Houssam Abiad’s voice has been mostly absent from InDaily’s reporting for the past eight months.
The deputy Lord Mayor and central ward councillor is one of Adelaide City Council’s most effective backroom dealers, labelled the council’s “most powerful elected member for impact on public policy” in last year’s CityMag ranking of South Australia’s top 20 most influential people.
But with power comes inevitable conflict, which was played out with InDaily after news broke of a factional group of aspiring and experienced councillors reportedly meeting in secret in the lead-up to last November’s council elections.
“For more than a month, rumours have been circulating within Town Hall about a group known as ‘Team Adelaide’ – a supposed gathering of candidates recruited to influence the makeup of the next Adelaide City Council”, InDaily first reported in August.
From there, a series of stories was published that sought to uncover the roots, motives and impacts of a factional group operating within the council chamber.
Some Team Adelaide affiliates responded to InDaily’s reporting with antagonism, others with a pinch of salt, while Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor labelled the reporting as a “beat-up”.
But the man credited as the team’s instigator and ringleader, Houssam Abiad, remained silent – until now.
“I’m not here asking to tell you my version of the story,” he says.
“I think we’ve had a very open conversation and I think you felt there was an opportunity to tell another side of the story that wasn’t told.
“I think that’s fair and I think it’s important that the public knows that that came about.”
Seeking campaigning change
While InDaily’s coverage of ‘Team Adelaide’ broke in August last year, for Abiad, the origins of the faction go back a further eight years, when the self-described entrepreneur and former business owner aspired to become a central ward councillor at the 2010 local government elections.
Despite having formed an alliance with fellow first-time candidate Natasha Malani, Abiad says he found himself on the “outside” of the election bandwagon.
“We (Malani and I) met with the likes of Anne Moran, Sandy Wilkinson, all those guys in the usual group and then everyone seemed very supportive of us,” he recounts.
“Then a couple of weeks before the election, when it kicked in with people voting, everyone had their how to vote cards out there and we looked at all of them and none of our names were on there.
“We were thinking, wow, we’re new on the block and we thought it would be a great opportunity for some of the more experienced councillors that have been there for a while to have held our hand, guided us through the experience, but we thought it was almost an exclusive club and we had to hit the pavement really hard to get elected.”
Flash-forward to the 2014 council election and Abiad, then an experienced electioneer, set to work forming a support base to guarantee his electoral success.
The group – which Abiad says comprised of former councillors Malani, Megan Hender, Priscilla Corbell-Moore and Alex Antic – met on several occasions.
“It was like a half-way between what happened at last year’s election and the 2010 election,” he says.
“You would almost argue that there was a team at play even at that stage.”
Abiad describes the 2014-18 council term as “productive, but dysfunctional”.
He says he initially wasn’t interested in running for a third term until then Lord Mayor Martin Haese told him he wanted to give the top gig a second shot.
“(Haese) was actually looking for ways where we can encourage more people to put their hand up and be part of decision-making for the city that we all love.
“I did indicate that if I was to put my hand up to run again, it was provided that we identify, attract and encourage diverse individuals to run for council.”
Abiad believes the local government election process is flawed.
“The Lord Mayor is elected by the people on the basis of promises or manifesto, however, once elected, the delivery of those promises is completely tied in with who else is on council.”
He is also stickler for statistics.
“Given that just over 200 votes can elect a councillor to represent over 23,000 city ratepayers, over 200,000 daily city visitors and a capital city of over 1.7 million people with a budget of over $200 million… I felt that it was an imperative for us and for our ratepayers that they deserve better and a wider and more diverse representation was required.”
The solution was to create a group of “independents that are very diverse and that love Adelaide and have chosen to loosely come together in good faith to unleash our city’s potential”.
Team Adelaide meets
Abiad says there were a total of ten meetings held between May and September last year when members met to discuss policy ideas.
He says the first meeting comprised Haese, Verschoor and himself.
“Running for council isn’t easy and we thought using our experience, we planned to make it easier and remove all the barriers to entry for people that otherwise wouldn’t have done it.
“There were people that we approached that we said, ‘Hey, you would be great, you should give it a go’ and there were people that approached us and said, ‘I’m really thinking of doing this, what can I do to get involved, how can I do it?’”
I do believe that there was no basis to continue with the Team Adelaide narrative after Martin (Haese) decided to opt out, but InDaily chose to continue with the narrative
Abiad says he approached all the candidates running for council – excluding north ward councillor Phil Martin and unsuccessful candidates Kelly Henderson and Keiran Snape – to invite them to join the group, but he denies there was any element of recruitment.
“Candidates came and went. Some wanted to stay involved, some didn’t want to stay involved, there was no restrictions,” he says.
“It wasn’t do you like the colour blue? Or, do you like the colour red? There wasn’t any of that.”
By the end of July Abiad says the team comprised of more than 21 candidates.
I have never used the term ‘voting on bloc’ in my life
He says discussions about what motions councillors would bring to the council chamber were “high level” and “advanced”.
Abiad shows InDaily a digital map, which he says was only used prior to the election.
He says members of Team Adelaide would pin motion ideas or priorities on the map for other team members to see.
“Most of those ideas have come out of door-knocking and out of previous experience on council.
“There hasn’t been a ‘let’s sit down and draft a motion for you and this is what the words say and this is what the report from admin should say and this is how we’re going to vote.”
The story becomes public
The hiccup came in July, when Abiad spoke with candidate and now south ward councillor Helen Donovan.
“About 40 minutes into the conversation I said, ‘Look, this is what we’re doing, why don’t you come to a meeting, be involved, see what your thoughts are, there’s no obligations here, we’re just helping out’, to which her response was, she really liked our collaborative approach,” he says.
But according to Abiad, Donovan later cancelled a scheduled follow-up meeting, allegedly telling him something along the lines of: “Look, I’d prefer to be alone and do my own thing”.
“I respected the outcome and we still kept in touch as we worked through it, so it wasn’t a problem,” Abiad says.
Herein lies where InDaily comes into the picture – publishing a story in August in which Donovan is quoted as saying she was invited to contribute $1750 to join the so-called “Team Adelaide” group.
In that story, InDaily reported that Abiad was overseas visiting family and did not respond to a request for comment, but that he had said a month prior that he was unaware of a “team”.
“What really got to me a little bit in that was 1) not having a say – which was very frustrating and I found it very unprofessional because there simply wasn’t the means for me to do that and 2) I think Helen saw political opportunity and took it,” Abiad says.
“There was never a financial contribution required to join – ever.
“There was a cost for individual photography, flyer design and print, postage, were the only shared items.
“There was never a numbered ticket.”
We put Abiad’s version of events to Donovan, who said: “I stand by everything I said during the election, when I was approached by InDaily to verify some information. My focus now is to get on with the job, and work with my fellow councillors to get the best outcomes for our city.”
You can read her original comments here.
InDaily also reported on the existence of the website www.teamdelaide.com.au – which had been cleared of content and later deleted altogether – seemingly formalising “Team Adelaide” as the group’s name.
There is no coup. We did not unseat or take over a government.
In the story published in August, Abiad responded by saying his website was www.betteradelaide.com.au.
“There are a lot of misconceptions here,” Abiad says, when asked to clarify his response.
“He (InDaily journalist Bension Siebert) asked me a question, ‘Do I own teamadelaide.com.au?’ and I said, ‘No’, because I don’t. That’s the truth.”
When asked who owned the website, Abiad replies: “It’s a separate company that I’m not involved in.”
“It’s called Muscle Group.
“I’m not involved in the company: I’m not a director, I’m not a shareholder.
“That’s a company that organises websites.”
Asked if he had former involvement with Muscle Group, Abiad says: “A long time ago. That is irrelevant”.
Team members revealed
In September, Haese chose to reveal the names of his endorsed candidates to The Advertiser.
He told InDaily two days after that the candidates – including Houssam Abiad, Anne Moran, Priscilla Corbell-Moore, Arman Abrahimzadeh, Rick Carter, Mary Couros, Simon Hou, Alex Hyde, Stephanie Johnston, Sanja Jovanovic, Quentin Kenihan, Franz Knoll, Betty-Jean Price, Sam Taylor and Dan Turner – would be “very comfortable” with his policy positions.
Haese later pulled out from the electoral race.
Abiad says he spoke to Verschoor the night after Haese’s announcement. He says she told him she wanted to run for Lord Mayor.
To be honest with you some people got freaked out
A day later, Abiad says Anne Moran decided to leave Team Adelaide to support rival Lord Mayoral candidate Mark Hamilton.
Anne Moran has previously told InDaily that she had Haese’s endorsement but was never invited to join the group and did not attend its meetings.
“I do believe that there was no basis to continue with the Team Adelaide narrative after Martin (Haese) decided to opt out, but InDaily chose to continue with the narrative,” Abiad says.
“When Martin dropped off we were literally all on our own, all doing our own thing and all campaigning – letter drops, door-knocking – we did as we needed to do.
“We didn’t have the faintest of clues that this Team Adelaide thing was going to stick because it was a concept that we developed with Martin, Martin was out, Sandy was on, let’s move on.”
But the Team Adelaide narrative continued, fuelled by a graphic published in The Advertiser in November that described candidates as being part of either “Team Verschoor” or “Team Hamilton”.
Verschoor’s list of endorsed candidates mirrored that of Haese’s – minus Anne Moran.
Candidates were quick to express their frustration at what they described as a “factionalisation” of the council election, with others outright denying the existence of Team Adelaide.
“Independent” became a buzzword among candidates, with the majority enthusiastically proclaiming themselves to be disassociated with any group or political party.
It became, from a journalist’s perspective, a story of “he said, she said”, tangled with denial, political point scoring and secrecy.
Abiad says it was never the team’s intention to announce that they had formed a collective group.
“We thought there would be at some stage an announcement that Martin was going to say ‘I’m endorsing people’ but he wasn’t going to say ‘I have a team, it’s called Team Adelaide and in the team these are the colours or the mantras that we stand for and these are the roles a person is going to hold’,” he says.
“We’re not the State Government and for us, like any election, the Lord Mayor will endorse some people because the Lord Mayor is the casting vote and because the Lord Mayor can’t achieve anything without a council that is aligned to some degree with the Lord Mayor.”
Asked why candidates – including current and former Lord Mayors Sandy Verschoor and Martin Haese – have denied the existence of Team Adelaide, Abiad says it was “a personal choice” and was driven by the infancy of the team at the time.
“To be honest with you some people got freaked out,” he says.
“You’re talking about people who are first-time runners that have never had the opportunity to do this.
“When you put a microphone in someone’s face for the first time when they’ve never done it before people freak out.
“That’s the initial, natural response by people.”
Councillors are elected
Six candidates associated with Team Adelaide were elected at the November election, forming the majority on council.
Of the six Team Adelaide representatives on council, four – including Abiad – are members of the Liberal Party.
Abiad denies that the team has met since the election – except for social gatherings – and says team members vote independently.
That is despite the fact the same six councillors linked to Team Adelaide – Abiad, Abrahimzadeh, Hou, Couros, Hyde and Knoll – have voted the same way for the majority of council decisions.
“I have never used the term ‘voting on bloc’ in my life,” he says.
“There’s common sense and there isn’t.
“If you look at the voting patterns – which I have – on a multitude of occasions you can argue that the other four councillors (Phil Martin, Anne Moran, Robert Simms and Helen Donovan) are always voting together.”
Abiad is not wrong. There has been a clear delineation in the council chamber when it comes to voting patterns (with non-Team Adelaide councillor Jessy Khera the noticeable exception).
The rivalry between the two voting groups has been so fierce that it has reached state parliament, with former Haese-endorsee and now staunch Team Adelaide opponent Anne Moran raising Team Adelaide at a select committee hearing into the controversial Adelaide Oval Hotel.
“Unfortunately our council has changed the way it operates and now has a very strong faction,” she told the committee.
“If you’re not in the group formerly known as Team Adelaide you will not get any board positions.
“There are six members on Team Adelaide… which is a voting bloc and the rest are independent.”
Asked how she felt about a majority voting bloc on council, Moran replied: “I’m very concerned.”
But for Abiad, Team Adelaide remains a figment of the past.
“There is no coup. We did not unseat or take over a government.
“I make no apology for the outcome of a democratic process.”
Editor’s note: Throughout our coverage of this issue, we always sought comment from Councillor Abiad before publishing articles that mentioned him.
Want to comment?
Send us an email, making it clear which story you’re commenting on and including your full name (required for publication) and phone number (only for verification purposes). Please put “Reader views” in the subject.
We’ll publish the best comments in a regular “Reader Views” post. Your comments can be brief, or we can accept up to 350 words, or thereabouts.
InDaily has changed the way we receive comments. Go here for an explanation.
Local News Matters
Media diversity is under threat in Australia – nowhere more so than in South Australia. The state needs more than one voice to guide it forward and you can help with a donation of any size to InDaily. Your contribution goes directly to helping our journalists uncover the facts. Please click below to help InDaily continue to uncover the facts.