BY ANITA SENARATNA
Liberal councillors, including current mayor Sally Betts, currently dominate the beachside council of Waverley. But the failed merger with neighbouring councils of Randwick and Woollahra and the controversial Bondi Pavilion upgrade could see the tides change for the Liberal Party at the upcoming local government election on September 9.
The State Liberal Government’s attempt to merge Waverley, Randwick and Woollahra into one large ‘Eastern Beaches Council’, attracted criticism from residents and councillors alike, in all three councils. But despite the residents’ concerns, Mayor Betts was one of the merger’s strongest supporters, describing it as a “really good fit” between the councils.
Mayor Betts has since voiced her support for the State Government’s decision to call off the merger, saying that the council now needs “to move forward and continue working for [their] residents.”
However, according to Greens MP David Shoebridge, there could still be a possibility that the merger could go ahead against the public’s wishes if the Liberal Party retains its majority in Waverley Council after the election.
“The Liberal Party are trying to entrench a fresh majority of Liberal councillors who, if they get elected will vote for what they’ll call a voluntary merger with their neighbouring council,” he said.
Relations between Mr. Shoebridge and Mayor Betts have been strained following a council meeting to discuss the Bondi Pavillion upgrade, which she adjourned without the required majority. A Liberal councilor, Joy Clayton, crossed party lines, voting to continue the meeting.
Mr. Shoebridge said Mayor Betts’ “has a history of just crashing through, ignoring her critics, ignoring the community when they disagree with her and this is just another example.”
“From beginning to end, that whole sorry saga was an abuse of process,” said Mr. Shoebridge. “I believe the Mayor owes both her councillors and the community an apology,” he said.
However, Mayor Betts rejected his criticism.
“We had three huge consultations and many, many smaller ones. Throughout the process the plans changed dramatically as we listened to the community. Because of community concerns – that we got through the communication process – we decided to build a new pottery room, an additional music room, more toilets, and an additional gallery/museum space. We even went to a phased approach because of community concerns about the whole Pavilion being closed at the same time.”
Labor councillor John Wakefield is also critical of the Liberal Party and Mayor Betts, and describes their handling of the forced amalgamation issue as distinctly ‘anti-community’.
“The Liberals on Waverley Council did nothing to try and stop the merger … nor was Mayor Betts prepared to take the issue of the merger to residents in a referendum,” he said.
“It’s time for a better Council, one that listens and believes in open, transparent processes. A Council that respects our diverse community, promotes harmony and gets the basic jobs done.”
“I would suggest that Cr. Wakefield is anti anything and everything, Mayor Betts retaliated. “He even criticised Council when Labor was in power.
“Council did an extensive community consultation for the merger process. We did not just ask them if they would like to be merged or not, we gave them a complete financial breakdown of Waverley’s financial position for six different options.
“The whole Liberal team have been door knocking and holding street stalls in all four Wards and asking residents what their main issues are,” she said. “The thread that comes through clearly is that they want Council to look after their rates and use our financial resources wisely. The general feeling is that Council has improved over the years and listens to the community.”
Eliane Morel, musician and actor, is deputy convenor of Friends of Bondi Pavilion, a group of concerned residents campaigning against the pavilion’s upgrade. The group is currently encouraging Waverley residents to ‘Put The Liberals last’ via their ‘Save Bondi Pavilion’ Facebook page, and sharing video endorsements of Labor, Greens and Independent councillors who have pledged not to proceed with the planned upgrade if elected.
“Our argument is we have lots of cafes and function centres in Bondi,” said Ms. Morel. “Why do we need to turn what is our community space into yet another restaurant or function centre?”
The proposed Bondi Pavilion upgrade was set to cost close to $38 million, and would have seen most of the community space on the building’s top floor replaced with a kitchen and what Ms. Morel calls ‘a big glass box’. The Council has not yet revealed what they plan to do with this space, which has led to speculation amongst residents.
“They’ve essentially made it an electoral issue. If they could promise the community that they weren’t going to go ahead with the privatisation of the top floor, and they were open and honest and upfront about it, then there wouldn’t be a fight,” said Ms. Morel.
“Our feeling… is that the mayor or the Liberal Party has done some sort of deal with some sort of developer or nightclub owner. We don’t know, but their refusal to accept the community’s concerns means that everyone has become incredibly suspicious of their motives and of what they would do if they regained power.”
The first stage of the upgrade will commence next year. It will restore the building’s heritage aspects and double the number of female public toilets, but will leave out the controversial top floor renovation. However, the council has not yet revealed what Stage 2 will consist of and there are still concerns they could privatise the space.
According to David Shoebridge, the clashes with the community over the merger and Bondi Pavilion are symbolic of a greater struggle.
“I think the fight for the Bondi Pavilion is really a fight for the heart and soul of Sydney. It is a truly unique community asset in one of the most highly prized positions not just in the city, but anywhere on the globe,” he said.
Ms. Morel says the Save Bondi Pavilion campaign has attracted a lot of community support, and they will continue to encourage residents to speak out against Stage 2 of the upgrade. She says that even though they are actively campaigning against the Liberal Party, their campaign is ultimately a positive one.
“The only way to energise and enliven the Bondi Pavilion is through our wonderful community, through our artists, through our surf culture. If one good thing’s come out of this whole fight, it’s that it’s actually brought the community together and made us realise how precious our community is.”