In an unusual gesture, on 22 August the Federal Opposition Leader gifted a pair of his speedos to Edward Mandla — bodybuilder, IT worker and Liberal candidate for Lord Mayor of Sydney.
The former seminarian’s intentions in doing so are shrouded in mystery. But what we do know is that, encouraged by the success of Brisbane’s hard-right Lord Mayor-turned-Premier Campbell Newman, the Federal Opposition leader has decided to prioritise the battle for the City of Sydney. Only last weekend, while doorknocking in Pyrmont, we were informed in scared whispers from residents that he had been there only moments before, and seemed to be shadowing the Sydney Labor team.
Why would a leader whose eyes were set on the Lodge choose to spend his time fighting street battles in municipal politics? Why would he handpick his own sister to run on the Liberal team? Why provide a swimsuit to a man whose hard-right politics and devotion to physical fitness eerily echo his own public persona?
The answer to these questions must be that Tony Abbott thinks the Liberals can win the election, or at least gain a massive enough increase in their vote to deliver them a determining role on council. He wants Edward Mandla to be wearing his second hand togs on the seat of power.
And he hopes that this victory in a metropolitan centre will have implications in Canberra, reverberating through national politics as part of his continued campaign of destabilisation.
Sydney Labor, in response, has made fighting the Liberals’ resurgence our first priority. We have placed them last on our how-to-vote, and urged the Greens and Clover to do the same. It is disappointing that the current Lord Mayor, in refusing to preference any progressive groups ahead of the Liberals (and indeed refusing to give any preferences at all) gives Tony Abbott’s team a free kick. She gives the the Tories the same access to her preference flows as she gives to community independents, Labor and the Greens in receiving her preference flows.
The Liberals are running a classic Thatcherite campaign: cut rates, cut back services, and pull (they hope) the votes of the increasingly wealthy and gentrified areas of the City of Sydney. Mandla’s glossy mailout, delivered last night, targets the "bloated" 1700 council staff and promises to cut "wasteful" spending of $160 million.
It was, in fact, the crushing defeat of NSW Labor at the last state election that has empowered Sydney Labor to fight back against Tony Abbott’s Tories so strongly. The wave that swept over the parliamentary party and took out so many old Labor MPs also swept away the conservative structures, old networks of power and established practices of the NSW branch of the party.
New officials like John Graham and Sam Dastyari started to assert their authority in the wake of the election loss and backed the drive to greater openness and innovation. The Faulkner Bracks report established a blueprint for changing the organisation; and through organisations like Campaign Action, Obama’s Democrats were coming to Australia to train up Labor members in community organizing and grassroots campaigning, building on the local knowledge and practices of trade unionists and party activists.
In the City of Sydney, these new approaches, devolving power to members, connected with more than a century’s worth of branch history: a network of 15 groups each with its own deep connections to the communities in which they are based, from Kings Cross to Glebe and Rosebery.
Six months before the election, these factors came together as the new party officials responded to calls from Meredith Burgmann to institute one of the key recommendations of the Faulkner Bracks report: the trial of a primary, for Labor’s Lord Mayoral candidate. The effects of this were profound; 4,331 community members voted in the community preselection, making it the largest and most successful primary in Australian history. It was the power of the community, hand in hand with the activists in the branches, that determined the result: Linda Scott, the community campaigner, defeated her rivals; and despite having a significant media profile, Cameron Murphy only came close to winning because he was astute enough to understand the importance of grassroots organizing, and developed a campaign through the branches and local groups.
The energy, discussions and community concerns generated by this have flowed through to the campaign, focusing it on the concerns of local citizens. People want positive progressive parties who set out an innovative new agenda, not internecine leftwing politics. Labor has worked to forge a proactive agenda, setting out policies for environmental infrastructure, for a reinvestment in council childcare services and for an urban arts and creative practices policy. It has argued for affordable housing and better conditions for public housing tenants, working with the Greens and the Housing Action Coalition to put these issues at the forefront of the public debate, and forcing other candidates and parties to come out with housing policies.
It has aimed not to wedge other progressive parties but to cohere them into an alliance opposed to the conservatives, winning support for instance, from the Greens and Clover Moore for its proposal for underground telegraph cabling, while the Liberals stand out in isolated opposition to it. As well as placing Edward Mandla and the hard right last, it has given its preferences to the Greens and community independents above other Liberal-aligned candidates.
Similarly it has worked to forge alliances with the community. For instance while other progressive parties take the support of the GLBTI community for granted, Sydney Labor has consulted with key groups to create a policy and framework setting out an agenda for ACON, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and other foundations of gay Sydney for years to come. In response the Mardi Gras has thanked Labor for sharing its vision and used the party’s agenda to put pressure on other parties for bigger commitments.
In creating a progressive agenda we are incorporating community demands into the politics of the campaign and the ongoing politics of the council in years to come. And in doing so Sydney Labor building a consensus to keep Tony Abbott and his budgie smugglers out of Town Hall.