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New female voices set to shake up Clover Moore’s hold on Sydney city council

Shauna Jarrett, Yvonne Weldon and Sylvie Ellsmore have big plans on transparency, Indigenous issues and affordable housing.

When Sydney’s lord mayor, Clover Moore, was returned for a historic fifth term in December, not everything went her party’s way.

Today, Sydney city council looks quite different from the super eight-seat majority her team predicted she’d win. With five seats to her team and five seats to other councillors, it isn’t quite a stalemate – the lord mayor casts the deciding vote. However, there are several new faces to hold Moore, one of the longest-serving mayors of a global city, to account.

“The council has had a much-needed refresh; six of us are new,” Greens councillor Sylvie Ellsmore tells Guardian Australia. “Without baggage, critique can be responded to more healthily – not just shut down.”

The Greens return to the council after a term away. They join a new party (Unite for Sydney, represented by Yvonne Weldon), and two new candidates for a major party (Shauna Jarrett and Lyndon Gannon of the Liberals).

Guardian Australia spoke to three of the new voices on the council – Ellsmore, Jarrett and Weldon – to understand how they plan to change Sydney in the coming two and a half years.

A bunch of colonials and a cat

Weldon was the first Indigenous lord mayoral candidate in Sydney or, she believes, any Australian capital city.

“I’m up against it, without a doubt,” she says, naming Moore’s 22 staff members in comparison to her one.

“But history was made with my election, and I intend to use it by suggesting motions, asking tough questions and working with everyone.”

Weldon labelled as “elitist” Moore’s plans for “giant concrete pools in the middle of the harbour”, pushing instead for urban billabongs: shallow lagoons that trace old waterways, to form a modern “Songline” through the city.

It’s one way she plans on making Indigenous issues the heart of every decision.

“It’s native knowledge. Aboriginal knowledge holders need to be incorporated more with decisions such as planting non-native plane trees, which cause respiratory problems for many residents,” she says.

She intends to question the city’s 25 publicly owned statues – mainly early colonial leaders. Not one is of an Aboriginal person. There’s even a statue of a cat, something Weldon has said makes it “breathtakingly hard for First Nations people to feel proud”.

She disagrees with the lord mayor’s office, which echoed the sentiments of Indigenous artist Djon Mundine in saying statues were “narcissistic” and “favoured by authoritarian regimes and empires”.

While acknowledging a diversity of views, Weldon says many Indigenous people are calling for this. “People in the Aboriginal Land Council are asking but they’re not being heard – I’m representing their voice,” she says.

Affordable housing and a rejuvenated city

As deputy chair of the new Housing for All committee, Ellsmore wants the city of Sydney – one of Australia’s wealthiest councils – to do “much more” on affordable housing.

“Protecting and growing affordable housing will now be discussed monthly by all councillors.” That’s key because, she says, the council is currently not on track to meet its own targets.

Her other priorities include reactivating Sydney’s community centres post lockdown and breaking down bureaucracy to pave the way for “active participation of individuals, making the council more transparent and accessible”.

On those last two points, she’s an unlikely bedfellow with Liberal councillor Jarrett.

“We need better continuous use of the city’s council-owned community centres such as in Pyrmont and Millers Point,” Jarrett says, adding it’s a key part of rebuilding post lockdown.

“All the council’s plans are for 2030 or 2050. Those ideological strategies were written pre-pandemic; we need to readjust to prioritise bringing people back into the CBD.”

Resuscitating the city’s financial centre requires supporting small to medium business owners. Their voice now largely falls to Jarrett and Gannon, after Angela Vithoulkas, of the Small Business party, lost her seat.

Jarrett wants to reduce lengthy development applications to aid recovery. “It’s so people can adapt their small businesses on a street level and run them how they want to, not the way the council thinks they should.”

Vicious cycle of conflict

Rumbles of discontent exist within the council about the cycleways with which Moore has become synonymous.

At the first council meeting, new separated cycleways were approved for Oxford, Liverpool and King streets.

But councillors Weldon and Jarrett voted against an amended motion, which was carried, to create the cycleways.

Both said that they believed Moore’s cycleways plan to be hotch potch; a reference to the sudden installation of pop-up cycleways to cope with increased demand during lockdown.

“It’s got to be part of an integrated plan,” Jarrett says. “It has to work with Mardi Gras for when they return to Oxford Street.”

Ellsmore predicts future heat.

“Cycleways will continue to be a real flashpoint of conflict between some councillors,” she says. Moore’s vision of a truly cycle-friendly Sydney rubs against the determination of some councillors to represent displeased constituents about poor parking opportunities in a car-fixated city like Sydney.

A fresh approach to politics

This mayoral contest was historic: all six candidates were women. Five of them made it on to the council, making a total of seven women out of 10 councillors.

Law professor and director of UNSW’s Pathways to Politics for Women, Rosalind Dixon, says it was wonderful to see so many women elected to the council, especially given “outrageous” 2016 comments from a former Liberal councillor who characterised Vithoulkas’s attendance at networking events as an attempt to “find a husband”.

“A critical mass dispels the idea that women leaders are exceptional,” she says.

“When we normalise that, we see women holding women accountable; what a great, fresh approach to politics!”

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