Shakeout at City Hall

The new Lord Mayor has promised to “unify everyone around a shared vision for the City of Adelaide”.

If the ‘heart’ vote was all that mattered in the city council elections a few weeks ago, new Lord Mayor Martin Haese wouldn’t have been elected. The most first-preference votes went to incumbent Stephen Yarwood (2723) against Haese (2193). But the preferential system often digs up unexpected results, as well as large lumps of irony. It was the preferences passed on from park lands advocate Kelly Henderson, as well as area councillor lawyer and ‘old Adelaide’ scion Mark Hamilton, that got Haese over the line. Haese presented himself as a `back to basics’ candidate with his campaign slogan ‘Leadership today’. Ironically, his pledges had little to do with those promised by the two candidates whose preferences handed him the winning tally – resisting park lands incursions or calming planning policy anxieties. Indeed, scrutiny of Haese’s pre-election material reveals precious little focus on the hot-button political issues – matters that some might argue will be the most critical to the evolution of the ‘look and feel’ of the city, its park lands and North Adelaide over the next four years. According to press reports, Martin Haese and wife Genevieve have only a singular family, a cat called Maximus. It’s routinely accepted that cats do their own thing mostly, regardless of instruction. Mr Haese’s experience with the feline family should stand in good stead when he begins working with his team of newly elected councillors (almost half of whom are newcomers) and better understands what the term ‘herding cats’ really means. A mayor rarely gets a chance to vote: his job is most often to guide, advise and lead. The greatest risk is to face a divided house that is prepared to confront higher levels of government, even just to make a political statement. Of course, it will be peaches and cream to begin with, but council history shows that the seeds of revolt can be sown quite early. Topics? Some Yarwood residue is likely – a desire to continue spending on creating a more sustainable city and, of course, to see the half-done Victoria Square upgrade completed at a cost of another $75 million. Disputes over the ongoing costs of `vibrancy’ on the streets – that word that annoyed old Adelaide – are sure to emerge early simply because Mayor Haese’s election manifesto instead focused on alternative, ‘fundamentals’ matters – roads, footpath and lighting upgrades, capped rates, lower longterm debt, improved support for small city businesses, and, as he said: “A lesser focus on politics and a greater focus on people.” That is an ironic line, given that it parallels Yarwood statements made four years ago when he won office – again thanks to others’ preferences. Mayor Haese enters that quaint place, The Mayor’s Parlour, at a crucial time. For the past four years, the place has been served by an assorted collection of talents, elected and otherwise. There has been turnover of middle management but that is no reflection on the seniors because local government is a traditional training ground and people move on – and up. The city’s top man, CEO Peter Smith, has done the distance, and done well: his salary package peaked recently at $398,000 – more than is paid to Premier Jay Weatherill and almost three times that which Mayor Haese will earn. Mayor Haese knows all about big money and senior management, and an early issue is certain to be how a capital city corporation can run smoothly under not one but two dominant administrators – himself and Mr Smith – each of whose careers have been characterised by firm control of the levers. Mr Haese has an MBA and much hard-won experience. Twenty-one years ago, in his 20s (he’s now 49) he ran Youthworks Retail Co which had 16 stores and 220 employees. Latterly he has managed Rundle Mall for council where his election brochures claim, “his influential leadership united the precinct and played a key role in securing public holiday trading exclusively for the City of Adelaide”. So he has experience outside and inside council’s corridors, and of hammering out agreements between private and public sectors. He also has years of experience chairing or directing or sitting on boards, bureaux and committees, where language often morphs into commerce speak and, if one is not careful, some really clever ideas can be driven into cul de sacs and quietly strangled. His skill at identifying such manoeuvres might be useful if he really wants to achieve something. However, if he does want to keep a matter out of the limelight, there will be the novelty of the provisions of parts of section 90 of the Local Government Act 1999 which allow myriad legal reasons why virtually any council matter can be prescribed as confidential and the details locked away from voters or the media for many years. And the cats – the elected members – will be legally forced to play the silence game, too. So much for the potential internal shenanigans. Publicly, Mayor Haese has offered that small number of city ratepayers who bothered to vote (averaging 36 percent) the self-imposed and very challenging job of leading Adelaide’s retail and CBD out of a range of funks, some recent, but others by virtue of slow evolution, such as the collapse of manufacturing in SA and the ripple effects of rising unemployment in surrounding suburbs. One election pledge suggested that he would assume a mantle that Premier Weatherill should instead be wearing: “I will use my local, national and international commercial experience to bring big business to the table to unlock greater investment in the city,” he promised in September. This pledge was already well aired, however. It was made by Lord Mayors Harbison (2003-10) and Yarwood (2010-14). But by now it is a curious statement, in building terms, given that $1 billion worth of development, approved during Yarwood’s term and under council administration, is waiting to go up in the city. He also wants to see greater “digital and financial literacy” and “red tape reduction”, but the digital thing was Yarwood’s speciality and late last year council cleaned up its act and purged some internal red tape. However, government red tape is another matter. Which brings us to politics, an arena that Mayor Haese, more used to the halls of commerce, now will not be able to avoid – on a weekly basis. On close examination his election pledges suggest an each-way bet. “I fiercely believe in the independence of local government from state government politics,” he stated two months ago. “I also believe a council should, and can, adopt a bipartisan approach towards working with the state government of the day.” This, in theory, sounds a bit like the deal that Lord Mayor Yarwood hammered out after some early and bruising encounters with North Terrace – which he lost in relation to some planning and heritage issues. When candidate Haese was challenged in September to ‘please explain’ how as a mayor he might resolve what was clearly significant tension between the Weatherill government and Town Hall, he stated: “Through trust, mutual respect and leadership, which appear to be lacking. I will immediately start working collaboratively with the state government…” Premier Weatherill, who, during the council election period, very publicly backed someone else – Stephen Yarwood, will eagerly anticipate the outcome of this pledge. Could it be that the state, with major planning changes, uncharacteristically oversized city commercial development and park lands Riverbank building plans waiting in the wings, gets another four glorious years of minimal council political resistance? Mayor Haese cannot yet know whether he can effectively deliver such collaboration but his election material barely mentioned the politics of a rapidly changing landscape which will have profound implications during his term – big changes in planning policy and the state’s isolation of the city council from an administrative role in it. Much might depend on Mr Haese’s ability to herd the cats. Right now, however, the only one whose personality he completely understands is that of Maximus, who will greet him as he comes in the door after yet another long night in the council chamber, wrestling with political and administrative complexities for the good of a city whose voters actually allocated more first preference `heart votes’ to someone else: the Wi-Fi guy who rode a bike to work and had the chutzpah to challenge many old ideas and fund some new ones.

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.