The Fremantle local council elections on October 21 pitted largely conservative challengers against progressive incumbents, including Socialist Alliance member Sam Wainwright and Greens Mayor Brad Pettitt, both of whom had come under fire for the council’s decision to not celebrate Australia Day on January 26.
Both were returned with 55% of the vote, with progressive candidates defeating conservative opponents in all wards. Green Left Weekly spoke to Wainwright about the outcome
Can you explain how local government elections are organised in Western Australia?
It's a non-compulsory postal ballot with the count conducted on a first-past-the-post basis.
The former Colin Barnett Liberal government junked the preferential system that Australians are used to with the claim that it would "reduce the influence of party politics" in local government.
How it might do this was a mystery they never explained. All it did was to make the system of election less democratic.
In the case of Fremantle, the mayor is elected by popular vote and joined by twelve councillors, two from each of the six wards. However, this varies across the state. Some local governments have no wards and some don't have a directly-elected mayor.
In WA, party or ticket names are not allowed on the ballot paper. While party networks mobilise for the elections, it's rare for candidates to even mention their political affiliations, and conservative candidates often claim to be "non-political" to avoid having to say anything meaningful.
What were the main features of this contest?
While there are two councillors elected in each ward for a four-year term, the election is staggered two years apart. This means only one councillor is elected at a time. My election coincided with the mayoral vote which very much defined the campaign.
In 2013, incumbent Mayor Brad Pettitt won more than 60% of the vote.
His opponent was the Liberal Party candidate in the federal election that took place earlier that year. That's a real disadvantage in what is the most left and green-leaning electorate in the state. Furthermore, he ran a pretty weak and incoherent campaign.
This time Pettitt's opponent was Ra Stewart, a former president of the Chamber of Commerce, who ran a much better campaign. She spent a small fortune on advertising and got plenty of help from the corporate media.
She coupled talk about "sticking to local issues" and being "non-political" with the slogan "Freo For All - Not just the few". Furthermore, she was explicitly supported by candidates in most wards who were no doubt hoping to be pulled along in the wake of her advertising juggernaut.
All up you'd have to say she did a reasonable job of appealing to and mobilising conservative voters fretting about "political madness gone mad", while also picking up some votes among those unhappy with council for one reason or another.
However, her campaign was comprehensively out-mobilised on the ground by supporters of the mayor and the more progressive ward candidates. I think more doors were knocked than in any previous election.
Fremantle already has one of the higher participation rates in the state at around 33%, however this time between 44% and 53% of residents across the various wards voted. This reflects a much higher level of engagement this time around.
What were the main issues in this election in your ward?
I won 55% of the vote in a two-horse race. While the mayor won 55% of the vote across the City of Fremantle, he only won 43% in Hilton Ward. Put another way, 12% of residents in the ward voted for me and Ra Stewart. At first glance this seems contradictory.
One thing this demonstrates is that while the Australia Day decision might have galvanised a layer of conservative voters, the majority of residents support the decision by council, or at least, when it came to voting, it was not their only consideration. After all, if the mayor is "political correctness gone mad", then I'm the devil with horns!
Instead, I think it's because there is a strong feeling among some residents in the outer suburbs of Fremantle that they have been forgotten about in all the discussion and effort focussed on trying to revive the CBD.
This is particularly marked in the suburb of Samson. Three years ago the council made a submission to the state government body assessing potential local government boundary reform that proposed to transfer Samson to another local government.
Having unsuccessfully moved an amendment to the resolution on the matter in the council chamber that we retain the suburb, I made my own submission to the state government, supported by a petition of Samson residents.
I also like to think I'm a pretty hard working, responsive and diligent councillor and have won the confidence of many residents.
You were prominent in the campaign against Roe 8 and the Perth Freight Link. Did that influence your vote or the election in general?
I think the epic community struggle to stop the freeway made this election a must-win for progressive voters. Having publicly supported Roe 8/PFL in the past, Ra Stewart tried to sweep the issue away. That wasn't going to wash with anyone paying attention.
Where does the result leave the council and community in relation to the Australia Day debate?
The decision to respect the wishes of Noongar elders and drop the Australia Day fireworks was the right one and has the support of a significant section the community.
The decision has helped build that support. There will never be a "right time" to broach the issue for those who either oppose it or who don't have the courage to speak up.
I can't begin to tell you how satisfying the outcome is given the way the council was incessantly bullied, ridiculed and vilified by much of the corporate media, not least The West Australian.
But that's small change compared to the injustice done to Indigenous Australians. The Fremantle Council decision helped push along a discussion we have to have about that violent dispossession, if we are to become a better society.
What are your plans for the next four years?
In the past twelve months, Fremantle Council threw support behind the movement to stop Roe 8/PFL, severed ties with Wilson Security because of that company's involvement in the wretched offshore detention regime, divested from fossil fuels and helped kick along the Australia Day debate. These are all really important achievements to build on.
I think there's a lot more to be done in terms of helping to make our part of the world socially inclusive and supportive of people in the everyday - particularly older residents, people with disabilities, young people, Indigenous people and the homeless.