Rabble-rouser finds his niche
By Shane Scanlan
Cr Stephen Mayne had outgrown the City of Melbourne almost before he got there.
With peerless credentials in media, business and politics he has effortlessly grasped the role of capital city councillor and has already left an indelible mark by making the council more publicly accountable.
And while there are plenty of good political performers in all spheres of government, very few of them are as independent as Cr Mayne.
Independence can’t be bought. In fact, it comes at personal cost and must be crafted and honed over many, many years.
Now in his mid-40s, Cr Mayne draws on many life lessons to acutely understand the wider political process and, most importantly, his role within it.
“I’ve come to realise that my core strength is as that independent person on the site, not being the chairman. I’m a good contradictor, a good contrarian – constructive, but also prepared to take them on if necessary,” he said explaining that the Senate might be his next contest.
“If there was any more ambition, it would be a Xenophon-style independent senator,” he said. “I don’t think I’d ever run for lord mayor because I don’t think I could do the job.”
“I’d love Xenophon to set up his party and I’d love to run for Xenophon. He is the Don Chip of today. He’s in the middle. He’s sensible. He’s a known quantity.”
Cr Mayne has spent most his career questioning and holding the authorities to account – both as a journalist and as a shareholders advocate.
As a journalist, his independent streak eventually made him unemployable and led to the establishment of the nation’s premier alternative online news site Crikey.
“I was a natural rabble-rouser and I had high energy levels so I could keep it up.
I basically had no other option because I couldn’t get a job back in the mainstream,” he said.
Three trips to the Supreme Court to defend defamation writs, losing his house, starting a family, renting, moving house five times in 30 months and 100-hour working weeks were eventually rewarded with a $1 million sale price for Crikey.
Shareholder advocacy and activism followed a similar path.
Cr Mayne was a councillor at Manningham before contesting a seat at the City of Melbourne. Again, the experience was heightened by the intensity of the engagement and so the learning came quicker.
“It was brutal. It was the Somme and I took them on. I admit that I provoked them and probably went in a bit too hard myself,” he said.
The experience has led to extremely harmonious relations with fellow councillors at Melbourne.
“I am probably the only councillor who hasn’t had an ongoing dispute with another councillor. I get along well with everyone and I treat every issue on its merits and I’m not doing deals,” he said.
“The council gig is the perfect gig for me at the moment,” he said. “You are in government. But you’re not in charge. You’re working with others to get a better outcome for the city.”
“It’s better being on council than being in opposition (as a party politician), because I think you just get sucked in with political point scoring and negativity.”
Cr Mayne likens his role as a councillor to the work he used to do as a shareholder advocate.
“Being not afraid to speak truth to power – that’s probably at the core of it,” he said. “Being fearlessly independent and outspoken but, fundamentally, you’re not like a green group trying to send a mining company broke.”
“You’re not there as a shareholder to destroy. You want the company to succeed. You want there to be profits but you also want good governance, fair treatment of minorities, inclusion of all stakeholders, good transparency and accountability. When you have all these things, you get better performance anyway.”
“If you do that, any institution from your kindergarten to your federal government will perform well.”
Cr Mayne is attracted to politics by what he calls a “psychic wage” – an enjoyment that falls outside financial remuneration.
“I think I’m good at it and there’s a lot of intellectual stimulation from the diversity of council,” he said. “No two days are the same, and I like politics.”
“Being a councillor allows you to bring together that knowledge of politics, business and media and, hopefully, contribute positively to the city.”
“And I am really enjoying it the most because of the stuff I’m managed to achieve on the transparency and accountability front.”
“When people look back I hope they will see a series of practical, real transparency measures that will set the standard for the sector,” he said.
Cr Mayne said he has been so successful in getting council to adopt transparency measures that he had almost run out of new ideas.
Such transparency and governance measures include: Audio recording of council meetings; public questions at council meetings; banning meetings between councillors and developers without an officer present; an extra member on the audit committee; the people’s panel; disclosing the lease register; disclosing more valuable buildings; putting all registers online; recording executive pay in annual reports; and slashed discretionary spending for councillors.
Cr Mayne summarises his position as: “Don’t be afraid to lift the skirt and tell people what is going on. Be as open and transparent as you possibly can.”