The man who wants to save Sydney

Member for Sydney Alex Greenwich, MP, photographed for the Sydney Sentinel by Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

Member for Sydney Alex Greenwich talks to the Sentinel about his past and the future – including the changing realities of a post-Covid Sydney. By Richie Black.

One of the brightest and most progressive of politicians hits an uncharacteristically downbeat note while discussing the dire situation of his constituency.

Going forward, it’s going to be really tough,” says Alex Greenwich, describing– by way of example – how “you walk into the CBD, see empty food courts full of small business owners, tied into pretty high commercial rents, with no patrons.”

But while the 39-year-old Independent, who has held the seat of Sydney since the 2012 by-election, is frank about the impact of the Covid, his perspective is also informed by a characteristically forward-thinking outlook.

“We are going to need a strategic plan from all three levels of the government. And I think the way people are working is going to change, going forward. Covid has shown that people can work from home.”

He points to the NSW Government’s so-called ‘Pyrmont Place Strategy’ – a masterplan that includes ramping up the area’s capacity for office workers – as an example of outdated thinking.

“Not only is it talking about office towers but it really doesn’t talk about the need for an increase in social and community housing. The type of housing we’re going to need in an economic recession is not penthouse apartments in casino towers.”

Ch-ch-changes

Expecting to alter that intrenched bureaucratic thinking could seem a bit optimistic. But this is the guy who has made change an important part of his brand from the word go.

And to an extent it is a brand – albeit a worthy one.

He was, of course, a key figure the YES! campaign that finally delivered marriage equality in 2017.

Then in 2019, he introduced the co-sponsored Reproductive Healthcare Reform Bill which decriminalised abortion in NSW.

This instinct for transformation has served Greenwich well in the proverbial unprecedented times wrought by pandemic.

“In March, I had to ask myself: ‘What is my job now?’” he says.

“Parliament stopped sitting, you couldn’t meet with constituents in person – and we were dealing with a lot of people in a lot of trauma. Everything changed very rapidly. And really, my office really became case managers supporting individuals, businesses and sectors through navigating this really challenging time.”

Alex Greenwich, MP. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

Portrait of a progressive young man

Greenwich says his progressive politics evolved amidst an inner-city upbringing. If it was a privileged one (he went to alpha-private school Sydney Grammar, after all) he says it wasn’t insulated.

“I remembered my parents driving me to school debating and we’d go down William Street and they’d explain to me what sex workers were and what they were doing. And I was growing up around rough sleepers, they were all throughout the city, particularly in the ’90s.

“I learned that to make a city liveable, it is full of diversity and it’s also incumbent on people more fortunate, as I always was, to do what we can to help people who are in a more vulnerable situation.”

His family (Russian/Georgian on dad’s side, American on his mum’s) was vital to this world view.

“No topic was ever off limit,” he says, “so we were always able to talk through interesting and confronting issues.”

A seminal anecdote for him (and one he used in Parliament while introducing the bill to decriminalise terminations in 2019) involves his late Grandmother, Jacqui.

“When I was 11, she wrote to the then President Bush seeking change on his stance on a woman’s right to choose,” he recounts.

“He wrote back to her basically with an anti-choice response and she was outraged by that and shared it with her kids. So from an early age, a woman’s right to choose was instilled in me.”

Mr Sydney

So, boy grows into ‘Mr Sydney’. An openly gay male MP in the NSW Legislative Assembly. A nice guy with an (apparently) impervious attitude and smile to match. An Independent continuing the legacy of Clover Moore in her former seat.

Alex Greenwich’s inaugural speech to NSW Parliament on 14 November, 2012. Video: Alex Greenwich/YouTube.

It’s a carefully cultivated image (almost to a fault) – and who can blame him? This is politics. But he is genuinely friendly and convivial in his interview with the Sentinel. (Disclosure: I actually played soccer with him when we were both kids – and he was thoroughly lovely then, too.)

And it seems his benevolence extends to his political opponents.

“My focus has always been on outcomes over outrage – and that means you need to work with people across the political spectrum.

“And ultimately, by disarming opponents, you can achieve great progressive victories – that’s what we saw with marriage equality and the decriminalisation of abortion in NSW.”

Bipartisan politics ain’t dead, he says. Well, yes, maybe in the US, but not here.

“I actually think that [NSW politics] is in a good place – with people working together, interested in helping their communities and seeing the state recover.

“Obviously,” he says, changing tone, “You’ll get outliers. Mark Latham comes to mind.”

Ah, yes. The genial leader of One Nation in NSW, and his Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill, which includes prohibiting schools from teaching kids that trans or gender diverse people exist.

Now, Alex Greenwich is still a young guy – but he’s also a seasoned politician. Polished, it’s fair to say.

But when asked about how to deal with ol’ ‘Biff’ Latham, he sighs wearily, pauses properly for the first time and replies: “‘I dunno,” before giving a rueful chuckle.

“I’m deeply concerned about [Latham’s] legislative proposals because of the damage they’ll do to our society,” he then proffers.

So it hasn’t been all smiles for Greenwich – and even before a certain pandemic came along. His own sexuality, for example, has been a target of bigotry since day one.

“When I was first elected, the Telegraph ran the headline ‘Gay Party Boy Wins Sydney’s Seat’. In the media, I’ve constantly had to deal with causal or subtle homophobia directed towards me. You harden over the years, but you’re always concerned about the impact that has on other people.”

A 29 October, 2012 Daily Telegraph headline announcing Greenwich’s victory in the 2012 by-election. Photo: Alex Greenwich/Facebook via the Daily Telegraph.

Fields of Clover

How does he cope with the scrutiny – both good and bad?

“I’m fortunate to have a very supportive and loving husband [Victor, whom he married in Argentina in 2012]. A gorgeous rescue dog, Max. And sometimes the best thing to do is to go the gym, go for a walk or have a nice dinner with friends.”

He’s in this for the long haul, he assures us – and is categorically not, he says, interested in running for Lord Mayor, despite widespread rumours to the contrary.

“I have absolutely no intention of running for local government,” he maintains.

“When I succeeded in the [election], I set the expectation that I would hold the seat for as long my community would elect me.”

An Independent voice, he says, is intrinsic to all of this – thereby continuing what, of course, Clover started way back in the mid-’80s.

“It has always been the role of the member for Sydney to progress what the major parties see as controversial issues.

“I still have a lot more work to do before I’m satisfied.”

And in the midst of a pandemic, satisfaction must be hard to find, no?

Watch this space.

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