There’s a sense even amongst Shayne Mallard’s closest supporters that this is the last chance he has to make it to the big time of state politics. A sense that all the years served on inner city councils, all the time spent in student politics, as a president of the Young Liberals and handing out how-to-vote cards for the campaigns of others who have gone on to bigger things, have all led to this one last throw of the dice on the Sydney by-election.
At a fundraiser dinner for Mallard last week the mood was subdued and lacklustre. This was despite the presence of NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian, federal senator Marise Payne and other Liberal heavyweights; all of whom speak warmly and strongly in support of Mallard and his value as a future local member.
Mallard is pushing 50 (he’s 48) and everyone recognises this is the last run on the board. If he doesn’t carry this by-election then the journey of the last two decades in politics will be over.
He told the Star Observer if he loses this by-election he will retire from politics to focus on the catering business he owns with his partner, Jesper Hansen.
His main rivals are the Green’s Chris Harris, also a former Sydney councillor, and the Clover Moore-anointed candidate and former convenor of Australian Marriage Equality, Alex Greenwich. Greenwich is the favourite to win. Assuming he can pick up Moore’s support base, he will then overtake Mallard with Greens preferences, or so it would appear at present.
Moore resigned from the seat after she was forced to choose between sitting in state Parliament and Lord Mayoralty of Sydney by legislation passed by the O’Farrell government, something which has been criticised as a personal attack on Moore, a claim the Greenwich team has been campaigning heavily on.
“This election is not a Hollywood production, it’s not about revenge”, Mallard told the Star Observer.
“It’s not about any one single issue, and we have a simple message; give Sydney a voice at the heart of government.”
This has been the mantra throughout Mallard’s campaign; that he is the only candidate who will have the ear of the premier and is in the governing party of the day.
This is crucial to his campaign as all the candidates have similar policies, including increased light rail, making George St a pedestrian friendly plaza, fix Oxford St, end the alcohol related violence plaguing areas like Kings Cross and support for gay rights.
The lack of policy difference also leads to the second major plank in Mallard’s pitch to voters: his experience and a greater understanding of the electorate and the challenges it faces due to his long work as a councillor for both South Sydney and City of Sydney Council over the last 12 years.
During this campaign, ministers and the premier have come out in force to support Mallard’s campaign and announce things like improvements to the 311 Elizabeth Bay bus service, more police in Kings Cross to fight anti-social behaviour and drunkenness, and support for the homeless services of the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross. On show was not just his strong connection to the state government but also his nuanced understanding of what affects people in the electorate and makes them consider where to send their vote.
When I first raised the issue of the by-election with Mallard a month ago at the ACON Honour awards, he seemed remarkably confident, describing his voter appeal with one word: “access”.
By the time we sat down last week for a complete interview that confidence seemed to be replaced by more realistic expectations.
Mallard knows he needs a big swing in primary votes if he is to defeat Greenwich, who will be getting Greens preferences as well as whatever primary votes he can get form Clover’s support base. There is also the added problem of Labor not fielding a candidate which is likely to drive more votes to Greenwich.
It’s impossible to predict what Moore supporters will do and if Greenwich’s hope they will come across as a bloc to him will be realised.
The fact both Greenwich and Mallard are high profile gay rights advocates adds another dimension to the race.
Mallard describes himself as a moderate and realist when it comes to fighting for gay rights, arguing you have to build consensus on issues like gay marriage or state-based reforms to gay panic exemptions to murder and exemptions to the NSW Discrimination Act that allows small businesses and religious organisations to discriminate against gay people.
“Unlike other gay activists I’m not a revolutionary,” Mallard said.
“I’ve always been an evolutionary, I learnt my gay politics and activism from the consensus model of the ‘90s.
“I think there is a case to look at those issues [gay panic, discrimination exemptions and gay marriage] and if there is a case to be made if elected and inside government I can talk to the attorney-general and make the argument that this needs to be reviewed and get a sober review as well.”
He criticises Greenwich for being too young and inexperienced and as revolutionary in his campaign for federal gay marriage and said he thinks Greenwich and Marriage Equality have set the marriage debate back, and that he believes civil unions should come before full gay marriage.
“I think they missed the lessons of the past. I think we’ve done a lot of harm to the cause; polarisation and extreme views have become entrenched and made it difficult for people in the middle”, he said.
INFO: The Sydney by-election is this Saturday October 27.