By Shane Scanlan
Susan Riley’s remarkable career as deputy lord mayor is a by-product of being driven to succeed.
Cr Riley says she never asked for the role but successive lord mayors John So and Robert Doyle have both enlisted her services.
She says she never imagined herself in the role nor aspired towards it. These qualities make her an ideal lieutenant. Loyal, trusted, down to earth and capable, she manages the internal relationships which allows the Lord Mayor to shine.
“I’ve never considered myself to be ambitious, but I’ve definitely a driven woman,” she said.
Cr Riley is the eldest of five children, born into an inner city working class family. Leaving school at 15, she had already had a grounding in small-business accounting through working in a family cake shop.
It wasn’t long before she had learned everything there was no know about publishing via myriad roles at Syme Community Newspapers in the 1980s. It wasn’t too much longer before she started publishing for herself, starting her own commuter magazine as well as successful mastheads in St Kilda Rd and the CBD.
The business had taken a hit around the time that lord mayoral hopeful John So approached her to run as his deputy in 2001.
“At the time I didn’t think it possible that Melbourne would elect a Chinese lord mayor and an unknown publisher,” Cr Riley said.
When John So first approached her, Cr Riley saw an opportunity to sell magazine advertising to him.
“He said, you can have as much advertising as you want, but that’s not why you are here,” she recalled. “He said do you want to think about it? I was walking back to the car park and I thought ‘what an opportunity’. I didn’t even ring my husband. I rang him back and said John if you think that you and I can do this, then I will say yes.”
She freely admits that she had no idea about council when she was first elected and had to learn “on the job”.
“There was no job description for a deputy lord mayor we literally made it up as we went along,” she said.
Cr Riley said her business suffered though, and she decided not to contest a second term.
Four years later, she was approached again to run as deputy – this time by Robert Doyle, whom she had never met.
“It was the 11th hour when Robert rang up one day and said ‘I’m looking for a deputy, are you interested?’ So I said: ‘can we meet? I know who you are, but can we meet?’,” she said.
“So we met and at the end of the discussion he said ‘I think we’ll be fine’.
He said ‘who do you barrack for in the football’ and I said Geelong. He said ‘high five, we’ll be fine’. So, we’re both Geelong people and that was the start of the relationship,” she said.
Melbourne has now had four terms of popularly-elected lord mayor and deputy and Cr Riley has been in office for three of them. Drawing on the lessons she learned during her first stint, she says she was able to help Robert Doyle make the transition from state politics to local government.
“In local government there’s no power as such. There are 11 councillors and that power has to come as a united force,” she said.
She says one of her major roles as deputy lord mayor has been to make sure the councillors stay together. She rings them all every week to sound them out on issues and policies and then reports to the Lord Mayor.
“These are their thoughts. We need to go around them or we need to go with them,” she said.
Cr Riley says she complements the lord mayor because she reads everything, meets everyone and is across the issues and potential issues.
“I could never, ever do what he does as the lord mayor. I think he has been a remarkable lord mayor. But he could never do what I do either,” she said.
“That’s why we work so well as a team. I can alert him to an issue that is growing and he can advise me on how to handle it. The trust that comes with that is something that you have to build and earn, remembering that six years ago we were total strangers.”
Cr Riley says the current council is the best she’s been associated with. She says its diversity and balance is the envy of surrounding municipalities.
“I think the way were work as a team is incredible. I know we’re admired by other councils around us because they have a lot of in-house fighting, but we just don’t have it. And I put it down to the fact that my door is always open and the councillors come in. I’m a good listener and you do need to listen,” she said.
Her passions are small business and involving women in what happens at the town hall.
“My thought were how do I bring women into council. How do I bring the business women into this building and make them feel welcome?”
Since then, she says she has built a women’s business network of 500 and has helped build Melbourne Spring Fashion, the Lord Mayor’s Commendation Awards and the Melbourne Awards.
“The things that were really small acorns back in that first term have become a really big part of what council can offer. It’s nice to make a small difference,” she said.
“There is a job satisfaction here that I have had with publishing but you get to a level and think what more could I achieve? Being in council has given me that extra goal.”
“I can’t get out of bed in the morning without writing myself a mental list about what I want to achieve in the day.”