The decision by the City of Fremantle to drop its annual Australia Day fireworks has inevitably shaped the contours of the looming council elections, even though no candidate has made it the centrepiece of their campaign.
The election is largely pitting a generally socially progressive group of incumbents of different political stripes (Labor, Greens, socialist and independents) against an alliance of conservative challengers headed by mayoral candidate Caroline “Ra” Stewart.
There is a small group of businesses in the Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour that previously benefited financially from the fireworks and opposed the council’s decision. It is at one of these restaurants that Stewart, a former Chamber of Commerce president, launched her campaign at a $120-a-head event.
Ironically, the "One Day in Fremantle" concert held on the Esplanade on January 29, and which attracted more than 15,000 people was a dry event, delivering just as many potential bar and restaurant customers to businesses in the Fremantle CBD as the fireworks ever did.
However, the hardcore of the socially conservative critics of the council decision are incapable of seeing the wood for the trees.
Reviving Fremantle’s CBD
Much of Fremantle has an urban form created early last century. However, unlike inner city Melbourne and Sydney, whose commercial activity and desirability derives from their proximity to the CBD, Fremantle's commercial centre is distant from the Perth CBD.
Fremantle’s CBD has suffered a long-term decline as residents who once took a tram or bike into town started driving to big private suburban shopping centres to do their shopping instead.
Whereas in other places there is a lot of debate about overdevelopment, in Fremantle the constant complaint in the local media is the lack of development, with demands for council to "do something" to revive the CBD.
The drift to car dependency and the shopping centre coincided with the shift to “containerisation” in the shipping industry, which saw the workforce employed in and around Fremantle port shrink from the tens of thousands to hundreds.
It is hard for a small local council to turn around the patterns of one of Australia's most car-dependent cities, much less do anything about the nationwide retail slump.
However, there has been a consensus on Fremantle council over the past eight years that the only way to sustain the traditional shopfront town centre is by increasing the number of people living and working in the CBD.
In part, this means allowing vacant or under-utilised single story sites with little architectural value to be replaced by medium height apartment buildings with shops on the ground floor.
It also means putting an emphasis on improving ways for people to get there that do not involve a car.
Never ones to let the facts get in the way of their story, conservative critics have insisted that the CBD’s decline is the fault of an "extreme" green and left-wing council with no experience in running a business.
Their tired "solution" has been to call for ever more punitive action against beggars and the homeless to "clean up" the CBD’s image.
The council’s decision to proclaim a policy of "zero tolerance" towards begging and street drinking was an unfortunate concession to this anti-social chorus.
The recent announcement by the state government that it will press ahead with the relocation of about 1500 public servants from Perth to Fremantle – which in turn will facilitate the conversion of the vacant Myer building on Kings Square into a new office and retail centre – will almost certainly prove to be a tipping point in the revival of Fremantle’s CBD.
This, combined with the images of incumbent Mayor Brad Pettitt cutting the ribbon on a number of new retail and residential developments has sucked the wind out of the critics' sails.
They have also been caught up by the contradictions of their own populism. In one breath they attack the council for not doing enough to revive the CBD, and in the next they accuse the council of being too focussed on the CBD at the expense of the suburbs. So which one is it?
Local council is political
In Western Australia, party names are not allowed on local government election ballot papers and political parties generally do not caucus or run tickets.
Despite that I have never hidden my political affiliations – quite the opposite.
However Stewart and the ward candidates aligned with her insist that they are "non-political" and that "politics needs to be taken out of local government".
This claim to being "non-political" is of course a logical absurdity – running for office is a political act. But it is their way of trying to straddle a fence.
They want to send a message to their hardcore supporters that they are the de facto team for the Liberals, while at the same time trying to appeal to a larger pool of voters in the most left and green electorate in WA.
This is why they get quite agitated when asked where they stand on the Roe 8/Perth Freight Link freeway, equal marriage or Australia Day and insist that these issues have "nothing to do with local government".
While the vast majority of debate in the council chamber is about local issues, the stand that our council has taken on social and environmental issues is something to celebrate.
Serious movements for social change start at the bottom and work their way up. Local governments should reflect the wishes and views of local residents in the face of hidebound conservative state or federal governments in the service of climate-wrecking corporations, freeway fundamentalists and homophobic haters.
The determination with which our mayor defended the council’s position on Australia Day – in the face of vicious daily attack by the The West Australian and the Murdoch press – showed more integrity and courage than Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will ever have.
As Fremantle's commercial heart starts to revive, some important challenges will be more sharply posed than they already are.
How will working people afford to live in Fremantle as gentrification accelerates?
How do we ensure that Fremantle gets the qualitative improvement to public transport infrastructure it needs to grow in a way that does not reduce the quality of life of people who already live here?
What policies, services and activities do we need to more genuinely include older people, youth, Indigenous residents and people with disabilities into the life of our community?
January 26 is done – these are the things we need to be talking about.
[Sam Wainwright is a councillor for Hilton Ward in the City of Fremantle and a member of the Socialist Alliance]
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