Sartor’s Latin ebullience drives Sydney’s quest for World-Class status

By Josephine Mckenna*

 

The most surprising thing about Frank Sartor is his wicked sense of humor. Sydney’s colourful Lord Mayor clearly loves a chuckle, usually at the expense of others.
What began as an exclusive interview in his elegant office quickly evolved into a vaudeville performance full of slick oneliners to short circuit inquiries about council reform, Italian politics, even his own political future.

“Prime Minister in five years, president in ten. I want to skip premier, it’s a waste of time,” he says with a giggle.
Sartor has plenty to laugh about. Elected Lord Mayor of Sydney in 1991, he is a passionate reformer who has helped to breathe new life into the heart of the city.

He has tightened spending and cut staff numbers, generating a surplus of almost $50 million last financial year — his eighth consecutive year in the black. He has increased his share of the vote at every election and last year became the longest serving mayor in the city’s history.

The secret of his political success?
“Italian charm probably. Just a guess,” he says with another giggle.

As vice-president of SOCOG, Cr Sartor added the role of statesman to his job description during the Olympics and rubbed shoulders with foreign dignitaries including the then Mayor of Rome and contender for the Italian Prime Ministership, Francesco Rutelli.

“I am obviously sad to see Rutelli lose the last election because I think the Ulivo Centre-Left had governed Italy well and Rutelli would have made a contribution. It also concerns me the degree to which Berlusconi has conflicts of interest. I suppose the overall hope is for electoral stability over the next few years.”

The Lord Mayor’s own political success is a triumph for the son of poor Italian immigrants who began his life in the Riverina region of New South Wales. He readily admits his childhood left him with a fear of failure and a drive to succeed.
“Look being a kid, usual migrant story. Tough background, poverty, it makes you more determined not to fail because you know what it is like on the other side of the fence.”

Sartor’s father, Cesare, came from Treviso and his mother, Ida, from Padova. They arrived in Australia with their first four children soon after World War II. Cesare leased a vegetable garden and later bought a small farm. Francesco was the first child in the family to be born here, and another three children followed.

“If I was with the older brothers I got biffed, if I was with the younger ones and they started crying, I got blamed. I was either getting biffed or getting blamed. I could never win really.”
Although Italian was his first language, Frank escaped the culture clash which he says troubled his four older siblings. When he started school he picked up English quickly and distinguished himself at an early age.
“I could barely get along for the first few days, but then all of a sudden I spoke English and topped the year in first class. I won more holy cards than everybody else.”

Initially coy in our interview about local discrimination against the Italian community, Sartor later concedes it was difficult coming from an ethnic background in rural Australia in the 1950s.
“These days it’s very different, it’s a much more integrated community. But in those days it was very tough. You got called a wog and you had to fend for yourself.”

Sartor changed his name to Frank to become a little more Australian but that wasn’t enough to protect him from labels like ‘Cassata Bar’ that dogged him during his school years.

“I remember my older brother running down the road to our house chased by a group of local kids who were yelling ‘wog’ and pelting him with stones,” Sartor told an interviewer.

“By the time he got to the front gate, my mother had the broom ready and whacked them hard till they ran away.
“My brother was bigger than me and often retaliated with blows. I was smaller and ended up coping with my mouth…. which often got me into more trouble.”

Sartor went from the local Catholic primary school, where he accumulated holy pictures for his academic performance, to Griffith High School where he won a Commonwealth Scholarship to Sydney University to study chemical engineering. Meanwhile he was struggling to come to terms with the death of his mother and concerned about his younger brothers and sisters who were sent to boarding school.
His first trip to Europe was at the age of twenty-two when he took part in an exchange program in Switzerland. He found the Swiss so “deadly boring” he spent his weekends travelling to Italy to get to know his relatives.
“I always had a ball, I always had a really great time,” he says.

Sartor’s political ambitions emerged in the early 1980s. He became involved in a Newtown residents’ group that was fighting the construction of a multi-storey apartment complex. In 1983, he became director of the NSW Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee.
In 1984 Sartor and a team of Independents seized the balance of power on the City Council forcing Labor and Liberal opponents to form a coalition against them. The then NSW Labor Government then re-advertised the Public Accounts Committee position and Sartor found himself out of a job.

When the council was sacked in 1987 he lost to his Labor rival, Sandra Nori. Unwilling to accept defeat, Sartor campaigned as an Independent for the new council in 1989 and was re-elected.
Two years later he became the first Independent to take office as Lord Mayor since 1919, when mainly political parties entered local politics.

The perennial outsider who had chipped away at the power blocs that controlled the city for more than a decade had finally made it. The taste of victory was sweet and his vision was clear.
“I want this city to become a cultural and intellectual centre of the world,” he declared at the time.
Sartor quickly introduced his “Living City” blueprint to transform the city into a cosmopolitan hub. When Sydney won the bid to host the Olympics, plans to upgrade the city were accelerated with new hotels, roads and other facilities built to cater for the hundreds of thousands of visitors.

According to figures released by the Town Hall, the city’s residential population has more than trebled since Sartor took office. Private and public sector development has topped $8 billion and the city’s parks, streets and footpaths have been given a new look. Sartor is particularly proud of the refurbishment of historic treasures such as Customs House, the Capitol Theatre and the Sydney GPO, the heritage landmark in Martin Place restored by the Grollo family’s construction company Grocon. He is no less proud of new community facilities, such as the Cook & Phillip Recreation Centre.

He wants to be remembered for promoting cultural change, bringing people back into a revitalised and cleaner city.
“I think we’ve got 90 per cent of it right,” he says. “But a city constantly needs a lot of attention, constantly needs a shoulder to the wheel.”

While political opponents like Councillor Kathryn Greiner, wife of the former NSW premier, applaud his economic management and ambition, she says Sartor has no interest in consensus.
“He has no ability to listen, he cannot consult,” she says. “There’s no creativity or innovation. Frank’s a very good deal maker, I would give him 10 out of 10 for doing deals.”

With less than two years left in his term, there could be more to come. Sartor still has plenty left on his list of things to do. Controversial proposals for council reform and conflict over new city developments are certainly in need of some compromise.
He is currently embroiled in a new battle to upgrade the Museum of Contemporary Art on the west side of Circular Quay. Heritage groups and architects are appalled by the Lord Mayor’s $100 million proposal to extend the art deco building. A second proposal would see the building demolished altogether.

“It has to be a joke,” says Scott Robertson from the NSW Art Deco Society. “They are totally inappropriate, appalling designs.”
Since the conservationists failed to prevent the recent redevelopment of east Circular Quay, they regard the MCA as their final opportunity to salvage the area’s history. Sartor is philosophical.

“The community is very divided and that makes it very difficult,” he says, before breaking into song. “Whatever will be, will be. Que sera, sera. The future is not ours to see…”

The Lord Mayor’s vision for Sydney also includes a bigger slice for the city. As the Government looks at the prickly issue of council amalgamations, Cr Sartor has outlined plans to take over parts of Woollahra, Leichhardt, Marrickville and South Sydney.
His rivals are less than impressed and have dismissed him as a megalomaniac.

“I promised them I would stop 500 miles this side of Moscow — what more could they want?” he scoffs. “All these bloody little tinpot chieftains hanging onto their little patch and their robes and chains. They go to bed with them at night.”

Of course an article about a man named Sartor (sarto means tailor in Italian) would not be complete without a word on his clothing. He wears Zegna… Not to make an impression, but because it fits.

* Josephine McKenna is a Sydney-based freelance journalist

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