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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 traffic volumes.

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 thoroughfare.

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 “compromised”.

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.

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 TNC  28 September 2008       Like to respond?                    Home/Top