The major parties are legislating to take over city councils with an attempt to stack votes in their favour. By Mike Seccombe.

How to kill off a lord mayor: inside the ’Get Clover’ plot

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore.

Robert Borsak just loves to kill things. The bigger the better. You can check out the pictures online of Borsak posing beside various dead birds and mammals, some stuffed, some still bleeding. Proudest of all are the images of him beside a couple of the elephants he slaughtered during a trip to Zimbabwe in 2009.

He wrote about it at the time, enthusing at the thrill of shooting a big bull elephant at close quarters: “It was awesome. He did not know what had hit him.”

Borsak is your archetypal gun nut, but he is much more than that. As a representative of the Shooters and Fishers Party, he has a share of the balance of power in the New South Wales upper house. He also has some powerful backers. 

At 10am on August 14, when Borsak rose in parliament, he had the City of Sydney council in his sights. In particular he was targeting Lord Mayor Clover Moore.

But before pulling the rhetorical trigger on the cursedly popular government of Australia’s international city, Borsak took a few moments to thank those influential backers who had, as it were, loaded the gun for him.

He was most notably grateful to radio shock jock Alan Jones, “who has been a driving force for this change for a long time”.

“Without his assistance, I doubt whether the government would have been persuaded to support this sensible and long-overdue bill,” Borsak said.

He also thanked the right-wing Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph for its support.

“It would be remiss of me,” he continued, “not to thank also Premier Mike Baird for his support for this bill. The previous premier did not have the same vision or foresight, and worked behind the scenes to torpedo these sensible changes.”

So what are these “sensible changes”? In real terms they boil down to a suite of measures designed to wrest control of the city from the progressive, independent councillors for whom inner-city residents vote, and return it to the non-resident representatives of business, who actually pay most of the council rates.

More bluntly, they seek to snatch the government away from the people who live in the city and hand it to the people who own the city.

To this end, the Borsak bill gives every business in the city the right to vote, not once but twice. Each resident gets but one vote, but each business-owner, rate-paying lessee or occupier gets two. 

The bill requires the City of Sydney itself – rather than the state electoral commission – to compile a register of every business, to demand every corporation nominate two people to vote on its behalf, to automatically enrol them, and to ensure that they vote.

The bill goes to extraordinary lengths to do this.

It provides, for example, that if a corporation fails to nominate its two voters “at least 28 days before the closing date for an election, the first 2 company secretaries or directors of the corporation (taken alphabetically) are to be deemed to have been so nominated and are to be enrolled as electors”.

Any business that fails to provide relevant information for the register can be fined $2200, a sum that dwarfs the $55 fine for registering but not actually voting.

The whole package is devilishly complicated and ill thought out. There is, for example, no provision for postal voting. 

But let’s not get bogged down in the detail. The underlying assumption is that having been dragooned into voting, these people will vote for one of the major parties, more likely the Liberal Party.

2 . Kennett's gerrymanders in Melbourne

The principle – or more accurately, lack of principle – behind it can be traced back 20 years to premier Jeff Kennett and his sweeping changes to local government in Victoria.

“Kennett’s was a deliberate gerrymander,” says Stephen Mayne, who was Kennett’s press secretary and is now an independent on the Melbourne city council. “He designed the system to get rid of the lefties, so as to never see another left-wing lord mayor again.”

But the Labor Party in Victoria was also complicit in establishing the two-votes rort. And it has worked. Notwithstanding the fact that the residents of the City of Melbourne are arguably the most left-leaning in the country – the ones who elected the sole federal Greens MP, Adam Bandt – they have not run the show since.

“Sixty per cent of the roll is non-residential,” notes Mayne. “But it’s worked reasonably well because no one had the numbers to totally dominate. I do think two votes is too much, though. It should be one for each business.”

Others are much harsher. Rohan Leppert, a Greens councillor, complains that not only are a majority of voters estranged from the life of the electorate, so increasingly are the councillors.

“A majority of the 11 Melbourne city councillors live outside the city of Melbourne. This has led to a council far too detached from its local communities,” he says.

“With the vast majority of the City of Melbourne electoral roll made up of non-residents, this electoral system defeats the purpose of local government.”

But what of the fact that businesses pay in disproportionate measure for the services provided by the city? In the case of Sydney the claim is that 78 per cent of all rates are levied on business premises.

“No taxation without representation” is the slogan of Borsak and his supporters.

The counter-slogan, of course, is “one vote, one value”. Timocracy, the system of governance under which political power is accorded in greater measure according to property ownership, has long since been abandoned in most of Australia, say the critics. 

As things stand, Sydney businesses currently have the right to vote – just once – in city council elections. Very few of them, however, bother to exercise that right.

For the most recent local government election, 101,395 voters, including 1709 businesses, were registered to vote. About 70,000 actually voted, of whom just over 1000 were businesses.

It is estimated there are somewhere between 25,000 and 80,000 businesses operating in the City of Sydney, which makes the turnout doubly pathetic.

It’s true there are some structural impediments in the current system. Businesses are given a relatively narrow window of time – a few months – in which to register, and the business register is wiped after every election, meaning they have to do it all again.

Still, you have to figure that these are pretty sophisticated people, used to dealing with such red tape. It would be fair to assume that if businesses really cared about the outcome of the city elections, they would make the effort.

Patricia Forsythe, executive director of the Sydney Business Chamber, is strongly supportive of the idea of automatic registration of business voters and of compelling them to vote, but is critical of other aspects of the bill.

Importantly, she describes her organisation as being “uncertain” about the wisdom of giving each business two votes.

“I haven’t heard a cogent reason for why two,” she says.

Like other representatives of the Sydney business community contacted for this story, Forsythe certainly wants a bigger voice for her constituents, but it is more a matter of principle than specific anger at actions of this council. 

“There is a good strong process of consultation between the city and key business groups. The council CEO and the business unit are absolutely first rate,” she says.

3 . Clover Moore's enemies

It certainly seems to be the case that the politicians and their conservative urgers in the media are more exercised about Clover Moore and her council. For very petty reasons, in a lot of cases.

The Tele, for example, seems particularly concerned that Moore is supportive of bicycle lanes and public transport.

The genesis of Alan Jones loathing is harder to establish. Clover’s people think perhaps she has simply not paid the requisite homage. Whatever the reason, his hatred is intense; he would have put Moore in the same chaff bag as “Ju-liar” Gillard, and dumped them both at sea.

It’s easier to see why the major party politicians and the influence pedlars who attend them would like to see the back of Clover and her ilk – you can’t cut the usual deals with these people. They apparently don’t accept the brown paper bags full of money or other such financial inducements.

Back in February this year, the disgraced Liberal right-wing powerbroker Chris Hartcher, giving evidence before the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), mentioned that his staffer, Tim Koelma, when not running a slush fund for illegal campaign donations, devoted time to working out “a local government strategy in relationship to the City of Sydney”.

The council, said Hartcher, “was not a council sympathetic to us”.

Exactly what that strategy entailed, we don’t know. But we do know that after that, the Liberal government got an upper house committee, with one of their own as chair and Borsak as deputy, to consider ways to “reform” the council. It quickly fixated on the so-called “Melbourne model”.

So Moore was aware of what was coming, even though there was no direct consultation. The surprise was that the bill came from Borsak, not the Libs.

“They apparently thought it would look better if it came from the Shooters Party. Why, I really don’t know,” Moore says. “It’s madness.”

That may be. But it was also a continuation of two long, inglorious, bipartisan traditions. The first is the attempted gerrymandering, via changes in the franchise and electoral boundaries, of the City of Sydney elections, by whichever party happens to be in power at state level.

4 . 'Get Clover'

The second tradition might be described as the “Get Clover” ritual. Lots of people in government have reason to dislike her.

Robert Borsak has the reason of Moore’s long advocacy of tighter gun controls. In 2012 she opposed the Shooters and Fishers’ ultimately successful push for hunting in national parks.

Then there are Fred Nile and the Christian Democrats, who operate as a bloc on most issues with the Shooters and Fishers. Nile loathes Moore’s advocacy of gay rights.

Back in 1993, when Moore was in state parliament, she introduced the Homosexual Anti-Vilification Bill, making it illegal to incite hatred of gay men and lesbians. Nile was hospitalised at the time with broken ribs, but turned up in the chamber in a wheelchair, wearing slippers and pyjamas, in a quixotic attempt to defeat the bill.

Labor, too, has particular reason to resent her because a decade ago she ruined their carefully planned attempt to gerrymander the City of Sydney elections. They sacked the councils of Sydney and South Sydney and amalgamated the two, believing the strongly pro-Labor constituency of southern Sydney would deliver the lord mayoralty to their boy, Michael Lee, spear carrier for the right faction.

But they did not figure on the local state MP Clover Moore. She ran against Lee – then permissible for a state member – and trounced him, 43 per cent of the vote to 26. This made her extraordinarily powerful, as both lord mayor and a member of the NSW parliament.

The Libs have even longer reason to despise Moore. She first came into government by taking the inner-city seat of Bligh, formerly held by Liberal powerbroker Michael Yabsley. It was the one Liberal loss in the landslide of 1988.

Later, as one of four independents in a hung parliament in 1992, she was instrumental in forcing the resignation of Liberal premier Nick Greiner, on the basis of adverse findings against him by ICAC.

They got her back eventually. In 2012, legislation was passed under Premier Barry O’Farrell, prohibiting people from simultaneously holding positions in state and local government.

Now O’Farrell, too, is gone, resigning a few months back, after having given false evidence to ICAC. 

Moore says she is optimistic about surviving this latest “Get Clover” measure. She remains popular, notes that the city is “powering”, and reckons the voting public, including a lot of businesses, will vote for a lord mayor and council “that puts the public interest ahead of vested interests”.

There’s an old Arabian proverb to the effect that you can judge a person by the reputation of their enemies. Given the character of her enemies – the cash-for-comment shock jocks, the hateful tabloids, the big parties besmirched by ICAC, and the god-and-guns brigade led by Borsak, Clover Moore may have reason to hope for a favourable judgement.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 23, 2014 as "How to kill off a lord mayor".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.