Ending Melbourne’s ‘toxic culture’: Sally Warhaft on why she’s vying for mayor

Prominent broadcaster says it’s ‘unfathomable’ no woman has been in the post for nearly 30 years

Melbourne: The election to choose a new lord mayor of Melbourne is emerging as one of the most intriguing in a generation, with high-profile broadcaster Sally Warhaft announcing she will stand as an independent to clean up the “toxic culture” at town hall.

Warhaft, 48, has never been a member of a political party nor stood for political office. She was the editor of the Monthly magazine before quitting in 2009 after falling out with board members. She has a PhD in anthropology and works regularly for the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne and as an ABC radio host.

The by-election for lord mayor is being held via postal ballots and concludes on May 12. It is being held to replace Robert Doyle, who resigned after two councillors accused him of sexual harassment and assault. Doyle continues to deny the allegations.

Warhaft acknowledged the special circumstances surrounding the election. She said it was time for women to stand because it is almost 30 years since Melbourne had a female lord mayor.

“Disrespect to women has been found to have existed [at town hall] at a moment where there are increasing calls for women to stand up,” she said. “I felt that I wanted maybe eight or 10 independent women to put their hand up to really contest this run and you can’t keep wanting that and not do it yourself.

“The idea that we can have any leadership position in public office in 2018 that hasn’t been occupied by a woman in three decades is unfathomable.”

Warhaft said she would not be standing if she did not think she could win, but she acknowledged she had little money so far to run her campaign. Front-runners are Sally Capp, the executive director of the Property Council of Victoria, a lobby group for developers, and Greens councillor Rohan Leppert.

The Greens believe they have their best chance to wrest the mayoral position for the first time, as the council’s boundaries include progressive inner-city suburbs as well as the CBD. Its vote at previous council elections has been steadily increasing, particularly due to high numbers of students living in the city. Leppert is 33 and would be the first openly gay mayor if elected.

Warhaft said Capp was a “remarkable, accomplished woman”, but now was not the time to elect someone with close ties to the property industry. Capp has had a long career in business, was the chief executive of the Committee for Melbourne and the first female board member of the Collingwood football club. She has stood aside from her position at the Property Council and announced she would be taking no donations from developers.

“The idea that the keys to town hall could be handed over to somebody so closely connected to the developers … the Property Council, if they could pave the Yarra in concrete and build apartments on it I think they would,” Warhaft said. “What town hall needs right now is a break from all connections of influence.”

Warhaft said her main priority would be affordable housing at a time of rapid population growth and frenzied development.

“If we keep going with city rents and prices the way we are, we’ll end up in a city where only the very rich will be able to live,” she said. “The people who make the city tick will be forced further and further away.”

Warhaft also wants a “complete review” of the $250-million Victoria Market development project championed by Doyle but recently rejected by Heritage Victoria.

She said improving the council’s culture was a long-term project and would not be fixed simply by banning alcohol at town hall, which some candidates have floated. An inquiry into the sexual harassment allegations found a boozy culture under Doyle.

“Councillors are not children,” Warhaft said. “I think the staff and councillors have every right to enjoy a drink after work as much as any other work group. The problem is deeper than that. It’s about the character and the tone that you bring to the office. It’s about revising all the policies that we know now were lacking in terms of structures.”

Journalist and former councillor Stephen Mayne said Warhaft was a strong candidate because “anyone who can fill in for Jon Faine [on ABC radio] can be lord mayor of Melbourne, because it’s a similar strategy, where you have to be quick, you have to be across multiple issues, you have to be a good communicator and people have to be prepared to talk to you”.

But he said the favourite at this stage was Leppert, whom he described as “the hardest-working, most intelligent and scrupulously honest councillor”. Mayne said Capp had a distinguished career before joining the Property Council and “she commands respect from both sides of politics — you need a lord mayor that everyone will talk to”.

“There’s a unified ‘Stop the Greens’ campaign,” he said. “It’s everyone against the Greens — Liberal, Labor, they all want to stop the Greens. Labor is very focused on stopping the Greens in the inner city.”


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