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My Opinion Pieces

Sunday Age: The man who sees no clear way to lie down and roll over

   Sunday, 28 February 2010

Sunday Age 28 February 2010

IN SPITE of the no doubt well-intentioned career advice offered by state Roads Minister Tim Pallas this week, you'd suspect that the new mayor of Stonnington, Tim Smith, has never - ever - been one for pulling his head in.

At 26 and just a couple of months into the $77,000-a-year job, Cr Smith has so much of the confidence, smarts, media poise, easy laugh and way with words of the born politician that it must be mighty tempting for opponents like the other Tim, in their kinder moments, to reach for that old back-handed compliment ''precocious''.

Certainly Cr Smith, one of a new generation of political leaders getting their start in local government, has given them material to work with. In 1995, when he was the 12-year-old grade 6 captain of cricket at Scotch College, he told this newspaper that leadership - or captaincy - was not about forcing people but getting their respect, ''and then they do what you ask''. And, he added, he intended to ''captain'' every team he played in.

The two Tims were at loggerheads this week in the contretemps over clearways along tony High Street in Prahran and Armadale, with Cr Smith and his council workers bagging and covering parking signs and promising that Stonnington would not be enforcing restrictions or towing vehicles. With 23 motorists subsequently towed and fined by VicRoads on Wednesday, Mr Pallas was not about to cut the mayor any newcomer's slack.

His behaviour had been outrageous, dangerous, irresponsible grandstanding, he fumed. His ''overblown rhetoric'' was inciting people to flout the law with possibly harmful consequences. And then he cut to the nub: the councillor's campaign, he said, ''reeks of a Liberal Party stunt''.

Cr Smith argues with the word stunt. He opposes the government's extended clearway hours because the policy is a ''shocker'', he says, and because of an almost genetic passion for the sort of small-business free enterprise represented by strip shops like those along High Street.

His maternal great-grandfather was John ''Percy'' Ferguson, who more than a century ago started the bakery business that has grown into the Ferguson-Plarre chain of bakehouses. ''It's my understanding of small business and what governments can do to destroy it,'' he says. ''My grandparents and my mother have instilled that in me for years.''

But the Liberal bit he can hardly deny. He describes himself as ''a cultural traditionalist and a social conservative'' and has a near-stereotype Tory pedigree. Raised in Camberwell, he was educated at Scotch, except for a year at Rugby School in Britain, and Ormond College at Melbourne University, where he did a BA in history and politics and a masters in international relations.

His father, Colin, is a management consultant and former director of Southern Cross Radio.

Australia's first rowing world champion in 1978 and now president of Rowing Australia, he passed on his passion to his son who was captain of boats at Scotch and a bronze medallist for Australia at the 2004 World Championships.

Cr Smith says he was only negligibly involved in student politics. ''The thing I do remember about my initial years at uni was that I got pretty annoyed by the particular perspective that was taught in the faculty,'' he says. ''Good people all, but there was only one perspective being taught and I thought it was biased to the left. I rejected the lack of balance.''

He joined the Liberal Party in 2005 but was ''dormant'' as a member until late 2006 when he had an internship in the Canberra press gallery: ''I actually wanted to be a journalist, or so I thought. But I thought, no I can't do this because I'm barracking. I want to take part.''

He took a job as electorate officer for the Liberal member for Malvern, Michael O'Brien, and in 2007 went to England as a Hansard research fellow at the London School of Economics and to work for shadow home secretary David Davis. When he returned he found ALP candidates busily letterboxing Stonnington and decided to put up his hand for his side.

Before the election he was offered a job working for Malcolm Turnbull in Canberra. ''I didn't really expect to get elected,'' he says. ''But I got this phone call one Sunday night saying, 'Guess what, councillor, you've been elected.' '' So home I came.''

A year later he was mayor, and says he brings a basic Liberal philosophy to the job that is informing his stance on clearways: ''I'll always be backing individual enterprise, Menzies' forgotten people, which is who these people are,'' he says, waving at the boutiques and cafes along High Street. ''That's what I'm about, defending these guys against the onslaught of state power.''

He says the claimed traffic improvements are negligible. ''We've got Yarra Trams' own data that shows that the saving from the top here to down there in Punt Road is just three minutes.''

To claims that the campaign is to build a profile for a later tilt at a higher level of politics, he denies he is ''grandstanding'', but says Parliament is part of the long-term plan. ''I'm very, very keen at some point in the future to have a run somewhere, but that's a matter for others and we're talking years down the track.''

Not that he wouldn't be ready now. He has done his homework: ''Christopher Pyne became an MP when he was 25, Fraser got elected when he was 24, Peacock was 26, Keating was 26 - it can be done.''

Some say he would be good company for them. ''He's a very impressive young man. He's whip smart, has excellent judgment and works phenomenally hard,'' says shadow environment spokesman Greg Hunt. ''I reckon he's going to be premier of Victoria one day.''