Bondi Pavilion. Photo: Alec Smart

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BY PAUL PAECH

We know from the odd public antics of Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd how emotionally destabilising losing high public office can be, but unfortunately that’s the democratic price they pay. (Under a dictatorship, of course, leadership change can have a rather more destabilising effect).

People have more respect for leaders (especially women like Julia Gillard or Hillary Clinton) who demonstrate some dignity and grace in defeat.

Last week, a former mayor showed that she too was finding it difficult to cope with rejection.

Waverley’s “colourful” councillor Sally Betts, once described by Malcolm Turnbull as “the most powerful woman in the Eastern Suburbs,” is also feeling a particularly sharp pain from her irrelevance, because at the height of her power, her displays of arrogance were legendary throughout the Eastern Suburbs.

One much repeated story described her response to one long-term Bondi cafe owner who asked her to move because her seat on the footpath was beyond council’s designated seating area. Regally flourishing her Waverley Council business card at the owner, she proclaimed for all to hear: “Council? I am the Council.”

But during last September’s election campaign, l’état, c’est moi was replaced by threats of chaos across Waverley should she lose: après moi, le deluge.

So desperate was Betts to win that on the eve of the election she played for the sympathy vote, revealing in the press that she had breast cancer, which she blamed on the underhand campaign for Bondi Pavilion.

Alas, this embarrassing mixing of public and private lives failed to persuade Waverley voters who bit the bullet and threw her and her Liberal Party out.

In the six months since being reduced to a garden-variety minority councillor in Council meetings, Betts has often found it difficult to cope, and last week a couple of articles in the AFR characterising the people who sabotaged her most excellent Pavilion plans as “snobs” showed she is still re-hashing the loss.

What Betts seems to forget is that those Pavilion plans had triggered a deluge of more than 700 community responses, of which only six were in favour, and that every subsequent consultation confirmed the same broad and vehement opposition. So it was actually Betts who belonged to a snobbish minority.

Betts had every chance to withdraw her unpopular snobbish plans, but it was only much later, having wasted even more time and money, that she decided to break the project into stages, principally to catch up on the years of neglect under her mayoralty. But she never stepped back from the $38 million Grand Plan.

Inevitably, Stage 1 was rejected by the community, called out graphically in local posters as a Trojan Horse.
Betts wasn’t the first Liberal Waverley mayor to have tried to commercialise Bondi Pavilion. During the shamelessly corrupt white-shoe days of the 1980s (the time of Alan Bond and Christopher Skase and corrupt Premier Bjelke-Petersen), the colourful Caroline and Jim Markham put around the same shtick of how Bondi needed to be upgraded to some world-class ideal, and tried to flog the whole Pav off.

Inevitably, the ICAC discovered extensive corruption in Waverley’s planning department (a fate Betts has avoided) and the Markhams lost power in an electoral landslide.

The post-Betts renewal of the Bondi Pavilion and the revival of its Cultural and Community Centre will secure the experience of Bondi Beach as the epitome of the egalitarian Aussie beach. She had sought to replace quality community areas with high-income restaurants and elite function/conference venues.

Under new mayor John Wakefield, the dilapidated Pavilion is being repaired and is already showing signs of renewed cultural life.

The Latin American Festival, supported financially for the first time in years by Waverley Council, was a pumping, colourful, vibrant musical feast enjoyed by thousands of locals and tourists.

In April and May the Pavilion will host Sydney Comedy Festival events.

Meantime, six months after losing the election, Wakefield’s predecessor is still bitterly trying to blame her loss on the same voters whose opinions she had disdained while mayor.

Like Chicken Little, who ran around telling everyone that the sky is falling, it was Betts’ own sky that collapsed with the Liberal loss of Waverley: it utterly destroyed her overweening political ambitions, said to have included a comfortable seat in NSW’s Legislative Council.

That election put paid to the amalgamation plans by the State Liberals to secure control over Sydney’s prized Eastern Suburbs.
It also signalled a democratic wave of opposition to the buccaneering knock-it-down sell-it-off values that characterise today’s NSW Government. It’s a warning to anyone in power who wants to tell their electors what’s good for them.

At what is demonstrably a dark and difficult time for her, perhaps Ms Betts might more productively choose to peer into a personal mirror where she would see, not some imaginary conspiracy of artists and snobs, but that it was her bullying hubris that brought down the curtain on her political career.