It was the doctored photo of her with a penis drawn in her mouth, posted late at night on Facebook, that tipped Roz Blades over the edge.
“It's vicious stuff,” says the 72-year-old Dandenong Council veteran, who after nine straight elections is used to the rough-and-tumble of local government polls. She's never seen it this toxic before.
Dandenong councillor of 30 years Roz Blades says she has never seen such a vicious council election.Credit:Joe Armao
Blades retired this month after 33 years as a councillor but is helping other candidates in the election, under way now via postal voting.
Earlier this month, she letterboxed a brochure supporting some candidates. The brochure was removed from letterboxes, altered, then re-letterboxed – but now, it criticised another candidate. Then came the picture on Facebook. "It's nasty. All I’m doing is supporting a candidate."
Because of coronavirus restrictions, candidates in Melbourne’s 29 metropolitan council elections can’t travel outside their five-kilometre zone, and get only two hours outdoors daily to campaign.
The pandemic has combined with all councils using postal ballots under the system introduced by sacked local government minister Adem Somyurek. It means campaigning more than ever is online, or via expensive mailouts and advertising.
Already, the Local Government Inspectorate has received about 100 complaints across Victorian councils about online posts compared to 78 at the 2016 elections.
At Dandenong, one of Melbourne's poorest and most multiculturally diverse council areas, 67 candidates are vying for 11 places. Tens of thousands of dollars are being pumped into the poll by wealthy or well-connected candidates – some with real estate industry jobs, others with property portfolios they describe as "vast".
Former local government minister Adem Somyurek.Credit:Eddie Jim
Many are backed informally by Labor or Liberal Party members. In one ward, Keysborough South – where farmland could one day be rezoned for huge financial gain – there are 11 candidates and six are likely “dummies", competing purely to funnel votes to others via preferences.
Some suspect Somyurek is taking an interest, though the now-independent Upper House MP denies this. “This time, absolutely not,” says Somyurek. “Nowhere near it.”
Five real estate agents are running – including current councillors Zaynoun Melhem and Liberal Party member Tim Dark, who says the preponderance of agents “is a coincidence”.
“We are very hard-working individuals, and very outgoing. That’s the skills and attributes that people want to see in a councillor,” says Dark.
Maybe. But some – including a local association that wants to protect farmland from housing development – say property interests are circling Dandenong. “These elections need to be declared invalid,” says Bangholme Rural Land Holders Association president Alan Hood.
Hood, a veteran campaigner against open space being sold for housing, claims developers and their associates are running dummy candidates to steal the election.
The council has within it a large area of farmland zoned “green wedge”. For years property owners, including fruiterer Antonio Madafferi, have wanted it rezoned for housing. On Friday, Madafferi said he was not involved in the council election.
Were the land to be rezoned, fortunes would be made at the stroke of a pen – as they were in recent years by Casey Council, now mired in one of Victoria’s biggest ever land planning scandals.
Federal MP Julian Hill’s electorate of Bruce is roughly half in Dandenong Council, half Casey council.
The Labor politician says what’s playing out at Dandenong is concerning given the many undisclosed donations made by developer John Woodman at Casey ahead of the 2016 council elections, the focus of IBAC hearings recommencing soon.
“Given the corruption revealed at Casey, with hidden property and developer interests influencing councillors, community reports about a bunch of real estate agents and their mates trying to take over Dandenong Council are really concerning,” says Hill. “There are fake candidates everywhere. This is the kind of crap, though, you’d expect from an election by postal ballots in a pandemic.”
One candidate who isn’t fake is Stephen Fanous, who owns 10 local fruit stores. Last year the Federal Circuit Court fined Fanous $230,000 for paying staff as little as $10 an hour. The Fair Work Ombudsman, which pursued Mr Fanous, said he was “involved in most of the company’s contraventions”.
Fanous is a director of 58 companies, and recently joined the Labor Party. He has poured many thousands of dollars – he won't say how many – into winning the Keysborough South ward, with mobile billboards, fridge magnets, flyers, posters, and paid Instagram and Facebook campaigns among his marketing tools.
Dandenong Council candidate Stephen Fanous
Fanous said he was too busy to take a phone call for this story. Questions emailed to him resulted in Sydney-based public relations firm Wilkinson Butler calling back to ask The Age for more information about the questions. When asked how much Fanous was paying Wilkinson Butler, consultant Liam Cox said: “That’s confidential information.”
Fanous eventually answered some of the questions put to him. Of his “vast property portfolio”, as he described it to a local newspaper, Fanous said only: “Like thousands of Australians, I’ve got a property portfolio.” But he said none of his properties were "near the green wedge". Fanous acknowledged he knew Madafferi. “We both work in the fruit and veg industry but we’re not close,” he said.
Fanous joined Labor with support from Dandenong mayor Jim Memeti, who has links to developer John Woodman – the man at the centre of that Casey investigation. Woodman donated a chopper flight to Memeti’s last council campaign. “I didn’t know who it was from,” says Memeti.
This is Memeti’s fifth election campaign. It has been “terrible”, he says, because lockdown means many aren't working. "So it’s easy to get onto Facebook and make comments."
Many have raised eyes at yellow-and-blue how-to-vote cards several candidates are using with identical designs, and resembling Liberal Party flyers, minus the party logo.
One candidate using the design, Jeruisha Williams, says it's pure coincidence the flyers look alike. “We’ve just gone to the same designer,” says Williams, whose material is authorised by Liberal member and former Kingston mayor Paul Peulich.
The Victorian Electoral Commission is meant to be policing these elections, but a spokeswoman wouldn’t discuss complaints about the Dandenong poll.
Roz Blades complained to the VEC. Her complaint went nowhere.
Those running for council need to calm down and get it into perspective, says Blades. “This is not the White House. It’s the local council.”
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