Why Keep Sydney Open Should Stay Away From Parliament
Is running for election the best use of time and resources?
Last year I was unwittingly outed as a Keep Sydney Open supporter while working as a political staffer for the then-NSW Treasurer, Gladys Berejiklian, under a government that supported Sydney’s lockout laws. Rather than shying away from advocacy on the issue, I decided to double-down. I put further efforts into demonstrating that freedom of movement and freedom to trade form vital parts of our excellent city.
The Keep Sydney Open movement gained traction across the political divide in 2015, making strange bedfellows of supporters from radio host Alan Jones to Madonna, and great Australian artists including Flume.
However, the bizarre attempted foray into NSW politics recently undertaken by Keep Sydney Open is an unfortunate misstep that does not reflect the purpose of the organisation or its many supporters.
Yep, KSO Might Be Headed For Parliament
Last week Keep Sydney Open published a call to action video on Facebook, which asked for feedback on whether the group should start a political party and contest the 2019 NSW state election. It came as a surprise to many of the group’s thousands of followers who were excited to be involved in a non-partisan organisation that based its grassroots message around the values of the freedom to be where you wanted to be, and when.
Should Keep Sydney Open run for NSW Parliament? Have your say: keepsydneyopen.com/party.html
Posted by Keep Sydney Open on Tuesday, 17 October 2017
It appears that Keep Sydney Open organisers are now attempting to involve themselves in politics directly, steering its activities away from community-driven purpose and activity-based growth. However, the lack of vision, policies and demonstrated outcomes articulated by Keep Sydney Open should concern those tentatively optimistic for an effective future.
The original public uproar that kick-started Keep Sydney Open related to a poorly designed lock-out policy, implemented in response to a tragic death caused by a senseless one-punch attack. The fact that the incident occurred around 9pm, and thus would not have been impacted by the lockout laws, was largely ignored. As was the fact alcohol-related violence had steadily been declining.
Instead, lock-outs curtailed the freedom of people to otherwise legally enter establishments open late at night and prevented business owners from trading to customers during arbitrarily determined hours. The jobs that were lost, the small business people forced to shut their doors, the night- and day-time economies decimated as a result of the lock-outs, are well documented.
A vibrant and mature population like Sydney’s is better when its inhabitants are mingling and interacting. Encouraging this activity has been a key success of Keep Sydney Open through the coordination of fun and safe events.
The ability to mobilise a large base, united in opposition to the lock-outs, has been phenomenal. A traditionally politically disengaged group of people — many of them under 35 years old — found a reason to get out from behind their laptops, because the government had overstepped their mandate.
Around 10,000 people marched through the city to demonstrate their dissatisfaction at being told that they weren’t allowed to be out and about at particular times, or open their businesses even if there were patrons knocking at their doors, or to buy a beer after their work shift ended in the early hours.
This Is A Bad Idea
Though the lure of entering parliament may seem enticing on the surface, Keep Sydney Open members should not be fooled into costly, hollow politics for activity’s sake. Attempting to hold the government to ransom in the NSW Upper House is not a useful long-term strategy.
The assumption that gaining a seat in the Legislative Council, which is what the organisation has flagged as an immediate goal, will somehow result in a relaxation of the lock-out laws is naïve at best and dangerous at worst. Having worked in the NSW parliament as a political advisor, my view is that wading into complex negotiations across wide-ranging issues that affect NSW — which all MPs are required to do — will not benefit the supporters of Keep Sydney Open. It will distract and detract from the core purpose of the movement and prevent constructive engagement with a broad set of stakeholders.
Starting a political party means maintaining rigid power structures, purposes and processes that Keep Sydney Open will struggle to uphold democratically. How will a Keep Sydney Open Party decide what to do when a Crown Land Management Bill comes before parliament? Will Keep Sydney Open be reduced to the voice of one MP forced by political process to negotiate and vote on legislation?
How will a Keep Sydney Open representative vote when the government presents its annual budget? Will Keep Sydney Open align itself with existing parties? Which one/s? And how would this be determined? Why not act with these parties now?
Would an elected Keep Sydney Open representative strike a deal with the government of the day to approve all legislation it passed, if the government agrees to remove the lockouts? And what happens if lockouts are actually removed by the government? The term for Upper House parliamentarians is eight years.
Being a member of the Upper House means seriously considering all matters that come before the parliament; in 2016, 66 pieces of detailed legislation were passed, including the Adoption Amendment Bill and the Norfolk Island Administration Bill. That doesn’t include the bills that were considered and not made law. Are these the questions that Keep Sydney Open supporters want to spend time debating?
A Different Path To Change
Instead, imagine the good work that could be done through research and lobbying on specific Sydney-based issues around nightlife and the economy by dedicated members of Keep Sydney Open. Imagine what could keep being achieved if the group worked to put pressure on political parties, government agencies and other stakeholders, to persuade them of the merits of the argument to remove the lockouts.
Like Clive Palmer’s United Party, which promised to ‘reunite the nation’ through the federal parliament, Keep Sydney Open risks becoming a flash-in-the-pan populist movement with no consideration of the longer term. We should be wary of noise and bluster in the absence of clear outcomes and strategy.
The beauty of Keep Sydney Open is its ability to work on specific issues that have gained momentum through grassroots action. If the organisation is expected to develop policies and stances on issues unrelated to culture, freedom of movement or economic growth in Sydney, when will it have time to advocate for the core issues that made it such a popular organisation? The relaxation of laws so far has come from demonstrations where people prove they can peacefully gather and work with existing representatives to improve Sydney’s character.
Real change to Sydney’s culture is possible if we act together to our strengths.
Keep Sydney Open should remain non-partisan to retain credibility and influence. It is the members who will lose out in this poorly considered political tilt that smells of familiar egotism over meaningful policy engagement and collaboration. Meaningful work is rarely easy, but real change to Sydney’s culture is possible if we act together to our strengths and the merits of our aims.
To work effectively to achieve its aims, Keep Sydney Open needs to take the opportunity to clearly articulate what it stands for and what its goals are. These should relate to a single point, removing the lock-outs, and may include intermediary actions including campaigns to boost local CBD economies and support for creative uses of public space. Remaining a unique, member-driven interest group that puts the people of Sydney first is the best way for Keep Sydney Open to stay true to its core values and the members who have been loyal so far through its short life.
Jacqui Munro is the former Vice-President of the NSW Young Liberals, has recently resigned from the Keep Sydney Open organising committee and can be found on the dance floors of Sydney.