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Comment: 28 September 2008
Surging Greens peddle hypocrisy
Sydney’s Balmain is a textbook case of inner-city gentrification. Until
the late 1960s, it was a working-class hub for maritime and other light
industries dotting the western foreshores of Sydney Harbour. A crucible
of rugged labour politics, Balmain even gave birth to the Labor Party.
As land values and new modes of transportation pushed industry away,
educated baby boomers flooded in, lured by local character and cheap
high-density housing near the CBD.
By the 1980s Balmain was an enclave of professionals and arty types.
“Balmain basket weavers” is the tag made famous by Paul Keating. One
remnant of the area’s working-class heritage survives: the iconic
Balmain Tigers Rugby League Club, an original member of the competition
formed by working men in 1908. Yet the Tigers were almost driven out of
Balmain. Their redevelopment plans were repeatedly held-up by Greens and
allies on Leichhardt Council, the approving authority.
The episode was more than symbolic; it announced that gentrification
found a willing champion in the Greens.
Fast forward to Saturday, 13 September 2008.
Labor candidates struggled everywhere in that day’s NSW council
elections. After all, the strife-prone Iemma Government had just
imploded. Still, Labor candidates held their ground across western
Sydney. The now gentrified − but formerly Labor dominated − inner west
witnessed a bloodbath. Unprecedented 11 to 15 per cent swings in
Leichhardt (covering Balmain) and Marrickville delivered those councils
to outright or effective Greens control, a first for Sydney. The Greens
achieved solid, though less spectacular, gains in other inner west
councils like Burwood and Auburn.
Afterwards, a Leichhardt Greens candidate told The Glebe, a local
newspaper, that “Labor’s vote was hit by previous Labor councillors’
support for the Balmain Leagues Club redevelopment”.
And so a 100-year-old institution may be at risk from a few gripes about
These events confirm what has long been obvious about the Greens. While
presenting themselves as high-minded crusaders, their support base,
especially at the local government level, is motivated by the narrowest
of narrow self-interest. The Greens are happy to exploit this. Their
base does encompass a core of passionate, if misguided,
environmentalists. But it’s relatively small. For the most part, Greens
voters calculate that anti-development activism protects their amenities
and property values.
If the elections signal a swelling movement, it’s hardly about the
environment. More accurately, it’s a property owners’ movement. And more
accurately still, it pits existing against aspiring property owners. Of
course, personal wealth is heavily tied up in real estate across most
Australian cities. A lot of our politics revolve around this. Resort to
direct activism is more intense, though, where inner-city densities
combine with various stages of gentrification. Having moved on from an
industrial past, these regions struggle with a legacy of contentious
land use issues. At stake is whether the locality will achieve upscale
status, and the windfall gains that come with it.
Sure, property owners exert pressure in other ways, like the
multiplicity of resident or community action groups. But at a time of
environmental obsessions, none command the cred and media attention
accorded to the Greens.
Conversion of vacant or derelict land to parkland does wonders for
surrounding values. New housing or infrastructure, on the other hand,
can be distinct negatives. Campaigns to stop or shrink development
projects are hence a staple of local government politics.
According to the candidate quoted above, “Greens picked up votes from
activists interested in issues such as Callan Park and the Iron Cove
bridge duplication”. These are state government projects to develop a
defunct hospital’s grounds and build a parallel bridge along a major
Like all public assets, the government holds Callan Park on trust for
the people of NSW. That means all 6.8 million residents of the state,
from Albury to Armidale and from Broken Hill to Botany Bay. Local
residents should certainly be consulted. But they have no more
proprietorial rights than people in far west Bourke. When the government
can’t maximise returns from a land asset like Callan Park, there’s a
transfer of wealth from the public purse to the private pockets of local
property owners. Their values are enhanced. The losers are spread
throughout the state, and most are less affluent than the beneficiaries.
Having lost the returns, taxpayers are lumped with ongoing maintenance
costs to boot.
When locals block road or bridge-building projects, they pocket higher
values. The costs are generalised to the community in vehicle attrition,
wasted time and inefficiency. Built in the 1950s, Iron Cove Bridge is nowhere
near adequate to process traffic on Victoria Road, a major thoroughfare
into Sydney CBD. On the other hand, values around the cove’s foreshores
have clearly benefited from a vista featuring this small-scale,
picturesque bridge. A case of public pain, private gain. Locals have no
serious case, moral or otherwise, against the proposed bridge. The state
government has a duty to manage its assets for the wider community.
The hated M4 East link is another example. Sydney’s orbital motorway has
been a great success. According to one
estimate, it will boost
the state’s economy by $3.4 billion come 2020. Travelling times have
been slashed for millions of motorists. Designed as an integrated
system, the network isn’t finished yet. The M4 corridor crosses Sydney
laterally, but its eastern end is still on the drawing board.
Unfortunately, the route passes through a series of inner west
municipalities. To say the least, M4 East is a totemic issue for Greens
and other anti-development activists. It was roundly and loudly
condemned in the recent elections. And yet failure to complete the M4
will impose incalculable costs on the whole of Sydney.
No amount of chatter about “footprints”, “emissions” or “clean
transport” disguises appeals to naked self-interest. The Greens operate
on no higher moral plane than other political players. Nor are they
entitled to routinely smear opponents as “corrupt”, “greedy” or
Responding to claims that her councillors will block housing
developments, Greens MP Sylvia Hale made a telling
comment. She said “the
solution to housing affordability was not to cram ever more people into
inner-city areas, but to … [encourage] decentralisation”. After years of
calling for static urban boundaries to contain our ecological footprint
and preserve biodiversity, Ms Hale discovers the virtues of urban
growth. What has changed? The Greens now have a swag of inner-city
councillors to protect, all elected on an anti-development platform.
It’s something the Tigers know too well − when it comes to hypocrisy and
policy gyrations, the Greens are in a league of their own.