In the City of Sydney, Pyrmont was part of Denison Ward, then City, and (from 1959) Philip. Pyrmont’s typical representative until the 1970s was a Catholic trade union official of Irish heritage. From the 1890s until the 1970s Labor provided many of Pyrmont’s representatives and pre-selection contests were often fierce. In a pre-selection ballot in 1934, disgruntled members threw a bucket of water into a ballot box, explaining that this election would be “the cleanest the Labor Party has ever had”. J.T. Lang described the party between the wars as an AWU (Australian Workers Union) dictatorship.
Pyrmont’s most memorable representative was a colourful character from Tipperary. Daniel O’Connor (1844-1914), butcher, speculator and orator represented Philip from 1876 to 1885 when he entered State politics.
John Harris was born an Ulster Protestant and inherited a vast estate in Ultimo. He represented Denison from 1874 to 1883 and 1886 to 1911, and served five terms as Mayor. Many of his visionary proposals failed through the constraints on the City’s powers.
Matthew Harris represented Denison from 1883-1900, and was Mayor for the last three years. Like his brother John, he was a Protestant and a large landlord. He was voted out in November 1900, following Council’s poor response to the bubonic plague.
A more typical representative was Andrew Joseph Kelly (1854 -1913). He was born in Dublin and arrived in Sydney as a wharf labourer. He was active in the Wharf Labourers Union, and the Trolley and Draymen’s Union. A foundation member of the ALP and President of the Sydney Trades and Labour Council, he was an Alderman from 1900 to 1906 and 1909 to 1913.
William Henry Lambert (1881-1928), son of an Irish stonemason, was a shearer and (from 1915) secretary of the AWU central branch. He became Labor’s State President, 1917-1921. In 1918 Lambert was elected from Denison and was Lord Mayor in 1921. He was accused of several missteps including staging ‘crook ballots’, but the AWU dismissed all charges.
David Joseph Ryan (1890-1927) was born in Sydney and educated in Catholic schools. After service in the First World War, he was an Alderman for Denison from 1918 to 1921. His and Lambert’s election was the first time two Labor men represented Denison.
John Ignatius Armstrong (1907-1988), son of a popular Irish publican, rose to the apex of Labor’s patronage network. He was elected an Alderman in 1934 at age 25 and served until 1948 although he was by then a Senator. He was a Sydney County Councillor in 1948 and Chairman in 1963-65. He was Lord Mayor from 1965 to 1967.
John Ronald Timothy (Jack) Byrne (1894-1962) served in World War 1, and was employed by the council for 25 years. His union activities provoked his employer but he turned the tables in 1950 when he won Phillip. He continued there until 1953, then represented City Ward until 1959, and Phillip again until 1962.
Charlie Hackett (1899-1976) was never an Alderman, but stage-managed many elections as Secretary (for forty years) of the Denison branch of the Labor Party.
Sidney Joseph Fegan (1910-2003) and his family epitomised the Labor Party patronage system. Sid’s father (Sidney Joseph) was a City cleaner. Sid’s brother (Cecil Francis) worked for Sydney City Council for 51 years. Sydney George was another employee from 1938 to 1963.
Sid was elected for Phillip in 1962. In 1967 the Council was suspended, but he was re-elected from 1969 to 1980. When he retired, Labor’s control began to unravel: Michael Matthews became the first non-Labor Alderman for Phillip Ward.
Pat Hills (1917–1992) was an Alderman from 1948. In 1952 the ALP State executive installed him as Lord Mayor to clean up Council and the Labor machine. He was Mayor until 1956, without completing the clean-up.
Peter Allan La Fontaine, a solicitor, was elected in Phillip in 1974. When Labor and Civic Reform were evenly balanced, he caused dismay in 1980 by resigning and restoring Civic Reform’s majority: he was expelled from the Labor Party.
The Revival of Independents
Before the Labor Party took charge, independent City Councillors were not unusual. O’Connor and the Harris brothers could argue that their wealth protected them from corrupt influences. A generation later, the Civic Reform Association was formed (1920) to wrest control from the Labor Party. Several members served as Lord Mayor, and many as Aldermen. As the Labor Party’s grip weakened in the 1980s, the most effective alternative was a loose association of Independents. The first successful Independent was Michael Matthews who won Phillip Ward in 1980, a precursor to Frank Sartor who was Mayor in the 1990s, and Clover Moore from 2004.