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City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore on standing up to state and federal governments and how to make access to housing fair. By Karen Middleton.

Clover Moore on the responsibilities of her council

City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore.
Credit: JESSICA LINDSAY

Karen Middleton What’s the role of a lord mayor?

Clover Moore It should be someone who sets the long-term plan, has the vision, consults with the community, does the research to achieve what is needed, makes the commitments and does the work. As a city leader I also see an important role in working with all the new mayors across our city. We’ve already been doing this as a member of the Rockefeller’s 100 Resilient Cities. That’s about cities working to become more resilient to crisis, addressing issues like climate change, housing affordability, congestion and population increases.

KM For a project like the WestConnex roadway – a federal–state project that doesn’t have local government’s universal support between western Sydney and the city – how do you manage relations if you don’t agree on such a major project?

CM Well, it would be very beneficial for the city if federal, state and local government could work together. But that doesn’t happen a lot. WestConnex is the biggest road project in the world, currently. It’s promoted as helping people of western Sydney get into the city and yet they’re going to be forced onto private tollways. These are not high-income people. And all that traffic is going to be forced into the city. Congestion is currently costing us $6 billion a year and that’s why we’re constructing light rail in the centre now. WestConnex will direct another 120,000 vehicles into our city every day and it’s going to be devastating. We pride ourselves on our walkable streets, cycleways, good residential design and wonderful parks and facilities and it’s going to be trashed by seven-lane highways. It’s a terrible project and that’s why we’re fighting it.

KM Communities sometimes oppose long-term infrastructure plans, arguing, “It’s not going to affect me, why am I paying for it?” How do you respond?

CM It’s looking at the long term. In Sydney, we’re not responsible for trains and buses but we are responsible for the streets and helping people get around. I was lobbied very hard – mainly from business – for bike lanes, because they didn’t want to cycle to work on dangerous roads. I consulted with the community and we designed a 200-kilometre bike network and proposed as much separated cycleway as we could get into our confined streets. I went to some very fiery meetings because people like to park directly outside their terrace house and didn’t want cyclists going by. I said, “Look, we’ve all got responsibilities here. Cities are contributing to climate change and we have to address this. It’s much more sustainable to have people on bikes than in cars and it makes a healthier community.” And of course the Murdoch press, they don’t like cycleways. But I held the line. As soon as we got those separated cycle lanes, people used them and loved them. They’ve in the end accepted the greatest good for the greatest number.

KM What role can a city play in militating against climate change?

CM What cities do is important because 70 to 80 per cent of emissions are there. So if we can reduce emissions, we can make a huge contribution. Research from the C40 has shown cities could achieve 40 per cent of the emissions cuts required to meet the Paris agreement. It’s absolutely incumbent on federal and state governments to work with us because we can help them so much with this.

KM On housing, we’ve seen the controversy around the homeless people in Martin Place. We’ve had a national debate about housing costs. How do you tackle these, given most policy levers are with governments?

CM One of our important roles is advocacy. We support what Bill Shorten has proposed in terms of capital gains tax and negative gearing. But we’re not going to improve affordable housing for particularly younger people until there is a policy commitment from federal and state governments. There isn’t. The commitment so far has been to improve supply to bring prices down. Well, in Sydney we’ve approved $25-$26 billion of development in the past decade and we only have 1 per cent of affordable housing. People in essential-service jobs can’t afford to live in Sydney now. The City of Sydney has applied a development levy in two areas – Green Square and Pyrmont–Ultimo – generating about a thousand affordable rental housing units with the same amount in the pipeline. But that’s a drop in the ocean. We would like to extend that levy across the city.

KM It feels like the inner cities are becoming the preserve of—

CM —the rich. And I think that’s really shocking. Also really shocking is that our state government has evicted social housing people in Millers Point. It was the oldest living community in Australia, originally established for low-income families of maritime workers on the wharves. A lot of that was purpose-built for them and they’ve been evicted. The state government has also sold other sites. I think the view is, unless you’ve got a high income you have no right to live in the city. We should have a city that’s for everyone, with the vitality of different groups with different levels of income.

KM What’s your view of public housing tenants living together versus distributing them across the suburbs?

CM For over 30 years, I’ve represented areas with densely populated social housing estates. On the one hand, there are some really serious social problems because there’s a concentration of people who have difficulties. On the other hand, some communities are really tight-knit and supportive. Some state governments now have what they call a salt-and-pepper policy. They think it’s better to mix low-income people with higher-income people.

We need to make cities fair for everyone. I think the mix isn’t bad but where people want to live together and show mutual support, I think it’s really good. And that’s what happened in the tent city in Martin Place. If you’re a homeless person, you’re distributed around the City of Sydney in a doorway, on a park bench, under a flyover; particularly if you’re a woman, you’re vulnerable. It’s quite dangerous. If you’re together, you’re safer. They felt very safe in Martin Place. But that was confronting – one of the wealthiest countries of the world and this is where we’re at? So the minister was under pressure to get those people out. The tent city spokesman agreed if the government offered them accommodation – it could be dispersed, not together – and a safe place where they could meet and offer support, then they would leave. The government wanted me to move them on but I refused. They passed special legislation to give police the powers to do that. In the end the tent city was abandoned because it would be very frightening for the people to be moved on by police. So they’ve been dispersed again. For me, this is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got a really serious housing crisis in Sydney.

KM Sydney is custodian of a part of our national history – where the First Fleet arrived. We’re seeing councils in other states talking about Australia Day and changing the date. How do you address that?

CM I think we have one history. Europeans arrived 200 years ago. Sydney’s original custodians were there for 60,000 years – the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. When we developed our long-term plan “Sustainable Sydney 2030”, we talked to our business and residential communities and to our Aboriginal community. As a result, a decade ago we set up an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisory committee and listened to their requests to tell the story of the Gadigal people’s journey from where Phillip landed through to Redfern with a series of Indigenous public artworks. So that’s what we’ve done. We’re telling the story as they want us to and acknowledging the history’s importance but also the significance of their cultural contribution to present-day Australian life.

I think the date of Australia Day should be an Australian conversation because that’s about celebrating who we are in the 21st century. I know for Aboriginal people, the current date is really not good because for them it’s invasion day. And there were demonstrations in Sydney some years ago – they called it Survival Day – which led to what we call Yabun, a celebration of Aboriginal culture and music. We need federal leadership. With this multicultural community and the oldest living culture, we should be able to work out the most important date to celebrate who we are. I think many would agree it probably isn’t the 26th of January, when Phillip arrived.

KM What ideas do you take for Sydney from other places?

CM Cities are working together now. We don’t think you need to reinvent the wheel. The same issues are confronting us all. When I first went to Chinese cities after being elected in 2004, I’d proudly show them our planning documents, hoping to influence them because they’re such contributors to climate change. After a few years I’d go to those cities and be shown their new cycle network, metros and wonderful pedestrian walkways. In Wuhan – a city of 11 million people – the mayor said, “We were really inspired by your ‘Sustainable Sydney 2030’ and we want to present to you ‘Wuhan 2049’, based on it.” I thought, “Wow, that’s a real ripple effect.” The Chinese have real challenges. But they make decisions and get on with it. We seem to dither here and talk.

I was very impressed by Portland [Oregon], a very liveable city with good light rail, cycleways and a great university centre. It’s really about making cities for people. You want to make public places where people want to dwell and not hurry through. I was very impressed when I first became mayor with Melbourne’s small bars and laneways and I’ve now reactivated 57 laneways into Sydney. That’s about nightlife and live music opportunities. And in Adelaide, the mayor and the premier meet regularly and collaborate. And I think, “Wow, that’s fantastic.”

This is an edited transcript from A Month of Saturdays at the National Library of Australia. This week: Belvoir artistic director Eamon Flack at the National Gallery of Australia, 2pm, September 23.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 23, 2017 as "City limits". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.