Opinion: It’s time for a change at Town Hall

Small Business Party founder and leader Angela Vithoulkas. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

City of Sydney Councillor Angela Vithoulkas of The Small Business Party delivers an impassioned piece on why it’s time for change in Sydney – and why she wants the opportunity to serve Sydneysiders as Lord Mayor of our great city.

Small businesses have a long and proud history in the City of Sydney, both in the CBD and the surrounding 33 suburbs. We employ local, buy local and spend more time in our place of business than at home. In fact, our businesses are an extension of our homes because our heart and soul are there.

I’ve been a resident and small business owner in the City of Sydney for more than 35 years – my whole adult life and then some. I’ve owned multiple businesses and employed hundreds of people. I love this city and it’s been my privilege to serve the people – the residents, small business owners and ratepayers – as a twice elected councillor for the past nine years.

There are tens of thousands of small business owners living and working within the Sydney LGA. Tens of thousands more are employed by them. But why would someone who doesn’t own or work in a small business vote for The Small Business Party? Why does small business matter to all of us?

Well, it’s because small businesses are part of the daily fabric of everyone’s life. Think about it for a moment. We are your local café, restaurant, pub, bar, hairdresser, GP, dentist, chemist, newsagent, bookshop, taxi driver, fruit shop, florist, dry cleaner, fashion boutique, online and ecommerce developer. We are your IT guru, printer, website developer, marketing consultant, accountant, bookkeeper, mortgage broker, mechanic, electrician, carpenter, plumber, gardener, landscaper, veterinarian, dog walker, etc. etc.

If you go to any of Sydney’s high streets, shopping precincts and retail centres, and consider what gives them life, what makes them unique and quirky, it is almost entirely down to small businesses.

We work in retail, from home, in hybrid offices and corporate offices. We are at the centre of every community, big or small, supporting our young sporting teams and the first to donate to any raffle. Maybe we live locally, maybe we don’t, but we are part of the local community and together we make Sydney great. That’s how it works, our residents and ratepayers and small business owners are all in this together.

Why I’m running

Last year, I made a decision to not continue in local politics, and the reasons were all personal. I’ve had a tough time in the last few years, losing my business after 18 years due to the light rail construction debacle.

That business, Vivo Café on George Street, was one of many forced to close after years of light rail construction right outside our front door – the end date of which kept getting pushed back after repeated budgetary and construction blowouts.

I know the inevitable emotional and financial toll that kind of disaster wreaks. I fought for years to help thousands of people – both small business owners and residents along the entire light rail route. The disaster wasn’t limited to the City of Sydney boundaries, and I couldn’t turn my back on anyone that needed me. It was a long hard fight, pushing Transport for NSW (TfNSW) to take responsibility and provide financial relief to those desperate to hang on. It’s obvious more and more each day that this NSW Liberal Government has stuffed up every bit of our state’s light rail tracks – from the Inner West, CBD and now Newcastle.

Until the George Street light rail debacle came along, I hadn’t realised how irrelevant the individual was to government – and by government, I mean the NSW Liberal government and the City of Sydney Council. Nobody cared, including the very council I was a part of. I pleaded for the City to take an advocacy role, to talk to TfNSW about the impacts on our small businesses and the even worse impacts on our residents.

I personally pleaded with Clover Moore many, many times. Hundreds of small business owners lost everything. Local residents had cracks in their walls you could put a fist in, door jams that skewed so you couldn’t open or close them, and foundations in some of our delicate old terraces that were compromised from the digging.

The silence and disrespect was deafening. Even today, some three years later, our residents are still waiting for repairs while the Lord Mayor is focused on highlighting how fast the city will get to net zero emissions.

Please don’t misunderstand me, it’s not that the environment and our future is irrelevant to me – my environmental voting record at Council for the past nine years speaks for itself. My café was the first in Australia to switch from foam to paper cups, then the first in NSW to switch from regular paper to compostable paper cups. The entire build was made from recycled or ethically sourced materials, back in 2007.

But the plight of ‘a few’ (code for ‘not enough to impact an election outcome’) has no standing at Town Hall, and I think that’s fundamentally wrong. How can it be that individuals impacted by government decisions are merely statistical casualties to be tolerated?

Realising that someone needs to stand up to these attitudes; that someone needs to advocate not just for the big end of town – but for the grassroots, the lifeblood of this city – made me also realise that I wanted to continue in local politics and run for a third term.

So here I am, putting my hand up for the role of Lord Mayor.

The arrival of Covid-19 only consolidated my decision. Covid definitely shook things up for all members of our community, but I’m sure you will agree with me that small businesses – particularly in the CBD – have been hit the hardest.

Angela Vithoulkas on the campaign trail at Potts Point Market. Photo: Angela Vithoulkas/Facebook.

The ‘Super 8 majority’

While I was contemplating the end of my political life, two things happened: small businesses were angry at not having representation and genuine assistance, and the Clover Moore Team announced she was expecting a Super 8 majority in this election.

That means they expect to win 8 out of the 10 councillor seats at the City of Sydney. Currently, they hold 5. Having 8 of the 10 seats would mean absolute power for Team Clover. No political party should have that kind of power, where they get to rubber stamp everything, and there is no genuine opposition or balance.

I couldn’t walk away from the small business community, and I didn’t want to see a council void of true democratic representation.

The business vote

As the election started heating up and candidates came forward declaring their policies and platforms, I was shocked to learn that of the six candidates running for Lord Mayor, four were actively campaigning to remove the business vote. This could be the last election in which the business ratepayers get to vote.

I’m proud that I worked hard to make the business vote happen, and that the process is streamlined because of my work. But to hear the other candidates pay lip service to small business – how important they are, how much we need them, but want to rob them of representation – is mystifying to me. So your money is good, but not your voice and definitely not your vote?

The commercial revenue rates make up about 75% of the City of Sydney’s rates revenue – approximately $270m. The income derived from residential rates, meanwhile, is about $65m.

So why shouldn’t small businesses have a right to participate in council elections? We need investment in our city to not only fund the council’s operating budget, but to continue to provide services to our residents, build parks and pools and community centres. Surely people who pour their life savings into a business or property deserve to have a voice?

Angela Vithoulkas makes a strong case for change at Town Hall. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

Time for a change

I respect what Clover Moore stood for once upon a time. The social causes she championed, the diversity she fought for and the heritage she clearly wants to preserve. All to be applauded.

But things have changed. 17 years is a long time. Long enough for the crusader to become a machine that crushes things – people and policy that she doesn’t agree with. Long enough so that the issues and challenges of local government and local communities aren’t enough to fuel the vanity of the machine anymore, so they are tossed aside.

The way the pop-up cycleways were instituted are a great example of this. The Clover Moore of a decade ago – the one who came out all guns blazing on WestConnex – would never have been a collaborator with a Liberal government putting in pop-up cycleways without community consultation. She would never have hidden behind Covid-19, sacrificing the residents of Glebe and Moore Park Road in the name of hastily constructed and ill thought out bike paths with no consultation and community input.

I think it’s inevitable that after so long, nearly 40 years in politics, you become another cog in the bigger machine that helps it grind, as opposed to a spanner in the works. That’s why I believe we should cap Lord Mayoral terms to a maximum of three consecutive terms (12 years). There should be a limit – it’s that simple. The office of the Lord Mayor and ratepayers’ money has been used to promote a personal brand over the last 17 years. This has to end. And it’s not just about Clover, it’s about who comes next.

True community consultation

When I first heard the term ‘Questions on Notice’, I wasn’t sure what it meant. In the real world, it means giving someone a chance to find the answer. In the political machine world, it means giving them a chance to circle the wagon, cover it up or bury it. I want to see ‘Questions Without Notice’ allowed at the City of Sydney.

I believe the people should have the opportunity to ask about the matters which concern them. We the elected people, answer to you, the voter. Not staff, not bureaucrats, not consultants.

In addition to the introduction of Questions Without Notice, I believe we need a dedicated Community Liaison Unit, so there is a clear, direct and efficient way for people to talk to Council. Right now, the machine has favourites, and those favourites get results and outcomes. We need a system that bypasses the machine.

I’ve learnt a lot in nine years, not least of which is how important good local government is. A council that works for the individual, not just a popular cause that plays well on social media.

Council impacts your daily life from the time you wake up until the time you go to sleep. You depend on us for roads, rates and rubbish. But the system lets you down. The streets are dirty, the rats are happy and for a long time your bins have been a low priority. Of course as a global city, we are more than just ‘roads, rates and rubbish’. But if you don’t respect and master the basics, the rest is just for show.

I am a small business owner with a fire in my belly to fight for a better working council, for democracy, transparency, accountability and true representation.

Yes, I have put up my hand as a Lord Mayoral candidate. But am I less qualified than Clover and her team? Perhaps it’s time to look closer. I have more real life experience of running successful organisations, of executing and following up and following through. I’m not a career politician; I’m here to make change. I’m here to help and serve and advocate for you, for every small business and every resident and ratepayer. I’m here to represent you.

It is time for change in leadership and time to remove the stranglehold of the machine.

Let’s make room at the table for you.

Angela Vithoulkas is a small business owner and City of Sydney councillor. She is running for Lord Mayor of Sydney, representing The Small Business Party, in the NSW local government elections on Saturday, 4 December.