Contrary to mainstream media reports, Councillor Angela Vithoulkas has thrown her hat into the ring in the race for Lord Mayor, creating a five-way tussle for the top job. She spoke exclusively with Peter Hackney about her candidacy – including a reformist seven-point action plan to “reimagine” council operations. Photos by Ann-Marie Calilhanna.
This year’s race to be the next Lord Mayor of Sydney has been interesting so far, to say the least.
Longtime Liberal councillor and former prime minister Toby Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster, is exiting stage left after nine years in the role; former Clover Moore ally-turned-foe Dr Kerryn Phelps has withdrawn, citing a family member’s illness; and, at time of writing, the Liberals have not officially announced who their candidates will be, if any.
Earlier this month, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that City of Sydney Councillor Angela Vithoulkas – who has served on the council since 2012 – was “not expected to seek re-election”, despite the absence of any public comment from the Greek-Australian councillor to that effect.
Now, in yet another plot twist, the Sentinel can reveal Ms Vithoulkas will indeed face off against incumbent Lord Mayor Clover Moore, ALP candidate Linda Scott, Greens candidate Sylvie Ellsmore and independent candidate Yvonne Weldon at the NSW Local Government Elections in September.
The veteran councillor has exclusively confirmed to the Sentinel that she is running as a candidate under the Small Business Party, which she founded in 2018. Furthermore, the Small Business Party will also be contesting other local government areas, fielding candidates in the City of Parramatta and the City of Hawkesbury.
In Parramatta, the party will run Councillor Andrew Wilson, a veteran of the council and the city’s Lord Mayor from 2017 to 2019 – while in Hawkesbury, the party will be represented by local businessman, resident and notable Turkish-Australian, Eddie Dogramaci, who has previously stood for state parliament.
‘Super-majority’ bad for democracy
Speaking about her plans for Sydney, Ms Vithoulkas said democracy, choice and political diversity were important considerations in her decision to run.
“The City of Sydney is at a crossroads,” she told the Sentinel.
“As the Herald reported, Sydney is facing the prospect of a council run by a Clover Moore team ‘super-majority’ – with most or even all councillors wearing exactly the same political stripes.
“This is not good for democracy and it’s not what a vital, dynamic, international city like Sydney needs,” said Ms Vithoulkas, who describes herself as “dead centre” politically.
Currently, the Clover Moore Independent Team holds five of the ten council seats. However, with the departure of Ms Phelps and Ms Forster – and lacklustre to non-existent Liberal and Greens campaigns – the prospect of a ‘super-majority’ looms large.
Ms Vithoulkas claimed that while Ms Moore “has been a strong mayor”, political diversity and new ways of doing things were needed.
Revealing her City of Sydney policy platform, Ms Vithoulkas unveiled what she called “a bold new vision for reimagining local government”.
At its heart is a seven-point action plan. The seven points are:
1. A time limit on Lord Mayoral terms
“Absolute power corrupts, absolutely,” said Ms Vithoulkas. “I’m certainly not implying our current Lord Mayor is corrupt in a criminal sense – although that could be a concern with future mayors. But Clover has been mayor since 2004 and absolute power with no end in sight fosters a stale environment that’s incompatible with a dynamic, forward-thinking city.
“There’s a reason why the world’s largest and most powerful democracy has a limit on presidential terms,” she said, declaring she wants future Lord Mayors limited to a maximum of three terms in office.
Ms Vithoulkas acknowledged a term limit would require changes to the City of Sydney Act 1988 – but said it was a living, breathing document that can be amended – “and that’s something I’ll be pushing for if I become Lord Mayor”.
If enacted, the proposal would effectively limit Sydney Lord Mayoral terms to a maximum of 12 years. Clover Moore has been Lord Mayor for 17 years and counting.
Ms Vithoulkas said a three-term limit would be compatible with the compulsory 10-year plan all NSW councils must have by law.
The terms of regular councillors would not have any time limits placed upon them under her plan, she said.
2. Public ‘questions without notice’ sessions
The introduction of a monthly ‘questions without notice’ session, where members of the public can ask questions of councillors, either in person or via a video conferencing application.
Ms Vithoulkas said many councils across NSW held such sessions, usually in conjunction with their regular council meetings. While the City of Sydney was “more complicated than most councils”, she said it also had more resources than most and that such a forum was “absolutely doable”.
“The current council makes a lot of noise about consultation, yet we don’t even take questions without notice,” she said.
The monthly sessions would be standalone events, separate to regular council meetings, she proposed.
3. Establishing a Small Business Planning and Compliance Unit
A unit comprising several council officers whose dedicated role is to assist small businesses in navigating development applications, compliance with council rules and regulations, applying for permits, conducting small businesses from home and similar issues.
“The feedback I get at the moment from small business owners and start-ups is that these processes are overwhelmingly confusing and onerous, often adversarial, and that it can be very difficult to get the right help through the call centre and website,” Ms Vithoulkas said.
4. Establishing a Small Business Emergency Team
A team dedicated to assisting with immediate, emergency situations faced by small businesses.
Ms Vithoulkas said many small businesses were “looking at a precipice” after Covid-19 regulations and lockdowns, and a lack of international students and tourists, had driven them to the edge.
She claimed the pandemic had added to already intolerable conditions for small businesses affected by “bungled” and “haphazard” light rail and cycleway disruptions.
The multi-award-winning VIVO Café, formerly run by Ms Vithoulkas and her brother Con, was one of a number of George Street businesses which closed after the construction period of the thoroughfare’s light rail line blew out by three years.
“I’m proposing a City of Sydney team which small businesses in emergency situations can contact, to help them navigate and find support from government and other agencies, and potentially relief from council costs and charges,” she said.
“Helping businesses is absolutely vital to the running of our city. 80 per cent of our rates come from business and that benefits the residents.”
5. Establishing a Community Liaison Unit
“Just as small businesses have trouble getting the right information or help, so does the general public,” said Ms Vithoulkas, who is proposing a Community Liaison Unit, staffed by people whose sole role is to assist residents with household and neighbourhood issues, such as parking, traffic, infrastructure and rates.
“What I’ve learned in my nine years as councillor is that you need dedicated people tasked to deal with specific areas,” said Ms Vithoulkas.
“It’s not fair on council staff at the coalface to expect them to be jacks and jills of all trades, nor is it fair on ratepayers.”
6. Commissioning a report into how the City of Sydney can enhance the mental health of residents, business owners and City staff
Ms Vithoulkas said mental health issues were rampant in Sydney, and that as a powerful governmental authority, the City had a duty to do all it could to assist residents, business owners and staff.
“I am not a mental health professional but I do know good mental health is one of the greatest needs and challenges facing our city – and society in general,” said Ms Vithoulkas.
“I can’t claim to have the solutions. That’s why I’m proposing the City commissions a report from mental health professionals into what we can do to help address this huge need.”
Asked how she envisaged this might happen, she said it would involve an EOI/tender process to commission a report from appropriate mental health professionals or bodies.
7. A City of Sydney Youth Council and Youth Mayor
Finally, Ms Vithoulkas’ seven-point plan, as revealed to the Sentinel, involved the establishment of a parallel ‘Youth Council’ – overseen by a dedicated City of Sydney Council officer tasked with establishing and supervising the body.
It would hold regular meetings, much like the actual City of Sydney Council.
“Our youth are clearly worried and interested in their future; I want to help give them a voice in local government,” she said.
While the Youth Council would not have any legally binding role or powers, Ms Vithoulkas said its members – derived from schools across the LGA – would be welcome to have a representative speak at regular council meetings and even deliver advisory reports.
The idea would promote and enhance political engagement among young people, Ms Vithoulkas said.
“As a councillor, I’ve discovered many people don’t even know the difference between local, state and federal government, and who handles what,” she said. “It’s not their fault – they just haven’t had the education or engagement.
“I firmly believe all tiers of government have a responsibility to foster healthy, functioning democracy for all – not just the elite few. Engagement from a young age is key.”
“I am the underdog”
Widely dismissed as a ‘green’, inexperienced wild card when she first stood for the City of Sydney Council in 2012, Ms Vithoulkas was written off by many at the time, who scoffed at the then-café owner’s candidature. Critics had to eat their words when she was elected to one of Australia’s largest and most important city councils in September that year.
Ms Vithoulkas repeated the feat in 2016 and now, in 2021, acknowledges she is still the underdog against incumbent Lord Mayor Clover Moore, from whom she says she has “learned a lot”.
Asked whether she really thinks she has any hope of unseating the Lord Mayor – one of the most successful politicians in Sydney’s history, if not Australia’s – Ms Vithoulkas is circumspect.
“I acknowledge that Clover has an enormous support base and she’s been very effective at what she does.”
So why is she running against her?
“Because I believe I have something to contribute. I’ve been a councillor since 2012, and I’ve learned a lot since then. I believe I’ve earned my stripes and I want to contribute at the highest level I can,” she replied.
“And with all respect to Clover Moore, I believe she’s become comfortable and insulated from the grassroots – whereas I believe I have that connection.
“I know I am the underdog – and I’m OK with that,” she said. “As hard as it is to imagine today, Clover used to be an underdog too.
“I’m in it to win it.”
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has been contacted for comment.
The 2021 NSW Local Government Elections will be held on Saturday, 4 September.
Peter Hackney is the editor-in-chief of the Sydney Sentinel.
Clarification: an earlier version of this article briefly omitted Greens candidate Sylvie Ellsmore from the list of candidates running against Lord Mayor Clover Moore. This omission was rectified shortly after publication.
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