BY ANITA SENARATNA
The eastern suburbs have been safe Liberal territory for years, but as the weekend’s council elections have shown, not even the most loyal voters can be taken for granted.
The Liberals experienced a backlash from voters across the state, with noticeable swings towards Labor, Greens and independent candidates. The votes are still being counted, although final results are expected to be available by September 16.
Issues that dominated the election campaign in the east were the NSW Government’s failed merger between Randwick, Waverley and Woollahra Councils, and the controversial Bondi Pavilion upgrade in Waverley. Both were Liberal Party policies that were strongly resisted by residents.
The Liberals have lost their majority in Waverley, going from seven seats on council to five. As of the most recent count, Labor has three seats with a possible fourth, and the Greens have a record high of three councillors in Waverley.
On Election Day, Save Bondi Pavilion convenor Kilty O’Brien was handing out how-to-vote flyers at local polling booths. The flyers encouraged voters to ‘Put The Liberals Last’ and vote for various Labor, Greens and Independent councillors who had signed a pledge not to go ahead with the Liberals’ proposed upgrade, which was set to cost almost $38 million.
Ms. O’Brien said that although it was “hard to gauge” which way the election would go, Bondi Pavilion was “certainly a big issue for people across the local government area.”
One major concern was that the community space on the building’s top floor would be privatised to make room for a restaurant or function centre. Residents were worried that if the Liberal Party retained their majority on Waverley Council, they would privatise the space against the public’s wishes.
“People are over the secrecy and the plans, not just for the Pavilion, to overdevelop a lot of space in Waverley. The Liberals have been in power here for a long time and I think people haven’t seen the results that they’ve been after,” said Ms. O’Brien.
Her predictions proved accurate later that night as the results came in.
Waverley Mayor Sally Betts, who announced last week she had stage two breast cancer, has been re-elected in the Hunter Ward. But according to Labor councillor John Wakefield, it is “almost certain” that she will not stay the mayor after the election.
“Her chapter is closed as far as we’re concerned,” he said.
Sally Betts has long been a divisive figure on the council. Not only was she a strong supporter of the merger with Randwick and Woollahra, she also pushed ahead with the Bondi Pavilion upgrade despite residents’ protests.
Cr Wakefield says Mayor Betts “deserved” to lose the election after the way she handled these issues, and that “everybody is happy” that she no longer has a majority.
“Everyone I speak to is over the moon,” he said.
“Mayor Betts would say from the chair [in council meetings], for example, ‘Look at the rent-a-crowd, the rabble in the audience’. These were just normal residents concerned about a development and she would refer to them openly as rabble.”
The Liberals also suffered losses on Randwick Council, with swings away from both major parties and towards the Greens and independent candidates. The Greens are expected to pick up three seats, with another three going to independent candidates.
One of them is current Randwick Mayor Noel D’Souza, who will be returning to council as an Independent after separating from Labor earlier this year.
But one area where the Liberals did do well is Woollahra, where they retained their majority on council with eight out of fifteen seats. There was a slight swing towards minor parties such as the Greens and Residents First, who now have five seats on council.
Mayor Toni Zeltzer, who was re-elected in the Double Bay ward, said the election results were “very pleasing for Woollahra Liberals.”
Mayor Zeltzer and the rest of the Liberal councillors made the difficult decision to campaign against their own party on the mergers when it became clear the community disapproved of the idea. Woollahra Council challenged the State Government’s forced merger in the Supreme Court, where they initially lost but were granted a High Court appeal in May. Two months later, NSW Premier Gladys Berijiklian announced the State Government would no longer be proceeding with the mergers.
“We bucked the statewide trend which saw voters abandon the Liberal Party, and we bucked it by listening to our community. Others that did not suffered the consequences,” said Mayor Zeltzer.
She and her team will be taking a “breather” until the final results are in, but they are looking forward to their next term.
“It’s a short term, and there’s a lot to do so we’ve really got to hit the ground running,” she said.
However, Cr Wakefield says that although the forced mergers across NSW do partly explain the backlash against the Liberal Party, there is another issue that seems to be common across most councils, both in the eastern suburbs and across the state – overdevelopment.
“There weren’t just single issues going on here, there were issues in every area around development,” he said, pointing to recent community uproar over proposed developments of Bronte RSL and Waverley Bowling Club as further examples.
“The Labor Party won this election through good policies and hard work, and the Liberals lost it because they lost touch with the community.”