Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Populist Politics

Whilst every one thinks John So is a nice guy this does not mean he provided good government

Unfortunately time and interest in other issues and the Commonwealth games have prevented us from commenting more on the affairs of the city of Melbourne and in particular the recent wave of hysteria and public devotion for Melbourne's Lord Mayor John So.

For the record. I personally like John So, and always enjoy the occasion to meet him, BUT I do not think he is a good Lord Mayor or provides good government.

So never says No

To the contrary theу Сcity of Melbourne under John's leadership is far from perfect. He is the highest spending Lord Mayor in Melbourne's history and he never says no and never holds the administration to account or question.

A perfect example is the refusal of the City of Melbourne to provide honest, open and transparent governance. His choice of Deputy Lord Mayor is highly questionable as are some of his pet projects and high cost expenditure and overseas travel.

The costs associated with expenses of Councillors and staff are hidden from view, with the City Council continuing to go to extraordinary efforts to avoid accountability. The costs associated with the Lord Mayor and deputy Lord Mayor's Limousine are not included in the published expense statements which are false and misleading. The council refuses to publish the costs of costs of internal catering, free booze and the cost of inbound missions.

When called upon John So is quick to dip into the Council's public purse and fund what ever project or free dinner, free piss up or public event the administration asks for.

Employment costs have blown out and the Council's capital to working ration is in serious decline as John So squanders the profits from the City Council's forced public asset sell off.

Their are other issues about the Council's administration that if you take a close and critical look at has little to desire.

Where once the City of Melbourne was the Doyen of Local Government under the competent management of Elizabeth Proust and Andy Friend the quality of City Council administration has been in serious decline over the last 10 years.

John So, who has held the office of Lord Mayor for over two terms, has done little to restore Melbourne's reputation as the leader amongst Local Governments.

He has shown little to no ability to manage the finances and governance of the City.

Yes every one love John's quirky smile and his adorable accent, he is a likeable person, but there is more to government then popular support and public profile.

Without the likes of Kevin Chamberlain and others who are critical of the Council's performance and lack of policies much of the wrongs of the City Council are hidden away from the adoring publics attention. Keep them dazzled, razzelle and unaware of reality. That's Show business and sadly that the state of Melbourne's local politics.

Hear no evil, speak no evil , see no evil.

As long as the City Council administration continue to prevent the publication of information that shows the true extent of the abuse and misuse of the Council administration and the associated costs and extravagance the City of Melbourne will continue to bath in the sweet perform of popularity whist the stench remains hidden from view.

The Australian public should look more closely and be warned about the pitfalls of direct popular election of heads of government.

So easy to warm to - The Australian
Everyone in Melbourne is talking about Lord Mayor John So, scratching their heads trying to explain a cult phenomenon, writes Stuart Rintoul


April 03, 2006
HE is the most popular lord mayor in Australia. Every time his name was mentioned during the closing ceremony of Melbourne's Commonwealth Games, there was a deafening roar of approval that washed over Ron Walker, standing at the microphone, on its way to John So.

And only So. The Prime Minister, John Howard, was not cheered. The Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks, was not cheered. Walker, chairman of the Games organising committee, was not cheered. But just the mention of Son's name rocked the MCG.

The next day, as Melbourne thanked the Games volunteers, revellers stood in the street chanting "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, So, So, So". At the Games, people wore T-shirts with the slogan "John So - he's my bro".

Two songs have been written about him already. The cleverest of them, a parody of the Aerosmith, Run-DMC hit Walk This Way has been played on the Nova 100 station in Melbourne. Called John So Way, it has So repeating: "Share your fish with everyone".

He was also profiled on New Zealand television, where the TVNZ program Close Up described him as "the mayoral equivalent of a rock star" and "as far removed from the stereotypical Australian as you could imagine". It said in a city swelling with superstars, So had emerged as a cult figure and a classic Australian success story, the immigrant made good. It said at the Games closing ceremony So overshadowed even the PM, with the crowd "just going nuts over him".

So, what it is about John So?

Walker, a former lord mayor of Melbourne, calls him (through gritted teeth, some say) "The Phenomenon". He laughs and says that every time he mentioned Son's name at the closing ceremony the response came back like "a volley of he's my hero".

But why? "I think it's the fact that he's got an infectious smile," Walker says. "He has an infectious smile and he's got an infectious laugh. It's nothing to do with him having power, because he doesn't have any power. As my wife put it, the fact is that John allows people to throw him in the air like a ball.

"And he enjoys it, because he wants to share in the fun with everybody. It makes you very popular."

By the same token, Walker, one of the hard heads of the Victorian Liberal Party, says it is "arrant nonsense" to suggest this popularity could carry him into a larger political career.

Everyone in Melbourne, it seems, is not only talking about So, and the Cult of So, but scratching their heads and trying to explain it.

Some suggest the crowd was responding to an attempt by Walker and Breaks to sideline the English-mangling mayor during the Games. Walker says he doesn't think any such attempt was made, while Bracks, who assumed the role of "chief citizen" for the purposes of the international audience, says So would not have been included in the closing ceremony at all had he not insisted.

Herald Sun columnist Jill Singer wrote that the real question was whether people were laughing with So, or at him, and suggested, cruelly, that he was the "unofficial Games mascot". "Integral to understanding the phenomenon is to recognise that it's a joke along the lines of Roy and Hg's Fatso the wombat (aka the Battlers' Prince)," she wrote. "As Fatso was to Sydney 2000, So was to Melbourne 2006."

Singer's right-wing colleague Andrew Bolt, for his part, said Melbourne's "love of So" proved, once and for all, that Australians were not racist and that by cheering So "the crowd was giving the two fingers to all those who say we should hate Asians and other races, or - more especially - that we do."

At Melbourne Town Hall, So is modest about the adulation and dismissive of the Right and Left interpretations.

If people cheered him at the opening and closing ceremonies, he says, it was because they were cheering for Melbourne. "People were having such a good time, such a fantastic time," he says.

When it is put to him that he is the nation's most popular mayor, he does not disagree, but says: "Ahhh ... I enjoy doing what I'm doing. All these years, I always work hard. Ever since I was a boy, I was brought up to try your best, whatever you're doing, and enjoy because you've only got one life."

He sits on a plush leather couch, talking and laughing in a room in which he is surrounded by the portraits of his 19th century white male and bearded predecessors. He is flushed with the success of the Games and ambitious for a city he says is growing in confidence and happiness.

He indulges questions about his popularity, but only becomes really animated when the subject turns to Melbourne which, he says, is on the verge of "a second gold rush" as it seeks to position itself as a gateway to the awakening giants of China and India.

"Our geographic distance is becoming our advantage now," he says. "We have the geographic advantage in the same time zone, we have the connections, we have the people, the knowledge, the skill and the experience. That is the future for Melbourne and the future for Australia. We have to take Melbourne to the world and bring the world to Melbourne."

Last October, So led a trade mission to China. He says the exposure the city received was phenomenal and the business connections invaluable.

An example of how large even a small slice of the Chinese pie might be, he says, can be seen in the $36 billion China is spending on infrastructure for the 2010 Asia Games in Guangzhou.

Also on that mission to Beijing and Tianjin (a Melbourne sister-city) was George Pappas, chairman of the Committee for Melbourne. "I think he's terrific," says Pappas.

"I think Melbourne is very lucky to have him as mayor."

While some of those who have accompanied So on visits to China say it has been no disadvantage having a Chinese-born mayor, Pappas says it was revealing that So applied himself to improving his Mandarin to talk to Chinese officials in their preferred language. So's mother tongue and the language he still speaks in the privacy of his home is Cantonese. He speaks Mandarin less fluently.

John Chun Sai So was born in Hong Kong in 1946. His father died when he was five. He was sent to boarding school, at a strict Catholic Salesian boys' school. He arrived in Melbourne in his late teens to complete Year 12 at University High School, leaving his mother and two brothers in Hong Kong.

He went to Melbourne University, became a science teacher and then a restaurateur, leaving behind a dream of becoming a scientist.

In 1976, he opened his first restaurant and then a chain of highly successful Dragon Boat restaurants. He advised others on how to improve their businesses, for a share of the action, leading him to being called "Mr 10 per cent". He became wealthy and a political force in Chinatown.

In what might be a metaphor for Australia's cultural evolution and his own Darwinian philosophy, he told an interviewer three years ago: "I cannot use the same old chop suey of the '60s. [When] I came here everyone going for the chop suey ... you have to change, you have to adapt."

So was elected to the Melbourne City Council in 1991, at a time when the Town Hall was known as "clown hall". He ran for office because "the city was dying".

Ten years later, in 2001, he became Melbourne's first directly elected lord mayor, defeating higher profile candidates including Australian Democrats founder Don Chipp, after all of his opponents underestimated him and gave him their preferences, while So hit the hustings.

It would be said he bought the lord mayorship, spending more than $100,000 on a publicity blitz that included flying reporters around the city in a helicopter and papering Melbourne with the slogan, "So active, So responsible, So Melbourne, Make it So".

But if there were those who begrudged him that victory, there was no denying the force of his re-election in 2004, when he faced off 20 candidates, all of whom preferenced against him, and won in a landslide with nearly 50 per cent of the primary vote.

He also saw off Peter Sheppard, a shoe retailer, who was forced out of the mayoral race in a storm of protest after saying So diction was an embarrassment, that he could hardly speak English and was "about 20 consonants short in his alphabet".

So shrugged it off, just as he had shrugged off other controversies. In 2002, he snubbed the Dalai Lama during an Australian visit, as other political leaders did, in a nod to Beijing. He gave character evidence for corrupt former immigration minister, Andrew Theophanous, the first federal MP to be convicted and jailed for corruption while in office, and said he was honoured to be asked.

In 2004, he said a rare Aboriginal possum-skin cloak, which he had been given by Aboriginal elders, would leave the Town Hall with him if he was defeated.

None of these things dented his popularity. Instead, it has grown, exponentially it would seem, until So is now viewed as an irrepressible optimist who laughs at his shortcomings, of which he is sharply aware, and opened the Big Day Out concert with the words "Let's rock".

Fox FM breakfast presenter Matt Tilley regularly impersonates So on air, making fun of his tentative grasp of the language. Rather than being offended, So invited Tilley and co-host Jo Stanley to lunch at the Town Hall. Tilley says their conversation was like something out of Get Smart.

After the Games opening ceremony, So was asked what he thought was the best part. His response was recorded in a Herald Sun column as "the tram fry" - with the punchline "Gotta love the guy".

So, is it all that hard to understand? Walking in the streets of Melbourne with John So suggests he has more celebrity than most politicians, but less probably than a Big Brother or Australian Idol contestant.

"John So, he's my bro," a young bloke calls out while his mates fall about laughing. Photographs are taken with mobile phones, hands reach out to be shaken. No one can point to anything that he has done for Melbourne, but everyone likes him: "He's just so friendly".

It is a view that spills into the letters pages of Melbourne's newspapers, where a Herald Sun reader, fed up with all the analysis of the So phenomenon, said it wasn't hard to understand at all.

"What matters is that this bloke is happy; he loves life and he appears to love Melbourne," wrote Andrew Clarke of Aspendale. "His glass is half full, or bubbling over, and that is what we like ... John So stands out in a sea of political blandness."

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