By Sean Car
The final subject of our Councillor Profile series doesn’t need much of an introduction. Lord Mayor Sally Capp has become the face of our city during her three-and-a-half-year reign in the top job, and she continues to prove why she’s the right leader during a crisis.
Irrespective of the news medium, the event or the local encounter, Sally’s glowing and calming presence has been felt positively right across Melbourne and beyond during the pandemic as the city has grappled with world-record lockdowns and economic devastation.
But never one to panic, Sally has always exuded coolness during the crisis and through an innate ability to connect with all walks of life and champion all things Melbourne, she’s provided the energy and drive needed to lead the city through its current challenges.
“I’ve had to be a very fierce advocate for our city over the last 20 months in particular, really push my way into state and federal government as well but be willing to stand up on issues and projects that are important for the city,” she told CBD News.
While some may be tired of hearing the phrase, “bring back the buzz”, to Sally and her fellow councillors, it’s become a mantra engrained into every aspect of the City of Melbourne’s recovery effort, and for good reason.
And in the pursuit of “the buzz”, it’s the responsibility of a leader to sell more than just hope, but to deliver outcomes – something she sees as one of the key strengths she has brought to the role of Lord Mayor.
“I’m a pretty practical and pragmatic person. I’m really keen to know that the work we do here makes a difference in the community,” she said.
“I think it really helps that I’m not a politician per se. I came into this role just to focus on Melbourne and put all of my efforts and energy into that, I’m not distracted by much else.”
“If it’s good for Melbourne, then we should do it.”
As referenced, Sally doesn’t see herself as a politician “per se”. She entered the arena after a decorated career in the private sector, which most recently saw her serve as Victorian executive director of the Property Council.
Beginning her career as a solicitor, she’s held senior roles with ANZ and KPMG, was the first woman to hold the post of Agent-General for Victoria in the UK, Europe and Israel, and was CEO and COO of the Committee for Melbourne and Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, respectively. She’s also a mad Collingwood supporter, having been the first woman to serve on the club’s board.
It’s that strong blend of real-world experience that is perhaps why, in her words, she sees herself as being able to relate to people more readily through strong communication, “being myself” and “leadership in action”.
And through not only being the first woman directly elected as Lord Mayor of Melbourne, she said she had sought to further change perceptions of the role by always being “accessible and approachable.”
“It’s being someone that others can relate to. I think a lot of people can see themselves in me, which is a nice thing and vice versa,” she said.
“So, when I do meet people it’s often one of the first things they say to me is that even they feel like they can approach me in the street. It’s not always nice things they say to me, but they can approach me!”
“We are a local government at the end of the day. It is important that I can represent the city up and out but it’s absolutely important that, in doing that, I’m representing who we are as a community and what our aspirations are. That can only come by being really embedded in the community.”
Having initially risen to power unconventionally in a by-election following the fall of former Lord Mayor Robert Doyle in 2018, she said the biggest learning she had taken from her first political campaign was that “it’s dangerous to make assumptions”.
While her Property Council tag may have raised the eyebrows on a few voters from the outset, she said she was proud that the feedback she generally received from locals was that she had since proven those perceptions wrong.
Just as comfortable at a business lunch as she is a residents’ group meeting, she said she valued the importance of always being curious, asking questions, and “to investigate and explore issues.”
“You almost have to be indefatigable in doing that because we end up with a better outcome,” she said.
“Now I don’t mean extending to over analysis leads to paralysis at all, but I do think making sure we’re taking all of the advice we’re given internally and externally, but that we check in with the people we represent, is absolutely vital.”
And having taken over a quite different Town Hall in 2018, she has also very much been the public face of cultural change at the City of Melbourne as the organisation recovered from allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr Doyle, and the ensuing Freckelton report.
By fostering a culture where “people can call out things where they see it” and “feel safe to actually speak out”, she said a lot of work had been put into addressing workplace issues, which in turn, had also created an environment of improved accountability.
“I think that sort of culture also helps with accountability and there are times over the past three-and-a-half years where I’ve had to say we were wrong. Or I got it wrong,” she said.
“It’s appropriate we’re held to account as an organisation, as individuals and we should welcome that because, let’s face it, nobody’s perfect and nobody gets it all right the first time around. But it’s about being in a relationship with our constituents where they can call us out on issues, and that we listen and respond.”
Despite not being a politician as such, she said her greatest political strengths were “that I don’t give up” and that, while acknowledging the inherent difficulties, she was a “a big consensus builder”.
As for the biggest buzz she gets out of being Lord Mayor?
“Overall, it’s people. I really get a lot of energy from being around people so that gives me a real buzz.”
While the pandemic and the city’s recovery remain front and centre on her radar of issues, she said continuing efforts in ending homelessness and solving the housing crisis were close to her heart. So too, responding to climate change.
And while she wouldn’t buy into questions about running at the next election or not, she said she “absolutely loved her job” and despite its skewed work-life balance, she was “happily exhausted”.
“I’m fitting a lot of life into 24 hours in the day,” she said. “It’s my absolute joy to be frantically running around town attending as many things as possible.” •