

City of Sydney council election: No longer 'one vote, one value'

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(Image via cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au)

Jane Salmon discusses the Baird Government's legislation changes allowing businesses to have double the vote of local residents and the importance of "one vote, one value" in the upcoming City of Sydney council elections. 

ANY GERRYMANDER where the rich get double the votes is a complete attack on democracy.

One vote per citizen and everyone having an equal say is the cornerstone of a representative political system. New council voting rules are shredding the fabric of that system.

In Sydney, this basic principle has been undermined by new rules for City Council elections. These changes introduced by the Baird State Government to the City of Sydney Act 1988, double the votes for businesses and landlords. Unions who own property, however, get no say. Local citizens also get only one vote.

The older major parties barely attempt to conceal their close, and often, corrupt relationships with developers. Decisions made often adversely affect residents. Polluting stack or incinerator locations, footbridge plans, Westconnex plans, casino plans, binge-drinking, lack of late night public transport, exempted development sites like Barangaroo, public housing sell-offs or "decantings", relocations, excessive foreign ownership and over supply of cheap, nasty units are all cases in point.

There are plenty of strata properties in the CBD and those residents face unique challenges. I believe incumbent Lord Mayor Clover Moore and her team ably represent them. I also believe there are several reasons why inner city residents should not be "over Clover" despite the urgings of slippery shock jocks and politically aligned tabloid TV or print media.

The Liberal Party's fixation with parking and late night drinking misses much of what is truly at stake.

Social housing residents are more or less a residential "united nations" based on vulnerability. These residents cannot afford to buy or bribe their way out of situations. Many aspects of their lives and needs are managed tokenistically or as a wholesale unit. Theu often feel powerless, frustrated and overlooked. They may not be fun to deal with. And yet Clover Moore persists in visiting them and engaging with them where most other candidates do not.

Low-income residents of social housing are forced to get along together. It takes incredible mental strength to cope. This can be incredibly hard given mixed levels of trauma, addiction, education and opportunity concentrated into a tower precinct with human urine and vomit pooling in every stairwell.

Governments at all levels seem to obfuscate the path of accountability and redress. I was on the receiving end of a great rant about the Australian political "concrete mixer" from a senior of Eastern European extraction yesterday. Who can put solar panels on tower blocks to run power, heating or air-conditioners? Who moved the bus stop and why?

Patient discussions need to be held about how cycle ways may change the transport patterns but also reduce air toxicity near towers. Pollution and bad diet and health care is genocidal for the poor. (Bikes in laundries and stairwells suggest that many social housing residents do, in fact, value the Council's bike network).

Jealousy and petty rules about income levels mean no one in social housing dares get too far ahead. Few get to escape their urban nightmare for weekends in the mountains or at the beach due to sheer poverty. But in theory, freedom of movement is possible: unlike detention on Manus or jail onshore, for example.

Local parks, flower beds and window boxes are appreciated and cherished in this group more than those of better means who can drive to a national park can possibly imagine.

Government austerity does not alter the fact that Housing NSW still is capable of doing a better job than many slum landlords of ensuring that lifts and hall carpets are maintained or replaced, doors repaired and some basic security precautions are in place.

Residents still have several ways of achieving individual expression and significance.

One key way is that precious equal right to vote. It gives each individual relevance for as long as they are functional enough to see it and care about it. The Baird Government are actually attacking that not just by austerity cuts to health and education but also by this gerrymander.

Door knocking matters profoundly. People who have never been approached face to face with an election flyer in their own first language feel validated by the effort to recognise their struggle to become bi-lingual or tri-lingual. When we write, print, carry and offer that information we show them respect.

Self-expression emerges in the enormous discipline it takes to make a functional home where the clutter is culled to keep a tiny space tidy or "Zen", where the net curtains are laundered and straight, where the grandchildren do their homework and where the floor is vacuumed twice a week. There is the love and therapy of pets. There is the putting aside the fear of fires, petty theft, jimmying’s, muggings, injuries, filth and illness from other residents and their visitors in the lifts or laundry and all those other horrors.

Residents make remarkable efforts to help each other. I saw some brilliant examples of mutual advocacy going on in the towers yesterday.

Even the most cognitively impaired can care about the neighbour with MS who can't reach the bus stop. There are clothing swaps on the fences. 

One clearly well-educated man with oval glasses was lobbying to the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) for a safety buzzer and some shower modifications for his mobility impaired neighbour. He was bringing a lot of persuasive skill and conviction to his appeal. He was walking the housing officer through the way the vanity unit needed to be modified to create a turning circle for her walker. It was beautiful.

The Baird Government are attacking the poor or disabled or traumatised and despising them for their challenges — just as they have undermined the mental and physical well being of a vulnerable group of refugees who arrived by boat.

Right now, poorer Australians can still express themselves and have significance through their vote. Identifying the candidate who best promotes their interests and then turning that insight into a vote is a means of exercising significance and having equal value (dodgy donation rules aside) with some wealthy person living on 400 times as much in Woollahra or Warringah or Wahroonga.

Representatives who recognise that the poor matter and are doing their best are very, very important to the fabric of the city.

They provide dignity and shelter from the fierce mental storm that accompanies a concentration of disadvantage.

A very dignified retiree invited me into his tower block unit yesterday. He offered tea. He was happy to make his way to vote. And he was taking great joy in the lorikeets bickering in the huge fig on the corner of Phillip and Pitt Street outside his window.

The shift to mixed housing dilutes dysfunction. It is not a plot to up the rates or line developer pockets. It is not corrupt.

Anyone who can needs to calmly explain at least some of this to Sydney City Council area locals every day this week.

Jane Salmon has lived in social housing in Woolloomooloo and is very grateful for the respite this provided. You can follow Jane on Twitter @jsalmonupstream.

 

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