“The Greens’ role in politics has always been to push the boundaries of the conversation”

Greens Lord Mayoral candidate for the City of Sydney in the upcoming NSW local government elections, Sylvie Ellsmore. Photo: supplied.

Sylvie Ellsmore, City of Sydney Lord Mayoral candidate for the Greens, speaks to the Sentinel ahead of the 4 December NSW local government elections. By Gary Nunn.

Two words can sum up the top of the list item in Sylvie Ellsmore’s bid to be Lord Mayor of Sydney: affordable housing.

The Greens candidate says there’s been too much focus on leaving affordable housing to the market – and contends that this approach hasn’t worked out. 

“With all the new development happening, we’re losing inner city affordable housing. If you’re making money from development, a much bigger percentage of that has to come back to the community to support new affordable housing,” she says.

“The [City of Sydney’s] target is 7.5 per cent, but cities like London have a 50 per cent target of new homes to be affordable because they recognise a city can’t function if lower income people can’t live there.”*

Karate but no violence 

The lawyer, former Marrickville Councillor (2012-2016) and volunteer karate teacher currently works part time at the University of Sydney, supporting youth mental health research.

She says it was the Howard years which “radicalised and politicised” her.

“It was the mid ’90s. I was leaving uni and the conversations at the time were around race and reconciliation. There was a real moment of optimism: maybe Australia can be different. Maybe we can be colonised and not be a racist country,” she says.

“Then you had the conservative backlash to that. A government taking everyone backwards. That’s what radicalised me and got me into activism at a local level.”

Back then, the Greens were a much smaller and newer political movement. Even now, there have only been two Greens councillors at the City of Sydney to date. The first was Chris Harris, from 2004 to 2012. In 2008, he was joined by Greens councillor and Mardi Gras ’78er Irene Doutney, who stayed on until the September 2016 local government elections, when illness forced her to step down, ending 12 years of Greens representation at Town Hall.

Doutney, who died in 2018, was something of a mentor to Ellsmore: “She was a radical activist but taught me to borrow from the feminist tradition of non-violence. That doesn’t just mean don’t break stuff! It rejects aggression in activism and politics,” she says.

One of the reasons Doutney inspired Ellsmore was an incident in 2012, when a political opponent was compiling a ‘dirt file’ on Doutney, exposing her past of mental illness and heroin addiction, which only a few close friends and senior party members were aware of. With the looming threat of public exposure, Doutney offered her resignation, which the party rejected, instead opting to throw their support behind her.

It taught Ellsmore what resilience, dignity over shame and being a real person with life experience in politics can look like: “Irene instead chose to go to The Sydney Morning Herald and give them a picture of her with a mohawk in the ‘80s, saying: here I am. This opponent trying to embarrass her with a weird ‘gotcha!’ moment completely backfired.” Four years later, Doutney was appointed Deputy Lord Mayor of the city. 

With Doutney gone and no Greens currently on council, Ellsmore says she’s “very hopeful” to get one or two councillors elected on 4 December, on a ticket which includes four other candidates: Dejay Toborek, Chetan Sahai, Caroline Alcorso and Mark Smith.

The Greens for Sydney ticket (from left): Dejay Toborek, Chetan Sahai, Sylvie Ellsmore, Mark Smith and Caroline Alcorso. Photo: supplied.

As we spoke, the COP26 climate summit was happening in Glasgow. How does it feel, I ask her, that such issues, once dismissed as fringe, are now on the international agenda?

“I think the Greens’ role in politics has always been to push the boundaries of the conversation. I remember handing out information about climate change, when everybody said it didn’t exist, or we’d be handing out leaflets on drug law reform and being told we wanted to sell drugs to children! Now those conversations are so far along,” she says. “That’s partly because we amplify the voices of people not in the mainstream.”

We discuss examples of this: state Greens MP Cate Faehrmann sparking an international conversation about honesty, authenticity and drugs reform by being the first MP from a major party to come out about using MDMA post university, and Greens Senator Larissa Waters being the first federal MP to breastfeed in parliament, while putting forward a motion.

She cites two Greens MPs asking to job share in the UK as another example which has inspired her. “It got knocked out of court; they weren’t allowed to do it. But it was all part of pushing that conversation,” she says.

One of the striking things about this campaign is the extraordinary fact that all six candidates for Lord Mayor are women: “It’s very exciting,” she says.

Former City of Sydney Greens Councillor, the late Irene Doutney (pictured), is a strong source of inspiration for Sylvia Ellsmore. Photo: Irene Doutney/Facebook.

The two vote gerrymander 

Ellsmore agrees with those who describe the double vote for businesses as a gerrymander.

“Obviously that should be repealed immediately,” she says.

I point out that veteran City of Sydney Councillor Angela Vithoulkas – who is running on 4 December under the Small Business Party banner – contends that businesses should get at least one vote because, even if small business owners don’t live in the city, they employ locals and bring their skills into our local economy and spend money here.

“That argument falls over if you say only the business owners get those votes; what about those who don’t live in the city, but work here and spend money at those businesses?” Ellsmore says. “They spend at least eight hours a day here. I do understand you should have a say in the community you’re part of. So if that’s the argument, right, let’s have a conversation about how you represent a whole diversity of people who currently are excluded.”

Policies not personalities 

Ellsmore expresses concern that some of the other candidates “seem very focused on negative personality politics and competition”. Some sections of the media play into it, she says. “Some journalists say, ‘Can’t you just say something negative about them [competing candidates]? Then we’ll cover you.’ I say no every time – this is a contest of ideas, not personalities.”

That said, I do push her for her opinion on the current council. “There’s a bit of a sense, unfortunately, particularly over the last five years, that this city council is much harder to access than it used to be,” she says. “I think that’s perhaps because we haven’t had the town halls and other events we once had to engage locals. There’s a sense it’s very hard to even find the relevant contacts you can talk to.”

It’s something she’d like to change as a councillor with a seat at the table, knowing she’s highly unlikely to be voted in as Lord Mayor.

“One of the things we’ve learnt to do very well in the Greens is how effective you can be when you do have a small number of voices,” she says. 

“We can organise the broader campaign and bring the voices of people who care about certain things into the council chambers. I think that’s important for local democracy.”

*Editor’s note: Under the London Plan, there is a “strategic target” that 50 per cent of new homes in London will be “genuinely affordable”. There is no set timetable for this to be achieved, according to Social Housing magazine. Under the City of Sydney’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 plan, 7.5 per cent of all housing in the LGA would be affordable housing, while a further 7.5 per cent would be social housing, by the year 2030. For information on the difference between affordable and social housing, visit www.facs.nsw.gov.au/providers/housing/affordable/about/chapters/how-is-affordable-housing-different-to-social-housing.)

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.