Roads, rates and aromantics: Greens wrestle with the burden of power on Yarra Council

Roads, rates and aromantics: Greens wrestle with the burden of power on Yarra Council

Australia’s first Greens-majority council was elected in November amid much fanfare and lofty goals.

The progressive new Yarra Council – five of the nine councillors being Greens and another two socialists – would accelerate action on the climate emergency, build resilient communities and invest in thriving neighbourhoods and local economies.

Greens councillors (from left) Amanda Stone, Edward Crossland, Sophie Wade and Gabrielle de Vietri outside Fitzroy Town Hall last year.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

The party was riding high: every candidate it fielded for election to the council was successful, cementing incremental gains made in the traditionally Labor heartland of inner-Melbourne suburbs including Richmond, Collingwood and Fitzroy.

But nine months later its majority on the council is in doubt, with the Local Government Inspectorate moving to remove embattled Greens councillor Anab Mohamud, 35, who is facing serious assault charges for two unrelated matters and is on extended medical leave.

Cr Mohamud is accused of assault, offensive behaviour and public drunkenness relating to a fight outside Chasers nightclub in the early hours of April 11. She is preparing to fight the charges at hearings later this month and in November.

If she is removed from the council and another councillor is elected in a countback, a leading contender is Labor’s Karen Douglas, who came fourth in Cr Mohamud’s ward on primary votes in October’s election.

But that is not the extent of the troubles the Greens face on Yarra Council – which governs one of the most left-leaning and affluent areas of Australia, and where the party’s philosophy of collaboration and consultation has, according to another council member, not always been borne out in reality.

Flying the flag

Mayor Gabrielle de Vietri says she is proud of what the party has achieved in Yarra Council: the local infrastructure projects such as pocket parks, shared neighbourhood streets, tree-planting and steps to become carbon neutral.

It has poured $8 million into supporting ratepayers and residents through the pandemic.

But the differences between the Greens and their council colleagues – independent Herschel Landes and socialists Stephen Jolly and Bridgid O’Brien (independent Claudia Nguyen was on leave) – are increasingly sharp, and were exposed at a fiery meeting last month.

Councillor Anab Mohamud.

There, Cr Mohamud and the Greens rebuffed pressure from councillors Landes, Jolly and O’Brien for her to step aside while the charges were dealt with. Greens councillor Amanda Stone levelled accusations of sexism against Cr Mohamud’s detractors, and Cr Mohamud left the meeting midway through debate over the motion.

Then, on July 28, Cr Mohamud announced that on advice from her doctor, she would take medical leave without pay until later in the year.

Cr Landes, the independent, maintains his attempt to have Cr Mohamud step aside was in the public interest, and that the Greens had allowed party loyalties to get in the way of proper debate. He has otherwise been a friend to the Greens, whom he described as collegial and collaborative: “I’ll give them a good tick [of approval].”

That view was not shared by socialist Cr O’Brien, who said the Greens too often made decisions behind closed doors.

“The Greens all pledged in their campaign materials their support for collaboration and community consultation,” Cr O’Brien said. “If it’s a progressive council, they should be bringing all of us [independent councillors and the community] along for the journey.”

Monash University senior lecturer in politics Zareh Ghazarian said inner-city electorates tended to be more affluent, “post-materialist” worlds, unconstrained from immediate concerns about work, food and housing security.

In Yarra, the Greens took a beating for knocking back plans to hand over council land to create social housing under the state government’s $5.3 billion “big housing build” – criticism rejected by the party, which wants a community hub instead.

In February the council made headlines for flying a flag above its town hall for “aromantics”, or people who don’t experience romantic attraction, while in March the council abandoned plans to charge community sports clubs more for using sports grounds after fierce public opposition.

Critics of the Greens, such as resident Adam Promnitz, founder of the Yarra Residents Collective, say the council has been characterised by “virtue-signalling motions” that are outside the remit of local government. “When they focus on local issues, they want to cut services like recycling and slug our local sporting clubs unreasonable fees,” he said.

Recycling switch

Cr Jolly, a socialist and the longest-standing councillor at Yarra, criticised the local Greens for an unpopular switch to fortnightly recycling, which was committed to under the previous council.

The Victorian government is forcing all councils to move to a four-bin system to reduce landfill, prompting several councils such as Yarra to cut collections.

Cr Jolly said Yarra voters – some of the most politically active in the country, with 20 community groups coming together to campaign on the council’s new planning rules this week – did not mind councillors tackling big issues as long as the basics of local government were accounted for.

Cr Stephen Jolly has been critical of the Greens. Credit:Luis Ascui

Cr de Vietri believes local government has a role to play in all corners of the community, including finding new ways to do “roads, rates and rubbish” while leading social attitudes.

Resident Peter “PK” Kaylor, who pushed to make outdoor dining permanent as part of the People of Gertrude Street campaign, commended the mayor for taking a stand on climate change.

He has found all councillors and council officers to be positive and hard-working: “They, like members of the community, just want good outcomes for the place we live.”

Author Paddy Manning, who examined the party in his 2019 book Inside the Greens, said inner Melbourne was probably one of the few places where the Greens were electable as a majority, having taken ground from Labor.

That made the politics highly contested and toxic, he said, with plenty of dirty tactics and a low threshold for “a good old Greens bash” in the media.

Manning said that although Yarra was Australia’s first Greens-majority council, the party had shown responsible leadership in power-sharing deals – including during former prime minister Julia Gillard’s minority government – and on the council.

“After some five decades of the Greens in Australian politics … have the Greens stormed into power? Have they ‘replaced the bastards’? Not yet.”

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