Lunch with Sydney’s lead counsel
Waterford returns to the think tank straight from public service, where he spent two years in senior positions at Investment NSW and the Department for Enterprise and Trade. The Committee members are generally the big players in Sydney’s economy; Property developers, municipalities, banks, architects, consultants, law firms, universities. But the most important player is the city itself.
In that sense, Waterford’s role is a bit like the conductor trying to get all the other parts of the orchestra to work harmoniously together. “City politics is kind of an excuse in that it’s about all the things you’re already talking about, but how they affect other things, not just their own discrete area,” he says.
Waterford was overwhelmed by elements of the state election campaign. For all the discussion about the cost of living, not much time has been devoted to the biggest cost for Sydneysiders: housing. The Coalition showcased its Stamp Duty reforms, Labor unveiled plans for higher density housing near train stations. According to Waterford, it takes much more than that.
“The real estate crisis is perhaps the closest equivalent to COVID for us,” he says. We must pull every available lever, and that means building more houses: many more houses. “Is the planning system up to the moment? Absolutely no, it is not. It’s not able to deliver homes on the scale we need them.”
There needs to be a serious discussion about creating social and affordable housing “everywhere,” says Waterford, with billions — possibly tens of billions — in government money over a decade or so. Renting must become safer and more sustainable. And he says we need to have a tough conversation about “what loses for housing to win.”
What has to lose, he believes, is NIMBYism. The housing crisis is forcing Sydney to grapple with the consequences of a “not in my backyard” attitude towards development, and in the weeks following our lunch, the state’s new housing secretary, Rose Jackson, argued sharply when people can’t keep up , which is required, you must “get out of the way”.
Living in a city means constant change, says Waterford. “Cities are evolving. The place you live has evolved into the place it is now. Sticking a pin in it and saying, “Okay, I know it changes every 10 years, but it’s stopping now” isn’t fair. It’s not fair to future generations. It’s not fair to the people who can’t afford to live anywhere. It’s not fair to the people who could bring great life and vibrancy to your community that you stop coming in.”
Our sandwiches are coming. Waterford, a regular here, clearly made a good choice: a cubano loaded with pork, ham, pickles, salsa, and cheese. “So good,” is his succinct conclusion. My own ramen sandwich is great, but I have food envy. He offers to do things by halves, but I believe he would get the end of the deal.
We also drink Kirk’s Pasito from the can because, as Waterford rightly points out at the start of lunch, “passion fruit soda is one of those great Aussie drinks you never see.” When I see it, I’m like, ‘You have to get it’.”
Waterford grew up in the Blue Mountains to two lesbians who split up and got new partners, hence the four mothers. He spoke about it for a herald Article 15 years ago so we won’t elaborate further other than to say it gave him an early insight into sexism and injustice.
He began his career in social work, including child protection, but found himself mentally unfit for the task. “I just couldn’t deal with how horrible people’s lives are,” he says. He transitioned into politics, first with UnitingCare and then on the committee.
Today Waterford lives with his wife (they met in Oslo, although she is from Wollongong) and two children in Turella, on line T8. While nearby Wolli Creek and parts of Arncliffe have been repurposed for higher density, Turella consists primarily of detached suburban homes or industrial estates.
“There’s no density in my community and that’s not fair,” he says. “I’m a YIMBY in my community – give it to me. That means I can walk to a supermarket – at the moment I have to drive. It’s going to mean I’m getting restaurants… it’s going to mean a nighttime activation rather than a community that’s basically dead after everyone runs home from the train at 5:45. Right now the suburb that I live in is boring and I would love it if it was fun and the way we do it more fun is more people.”
Many of these macro-planning matters fall under the purview of the Greater Cities Commission, which has long divided Sydney into three cities: the eastern harbour, the central river and the western parklands. I often wonder if this is a useful way of imagining Sydney, which is supposed to be a city. Waterford believes it is, if only because it identifies an imbalance between East and West that needs to be called upon and addressed.
“Your access and experience of this city is not as bountiful when you live in Penrith as when you live in Mosman. When we describe Sydney, we describe the east. What the brochure says is bridge, beach, bush. People come to this city to work and [assume] They will live next to the beach because we gave them this pitch,” he says.
“I very rarely go to the beach, but if my yardstick for a successful city was, ‘Oh, I can live on the beach because everyone in Sydney does,’ I would consider my life a failure. We really need to tell the world a better story about Sydney that better reflects the lived reality of the vast majority of people who live in this city.”
Sandwiches ready, we’ll get coffee and keep talking. One of the big question marks over the new Labor government is its stance on infrastructure. The Perrottet administration was a heavy spender but Chris Minns was cautious during the campaign and said Labor was concerned about the state budget. Indeed, in the weeks following our lunch, Minns commissioned reviews of the Sydney Metro and NSW investment scheme, with warnings of high debt, high inflation and high construction costs.
Waterford says it would be a “huge shame” if the government cut transport infrastructure. Before the election, Perrottet chided Minns for not taking deals for two of the four future subway lines he announced during the campaign. But Waterford says that’s nonsense.
“Perrottet never wanted to instigate four at once. He would do four business cases and then [choose one],” he says. “Minns just said, ‘We’re choosing between two.’ They’ve specified which ones they’re interested in.”
However, Waterford was disappointed by Labor’s decision to scrap the Circular Quay Renewal Project in favor of a cheaper renovation of the ferry docks. He says given the long, detailed work that has gone into the project so far, he hopes Labor will reconsider its position.
Before we go, I want to discuss a rather nebulous concept: Sydney’s soul and identity. It feels like Melbourne has established itself as the creative capital since the Sydney Olympics, while Brisbane is now the up-and-coming newcomer. What does Sydney stand for in 2023?
Waterford has a few ideas. For one, he’d love it if we stop badmouthing the place and start celebrating all the great things about Sydney. One of the most fundamental things the state’s new Secretary of Arts, John Graham, can do is simply “change the mood” about how we talk about the city, he says.
And second, he says Sydney sometimes suffers from Australia’s Tall Poppy Syndrome. We’re the biggest and the best, so of course everyone wants to make us small. He wonders how that will change when Melbourne takes over as the country’s most populous city.
As it turns out, we don’t have to wait long. A few weeks after our lunch, my colleague Matt Wade reveals that the Victorian capital has already technically usurped the crown thanks to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ change in the definition of Melbourne.
This is great news for Waterford. “Get in – we’re the underdog now,” he says with relish.
EAMON’S SYDNEY SELECTION
Brighton Le Sands Beach: “The industrial perspective from there is very interesting. You watch the planes, you watch the cranes. You have the desalination plant. For my little kids this is much more interesting than a place to go.”
The Enmore Theater: “The last gig I went to was Remi Wolf. But I’ve had about three nights in a row with all these Splendor side shows. It’s just such a great venue and the vibe in Enmore when you walk out of a gig is so good.”
Club Arncliffe: “It’s this beautiful story where the RSL was closed due to lack of members and the community brought it back to life. It’s two rooms, a Thai restaurant, a pool table, no slot machines, right next to the large park in Arncliffe. It’s a mood.”
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