City of Sydney Amendment Bill 2023

City of Sydney Amendment Bill 2023

(Second Reading Debate, 20 September 2023, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

I contribute to debate on the City of Sydney Amendment Bill 2023. A fundamental principle of democracy is that all members of the community have equal access to the political process. Regardless of how much money someone has or how much tax they pay, their say on polling day should be equal. As previous members have said in their contributions, the principle is one vote, one value. But since 2014 businesses and non‑residential ratepayers—that is, non‑residents and property owners—have had twice the number of votes as residents in the City of Sydney elections, with their vote also being compulsory. No other local government is subject to such extraordinary, unfair and shockingly undemocratic voting rules.

I take members back in time to 2014, when these laws were introduced. They were a continuation of the assault on inner‑city democracy by the O'Farrell and Baird governments. They used their majority to arrogantly give away public land to a casino in Barangaroo—we know how well that has gone; they have had to close two gaming floors already—to sell off public housing in Millers Point that is now largely empty short-term rentals; to impose the lockout laws, which decimated Sydney's nightlife; and to also remove a democratically elected member from Parliament, my predecessor, which also did not go too well for them because I got elected and we continue to do better in every election and the Liberal Party continues to do worse in every election.

It was not just the laws that passed that showed the arrogance of the Government at the time; it was the denigration and name-calling of inner-city communities that occurred throughout that debate in the Parliament and in the media. Many of my constituents, whether business owners or residents, took great offence to that. Of course, the Coalition was egged on throughout that time by The Daily Telegraph and Alan Jones, whose ring they often kissed. Alan wanted to put Clover in a chaff bag with Julia Gillard, as we remember. He wanted to throw them out to sea and he would regularly engage in the most violent and misogynistic attacks on the Lord Mayor and other female leaders. Yet, it was people like Alan Jones who informed this appalling legislation that we are repealing today in the Chamber. A further example of the Coalition's aggressive arrogance towards the city and its elected representatives during the debate came from Peter Phelps, MLC. During the debate on business voting, this is what he said about me:

… when Clover pulls the strings Alex dances to the tune. Little Alex with his wooden nose, dancing down Macquarie Street, strings being pulled by Clover Moore… I apologise for that. If he is a puppet, then maybe her hand is in a different location.

That dog whistling comment said it all about the Coalition's policy focus at that time. Two votes for business was nasty politics at its worst. What the bill meant is that in the City of Sydney businesses and property owners have greater influence and greater power in the political processes than residents, who as a result are disenfranchised, relegated to a lower class of voter and considered to be less important and less valued by the former Government. The system was clearly open to rorts and manipulation. Unlike residential voters, who are only on a roll for each level of government and update their details once for all three levels of elections, nonresidential voters can be on multiple local government rolls, providing opportunities for error and manipulation.

Furthermore, the 2014 laws transferred management of the nonresidential roll from the NSW Electoral Commission to the city's general manager. While I have every confidence in the current administration, dedicated independent bodies manage electoral rolls in healthy democracies. One can imagine what could happen by empowering a government to run its own elections. The city spent $9.7 million to establish the nonresidential roll and is spending around a million dollars to annually maintain it in a way that ensures its accuracy and integrity. These funds come at the cost of other council services. Once they are scrapped, these funds will be returned to essential government services, like food relief. We still ask ourselves the question: Why were these changes imposed on inner-city communities? Let us also not forget that they were introduced in the Legislative Council by a member of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. He clearly has a vested interest in the City of Sydney and our activities here. It is a party with rural and regional base, and a member known for both doing deals and harbouring a strong dislike for the Lord Mayor.

It was supported by the then Government not long after it changed laws to remove the democratically elected member for Sydney—my predecessor, Clover Moore—from this House. The laws were the next step in the then Government's "Get Clover" agenda to also get her out of Town Hall. This is all a good history lesson for members that grudges never form good policy. I listened to the shadow Minister for Local Government. The push did not come from the business community. Many business chambers backed me and the City of Sydney in opposing them and agreed that the bill we are effectively repealing today was undemocratic. The business community knows and respects the support it has got from the City of Sydney under the leadership of Clover Moore and the amazing city team.

This has included direct investment in infrastructure, services and events; effective planning that has seen 30,000 development applications approved, worth over $40 billion and an almost doubling of the city's population; reduced regulatory barriers to make it easier and more efficient to do business, from free outdoor dining to business‑specific concierge services to help navigate red tape; grants for development, promotion, events and capital works; Sydney's Sustainable Office Buildings Plan and leading the Better Buildings Partnership to help the cities towers become sustainable; leading by example to ensure that the city takes a leadership position in economic development initiatives through its own operations; encouraging partnerships with the private and non‑government sector to achieve common goals; and advocating for change, particularly where actions are the remit of other levels of government.

Since 2004, under the leadership of Clover Moore, the economy in the City of Sydney local government area has grown by $64 billion, or 82 per cent. It now exceeds pre-COVID levels at $141 billion a year as of March 2023, accounting for more than 22 per cent of the entire New South Wales economy. Obviously, these facts got in the way of Borsak and the Coalition's made-up arguments. It is sad to see them repeating them today. Clearly they thought at that time the only way they could remove Lord Mayor Clover Moore was by manipulating election rules and not through fair and accountable elections. That was such a blatant and undemocratic gerrymander, and it passed the Parliament with the support of a major party. That day and that whole time in history is a strong indictment on this Parliament.

Of course, as we have heard, the legislation was not successful in its aims. By disenfranchising resident voters, the then government only raised Lord Mayor's already high popularity. Support amongst business communities for stable governments, climate change action, design excellence and social inclusion were also underestimated by the former Government. Clover remains hugely popular, thanks to her progressive grassroots, and her incorruptible, responsible, sustainable and representative approach to governments. As one business leader said to me at the time, "The former Government gave us two votes, and we used them to vote for Clover." But although the sinister aims were not realised, they remain untenable. [Extension of time]

I strongly welcome the City of Sydney Amendment Bill 2023. The bill will restore the nonresidential voting rules in the City of Sydney that existed prior to 2014, giving nonresidential electors one voluntary vote and transferring management of the nonresidential roll to the independent NSW Electoral Commission. The city elections will be realigned with local government elsewhere. With this dark chapter in the inner city's history hopefully soon behind us, I hope the Parliament has learned the lesson that fair rules are fundamental to democracy and that State governments must never use their majority to manipulate and gerrymander local government elections. Everybody has the right to an equal voice in our democracy and to be governed by representatives elected in an unbiased election. I thank the Minister for bringing the bill so quickly to the House and for the consultation he had with stakeholders.

The question for the Coalition is this: Does its arrogance towards and disregard for inner-city voters still exist? Despite knowing the bill will pass, will the Coalition still oppose it? I give the Opposition an invitation to right the wrong done to inner-city residents; to apologise for misrepresenting the views of Sydney's business community, which has continued to thrive under Clover's leadership; and to join the Government, The Greens and me in returning democracy to City of Sydney elections. I commend the bill to the House.

Let's work together to celebrate and protect our great city!