Inner East Review
Wednesday, 6 December 2023

What makes Yarra mayor Sophie Wade tick

By Jenny Denton
Updated May 17 2022 - 1:58pm, first published 5:00am
Yarra City Mayor Sophie Wade ... believes party membership makes local politicians more accountable and transparent. Photo: Morgan Hancock
Yarra City Mayor Sophie Wade ... believes party membership makes local politicians more accountable and transparent. Photo: Morgan Hancock

Yarra City mayor Sophie Wade is proud of the achievements she attributes to the current council, despite its detractors, and believes a progressive stance can assist in service delivery. JENNY DENTON reports

Sophie Wade is a true believer in local government.

If she had an unlimited budget, one of the things the Yarra City mayor would do is commission a study on the value people get out of their rates - or could get out of them if they used more of the council's wide range of services.

As well as roads and rubbish - a point of contention for some after a change in collection frequency - the council also provides libraries, gyms, sportsgrounds, maternal child health, childcare, kindergarten and aged care services, a large grants program and, recently, food relief.

The mayor throws out references to things like the Victorian Local Government Performance Review framework - which, she says shows Yarra performing very well on service delivery - and is excited to be attending the Australian Local Government Association's national general assembly in June.

But as a lawyer working long hours at a computer, it was the human aspect that attracted her to the area.

"I got into local government because I like local communities and how cities operate and I like that you get to know people and groups and what they want and how to work with people," she says.

She also saw it as more progressive on social justice and climate and able to deliver on those issues for communities. By contrast, she sees the higher tiers of government tending to operate in a more political realm.

"As much as people, I think, put a very political lens on Yarra, I don't see it that way, whereas once you get up to state and federal levels, that is a much more significant part of the picture and I'm not sure if that appeals to me.

"I like the people of it."

The mayor's social media feeds reflect that enthusiasm.

In her colourful dresses and trademark red lipstick, she is out and about rubbing shoulders with community members and spreading enthusiasm at events, day and night, around Yarra.

Her partner is probably seeing less of her than previously but he is used to her working long hours as a lawyer, she says, and she encourages her friends and family to catch up with her at City of Yarra events.

Wade thinks its people focus connects local government more closely with what constituents really want than other levels of government, and councils' capacity to lead in areas where they may be lagging is another strong part of its appeal for her.

"What I really liked ... was that the inner north councils and other councils were taking more progressive steps on a range of issues than I felt the state or federal government were, and I felt they were more aligned with what people on the ground who I was talking to thought - or what I thought - were the major issues, like the climate and First Nations rights.

"So, for example, Yarra's view on Australia Day, which got a lot of media coverage and has resulted in us still not being able to hold citizenship ceremonies, was to me like, 'Hey, that's the right thing to do!'"

These are the issues she campaigned on, Wade says, and she was elected with the expectation she would pursue them.

She believes party membership makes local politicians more accountable and transparent, and as a Green she can be expected to back socially progressive policies and build more bike lanes.

Elected as a Nicholls ward councillor in November 2020, the 32-year-old became mayor following a messy voting process last November and took a year's leave of absence from her legal job to step into the full-time paid role.

As she sees it, the current council has been kicking some serious goals for the community since it was elected a year and a half ago, particularly on outdoor dining, climate initiatives and open space.

Yarra's outdoor dining program, core-funded by a $500,000 state government grant and intended to run from October 2020 to March 2021, saw 480 traders benefit from the creation of new spaces, including new and extended footpath trading areas, on-street "parklets" and large-scale outdoor dining spaces created through road or laneway closures.

In an assessment of the program, council officers concluded that the new areas had "not only been a significant contributor to the economic recovery within Yarra, but had also brought a sense of vibrancy, hope, and a place for people to reconnect and rediscover".

Consultation with more than 2400 residents found that 95 per cent of respondents wanted to see more parklets, both short and long term.

"It's allowed people to kind of open their eyes and see what's happening on the street," Wade says.

"And of's allowed those traders to keep operating and make sure they're still available to as many people as possible."

On climate, the council is "doing a lot", the mayor says, having recently released separate community and organisational Co2 reduction roadmaps.

The community plan, which is harder to control, is for net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

For the council it's a "gross zero carbon" plan.

"We've been at net zero for 10 years but now we're trying to get those final emissions down so that we don't rely on offsets, and the aim for that is 2030," Wade says.

This involves, in the current council term, converting the Richmond and Fitzroy town halls from gas to electricity and "getting the Collingwood Leisure Centre off gas as well".

She disputes critics' claims that the council is giving climate action inappropriate priority over service delivery such as rubbish collection.

"You can't deliver services without carbon emissions," she says. "The climate and waste intersect quite heavily.

"When we're taking more stuff to landfill, that has more emissions, it's also starting to cost more because the state government is costing it according to its damage to the environment.

You can't deliver services without carbon emissions. The climate and waste intersect quite heavily.

"So actually, a lot of the changes that we're making now to our waste stream, in particular, are good for the climate, but also good for the bottom line."

Another big item in the mayor's book is innovative ways to create more open space.

"That was one of the major drivers for me running for council because I live in Collingwood, where we've got 0.3 per cent open space," she says.

"Cremorne, I've recently seen numbers to show is 0.2 per cent open space, whereas I think Alphington and Fairfield, for example, are around the 25 per cent mark."

A lot of planning work is being done on the issue, with a new policy proposal due to come before the council in the next couple of months, she says.

With all the talk of achievements you would be forgiven for thinking Yarra was a high functioning council with an exemplary track record.

But the Local Government Minister's December 2021 appointment of a municipal monitor to oversee governance at the council suggests otherwise.

The appointment of monitor Yehudi Blacher came following the furore around assault allegations against Greens councillor Anab Mohamud which saw her take extended leave and a political deadlock over the election of the mayor ensue.

On the question of the monitor's appointment, Wade says councillors were never given a clear explanation for it, but have found his presence positive.

She says councillors and senior staff all met with Blacher when he started and have benefited from his "open door policy".

"It's been a really interactive process. It hasn't felt like somebody's just sitting there, silently observing what's going on.

"He's been really great in providing guidance and advice."

The monitor has been "on the same page" with her about the need for "a bit of a refresh of a lot of our internal governance processes", she says.

Despite her dedication to municipal affairs, Wade is clear she will return to her job in competition and consumer law after her time as mayor ends.

"Growing up, my parents always made it clear that it was sheer luck that I was born into the circumstances that I was," Wade says.

"I was encouraged to make the most of the opportunities I had, while trying to level the playing field for others.

"I was fortunate to travel a lot with my family when I was growing up, and that drove the message home - the world isn't always fair, but you can work to make it fairer."

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