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Interview with Sally Capp, Lord Mayor of Melbourne

Interview with Sally Capp, Lord Mayor of Melbourne

by Peter Konidaris

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Sally Capp was elected Lord Mayor of Melbourne in May 2018, the first woman to be directly elected as Lord Mayor. She chairs the Major Projects portfolio and the Major Events portfolio. Sally was also the first woman to hold the post of Agent-General for Victoria in the UK, Europe and Israel. She has also served as the CEO for the Committee for Melbourne and COO of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. PwC’s Victorian Government Leader, Peter Konidaris, was lucky enough to be able to sit down with Sally just over a year into Sally’s tenure as Lord Mayor of Melbourne to ask her a few questions.


What did you think would be your biggest challenge as Lord Mayor?

Well I anticipated that one of my biggest challenges was going to be the way in which I could work with the public because I’ve never been in a role where that scrutiny that judgement that support comes from the public and I was concerned about that, as whenever you take on something new you wonder how you’re going to manage it and you don’t have a sense of what the reality is going to be. Obviously I looked at politicians throughout my life and seen that interplay but really got quite nervous about what that public scrutiny and engagement was going to be.

The great thing is though, I’ve come to realise since I’ve been Lord Mayor, is although it does add a level or a degree of difficulty to some of the things we are trying to achieve and certainly we have to put in a huge amount of effort with our engagement with the public and our citizens and the people that pay our rates, and the people that I represent. The other side of that has been that that engagement has resulted in the most incredible mandate from our citizens as to what they want to see happen and what we need to be doing. And the thousands of bits of feedback that I get every week, that feedback really helps me confidently take issues into our organisation and out into other public realms knowing that I am representing the views of our citizens and so what I anticipated as a big challenges something that was new to me and my career and my profession, has turned out to be something that’s an absolute gift and I use it every day.


You’ve been in the role for over a year now, what has been your greatest achievement?

I’m so honoured to be in this role as Lord Mayor of Melbourne and at such an exciting time and a challenging time as well, but an exciting time. And one of the reasons why it’s such an honour for me is because every day I am grateful and proud of the things that are happening in this city and the people and the organisations that work behind the scenes, that operate below the line to really make this city absolutely extraordinary.

So one of the wonderful things for me in terms of achievement is that sense of becoming part of those machinations, being able to shine a light and provide support for more of those organisations doing great things and that’s been a really overwhelming sense for me.

But there were a couple of key issues where we have really started to make some headway, key issues out of the campaign. One of them was Queen Victoria Market. One of the most iconic places in the city of Melbourne, both for its history but also what it means for our future. And it’s a lovely combination of local elements that come together to serve the neighbourhood but also to provide one of our biggest tourist attractions. It did find itself in terms of the city’s desire to invest in it’s future unfortunately had come to a bit of a stop just prior to the election and there’s a lot of passion around the Queen Victoria Market. One of the great things have been able to do over the last 17 months is really get that process going again so that we feel confident about the redevelopment, we’ve got great consensus across community, traders and people across Melbourne more broadly on what we want to see happen there.

And that redevelopment and renewal program is underway so that’s very exciting. And we’ve gone through a huge amount of consultation to get to that point so a big effort by everyone.

The other big issue is homelessness and for us in the city of Melbourne it’s very much about our rough sleepers. We know that there are about 300 people who are sleeping on our streets every night and we feel we can do something about that. The entire homeless population is much bigger and there are coordinated efforts federal, state, local governments, community groups etc across that homelessness spectrum. But for the City of Melbourne and our other inner-city municipalities, the rough sleepers, the people who are at their most vulnerable that find themselves with the only option to sleep on our streets, it’s just unacceptable, as a city and as a community.


And what has been the biggest challenge?

I guess there are two parts to that, first I hope I’ve realised that for long that even though I’m an absolutely passionate Melbournian and I have been for my entire life, I’ve realised that on so many issues I was really interested, I was sort of sitting on the sidelines and I wasn’t fully engaged and involved in those issues. So there were certain opinions or views that I had or conclusions I’d reached and I realised, having come into this role that I was really only ever on the sidelines.

So the challenge of deep diving into issues that are important to this city and it’s about the liveability today but it’s also about the decisions we make that will impact the city and how it operates and how it supports people into the future.

That dynamic is a really big challenge and something we take very seriously as a responsibility here at the city. So I think really understanding those issues and giving ourselves the opportunity to deep dive.

But the first thing is the realisation that we often think we’re experts on things and we make assumptions and we have perceptions and it’s about moving away from that and it’s a promise I made myself coming out of the campaign actually is to not accept stereotypes to not make those assumptions and to ask lots of questions and it was a great learning for me out of the campaign and into becoming Lord Mayor.

The other side of the challenge is that I’ve never worked as a politician within a level of government before and how 1) I really understand and work within the regulatory regimes that are set there to protect me and to protect the organisation and to protect the public. That’s been a big learning curve for me. There are a lot of rules and regulations, I understand why they’re there, so making sure we do that well. But we do need to still be a very forward thinking and proactive organisation.

We need to be responsive to what’s happening in our city and bringing those dynamics together in a political role is really interesting. Understanding where the boundaries are but also knowing when to push, to get the outcomes that we want, that’s been another big learning curve for me.

We’ve come together in collaboration with our inner city municiple governments to really step into that issue and say “we can do something about this”

We can do more to provide a safe place to sleep every night, with support services there to help those people on that journey out of homelessness. Again we stereotype rough sleepers, they are individuals, they are humans, they deserve our respect, we need to show that we value them and we can help them. And so we have a project well under way now to provide those 300 extra beds with the support services so that there is somewhere safe for people to go every night and that’s going to be fantastic.


And what does the year ahead hold?

The breadth of what we become involved in at local government is really impressive, everything from lollipop people who man the schools every morning and maternal health services through to Aged Care Services, start-up businesses through to helping what is now a very sophisticated knowledge economy here in Melbourne. We are very aware of the fact that as the fastest growing city in Australia, that enviable lifestyle we have is certainly under pressure. And it’s at these moments where we all as leaders in the city need to be making sure that we’re collaborating to make those decisions that will continue that standard that we enjoy but also make sure we’re setting our community up for success in the future.

And so those elements of liveability are really a key focus for us not just over the next year but certainly there are some key strategic milestones, we’ve just signed off on our transport plan which takes us to 2030 and beyond which is very much a focus on “how do we have a productive but also enjoyable city centre”.

We are very focused at the moment on our housing strategy. We know that great cities don’t have homogeneous housing because that results in a homogeneous population which is not good for anyone. We need to have a diversity of dwelling type, we need to make sure there’s affordability at every part of that housing spectrum so that we can welcome everybody into this city, because we need that diversity to be able to deliver something that’s absolutely fantastic. So that focus and our efforts at the moment to very much around that housing strategy.


What do the pillars of community and prosperity look like for you?

These were two key pillars during the campaign last year and they’re absolutely interlinked, but what I’ve come to realise as a result of all of the interaction with our community here in Melbourne is that it’s the sense of Melbourne as a “city for people” and as a caring city that really differentiates us. And it is the number one thing that people write to me about, is that sense of really caring about people and caring about how we make sure that everyone has an opportunity to be healthy, to be happy and to be able to realise their full potential in this city. And I love that because so many of the agendas that happen within government are very much around infrastructure, and what are we building and things that are tangible, that we can say that we’ve delivered and yet ultimately we are doing all of those things so that we’re creating a great city for people. And to me, the community prosperity is really about bringing those concepts together so that we have a city in which people can flourish.


Are there any cities globally that you look to for inspiration?

So many! I love travel and I’ve just come back from visiting the US and just talking to people in the airports on the way home, just random people… One of the interesting sort of common themes, was that even though we do spend time away, and Australians love to travel, there’s certainly always that excitement about coming home. And travel does help you appreciate the things that are fantastic about Melbourne as a city. But I have spent time in London, I’ve lived in other parts of Europe and also in the United States and really it’s the sense of connectedness that I look for in cities. It’s that sense of people engaging with each other or being involved or proactive in different activities around the city; What are they? Because those sorts of activities, for example Melbourne has lots of festivals as you know, we are the live music capital, we have lots of public parks and gardens and galleries and those sorts of things, that’s an expression of us as a community. And they are the sorts of things I look for in cities overseas, what are those elements, what can we learn from.

To me it goes to the fabric of what makes those communities and what we can learn from. But the one thing I do really look at, at major cities that I admire, whether it’s a city like London, and I’ve just come back from New York, is that an increase in density in those cities doesn’t mean a decrease in liveability. And one of the ways of making sure you achieve that balance is to ensure that yes, there are lots of those spaces in the public realm that can be shared by people; but also what are the elements of that community that really bind people together.

And I know from looking at happiness indexes, and I know that you’re Pulse Report has just been out, where there are more people in communities and where they actually managed to connect people feel happier, they feel safer and they feel more purposeful.

And so it’s ironic that in Australia, we still have quite a lot of nimbyism “not in my backyard” we seem to discourage development and density. And yet by having more people we’re actually going to achieve high levels of happiness, safety and a sense of purposefulness. And so I think density is still a really big challenge for us in Australia.

But it’s true I mean if you go to those big cities, as we lived in London for those three years, people are happy and their density is almost 6 times what it is in Melbourne. So it’s got a lot of capacity.

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Peter Konidaris

Managing Partner Melbourne, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 (3) 8603 1168

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