OPINION: Whenever I have a wee snark about the vileness of Sydney's rich, some dope tweets, "oh, that's just the politics of envy". As though, dismissed. Problem solved. As though being envied – if that's what it is – puts you on some unassailable moral mountaintop from which the envy of microbes is just one of countless irritations you need a microscope even to see. Well no, guys.
There is envy here, in city politics, and it's legit, but it's not about you. I don't want to be the rich and powerful. I want the rich and powerful to get out of the way, stop wrecking the joint with their dreary and predictable dollar-lust. Envy? What I envy is cities with imagination and principle at the helm. It's not wealth-envy. It's wisdom-envy. Governance envy.
When the people of Parramatta object to their only Olympic pool being demolished by governelopers, with no replacement in sight – is that envy? When 92-year-old Myra Demetriou, blind and alone on the tenth floor of the otherwise empty Sirius building, says, under threat of governeloper eviction; "I'm not afraid, they can shoot me if they want to" – is that envy?
When Waverley citizens take to the streets against spot-rezoning that will see towers destroy heritage terraces and overshadow Centennial Park, is that the politics of envy? When inhabitants of the Waterloo public housing propose a last-ditch stand to defend their homes from governelopment; is that the politics of envy? Or is it the politics of desperate love?
This week, when North Parramatta Residents' Action Group begged Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore to "adopt the community of Parramatta, as we are left without a democratically elected council" there certainly was envy. It was the envy of people deliberately disenfranchised at a moment of great change, people gazing wistfully at a place where local government is strong, free and fair. It was an "I'll have what she's having" moment.
This envy is entirely justified. Parramatta is reeling from a governelopment boom: 3000 apartments on its irreplaceable heritage precinct (Cumberland Hospital, 1818 Female Factory); the $2 billion ultra-ugly Parramatta Square project behind the old town hall; the proposed new Powerhouse, or whatever fragment of it finally drifts up-river; the demolition of the Pirtek Stadium and pool for a bigger, more lucrative stadium (no pool); plus masses of private development like Meriton's 54-storey Altitude, the city's tallest tower, on the old David Jones site. Barely a squeak of affordable housing anywhere, and the people held voiceless, all the while, by a government-appointed city administrator.
It's a pattern. Across Sydney, the communities most impacted by governelopment and loudest in their protest are chosen, like Lavinia, to be simultaneously brutalised and devoiced; Northern Beaches (French's Forest Hospital and motorway), Leichhardt (Westconnex), Parramatta.
It's ever so efficient, in a noir kind of way. Since, legally, these councils still exist, they still hold meetings – although minutes are often waif-like. No apologies, no dissent. All decisions unanimous and made with Teflon speed.
A recent extraordinary meeting of the Northern Beaches Council (Apologies Nil, Public Forum Nil) lasted 17 minutes. The council administration put a six-part motion to council and, absent a seconder, resolved in favour, not the slightest demur.
Totalitarian? Is that the word? Perhaps. Those gagged constituents definitely gonna envy people with proper (elected, honest, purposeful) government.
Governments to envy treasure public housing as proof of prowess rather than gap for governelopment. Unlike Holland – notes journalist Ingeborg van Teeseling – where social housing is considered something for everyone, we regard it as a mark of weakness, demoting it to last resort and stigmatising its users.
We're all scarred and war-torn from the unrelenting need to face down the belligerents of dullness, meanness and triteness. Here, it takes legislation, enforcement, subterfuge.
The Sirius building itself you may or may not like. I do, although as much for its crazy-sweet purpose as its architecture. Sydney is such a glass-hearted, venal kinda town. For it to snuggle the poor so close seems a move of such perverse kindness it's hard not to love. And hard not to despise any government that single out those sweet spots for traduction.
I know what you're thinking. To expect any behaviour other than pigs-at-trough from either developer or government (to the extent that these are distinct) is just plain unrealistic. The governeloper is here to stay. Get real. Man up. Life.
But it's not so. Visitors are shocked. Urbanists from Europe, the US and even Hong Kong are dismayed by our rapacious government attitudes, and by a populace so inexplicably quiescent in the face of blatant exploitation.
Visiting Berlin urbanist Reiner Nagel recently addressed a UNSW hall packed with Sydney's urban thinkers. The envy in the air was palpable. Nagel runs Baukultur – a federal, government-funded foundation intended to make German cities liveable: smart, stylish, sustainable, socially diverse, well-crafted, economically vibrant. Of course, we all say that. Any number of government reports, whathaveyou. But they do it. Like, actually.
How? we all wondered. Where do they get the power? Nagel doesn't understand the question. They don't need power. They have consensus.
Here, it's always a battle. We're all scarred and war-torn from the unrelenting need to face down the belligerents of dullness, meanness and triteness. Here, it takes legislation, enforcement, subterfuge.
Germany's problems are not small: a million immigrants last year; 1.7 million empty apartments; 11,475 mayors; 630 parliaments. But they also have a building industry worth €329 billion ($464 billion) annually and a 60% renewable energy target by 2050 (briefly hitting almost 100% last May), which provides some 400,000 jobs.
But Germany's city-making is not a war. They discuss, negotiate, subsidise, select, build. Co-housing, refugee housing, self-build, rental, trans-generational, zero carbon, zany design. They know cities are for everyone, and must include everyone. Maybe Germany learnt this lesson, big time. Maybe we're like the arrogant kid who can't learn from the experience of others. Either way, Baukultur has multi-party commitment.
This was the envy generator. Employment, housing, wealth, kindness, imagination, design, creativity: that's the kinda mix I envy.
Elizabeth Farrelly is Associate Professor (Practice) Urban Policy and Strategy at UNSW Built Environment
This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.