Political stoush between Zempilas and Carey getting in the way of helping vulnerable women

Political stoush between Zempilas and Carey getting in the way of helping vulnerable women
  • PublishedJanuary 17, 2024

Very little in modern politics is done without careful thought.

You’d be hard pressed to find situations where just having merit is enough to get an idea over the line — it has to appeal to voters, and more specifically, your voters.

The pressure to keep them onside only grows greater as elections approach, and with the 2025 poll almost within reach, expect to see the politics of government dialled up to 11.

Currently, there are few bigger examples of that than the ongoing Safe Night Space saga.

An old brick building at night with lights on inside.
Perth’s Rod Evans Community Centre housed Ruah’s Safe Night Space until November last year. ( ABC News: Keane Bourke )

For many people, the need for an overnight crisis shelter for around two dozen women each night — most escaping family and domestic violence — in the middle of a housing and homelessness crisis would hardly be up for debate.

And in large part it’s not anymore — both sides of the argument now agree something is necessary. The sticking point is what that something is.

Currently though, that’s not at the heart of what’s being discussed.

Lord Mayor ‘bizarre and erratic’: Minister

On Saturday, Homelessness Minister John Carey announced he’d rejected a solution championed by the Perth Lord Mayor for Uniting WA to take over the service

Responding on Monday, Basil Zempilas suggested it was politics — not merit — behind the decision, and said he had tried to speak to the minister after the announcement, but he hadn’t answered the phone.

A man in a blue suit, standing in front of green trees, speaks while looking towards the camera.
Basil Zempilas is insistent the government’s proposal isn’t the right way forward.( ABC News: Keane Bourke )

“[Uniting] know their capability, they know their site, they know the cohort that they are looking after and they said we are more than capable of providing an alternative location Safe Night Space here in Aberdeen Street,” he said.

“So is the minister telling us that he and some secret report in his department knows more than the very people that provide these services on a daily basis?”

What the lord mayor says was a “report” and the government says was merely “advice” had already been requested by the ABC before Zempilas’s comments, and was released later that day.

What followed was Carey firing back and calling Zempilas’s behaviour “bizarre and erratic” and accusing him of playing “political games” by not accepting the government’s solution.

That would see another service provider, Ruah, continuing the service it started with $3 million of government funding.

“But it’s not just been that, it’s been the erratic behaviour relating to tweeting at 3am, incessant tagging of the premier and my social media. That’s not how you get outcomes,” he said.

“The lord mayor, if he’d been serious … rather than social media campaigning, would have actually sat down with the government to talk through [his] proposal.”

Zempilas continues to insist the state government could have provided funding sooner to save the service, having been given ample warning, while Carey remains steadfast the government expected the city to contribute to homelessness services.

There’s been little change in the more than a month since the original service shut, with neither giving any ground.

For each it’s their way or the highway.

Alternative proposed

Zempilas, having initially defended the city withdrawing its support after two-and-a-half years on the basis the service was no longer necessary, now wants to see it continued by Uniting WA from a commercial area to the CBD’s east.

It’s already been given an exemption under the city’s planning laws to allow that to happen. Ruah’s application for the same type of exemption was knocked back.

It meant the service could have reopened sooner, had the government agreed to give funding to Uniting.

Carey said that wasn’t a good idea though because that no-longer-secret report raised issues around safety for women who would attend the service, lower staffing levels, and previous problems with Uniting.

An imperfect solution, he said, was not better than what is effectively no solution now.

A man in a striped business shirt and blazer looks down at the ground, with a crowd of media in front of him.
John Carey says politics is getting in the way of the City of Perth supporting the government’s proposal.( ABC News: Keane Bourke )

“I just find it interesting that people are prepared to disregard and throw away a credible service that has operated for two years and that Ruah has the runs on the boards [for] — it has the staff and the expertise and the relationship with those women,” Carey said.

“If the Office of Homelessness is saying that there is a risk to women using the site in terms of safety and isolation, I have to listen to that.”

In the meantime, Carey has given Ruah $210,000 to support women who had been using the Safe Night Space in other ways, but it’s not as good as a permanent solution and doesn’t break the stalemate. 

He’s adamant Ruah should continue running the service from another location — it’s main hub on Northbridge’s fringe — which Zempilas insists is unlikely to get planning approval.

“[Ruah’s] location is in the middle of Northbridge in our entertainment precinct where a hotel across the road exists, where offices are all around, where there is accommodation directly across the road, cafes, restaurants, bars and nightclubs,” Zempilas said on Monday, continuing to advocate for Uniting.

City of Perth staff could break the stalemate by approving Ruah’s planning application, although Zempilas is making that seem unlikely.

But even if it did, it could still be overturned by City of Perth councillors.

Rejection at either stage could be appealed to the State Administrative Tribunal though, which opens the door to Carey then “calling in” the decision to make it for himself.

It’s the same process that allows Ruah to open on the James Street site despite council opposition in 2022.

He has the political upper hand, but has to wait to be able to use it.

For now at least the ball is in the City of Perth’s court.

Saga drags on

After months of political posturing from both the state government and City of Perth, a cynical view might suggest there’s little political advantage to Carey or Zempilas to resolve the saga anytime soon.

From the outside, Labor seems to be at least a little worried about the increasingly-likely prospect of Zempilas putting his hand up for the Liberals at the next election.

The Lord Mayor wears a navy suit jacket and pink tie
Speculation is mounting that Basil Zempilas is readying himself for a tilt at state politics. (ABC News: Keane Bourke)

Zempilas, if that is his aim, needs clear ways to differentiate himself from the government and point to problems in what they’re doing.

Both sides are getting something that benefits them, and could appeal to their voters, the longer the saga drags on.

Carey and Zempilas both insist they aren’t playing politics, and it’s the other in the wrong.

“I have advocated for our city and on behalf of our city throughout my time as Lord Mayor,” Zempilas told ABC Radio Perth yesterday. 

“If people are interpreting my advocating for the city in a different way, that’s for them.”

As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

For whatever reason the saga is dragging on though, some of the state’s most vulnerable women will be left with one less safe place to shelter.

Some might be left locking themselves in public toilets because it’s the only safe place they can find.

Others are faced with the prospect of sleeping rough, where sexual assault is rife, or remaining with a perpetrator of domestic violence.

But with an increasingly hostile relationship between the two men in the best position to find a solution, a peaceful resolution anytime soon is looking increasingly unlikely.


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