There’s a piece of graffiti on a wall in Burton Street, Darlinghurst, that’s perplexed passers-by these past few months.
Shayne Mallard was ‘ere, it proclaims. Nothing else: there are no rude drawings or slanderous comments. Its amusement value arises -“ primarily -“ out of sheer inexplicability. Who would go to the trouble of writing such a message? (Mallard swears he knows nothing about it.)
Maybe what the author of the graffiti intended was for readers to visualise the outspoken gay South Sydney councillor surreptitiously daubing the message himself. It’s a fetchingly comic image. After all, if anybody wants the local community to know that Shayne Mallard was here, it’s Shayne Mallard himself.
Not that anybody can be left in much doubt about it. Since launching his campaign for South Sydney Council in 2000, Mallard has been a vocal member of the local community. You name it, he’s spoken about it: Gay Games, Mardi Gras, the need for light rail in the eastern suburbs, the Taylor Square redevelopment, sex industry matters -¦ the list goes on.
Now Mallard has embarked on a tough new job: to wrest the seat of Bligh away from independent MP Clover Moore, who has held the famously pink-hued seat since 1988.
Clover is a thoroughly expert campaigner, and she’s seen off so many candidates. There’s no doubt at all about that, Mallard says. Clover’s vote at the last election was her highest ever, 37 percent, but if you walk up the street, you’ll find more people who voted against her than voted for her.
But you’ll find even fewer people who voted Liberal. In the 1999 state election, the Liberal candidate Peter Fussell won only 21 percent of the primary vote, while Vic Smith gained 32 percent for the ALP. Mallard may argue that Clover is beatable, but if anybody is going to trump her in the battle for Bligh (it’s a tired descriptor), Labor would seem to be the obvious first choice.
Mallard, of course, doesn’t see it that way. Labor ran high-profile campaigns in 1995 (with former Mardi Gras president Susan Harben) and 1999 (with the then mayor of South Sydney, Vic Smith), but are running soft this time around, he contends.
I challenge Labor to get out there and do some work on their campaign, he says. It appears to me that they’re sitting on their behinds doing nothing, and I think that demonstrates their typical contempt for the electorate.
Mallard is a fervent opponent of the ALP, but he espouses views that many would usually expect of a progressive Labor member: he champions gay law reform, supports the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross and opposes the use of sniffer dogs in general policing.
He also spearheaded an intra-party campaign to expel Senator Bill Heffernan from the Liberal Party after the Senator made his now infamous allegations against Justice Michael Kirby last March. While unsuccessful in this campaign, it is this kind of leadership that has marked Mallard out to his party opponents as a stirrer, an activist, or, in his own words, a recalcitrant.
Mallard follows in the footsteps of other progressive, small l Liberal politicians from NSW such as Chris Puplick and Marise Payne -“ both of whom know what parlous, uncertain territory the progressive wing of the Liberal Party can be. (Puplick and Payne were both demoted down the Party’s Senate voting paper in favour of more conservative candidates.)
This pattern of history doesn’t seem to worry Mallard unduly. It seems to me that the progressive wing of both major parties is vulnerable, he muses. But it takes two wings for a bird to fly and if the party was all one wing it would be dysfunctional.
Besides, Mallard argues, the party’s state team has historically always been more progressive than its federal counterpart.
In NSW we’ve had successive Liberal state governments and oppositions that were progressive socially and conservative fiscally: Nick Greiner, John Fahey, Kerry Chikarov-ski, he says.
Heading the Liberals this time around, of course, is John Brogden. Mallard was state vice-president of the Young Liberals when Brogden was president, in 1993-94, and followed him in the top spot.
It was shortly before this that Mallard first came to terms with his sexuality.
I first came to terms with being a gay man in 1993, around the time when I was doing some work on the John Hewson Fightback campaign, he recalls. Politicians mark their life by election campaigns, and I remember it happening in that period.
I took six weeks unpaid leave and worked in Liberal Party headquarters and was seconded to work on campaigns around key seats. We lost the election and it hit me hard. But it assisted me to confront some issues that were deeply buried.
The next year, Mallard moved from the western suburbs to the Bligh area -“ Paddington, to be precise -“ and has stayed in the area ever since.
I love the community I’m in, he says. I couldn’t bail across the road and run for Vaucluse, just like that, and have no affinity with the community there. I think the community deserves to have a representative.
Mallard cites policing, education and transport as three areas that have declined in Bligh since the Carr government took office.
Since the Carr government was elected, we’ve seen the Kings Cross police station downgraded, which means less police on the beat, Redfern police station threatened with closure and still in temporary accommodation, Woolloomooloo station closed and re-opened and messed around with, and the downgrading of Paddington police station, he says.
Should Mallard be successful in winning Bligh, he’ll wind up handling two of the city’s hotpsots: Redfern and Kings Cross.
I think the Cross is a disgrace, and should be taken off South Sydney Council, he says. The Council has failed to clean it up and failed to deliver streetscape and design improvements. The Cross should return to its bohemian roots and shake off some of the sleaze element -“ perhaps, he suggests, by providing developers with incentives for putting in apartments and shops.
The Cross itself has been squeezed right up, he says. But I think one of the most encouraging things to happen in the Cross in the last five years is the opening of the Venus Room. I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but to have a gay bar in Kings Cross, around the corner from what’s been a pretty homophobic area in the past, is good news.
Spiralling property prices have rendered Bligh a slightly less gay area than it has been perceived in the past, Mallard thinks, although it has retained its distinctive pink hue. While he is supportive of a broad gay law reform agenda, and says he would fight particularly on the age of consent issue if elected, he says such issues are framed by community leaders in a way which continue the polarisation of the community.
I talk to shadow ministers and ministers in government all the time and the one thing they say to me is that the gay community is too separatist, too detached from the mainstream, he says. These are not homophobes; these are progressive members of parliament. I think New Mardi Gras was at least heading in the right direction to have this debate about separatist identity, but whether the timing was right or the process was right is a question. But we need a community leader who can look at these issues, and I’m prepared to look at them.
With gay and lesbian issues firmly in the mix in this election, Mallard acknowledges that it will be an interesting campaign.
It will be nail-biting is his prophecy. Stay tuned!