Keep Sydney Open election rally photo

Inside Keep Sydney Open’s Tumultuous Election Campaign

Keep Sydney Open were criticised for their preferences, their social media presence, and their policies. Now, they're addressing those who spoke out against them. Words by Joseph Earp

By Joseph Earp, 15/5/2019

Tyson Koh has a lot to think about. One of the driving forces behind Keep Sydney Open, a lobbying group turned political party dedicated to repealing Sydney’s lockout laws, Koh still hasn’t fully processed the state election at which he ran as the party’s lead candidate for the Upper House.

On the day he sits down with Music Junkee, it’s exactly one month since Sydney went to the polls, and a few days since it was revealed that Keep Sydney Open missed out on a seat. Koh hasn’t properly come to terms with either event. “In terms of the campaign, and in terms of my life, it’s just been one groundbreaking first after another,” he says.

On the one hand, he is very proud of Keep Sydney Open’s performance. He is hopeful for the party’s future. He is pleased that they tried to enact practical change – that they stuck to their guns. And he is confident that the party’s highly criticised preference deal stopped far-right fringe parties like Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party from getting in, while also helping the Animal Justice Party get over the line and score their surprise win of one seat.

But Koh also feels hurt by some of what was written about him and his party during the election. He believes that critics of his party should have reached out instead of sledging online; that the discourse itself is broken.

“I think in many ways we couldn’t have done things differently, because we had no precedent to learn from,” he says of the campaign.

Even sitting down with Music Junkee — and with me — is complicated for him. “Let’s get deep,” he says, halfway through our chat, before revealing that he knows I am the author of a piece criticising Keep Sydney Open’s decision to preference Sustainable Australia. He calls an article that I linked to in that story “reprehensible”.

Over the course of a conversation that lasts almost two hours, he talks frankly about the toll that running took on him. He talks about things he would have done differently in hindsight. He talks about progressive politics. He talks about how it feels to walk down the street. “Someone’s looking at me and I don’t know whether they hate my guts,” he says.

Maybe for some, Koh’s openness is a natural result of Keep Sydney Open failing to score a seat — he is now a man with significantly less to lose. Certainly, he feels that some of his critics cannot be swayed; towards the end of the interview, he claims that this piece will be “confirmation bias” for those he believes already have it out for him and his party.

But – sometimes to their detriment – Keep Sydney Open remained curiously vulnerable throughout the entire election campaign. Policies were hastily announced and then clarified; positions seemed to constantly evolve and change. The party was clearly responding to things in real time; shifting as the voting date drew nearer.

As a result of that changing focus, even simple questions about the party prove sometimes difficult to answer. Now the campaign is done, Koh and his running mate Jess Miller argue that theirs was not a single-issue campaign. For their critics, Keep Sydney Open’s slim policies on issues pertaining to Indigenous Australians means that simply cannot be true.

“Now that things are settling somewhat, we’re able to have a look back at the last few months with a little bit of clarity,” Koh says, early on during our chat.

An hour and forty minutes later, some things are clearer. Some things are not.

On the 18th of October, 2017, Keep Sydney Open published a video to their Facebook page asking their sizeable audience whether they should run for NSW parliament. In the video, Koh stressed that the party would do things differently, while staying engaged with the core issues. “NSW is broken,” Koh says in the video, “and sorely lacking in innovative, fresh ideas that put people first instead of developers and big business.”

The video provided the first hint of an issue that would crop up throughout the election season: although the lockout laws were provided as a key reason for the lobby group going political, the video expanded Keep Sydney Open’s scope to include the night time economy more generally. For many months afterwards, it was not generally agreed upon whether Keep Sydney Open was a single-issue party or not.

Tyson Koh, Keep Sydney Open’s lead candidate for the upper house: I think we did a good job of expanding the remit of Keep Sydney Open. The job was made easy because we were able to explain why the lockouts were important from the get-go, and that it wasn’t just about having a good time or even the nightlife.

Even if we got rid of the lockout laws, I don’t think there’d be a lot of people satisfied with government or satisfied with Sydney as a place to live.

Jess Miller, candidate for Keep Sydney Open: I don’t see KSO as a single issue party. Sure it began as a movement in response to the lockout laws. But it has and will continue to evolve as a movement, and as a political party that hinges on the value of ‘openness’.

Response to the video from Keep Sydney Open’s base was largely positive, but some had their concerns – even those that supported KSO’s message generally. Jacqui Munro, the one-time vice president of the young Liberals and a KSO advocate, decried the potential shift of focus away from activism and into politics as “costly” and “hollow”.

It was a criticism that was kept up after Keep Sydney Open formally announced their candidacy in January 2018. Particularly on Twitter, politically-engaged punters, advocates and writers alike argued that Keep Sydney Open seemed certain to draw away votes from other progressive parties like The Greens, and that the party would overlap needlessly with other progressive institutions.

Indeed, a back and forth with The Greens would define Keep Sydney Open’s election campaign.

Tyson Koh: The Greens have always been our allies. I think some conflict has been cooked up by a few people that really wasn’t ever there. There’s several sitting members of the Greens that I’d happily pick up the phone and have a chat with and have a beer with. That never stopped being the case.

I don’t know if [the Twitter critics] were everyday voters, or whether they were part of these left wing organisations. In many ways I think they shit the bed. God bless them, but if The Greens were all that was needed, then the lockouts would be gone by now. But they’re not.

If it came to a vote, I know one hundred percent where The Greens stand [on the lockouts.] But I don’t know if it’s a matter of resources or a matter of priorities, but they weren’t really to be seen on the ground as far as assisting business and cultural organisations are concerned.

James Cruz, candidate for The Greens in Kingsford-Smith: It’s quite the claim that valid criticism has been ‘cooked up’ based on things Tyson has said or the policies KSO has advocated for.

I mean, I think it’s pretty clear after their election failure that the lockouts need more than a specifically anti-lockout party. The lockouts are an important issue for a number of people, particularly given their effect on culture and how blatantly they’ve been used to benefit the casino, but I think they’re illustrative of a wider paternalism that both the Labor and Liberal parties proscribe to and implement.

The lockout laws, like other measures, haven’t come out of a vacuum. They were a reactionary policy implemented by reactionary policymakers, just like the forced adoption laws targeting Aboriginal families, and just like the funnelling of public money to build prisons which have only increased recidivism. For those who want to end the lockouts, we need to make those connections to other issues where basic civil liberties and support for marginalised people has been eroded.

Tyson Koh: There are many shades of Green, and I appreciate that individual Greens candidates are entitled to their opinions about me personally, but it doesn’t change the fact that Keep Sydney Open had one of the best results for a debut party in history. No one can sell short the years of work KSO has done both as a party and a lobby group.

Jess Miller: Votes don’t ‘belong’ to anyone. Votes are things that you earn from people who see value in the change that you are trying to make. So I think to that end, that people who may have voted — Green, Labor or even for the Liberal party at past elections — may for a variety of reasons have decided to support the new kids.

Laura White, Keep Sydney Open candidate for Newtown: I know some people saw [a potential overlap between Keep Sydney Open and The Greens] as a problem, especially because Jenny Leong stands alongside us and has fought with us on the lockout laws issues. But Keep Sydney Open needed to stand. The more voices pushing an issue, the more productive it is in highlighting a problem. I would like to think that us standing with the Greens helped push how serious the matter of repealing lockouts and restoring civil liberties is.

James Cruz: The only similarity between the Greens and KSO is opposition to the lockouts. Aside from that, KSO has seemingly tried to lift policies from the Greens from public transport to drug legalisation, but has significantly watered them down in an effort, I think, to appeal to what they believe people are more willing to support. Although I’m pretty sure I only saw two policy announcements from them during the entire election.

Tyson Koh: In the future I’d like to see some more level heads out there. I’d like to see people ask questions before they make assumptions. It’s what I do; it’s what we do. This isn’t just in NSW, but all over the world really, but I think in many respects the left is its own worst enemy. It just doesn’t know how to work with other organisations.

Case in point is the internal conflict within the Greens which we saw radiate out into broader society. I think you have a section of the left that gets distracted and instead of keeping their intention focused on the government and on the power structures that maintain the status quo, they’ll go about criticising anyone who doesn’t appear as left as them. That’s no way to make change.

“KSO has seemingly tried to lift policies from the Greens from public transport to drug legalisation, but has significantly watered them down.” — James Cruz

James Cruz: This kind of criticism [that states] we need to sacrifice principled positions to work with questionable organisations to achieve change is bankrupt. We’ve seen it fail around the world. What we are really seeing today, especially with UK Labour and Bernie Sanders, is a huge surge in support for democratic socialism. Anyone who hasn’t recognised this trend is asleep at the wheel when it comes to a fairer, more just future for people and the planet.

Tyson Koh: There are many overlapping progressive values and opportunities for the Greens and KSO parties to benefit through collaboration and working together. My hope is for a shared recognition at a leadership level that there is more to be gained from progressive movements working together and learning from one-another than ganging up on each other. It’s better to punch up, not down.

Laura White: [The conflict between Keep Sydney Open and The Greens] was completely overhyped by online social platforms and media and various smear campaigns. The online community and forums were pretty brutal with their comments. But such is the internet. We chose not to let stuff get to us. That’s always going to happen online.

A key element to the criticism of Koh and Keep Sydney Open was the claim that the lockout laws disproportionately effect the white middle class. This criticism was fuelled by the policy page on the Keep Sydney Open website. The only policy dedicated explicitly to issues facing Indigenous Australians on the page reads “Keep the Indigenous flag flying permanently over Sydney Harbour.”

Throughout the campaign, several outlets produced essays and analysis of this criticism. Most notable was an article titled ‘Give Sydney Back: The Move Against Keep Sydney Open’, written by Prinita Thevarajah and published on Medium.

Highlighting Keep Sydney Open’s perceived unwillingness to engage with issues of class and race, that article contains the following quotation: “Tokenising his own diversity, KSO’s campaign manager Tyson Koh talks about being a representation of non-white queer artists. Koh exists in an upper middle class circle that is dominated by white creatives who are complicit in the elitism that is rampant in Sydney’s creative scene.”

Joseph Earp, Music Junkee: There was a narrative before Keep Sydney Open even started as a party around this idea that the lockout laws mostly effect the middle class. Were you aware of that narrative that [the lockout laws] are not the real issue?

Tyson Koh: Absolutely. So what if they’re not? The fact is that if you’re trying to get into a venue late at night, the bouncer doesn’t discriminate — you’re either allowed in or you’re not. When I think about a lot of the friends I’ve made late at night on the dance floors, they come from all cultures and all socio-economic backgrounds.

[We were] attacked by people who haven’t really done very much as far as advocacy is concerned…It’s pretty ridiculous, really.

“The people who were sharing that article or cheering its existence, have no idea where I’ve come from; no idea whatsoever where I’ve come from.” – Tyson Koh

I’ll go deep here: I noticed in your article you pointed to a piece [Thevarajah’s ‘Give Sydney Back’ Medium article] that said I used my cultural heritage in a tokenistic way and that I’m privileged.

I mean, that hurts. It hurts. The people who were sharing that article or cheering its existence, have no idea where I’ve come from; no idea whatsoever where I’ve come from. I’ve literally been bashed for not being white. For someone to give themselves the right to pick and choose when someone else’s identity and struggle is or isn’t valid is reprehensible. It sets the bar really low for political discourse.

But I guess as someone who puts themselves forward as a candidate, I’m meant to develop this thick skin and get over it. And I have.

Prinita Thevarajah: The entire campaign was run by folks from elitist art spaces that have never made room for non-white artists outside the CBD. Diversity was a pawn in their latest campaign, and this was confirmed through their tone policing and passive aggressive responses to mostly womxn on social media, including myself.

As an artist who has friends that have been verbally excluded , under paid and often unpaid by Koh’s art friends who ‘run’ most of the art scene in Sydney — I’m opting out. We’re opting out. As a Tamil womxn, I am acknowledging my complicity as a settler on stolen land and stand in solidarity with my Indigenous brothers and sisters.

Any political party that is running and not prioritising Indigenous struggle, repatriation and reparation is reaffirming the status quo.

Laura White: I spoke with some Indigenous Australians inside and outside the electorate about the issue [of inclusivity] and they could see that Keep Sydney Open were really trying to create inclusive policies for all. We are all affected by the issues of the current government, whether it be lockouts, environment, small business or housing.

Personally I wish we had had more specific policies than flying the Aboriginal Flag on the Harbour Bridge permanently — [although] it is ridiculous that it isn’t permanently there already — but I also know that if we had gotten into the Upper House we would’ve worked hard for advocacy on specific issues, especially those of the Indigenous community.

Tyson Koh: We’re progressive. We’re engaged in different cultural and ethnic communities as well as organisations that work on advocacy on a number of fronts. We’re aware of a lot of the issues that people really care about and the kinds of change that they want to see. And I think some of the criticism did force us to be better versions of ourselves in some respects.

“We did something that not a lot of people have the guts to do, which is becoming a political party.” – Tyson Koh

But where it didn’t is when it got personal. Which it often did. People having a go at either myself or other candidates and people involved in the party for just doing the best we can.

And if anyone had taken the time to get in touch, not only could they have let us know what was on their mind, but they probably could have joined the team and had an impact on policy. It’s always been an open invitation for people to get involved.

I do think critics need to be more collaborative. Because for many of those critics, we are on the same side here. I mean, we did something that not a lot of people have the guts to do, which is becoming a political party. If you don’t like the system, do what you can to change it.

Later, during the height of election season, Keep Sydney Open came under fire for an incident in which the party’s official account sent a private message on Instagram to a Sydney DJ who had criticised them publicly and tagged them in a post.

The message from the Keep Sydney Open account — which Music Junkee has seen — claimed to be “very disappointed” in the DJ and assumed that they were voting for The Greens.

What are you basing your opinion on?” the private message from Keep Sydney Open read. Are you a Greens supporter? We have done more work on both Indigenous outreach and diversity in the one year we’ve been a party than they have in a decade. Have you seen their candidates? They’re all talk.”

In response, the DJ clarified their criticism of Keep Sydney Open, replying: “Without policy that addresses wider issues that underpin our culture, and eat away at it if left unaddressed, I don’t feel comfortable placing my vote with you.”

The Keep Sydney Open account responded that the DJ had made a “fair point” and clarified that the reason for their first private message was “because you have DJed for Keep Sydney Open. Not because of your views.”

The incident trickled out into the public sphere — before long, news that the Keep Sydney Open account was sliding into the DMs of their critics hit Twitter.

Closer still to the election, Keep Sydney Open came under fire for preferencing Sustainable Australia. Sustainable Australia is an anti-immigration party that calls for the slashing in half of Australia’s migrant intake, citing environmental and sustainability reasons, and that frequently peddles in messaging that has been described as borderline xenophobic.

In response to the outcry, Keep Sydney Open correctly pointed out that The Greens and Labor had also preferenced Sustainable Australia in key seats. A statement posted on the official Keep Sydney Open Facebook page encouraged voters to go on their own adventure below the line, and took the time to distance the party’s message from that of Sustainable Australia.

Tyson Koh: We were criticised for being exactly like The Greens, but also criticised for putting Sustainable Australia on our how to votes. So are we like The Greens, or are we a far-right anti-immigration party?

James Cruz: I don’t think anyone has suggested that they’re anything like Sustainable Australia, but their preference deal was particularly poor political judgement and opportunism on their part. I’d be interested to know who they consulted with before making that decision.

Tyson Koh: I hate that word preference. Because it’s not a preference. But [preferencing] needs more explaining. Because if you don’t do that explaining, then people fill that vacuum.

I think it’s something that political parties and also the electoral commission could spend more time and effort on, is educating voters on how preferences work.

We knew that there would be fierce competition in the last couple of seats. We knew there were other parties such as One Nation and Liberal Democrats in the mix as well. So, of course, we’re going to move forward with a strategy that we think will give us the best chance possible.

Keep Sydney Open candidates for the NSW Legislative Council. Photo via Facebook

By voting day, it seemed up in the air whether or not Keep Sydney Open would score at least one seat. 

In the final count, Keep Sydney Open got over 80,000 votes. For at least some of the counting period, it looked as though they might score a decisive seat, but in the end, they missed out. The Animal Justice Party ended up scoring a seat instead.

After the vote, Keep Sydney Open’s performance was trawled over obsessively. The ABC branded the party as one of the “losers” of the election. When Koh rejected the label, the ABC stuck to its guns, pointing out that the party had failed to score a single seat.

Tyson Koh: I think it’s inescapable to judge success by whether we received a seat or not. I certainly see it that way and I know other people do too, justifiably so.

But for a minor party in its first election, we did exceedingly well. We may have even been the best first time party in history in NSW. It goes to show there’s something in this thing; in Keep Sydney Open transforming from a single-issue campaign into a political party.

The issue of whether Keep Sydney Open “stole votes” away from The Greens is yet to be resolved. For some Greens members, it is clear that the nascent party did have an effect on their primary vote. For Keep Sydney Open supporters, that drop can be blamed on in-fighting within The Greens.

Laura White: To be honest I knew we appealed to promoters and musicians and people like myself who also run events in Sydney, but standing at the election polls I spoke with so many great people from all ends of the spectrum.

In some cases even I was shocked. I think people were really looking for something fresh to align with. I had everything from a 70-year-old man high-fiving me and scrunching up a Liberal ballot paper, to families, small business owners, corporate lawyers, environmentalists, Indigenous Australians and some conservatives. I had a few serious older opera lovers tell me that they voted for Keep Sydney Open because they can’t even go for a coffee or somewhere to eat after a show in this city because everything is closed.

Tyson Koh: When you actually take the time to analyse it, our votes came from everywhere. Our votes came from other minor parties, a lot of votes came from the Liberal party, particularly in the North Shore and the Eastern Suburbs.

I think there’s a much more nuanced situation with the electorate that many people are failing to recognise, which is that there’s an unspoken-for voter, and that is someone who is socially progressive but also cares about civil liberties.

I mean, The Greens were never going to get three members in the Upper House. [The question was] who was going to pick up the last couple of seats. And we were definitely in the running. As far as progressive parties, it was either going to be us or Animal Justice. And our preferences helped them leap over the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Democrats. And it’s something we’re really proud of. They deserve a voice in parliament too.

The Animal Justice Party are a single-issue party that sits on the left, and many of their policies align with those espoused by The Greens. But The Animal Justice Party completely sidestepped many of the criticisms that Keep Sydney Open faced over the course of the election.

Music Junkee: Why do you think The Animal Justice Party didn’t get criticised and Keep Sydney Open did?

Tyson Koh: Because people felt threatened by us.

Music Junkee: Do you really think that’s what it was?

Tyson Koh: Of course. Of course it’s insecurity, of course it’s feeling a threat.

Music Junkee: Do you think maybe it’s also that people underestimated Animal Justice Party’s chances of scoring a seat?

Tyson Koh: Maybe. But it played out almost exactly how we thought it would. Which is that we would outpoll Sustainable Australia, and therefore mop up some of their preferences, and then in terms of the progressive parties, it was either going to be us or Animal Justice.

And I don’t see how that’s a bad thing. When you take the emotion out of it, having a variety of voices in parliament is a good thing. Having more progressive voices in parliament is a good thing. The only way that I can explain some of the criticism is that people felt threatened, or people weren’t informed properly.

Which, by the way, isn’t their fault. We definitely could have done a better job communicating to people. But I do think people had made up their mind about us very early. And at the end of the day it’s really to their own detriment.

Now, following the election, Koh is re-assessing his own place in Keep Sydney Open.

Tyson Koh: It’s up in the air as to how involved I’m going to be over the next couple of years. Maybe I’m going to be involved 100 percent, maybe I’m not. Or maybe somewhere in-between.

I’ve seen some people talk about me as if I’m some sort of ego driven maniac. I’m 37 and politics isn’t something that I ever thought I’d get into up until a couple of years ago. And so I still have to work out whether it’s right for me.

“I’ve seen some people talk about me as if I’m some sort of ego driven maniac.” – Tyson Koh

I mean, I’m aware that people look to me as a leader and have for some time. Which is still very strange to me. And being recognised and seeing my picture in this newspaper — it’s not something that is entirely comfortable for me. And particularly when some of the criticism was getting quite fierce and personal, yeah it was tough. I don’t think it is something that I’ll ever be able to swiftly deal with.

But that being said, I do have absolute belief in what we’re trying to do. Which is open up the nighttime economy in NSW, while also trying to find a new position on the political spectrum which I think hasn’t been represented.

The fact that we got over 80,000 for a first time party is huge. And I think we did find that there are people who…are socially progressive, who don’t want to live in a full Communist state, and are pragmatic, but also compassionate and caring and sincerely want to do something about the most marginalised people in society.

Laura White: Across the board, Keep Sydney Open got over 80,000 primary votes. We got people talking, we stood up for what we believe in. I think that alone should be celebrated.

Tyson Koh: A party like us had never come around before, really.

Joseph Earp is a music and film critic. He tweets @Joe_O_Earp.