The Dirt: Clover Moore

My conversation with the most influential woman in Sydney could begin with politics. It doesn’t. It starts with nature, of course. “I grew up playing in the bush around my family home in Gordon, on the North Shore,” Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore tells me. “I created a group called the Scarlet Pimpernels of Neptune and used to lead my school mates on walks from Gordon to Lane Cove National Park.”

Clover tells me that each year for her father’s birthday and Christmas present she would take herself to the local nursery and buy him a tree. “I’d also give him loads of soil as presents too, which used to really annoy him,” she says. He wasn’t a keen gardener, and it wasn’t a happy family.

It was fairly dysfunctional. He was an alcoholic and we were a bit neglected. I had two much older sisters, and was really in a world of my own.”

As a result of her efforts, and despite her father’s reticence, Clover tells me a beautiful garden was created. I suggest this was perhaps her first campaign. She agrees and continues to tell me how she transformed her family’s backyard pool from a rubbish dump back into a pool at the age of 12! “I think I just came out like that,” Clover says when I ask her where her drive for change comes from. “When things really need to be done, and even if they’re very difficult, I just set about doing it.”

When Clover and her young family moved to the Sydney suburb of Redfern after a stint living in London in the early 1980’s the playgrounds were asphalt and there were hardly any trees. “It was really bleak,” she tells me. She asked a local councillor why they couldn’t have grass in the parks he told her it would be too hard to sweep up the broken glass. “I think other people would have just moved out of the neighbourhood and gone somewhere better,” Clover says. “But once I got started…”

The rest is history. Clover’s been in politics since 1980, when she was elected to the South Sydney Council. From 1988 she was the member for Bligh, then Sydney, in the NSW parliament.  She held this position for 24 years until 2012, when the state government introduced laws to prevent politicians being members of state and local government. As Clover had also been Lord Mayor of Sydney since 2004, she had to stand down from state parliament. It seems the major political parties felt a little threatened by the woman with the leguminous name….

As Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover has had an incredible impact on the city and its culture and environment. Think bike lanes, public parks, creative spaces, small bar licenses and more. But she’s also been the subject of intense criticism from right wing politicians and commentators, with two laws – the 2012 law preventing membership of both state and local government, and more recently, the law allowing businesses in the city of Sydney to have two votes in the upcoming election – purported to have been implemented to push Clover out of her position as Lord Mayor.

The problem the major parties seem to have with Clover is twofold. She’s a woman, and an independent. They can’t buy her. She suggests the attention she receives is both misogynistic and political. “I’m independent so they can’t manipulate me the way they do the parties, and I’m female. I think those two things really rile them. I’m progressive, too.  So, that’s three things,” she says with a laugh.

They probably wouldn’t bully me so much if I was a male, and I think I really frustrate them because I don’t let that affect me. I don’t like it, though.”

I ask Clover if there a point where it stops hurting, when the negative words wash over without sinking in? “No, it doesn’t stop hurting,” she says. “When I was growing up, my mother said to me, ‘Really Clover, you’re so sensitive, I don’t know how you’ll get through life.’ My husband Peter and I laugh about this now, given the job I chose.”

Clover and I stroll around Sydney Park in St Peters. It’s one of her proudest achievements as Lord Mayor. “My hearts bursts with pride walking around Sydney Park,” she says. “It’s a real symbol of our work. But you can only do something like Sydney Park if you’ve got good government. And you only do good government if you’ve got vision, good policy, great people, and a foundation of integrity and accountability. When you put all that together, you can do this.”

But the ‘this’ Clover is referring to is currently looking rather compromised, thanks to the WestConnex toll road project, developed by the State and Federal Government. According to Clover, an interchange the size of Sydney Park will be built adjacent to it and require the acquisition of large areas of the park itself, requiring the removal of hundreds of mature trees. “A road that currently has two lanes and takes 7,000 vehicles a day will take 60,000 vehicles a day and it will be six lanes,” Clover says. “Where will all that traffic go? Well, it will go to Green Square where there’ll be 60,000 people living by 2030, and up into the city where our biggest problem already is congestion. It’s really, really shocking.”

“I think my views probably represent the general populus,” Clover tells me when I ask if she sometimes feels like she’s banging her head against a wall in regards to fighting regressive policies like WestConnex.

I think the major parties in government are totally out of sync. I think the majority of people care about climate change, about parks like this, about public transport.”

“I don’t think the political parties in parliament represent who we really are and what we care about,” she says.

We’re standing under a bunch of wattle trees, heavy with yellow blossoms and bees, next to the new water harvesting and recycling system in Sydney Park. It’s a gorgeous spot, and Clover clearly is very proud it. I ask her as she prepares to head back to the city to go door-knocking ahead of the City of Sydney Elections on September 10,  if she gets time to stop and reflect on what she’s achieved for the city and its community or whether she’s always working, moving towards the next project? “I think I’m the latter,” she says.

Life’s about opportunity, isn’t it? It’s been wonderful to be able to work for the city, and to see the results. There’s always so much to do though, that’s just the nature of it.”

We stroll up the hill looking north towards the city and talk about dogs and plants, the best things. Clover decides that if she were a plant she wouldn’t be a wattle tree because they’re too short lived. She thinks she’d be a fig; one with with long, spreading branches and a phenomenal root system. Firmly anchored in the earth, strong and resilient. Clover Moore, huh? What a woman.