Woollahra is proud of its rich history and won the battle against amalgamation. Credit: Wikimedia commons

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BY ANITA SENARATNA

The electorate of Woollahra has been safe Liberal party territory for the past two decades, and the local government election on September 9 is unlikely to bring any changes to the status quo.
But the Greens and Residents First parties are also campaigning hard in the area. Both parties will be running candidates in all five wards- Bellevue Hill, Cooper, Double Bay, Paddington and Vaucluse. Labor will be running three candidates in the Paddington Ward but do not currently have any councillors elected in Woollahra.
The biggest issue of the election campaign to date has been the proposed amalgamation with neighbouring councils Waverley and Randwick, forming one large eastern suburbs council. These plans were abandoned by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian in July.
Woollahra Mayor Toni Zeltzer has once again been preselected for the number one spot in Bellevue Hill. She says it’s an “absolute delight” that the merger will no longer be going ahead.
“The fight was long and hard and finally we can breathe more easily,” she said. “We’re pleased now that we can get back and focus on the real business of council.”
The proposed merger did not go down well with residents, and many made their feelings known to their local members. The predominantly Liberal council had a choice to make- support the Liberal party’s policy at the risk of alienating residents, or support their residents by going against their own party.
It wasn’t an easy decision, but Mayor Zeltzer said the proposal just “didn’t add up” and she wasn’t convinced it was the right thing for her community.
“I am a fighter, I don’t give up if something’s not right,” she said.
“There’s no way I could sell a dud to my community, for starters. I was elected by them to serve their best interests and I think under the circumstances, which were very challenging, I did the best I could do.”
Mayor Zeltzer and the rest of the council challenged the merger in the Supreme Court, where they initially lost but were granted a High Court appeal in May. Two months later, NSW announced the State Government would no longer be proceeding with the forced amalgamations, much to the relief of Woollahra residents.
“Days after it was announced I went into Queen St to get my lunch and I had to leave without it because as I walked down the street I was greeted and hugged by so many people. I couldn’t do the task I was there to do!” said Ms Zeltzer.
It wasn’t just Woollahra residents, either.
“Some of those people were Waverley people!” she laughed.
Ms Zeltzer and the rest of the Liberal team have all signed a pledge to fight any future attempts at forced mergers, in an attempt to reassure concerned voters. They will be running under the slogan “Successful Leadership Protecting Woollahra”, with a focus on supporting local businesses and protecting Woollahra’s environment and heritage.
Cr Anthony Marano is the number one Liberal candidate for the Cooper Ward following a dramatic preselection campaign, in which an unauthorised flyer was sent out to preselectors encouraging them to vote for 15 particular Liberal candidates who were pro-amalgamation. Conspicuously left off the flyer were Cr Marano, Mayor Zeltzer, and others who had spoken out against the merger.
Ironically, almost none of the candidates on the unauthorised brochure were preselected. Cr Marano believes the omission was most likely deliberate.
“We’ve worked very hard as committed Liberals and one can only imagine we were left off the brochure because of our resistance to amalgamation,” he said.
“It’s wonderful that Woollahra still stands as an independent council and we’ll be fighting to retain that. All the other parties, the Greens and Residents First, we’ve all worked hard together as a council so I think we’re all united on that front.”
Cr Marano is confident that he’ll work well with whoever gets elected on September 9.
“Unlike some councils we all work well together and while we don’t always agree on everything, I think it’s a very civilised environment,” he said.
“We don’t hold meetings at 8:00 on a Sunday morning…to keep the public away, and we don’t walk out of meetings if we don’t like what people are saying. It’s very democratic and so whatever the makeup of councillors ends up becoming, I think we’ll all work well together.”
Greens councillor Matthew Robertson will be running for council again in the Paddington Ward, as the Greens’ number one candidate. He says unlike the Liberal Party who proposed the merger in the first place, the Greens have always been against forced amalgamation, both in Woollahra and in other electorates across NSW.
“The Greens have been leading the campaign against forced amalgamations across NSW since its inception,” said Cr Robertson.
“There are good Liberals who have led a strong campaign against their own side. I’m particularly grateful to Toni Zeltzer for the way she’s conducted herself but as for the rest of the Liberals, they can’t be trusted.”
Cr Robertson says that the Greens’ plans for Woollahra include saving local trees, providing more parks and playgrounds for young families, pushing for the completion of a bike path network for cyclists and warding off overdevelopment– particularly the proposed upgrade of the Rose Bay Marina, which is also being opposed by the Residents First party.
“Local government is the layer of government closest to the people, it is the most democratically responsive layer of government,” said Cr Robertson.
“The Greens, as a grassroots political party, fundamentally see the value in local government and what it delivers for local communities.”
But one councillor who won’t be contesting his seat in the election is veteran Liberal Councillor Andrew Petrie, who has been in local government since 1991.
Cr Petrie is confident of the Liberal Party’s chances this election, after residents saw the lengths their councillors went to standing up for them in court.
“They’ve got the reassurance now, they’re aware of all those councillors who went out of their way against the party to stand on behalf of the residents against amalgamation,” he said.
“I would’ve thought that the Liberals have a very good track record to rely on. They can say ‘look at the last five years, how we’ve acted on behalf of the residents of Woollahra’ and I think they’ll get very good results at the polls on September 9.”
When asked if he had any advice for future councillors, he said:
“The absolute main thing to do is listen to the residents. Listen to the residents over and above the party at all times.”