Australia’s premier city of Sydney has its development problems – and issues of debate. Trams in George Street, high rise in Pyrmont, homeless people in parks and streets, bike lanes and more besides. Is it a case of over development, under development or the wrong development? Councillor Christine Foster hopes to change all that in her bid to become Mayor of Sydney in the 2020 Council elections. On Wednesday 6 November 2019, Christine Foster addressed The Sydney Institute to outline her proposals for a better Sydney.

SYDNEY – WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

CHRISTINE FOSTER

Good evening and thank you all and of course Gerard and Anne, in particular, for inviting me to the Sydney Institute to speak tonight about what is to be done in Sydney. In short, the answer is that Sydney needs a change, but more about that later.

It is indeed a great honour for a mere City of Sydney Councillor to be invited to this venerable forum, walking as I do in the footsteps of Prime Ministers and Premiers, Opposition Leaders and other great Australian intellectuals, patriots and entertainers.

I should also acknowledge that I’m not the first member of my family to speak to the institute, coming as I do in the wake of my much older brother Tony Abbott who is, in my quite biased opinion of course, all of those things – a great Australian politician, thinker, certainly a patriot and even, at times, an entertainer.

But as a politician who is focused on local, rather than state or federal, what I’ll be talking about tonight are the things that really impact people’s day-to-day lives. What I’d like to stress is that the reason I am in local politics is because I am a Liberal and I believe to my core that the central tenets of my party should be brought to bear every bit as much in the third level of government, just as crucially as they should be at state and federal level. In short, if you cut me, I bleed blue!

I am in local politics is because I am a Liberal and I believe to my core that the central tenets of my party should be brought to bear every bit as much in the third level of government

But what does that mean? It means I believe in local government that is: small and lets people get on with their lives to make the most of the opportunities they see for themselves; that incentivises its citizens and businesses to reach their maximum potential; that engages in genuine dialogue and doesn’t dictate; that works to ensure that no member of our community is left behind; and that does what it can to preserve our environment for our children and the generations after them.

Those are the things I believe in passionately and are the principles I have applied in everything I’ve done in the seven years I’ve been privileged to represent my community as a Councillor at the City of Sydney. But I’ve been fighting to uphold those principles from the Opposition bench, which is a challenge in an autocracy!

For those of you who don’t know, let me tell you a little about City of Sydney Council. By the time the next local government elections come around in September 2020, it will be 40 years since Clover Moore was first elected to South Sydney Council and she will have been Sydney’s Lord Mayor for 16 years. In all that time, she has been in a position of absolute power, holding either five or six seats for her own party, always giving her a majority in the Council of 10 thanks to the mayoral casting vote. And, although she claims to be an independent, Clover Moore rules the most disciplined party room I would argue Australia’s ever seen. In seven years, I could count on a couple of fingers the times these supposedly independent politicians haven’t bloc-voted Clover Moore’s line. I certainly know more than one former Liberal parliamentary leader who would have welcomed the unflinching compliance the Lord Mayor enjoys from her party room.

By the time the next local government elections come around in September 2020, it will be 40 years since Clover Moore was first elected to South Sydney Council and she will have been Sydney’s Lord Mayor for 16 years.

So, the City of Sydney, the economic engine room of the country, Australia’s only truly global city, with a $120 billion economy accounting for 20 per cent of New South Wales’ economic output and 7 per cent of GDP, has had the same unchallenged chief executive for nearly two decades. There isn’t an organisation in the world that would think that is a healthy governance model – it’s the realm of dynasties and dictators.

As US businessman Alfred E. Perlman famously said: “After you’ve done a thing the same way for two years, look it over carefully. After five years, look at it with suspicion. And after ten years, throw it away and start all over.” That’s a maxim I’m sure would bring a wry smile to the face of John Howard or Margaret Thatcher, if she was still with us, and by that measure we are years overdue for renewal in the City of Sydney.

What needs to be done is a modern approach, fresh commitment and energy, real change – and only a Liberal will bring that real change. As any one of you who have watched city politics since 2004 will know, the Lord Mayor is an ideological Green. If she doesn’t run herself next September, we know from experience she will anoint an apparatchik, committed to her doctrine and likely surrounded by her current advisers. Any other credible independent candidate will hail from the Left and the Labor candidate will be, well, the Labor candidate.

What needs to be done is a modern approach, fresh commitment and energy, real change – and only a Liberal will bring that real change.

If we are to have a change to sensible centre-right government in Sydney, and that is what needs to be done, the only choice is the Liberal Lord Mayoral candidate.

As we all know, Sydney is witnessing a once-in-a-generation process of renewal: The world class Barangaroo development is transforming the western edge of the CBD; Sydney Metro will see a clutch of new stations built in the local government area; the Fish Market and Football Stadium are to be replaced; technology and innovation parks are being planned for the Central and Eveleigh precincts; a major build-to-rent project is on the drawing board for Redfern; Waterloo is to be redeveloped with new social and affordable housing; the art gallery is being expanded; and a new cultural hub is under construction in Walsh Bay. These are projects that are worth tens of billions of dollars and they will deliver returns for Sydney and its people for decades into the future.

All this is happening because we have a strong, committed, smart and energetic state Liberal government. To get these projects done properly, Sydney now needs the same in Town Hall, or we risk not having these nation-building investments brought to fruition as effectively and economically as possible.

Instead for the past 15 years Sydney has had a Lord Mayor who has specialised in the politics of division. She’s surrounded herself with a fortress of personal staff – 25 at the last count costing $43.5 million over the next decade – and ruled Council with an iron fist that ignores the minority.

Instead for the past 15 years Sydney has had a Lord Mayor who has specialised in the politics of division.

She’s whipped up conflict where it didn’t exist and she’s stopped listening to anyone whose view doesn’t match her own. But the Lord Mayor is no longer fighting the establishment, she is the establishment.

Since I was elected in 2012, I’ve made it my business to consult with as many constituents as I can to ensure what I do in Council every day and what I hope to offer again in September 2020 will make Sydney function at its very best: so that living and doing business here is easy, enjoyable, safe and sustainable.

Some of the things I’ve been able to instigate from Opposition include the city’s first smoke-free zone in Martin Place, now expanded to Pitt Street Mall and George Street; 15 minutes free parking in high street shopping strips; the installation of synthetic sporting fields; planned feature lighting to brighten up Oxford Street; an audit of street parking signage across the city; a review of shared zones in Chippendale; and the potential use of new technology which cleans plastics and other litter from the harbour. I was also able to force the Lord Mayor’s hand to remove the Occupy Sydney protest camp, which she had allowed to remain in Martin Place for several years.

I was also able to force the Lord Mayor’s hand to remove the Occupy Sydney protest camp, which she had allowed to remain in Martin Place for several years.

But in my time on Council I’ve also heard from entrepreneurs who tell me Melbourne is an easier place to work than Sydney, from tech start-ups who need Council to assist with affordable office space, from digital technology specialists who say Sydney is not interested in new ideas, from environmental innovators who cannot persuade Council to incentivise people to reduce their own carbon footprints.

I’ve heard from small business owners who despair at the cost and red tape involved in doing simple things like securing outdoor dining approvals or putting up a sign, from big businesses who are worried about attracting and retaining staff and say Sydney isn’t competing with other regional cities, from planning professionals who are frustrated by Council’s inefficiency and lack of transparency.

I’ve heard from major tourism and events operators who need a strong advocate in Town Hall, from leaders in the arts sector who are looking for a fresh approach, and from not-for-profits who need a collaborative, outcome-driven response to solving the really tough social problems like homelessness.

I’ve heard from residents who are watching precious parking space disappear from the streets where they live, who see the dollars wasted on poorly planned local projects, unnecessarily ambitious public art works and protest campaigns against the major infrastructure that Sydney needs. And, sadly, I’ve heard way too often from residents, local business chambers and community groups who simply cannot navigate Council’s inflexible, one-size-must-fit-all mentality when they have an issue that sits outside the box.

I’ve heard from residents who are watching precious parking space disappear from the streets where they live, who see the dollars wasted on poorly planned local projects, unnecessarily ambitious public art works and protest campaigns against the major infrastructure that Sydney needs.

All of that is what needs to change to get Sydney working at its best again and the first thing that needs to be done is we need a local leader who listens, responds and delivers.

Our city needs more than a self-serving spin machine that hears only its own dogma. That trumpets everything that’s popular and takes no responsibility for anything that isn’t. To quote another American businessman Arnold H. Glasow: “A good leader takes a little more than his share of blame, a little less than his share of the credit.” Councillor Moore would do well to heed that advice.

Sydney needs a Lord Mayor who understands that businessmen and women are not the enemy, they are important members of our community and who, instead of railing against them being required to vote, knows that they should have a say. We need a leader who knows that Council’s bank account and capacity to support future community services and infrastructure depends on the success of our business sector.

We need a leader who knows that Council’s bank account and capacity to support future community services and infrastructure depends on the success of our business sector.

Sydney needs a Lord Mayor who not only values the unique character of our villages but provides each community with the opportunity to shape and implement projects that will make a real difference. Who accepts that Greater Sydney is going to grow from 5 million to 8 million people in the next few decades and who will help plan for that, rather than resist what needs to happen to accommodate those new residents. A Lord Mayor for whom sustainability means the triple bottom line and whose policies for protecting our environment are focused more on achievable, cost-effective solutions and less on pleasing the international environmental elite.

We need a Lord Mayor who can move with the times, embrace modern technology and ideas, and who welcomes change and renewal. A leader who knows you can achieve more for your constituents when you have a place at the negotiating table with the other levels of government, and who embraces Sydney’s unique and nationally important responsibility to the people of the metropolitan area, the state and Australia.

Change is what needs to happen.

I was the Liberal Lord Mayoral candidate in 2016 and as part of my campaign then I promised to implement a reform that would turn the way Sydney Council operates on its head. I pledged that I would give each of the ten Councillors elected, no matter what party they belonged to, a specific portfolio of responsibility: one that reflected their expertise and interests and allowed them to drive the change they each wanted to see in our city. The portfolios I proposed then were economic development, infrastructure, technology, community, environment, transport, tourism, events, planning and the arts. I still want to see that done, not only because it would mean the end of the divisive politicking peddled by the Lord Mayor but because it would make all ten Councillors – who are important to the global city – responsible and accountable.

In 2016, I also promised to establish regular “listening posts” at our village markets, where people who aren’t handpicked devotees would be able to speak directly with Council staff, and I said I would personally track how Council responds to that feedback. Again, that still needs to be done.

In 2017, I moved a motion seeking to have the Lord Mayor and other Councillors take questions without notice from the public: if you will, a local government version of estimates. Naturally that was a transparency measure that was rejected out of hand by a Lord Mayor who prefers to operate behind a veil of secrecy, but it still needs to be done.

What else? We have to have a Council that genuinely embraces the modern data science and innovation that can so easily and cheaply improve our residents’ quality of life, our businesses’ productivity and our Council’s transparency. I asked Council to develop a City dashboard in 2015 and still we have nothing, lagging by years other global cities like London, Los Angeles and Singapore.

To put that in context, it’s only been in the last few years that Sydney could offer ratepayers a way to pay their bills online, and we still haven’t managed to install public wi-fi in the CBD, something that’s been achieved by Woollahra, Penrith, Campbelltown and even Leeton Shire councils, to name but a few. How can we pretend to be ready for a future as the smart city our residents, businesses and visitors want and need if we can’t even manage that?

it’s only been in the last few years that Sydney could offer ratepayers a way to pay their bills online, and we still haven’t managed to install public wi-fi in the CBD

Sydney needs to get back to the basics. I’ve been asking Council for more than four years to take real action on Sydney’s rat problem. That’s an environmental issue that should have been tackled before we declared a climate emergency. In 2017, I asked for the installation of solar-powered recycling rubbish bins – similar to those used in Melbourne and even tiny provincial towns in New Zealand. Nothing’s been done on that but, in the meantime, the Lord Mayor has jetted off to talk to the glitterati at the C40 Climate Change summit.

Council will spend $11.6 million over the next three years on the staff whose sole responsibility is to look after the Lord Mayor. That is nearly twice the $6.6 million it has earmarked to look after the people of the city who are suffering homelessness.

Over the past few years, Clover Moore has spent around $1 million on a protest campaign against Westconnex – which will go ahead whatever she says or does – and her pet public art projects – which will never go ahead.

Over the past few years, Clover Moore has spent around $1 million on a protest campaign against Westconnex – which will go ahead whatever she says or does

To put that into context, that’s ten times what Council has committed to a state government-led initiative which is targeting a 50 per cent reduction in the numbers of people sleeping rough on city streets. I repeat: ten times more on politicking and failed art projects than has been invested in a multi-agency program to tackle rough sleeping. That needs to change.

Since I’ve been on Council, we have never met our annual forecast spending on capital projects and that’s despite having a current cash balance of $684 million and a budgeted surplus for this year of $113 million. Take our biggest project as an example: the new Gunyama pool and park in Green Square. In 2014, that was forecast to cost $60 million and it was expected to be finished a few months ago. Now it’s going to cost $103 million and stage one won’t be completed until next year.

Let’s get back to the basics, like for instance cutting through the massive red tape that is costing our business community time and money. Over the past few years, Sydney has at times run more than two weeks behind its own targets on processing development applications. That should have been addressed before the Lord Mayor turned her energies against a half a billion-dollar hotel investment in Pyrmont that would have created thousands of construction and permanent jobs.

In short, there’s an awful lot that needs to be done in Sydney. But the election is coming, and the Lord Mayor’s ratepayer-funded publicity machine is already ramping up. Suddenly after 15 years of inaction, Council says it wants to see a measurable reduction in rough sleeping. Suddenly, Councillors are being told there is a “roadmap” to make Sydney smarter – despite the fact our so-called Digital City webpage hasn’t been updated since August 2017. The production of promotional brochures is accelerating, the contrived consultations are in full swing, the aspirational targets that will never be met are being trotted out.

For me the next ten months or so will be a busy time, but that’s good, because I’m passionate about my city – my home – and making sure it’s the very best possible place to live and work for my children and their children and their children. But with that election looming, I’d like to leave you with a message from the great Sir Robert Menzies, whose prescient words are remarkably relevant even when read three quarters of a century after they were spoken.

Menzies said in a radio address ahead of the 1946 federal election: “As sensible people, we are bound to make a choice. It is ridiculous to vote for some member or candidate simply because we like him or respect him. For if he is elected his real significance will be derived from the kind of government he supports, the policies he advocates, the kind of laws he helps to make.”

As sensible people, we are bound to make a choice. It is ridiculous to vote for some member or candidate simply because we like him or respect him. For if he is elected his real significance will be derived from the kind of government he supports

That is the choice the electors of Sydney will face in September 2020, and that is why it’s time for a Liberal Lord Mayor.

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