The ALP is pinning its hopes to former Keating government minister Michael Lee in its attempt to wrest control of Sydney Town Hall from Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull.

Lee lost the Central Coast seat of Dobell by a narrow margin in the 2001 federal poll, but is now intent on leading a full Labor ticket to victory at the next council election, to be held in March.

I made up my mind some time ago that I would not be re-nominating for Dobell, Lee told Sydney Star Observer. Some of my friends were very keen for me to see if I could win the seat back for Labor, but I have been working in Sydney and my partner lives in Sydney and it’s just not practical for me to -¦ run for a seat on the Central Coast.

It’s understandable, Lee said, for residents to question his connections to the city, given his past parliamentary service.

I grew up in Sydney and I studied at UNSW for 5 years, he said. And it’s not as though the Central Coast is another country; it’s part of greater Sydney and a lot of my working life has been spent in and around Sydney, so it’s not an issue that will feature prominently in the election campaign.

The coming election -“ which will pitch Lee against the incumbent lord mayor, Lucy Turnbull, the current deputy mayor, Dixie Coulton, and former NSW Liberal leader, Peter Collins, among others -“ will be the first to take place since the redrawing of city boundaries.

In the past the City of Sydney has been too focused on the CBD, and I believe the expansion of the boundaries strengthens the electoral clout of residents, Lee said. What I want to do is ensure that social issues have a high priority as a result.

Lee was unwilling to give specifics about his social issue policies pertaining to gay men and lesbians -“ saying they would be aired later in the campaign -“ and would not be drawn on whether a Labor-led Town Hall would introduce a South Sydney-style partnerships register (an idea championed by the Labor deputy mayor of South Sydney, Peter Furness).

I haven’t spoken to Peter about that directly, Lee admitted. I certainly agree with the principle of local government being a pacesetter in promoting debate on social issues, hence my plan to have the City of Sydney involved in early childhood education. Should that principle also extend into other issues like recognition of gay couples, I’m happy for that debate to take place, because I want to see the City of Sydney become a leader of local government and, in some ways, become an instrument for more progressive outcomes for the state and the nation.

In the fight for Town Hall, Lee’s primary adversary will be Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull, an Independent whose independence has been questioned because of her partner (the would-be Liberal MP for Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull).

But Liberal councillor Kathryn Greiner had also given Lucy Turnbull’s ticket Liberal endorsement, Lee stated.

That was the reason why many of us in the Labor Party have doubts about how independent the former Frank Sartor Independent team will be at the coming election, he said.

Lee predicts a close-fought contest for the lord mayoralty (which is popularly elected) and appears to relish the prospect of a return to the cut and thrust of frontline politics.

It’s like malaria -“ you fight off the fever and then, when you least expect it, it comes back, he said.

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