Be careful what you wish for”. Old political saw.

Elizabeth Farrelly wants to be a politician. Again. For those outside inner-city Sydney this means little, but it provides an insight into design in politics and is an interesting prequel to the independents standing in the upcoming federal election.

All politics may be said to require three things: a good personality, good policies and good politics. Getting all three is rare, so how will she measure up?

Farrelly trained in architecture in Auckland in the ‘70s, made her name as a writer at AR in the UK in the ‘80s and came to Sydney when her then-husband Winston Barnett was appointed professor at UTS in ‘88. Farrelly was elected to the City of Sydney on Frank Sartor's team in the ‘91 elections and spent four years campaigning on urban design issues, including improvements to the ‘Toaster’ (the west promenade to the Opera House).

She’s written several books including ‘Killing Sydney, the Fight for a City's Soul’, released in early 2021 to acclaim, launches and book club discussions (and to which we will return). She wrote an op-ed column for the Sydney Morning Herald for 28 years before being sacked late last year for failing to disclose, in a column excoriating liberal party politics, that she had been in recent discussions to stand for the Labor Party in local, state or federal elections. Labor spurned her, which they may well regret as we shall see.

I have often argued in ToT that architects and planners are intellectually well suited to politics, the analysis of a problem, an understanding of process and a 3D view of the world. Although some have been elected in local politics, we’ve had very few in state governments where the real decisions on city planning are made.

Two standouts come to mind. Ted Mack was mayor of North Sydney, then a state and later a federal member who spoke out about urban issues, with a high degree of integrity, evidenced by his refusal of a parliamentary pension. And Evan Walker, Daryl Jackson's one time partner, was deputy premier to John Cain in the Victorian Labor party in the ‘80s, and influential in both the physical fabric of Melbourne (establishing Southbank) and using his understanding of designs and process to improve how the Labor Party moved forward on issues.

Elizabeth Farrelly is elegant, articulate, and sure in her convictions. And she’s architecturally trained. So, let’s tick the box marked ‘personality’. What about the electorate where she's standing?

Strathfield is a middle suburb in so many ways: middle distance, middle class, and middle of the political spectrum. After an ICAC fracas in Newcastle Jodi McKay was installed by the Labor Party in Strathfield in 2015, was briefly spokesperson for planning, then transport and became leader of the opposition from 2019 to 2021.

She was from the Labor Right and championed the home-owning middle-class: when a social housing project was proposed by the Uniting Church in South Strathfield, she spoke at a protest meeting for local residents without inviting a representative from the church or the architects. When she later agreed to meet the church representatives, she continued to oppose the project despite the need for accommodation for people in housing stress in her electorate.

A divisive figure, she was popular locally, but held the seat with only a 5% majority and could do little to improve the tarnished brand of NSW Labor during her leadership, and when she lost that, she resigned and created a byelection this Saturday (to be held along with three other electorates with retiring liberal members).

The Liberal Party is in disarray in NSW, not helping its chances in this, and other byelections. The Labor Party has parachuted a candidate in from over the ‘Bridge’, often a death knell. So, the opportunity for a strong female independent to take the seat has never been greater, mirroring to some extent what will be happening in 10 or more federal electorates in 3 months (except those women candidates are standing against Liberals).

So far so good. What about Farrelly’s policies? Her headline announcement is to call for a Royal Commission into the ‘property development industry’. A populist catchall for the home owning gerontocracy of Strathfield who think that the property industry is to blame for all their woes. But let’s look behind that vote winner to see what she says in ‘Killing Sydney’.

Farrelly is a stylish wordsmith; her love of striking adjectives extends to ‘enfiladed courtyards’, ‘nugatory public infrastructure’, ‘inchoate dementia’, ‘conceptual invagination’, ‘irrupting glass’, ‘meretricious farmhouses’ and ‘cloacal space’. She's witty, clever, engaging. But it's what she has to say that's disappointing.

I suspect she had in mind Jane Jacobs’ brilliant book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, but Farrelly’s book falls well short, and at the heart of it, much of book is just wrong. Not that Sydney is not threatened, every city is, but moreover how it's being killed and if so, who are the murderers. Firstly, her focus is on a very small part of Sydney.

Few politicians understand the magnitude of the problem of city making. One who did was Tom Uren. In a masterful speech for the 1972 federal election, he drew attention to the idea of a ‘Greater Sydney’ by pointing out that the demographic centre of Sydney (at that time) was Rookwood cemetery - the ‘dead heart’ he called it. The many people in the west were being ignored by planners.

Farrelly falls into that trap. Her gaze rarely goes beyond the bounds of the CBD and the inner city and her favourite Surry Hills, with occasional forays into Parramatta. She ignores the disasters unfolding in Schofields and Riverstone, the difficulties of transport and work in industrial estates like Wetherill Park, the urban disruption in Hurstville, Chatswood and Penrith, and the dreadful inequalities in Southwest Sydney’s sprawling suburbs at the edge. These are all opaque to her analysis, but that is where the wounds, if not death, are far more palpable.

That inequality between east and west is what is crippling Sydney. The ‘squinters’ who live in the west, travel east in the morning and travel home into the western sun. The sprawl and the freeways are the result, not the cause. There’s a similar situation in Melbourne and Brisbane.

Secondly, her analysis often fails to connect the minutiae she examines in contemporary urban issues with the causes. Calling for an inquiry into the property industry extends that mistake – the murder weapons are held by the planning industry that set the framework that allows the rorting by developers. The appalling buildings, inappropriately located and poorly serviced by social and physical infrastructure are a result of bad plans, first and foremost.

Put simply, because she fails to see the whole of Sydney, she fails to understand how planning must be undertaken on the whole. She lambasts the piecemeal planning in a piecemeal way. The crazy disaggregated transport planning is dissected acutely, but she offers no way forward. No plan to plan.

Sydney is being murdered, but it’s by the failure of the political class to manage planning. And Farrelly’s manifesto at the end of the book doesn't have a cure for that, other than to become active in politics. Which, giving her due credit, she’s upholding her own advice.

On policy we will give her a conceded pass. What about the politics?

This is where I fear there could be a massive failure. What if, instead of Farrelly being elected, the Liberal Party wins?  If she runs third in the election, under the optional preferential system in NSW her preferences could help elect the Liberal Party. Not what she set out to do at all but could be the unintended consequences and an incidental poke in the eye to the Labor Party that repudiated her.

That recalls Ralph Nader running as a third choice in a presidential election and thereby helping electing George Bush and preventing Al Gore from being elected president (and changing USA history on climate change); or Bob Brown’s hubristic caravan into Queensland in 2019 to challenge coal mining that that gave us the Morrison Government, with more fools for fossil fuels than less.

Despite Elizabeth Farrelly’s undoubted charisma, and her best intentions in policy, I fear her politics may be misguided and have a counterproductive outcome in the election. I hope not. I hope she is elected, and we get to have the white shoe brigade hauled before the beak and hear them squeal – I was only following orders (of the Land and Environment Court).

Disclosure 1: I have known Elizabeth Farrelly for 40 years. Long ago I employed her for a short while and designed renovations for her home. We also appeared together on the ABC.

Disclosure 2: I was the architect of the social housing scheme in South Strathfield opposed by Jodi McKay.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected].