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Mackie's Town Hall comeback

Sia Duff

Arts administrator Greg Mackie OAM has this week been returned to the Adelaide City Council. Stepping into the vacated seat of a former factional architect and Deputy Lord Mayor, in the middle of a pandemic, Mackie returns to a chamber with problems that are both unprecedented and, oddly familiar.

“I’m feeling fitter at 60 than I did at 40, and considerably wiser,” Mackie tells The Adelaide Review. “I’m looking forward to the daunting challenges ahead.”

17 years after he first stepped back from local government after an unsuccessful Lord Mayoral bid in 2003, there are no shortage of those. 

The past two months of COVID-19 measures have dramatically changed the city’s social and economic outlook, with its bars, restaurants and entertainment venues shut, and office buildings and streets practically emptied. While these changes are temporary, as they begin to be rolled back the long-term effects will be broad.

Jenny Scott
Mackie during his 2003 Lord Mayor campaign

Then, there’s the council itself.

“I’m certainly not in the slightest bit naive,” the History Trust CEO, former Arts SA head and Festival of Ideas founder explains. “About not only the challenges of the elected chamber at present, but more particularly and of greater importance, the consequences of the COVID-19 response to the economy and cultural life of the city. And, the prospect that whatever the new normal is, it may not be possible for it to be identical to what the old normal was.”

This, Mackie says, is why one his chief priorities will be to push for a new City of Adelaide plan to shape Adelaide’s post-COVID identity with a view to the long-term changes ahead of us, as well as the more immediate repercussions of the current crisis.

“We have dropped the ball as a capital city on the planning front, to the point where it’s now a quarter of a century since the last city development plan was promulgated – when I was last on council that plan was only five years old,” he explains. “We’ve not taken a root and branch look at the current and desired shape of the city, and that’s a very integrated engagement process that can help provide greater certainty to electors, the community and the property-owning sector as well,” he says. 

“I’m hoping that while the budget position has been dramatically eroded, that we don’t simply shelve the very important master planning work that a capital city must do, and indeed in this instance the over-arching city plan that has not been addressed for a quarter of a century.”

With 568 first preference votes Mackie led an eclectic field of eight candidates for the Central Ward vacancy, that included former Property Council executive director Nathan Paine, King’s Head publican Gareth Lewis and Climate Strike organiser Doha Khan. Entrepreneur Wayne Chao came second with 20.2 per cent of the primary vote, followed by Paine with 16.7 per cent.

Sia Duff

“We have become, for a variety of reasons, complacent about the value of local government and the value of local democracy.”

It’s an unusual moment to be holding an election, even for local government polls that are typically vote-from-home affairs anyway. But despite Mackie’s own disappointment at the low turnout – just 18.75 per cent of eligible voters – he says this low level of participation is symptomatic of a growing detachment that pre-dates COVID-19.

“The voter participation rate in this by election is, in fact, no worse than the participation rate has been in other by-elections without COVID-19,” he says, echoing an earlier rebuttal to calls to postpone the poll. “But I guess my observation is a more general one: we have become, for a variety of reasons, complacent about the value of local government and the value of local democracy. Therefore we’re reaping the harvest of what’s been sown, and that becomes more apparent when elected chambers behave badly.”

About that. As recent conflict over the Hutt Street Centre (“What has changed in the Hutt Street and city south area is not the intensification of the Hutt Street Centre’s services, but the gentrification around in,” Mackie says), long-in-development bike path plans and the Adelaide Crows’ now-abandonded Adelaide Aquatic Centre takeover, the current council is evidently home to some very different ideas about what ‘progress’ in Adelaide should look like.

While there are some familiar faces – Councillor Anne Moran recently celebrated her 25th year on the council, while Mackie’s former Festival of Ideas colleague Sandy Verschoor is now Lord Mayor – Mackie will have to wade into a chamber marked by a level of factionalism and personal animus that’s exceptional even by city council standards. With Mackie set to replace the reputed architect of the so-called ‘Team Adelaide’ faction, former deputy Lord Mayor Houssam Abiad, he hopes to help raise the level of discourse and debate in the chamber.

“I’m under no illusion that one additional voice in the mix is, in and of itself, going to transform everything – there are now some evidently very deep-seated enmities between some elected members. I can’t fix that, but I hope to at least model the kind of civility that I practiced last time I was on council – and there were very deep divisions on the council that I served in, and there were factions.

“Factions are not new, and not unique to this current council. What I would hope though, is that we can see a return to a better standard of civility, of respect.”

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

Digital Editor
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Walter is a writer, editor and broadcaster living on Kaurna Country. His work has appeared in Rip It Up, The Saturday Paper, Smith Journal, Royal Auto, Swampland Magazine, Broadsheet and The Thousands.

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