Moore the unstoppable

3 June 2021 | Posted In: #139 Winter 2021,

Ahead of the City election in September, Ben Raue of The Tally Room reflects on the rise of Sydney’s longest-serving lord mayor and wonders what the future will hold.

Clover Moore came to power in the City of Sydney in 2004. Her first tilt as lord mayor followed a dramatic border change that significantly expanded the voter base of the council beyond the CBD and the business vote.

There is a long history of state governments fiddling with the boundaries of the City for political advantage. This dates back to the first big expansion in 1949 when the council extended beyond Surry Hills, Kings Cross and Pyrmont to the borders it encompasses today. That expansion took place under a Labor government. The next Coalition government reversed most of those changes, handing parts of the council to surrounding jurisdictions and placing most of the southern suburbs into South Sydney council. This left the City with a relatively small residential population, and the CBD.

The Labor state government merged Sydney and South Sydney in 1982, only for a Coalition government to separate the councils in 1989. The South Sydney of the 1990s stretched from Rosebery and Camperdown all the way up to Potts Point. The current council was created in 2004 when the state Labor government amalgamated the suburbs of South Sydney with the business-dominated City of Sydney.

Labor had good reason to be optimistic about their chances in a new City which had been consolidated with a council with strong Labor representation. Labor therefore had high hopes for former Keating government minister Michael Lee who was picked as the party’s 2004 mayoral candidate after he lost his seat on the Central Coast at the 2001 election.

However, Clover Moore threw a spanner in Labor’s works. Moore — who had been in politics for a quarter of a century — was the state MP for Bligh at the time, having held the seat since 1988. Much to Labor’s irritation (whose hierarchy referred to Moore as “the Witch of Oxford Street”), she won the mayoralty comfortably while also bringing with her on the ticket four independent councillors.

The win gave her not only half of the council but — with the lord mayor’s casting vote — effective control. With the prestige and authority of Town Hall, the new council proved to be a formidable power base. Thanks to revenue from rates charged to big business, it had the resources as well as a significantly larger residential population.

Team Moore has remained in power ever since that 2004 win. In an election that was “never in doubt”, the team won a fifth council seat in 2008 with Moore gaining a swing of almost 14 percent on the mayoral ballot. “We are going to keep doing what we have been doing, maintaining that momentum,” Moore said at the time. “We have a blueprint, we have a vision, and we have engaged everybody from locals to the business community.”

The Moore party lost its fifth seat in 2012, while the leader herself suffered a small reverse swing. However, Moore still won the mayoralty with 51 percent of the primary vote. Then came the historic fourth win in 2016. In a landslide, Moore polled almost 58 percent of the primary vote and regained a fifth councillor. It was, she said, “a real win for grassroots democracy”.

For most of the past 17 years, Moore’s team has been cohesive and stable with a gradual changeover of councillors. Yet, on more than one occasion, Moore has fallen out with councillors who have struggled to work under her leadership. The biggest split in the Moore team took place in 2017 when the lord mayor fell out with her deputy, Kerryn Phelps.

Seen as a potential successor for Clover, Phelps was given the deputy lord mayoralty in 2016 but left the Moore train a year later. Phelps intended to run in this year’s contest but withdrew in May for personal reasons. Remarkably, over four council elections, no one has come at all close to defeating Moore — and there doesn’t appear to be much chance of her losing on 4 September. Perhaps Phelps could have carved off enough of Moore’s base to pose a threat, but we will never know.

Moore’s vote has remained relatively stable over the last four elections. Labor and the Greens, meanwhile, have lost ground while the Liberal Party has gained support. Labor and the Greens collectively polled over 39 percent at the 2004 council election with the Liberal Party polling just under 12 percent. The Liberal vote climbed to 19.7 percent in 2016, compared to just 17.6 percent for Labor and the Greens. This suggests that Moore’s voter base has shifted to the left over that time.

There’s no denying that the Moore regime has been a thorn in the side of the state Liberal government over the past decade. It must have been tempting for the party’s apparatchiks to consider chiselling away the city’s suburbs to reduce the council to a small rump covering just the CBD. Yet the O’Farrell government chose a different direction, instead aiming to tweak the electoral system to unseat Moore.

First, they changed legislation to prevent state MPs from running for local council (the so-called “get Clover” laws). It’s not uncommon for local councillors to run for state parliament. There were dozens of Liberal councillors elected to parliament in 2011, for instance, but usually they retire from council at the first opportunity. But for Moore, the council job was clearly the more prominent of her two roles.

The new law made Moore choose between her state seat of Sydney and the lord mayoralty. She subsequently resigned as state MP prior to the 2012 council elections, triggering a by-election for a seat she had only narrowly retained in 2011. The Liberal Party ran hard for the seat against Moore’s hand-picked successor Alex Greenwich, but Greenwich won with a swing of 10.6 percent compared to Moore’s result in 2011.

When that effort to unseat Moore didn’t succeed, the Liberal state government looked to increase the power of the business vote. Non-residents have always had some right to vote in local council elections in New South Wales, but legislation was changed to give two votes to property owners and to push those owners into actually exercising this franchise. It was largely unsuccessful, however.

Although the Liberals managed to bolster the roll by 20,000 businesses, it failed to translate into increased turnout for the Libs. Other capital city councils such as Melbourne and Perth are largely captured by business interests in the CBD, but they have much smaller surrounding residential populations. As long as a large suburban population is included in the City, they will likely hold sway in local elections.

So what of the future? Succession planning is always difficult for independents, both in parliament and in local council. There are numerous case studies of strong independent MPs who retire and pick a successor who often will win the seat but lose at the following election. At a council level there are a number of stories about local independent machines that fell from a dominant position to extinction as the first generation moved on.

If Moore does win an unprecedented fifth run in office, as is likely, she has indicated she will serve the full (three-year) term. Moore has previously flagged that any of her council allies — all of whom are running again — could potentially turn out to be a strong candidate for lord mayor. But once she hangs up her robes, there will be no guarantee that her endorsed successor would hold on to the mayoralty — let alone a working majority on council against three political parties all eager to improve their position. It will be a delicate transition, and it’s unlikely Moore will wait until the end of her final term before hatching a succession strategy.

Moore will be 78 in 2024, at which point she’ll have held the mayoralty for more than 20 years. When Clover does decide to descend the Town Hall steps for the last time, she will do so knowing her legacy is secure. As for her successor, you can only hope they have size 14 feet.