By Sean Car
First-time councillor Dr Olivia Ball is bringing a renewed focus on human rights to the City of Melbourne.
As a member of The Greens, Cr Ball joins her experienced Greens colleague Rohan Leppert on the new-look council and fills the party’s void left by the departure of former Cr Cathy Oke, who served three terms at the City of Melbourne.
While the experience of an election campaign last year wasn’t new to her having run on the Greens ticket at the previous two City of Melbourne elections, she told CBD News that nothing could have prepared her for stepping inside Town Hall.
“I’ve run twice, but you don’t know until you get inside really the magnitude and the detail,” she said. “There’s no way of campaigning on any of that. It’s just massive – you have no idea!”
“I mean people say it’s just roads, rates and rubbish and that’s the least of what council does. I have two portfolios now, which I’m delighted with, and they have nothing to do with roads, rates or rubbish!”
Born in East Melbourne, a current resident of Carlton and having lived, worked and studied in the City of Melbourne for most of her life, you’d be hard pressed to find a more “local” councillor if you tried!
As the chair of the council’s health, wellbeing and belonging portfolio and the deputy chair to Lord Mayor Sally Capp on the Aboriginal Melbourne portfolio, Cr Ball’s wealth of human rights expertise is already being put to good use at the council.
With a Masters and PhD in human rights, Cr Ball began her career as a psychologist working with refugees and survivors of torture and trauma. She is also a published author, a founding director of the non-government organisation Remedy Australia and currently works at Fitzroy Legal Service. And as if that’s not enough, she is also currently studying urban planning.
When it comes to the portfolio she chairs, which focuses on the city’s health, recreation and community services, and oversees critical issues like homelessness, she said she was “delighted” to be playing a leading role.
“I think human rights is relevant in all levels of government but the most obvious issue for me is homelessness, which falls under my portfolio. We have some very exciting potential there,” she said.
“Housing lies with all levels of government so it’s not just an advocacy role. We have a role. We can provide land and build social housing as we’ve done before, and we can do again. And we certainly provide services for people experiencing homelessness.”
“But I’m pleased to say that the council already has a housing-first model which is a philosophy or approach in homelessness that is not focusing on services which basically allow people to remain homeless. That’s not what we want to do.”
While originally a Labor Party member as a student, Cr Ball has been a member of The Greens for the past 20 years. She said like many other generational Greens members, she was drawn to the party by the then-federal government’s handling of the Tampa affair in 2001.
But she said her political activism first began as a student when she campaigned against the apartheid in South Africa, kickstarting a lifelong passion for human rights which has since extended to a range of other issues, including the environment, refugees and indigenous affairs.
And now as the deputy lead on the council’s Aboriginal Melbourne portfolio, which last year passed its new Reconciliation Action Plan complete with a landmark component of “truth-telling”, she said her experience from South Africa was very applicable.
“Coincidentally, I wrote a book with a Zimbabwean activist named Paul Brady, he’s a British academic and specialised in the Truth Commission [South Africa], and that winds us back to Victoria – we’re going to have a truth commission in Victoria.”
“It’s a very exciting time to be alive! It’s terrible in many ways but I’m very thrilled to have this [Aboriginal Melbourne] portfolio.”
“Of course, we have an Aboriginal department that is fully staffed by indigenous people. But we [the council] are keen to look at ways of how we can govern with the five sovereign nations that are components of this municipality. What does it mean to recognise their sovereignty?”
While she is still learning the ropes as a councillor, she said the new council was a diverse and hard-working group of individuals who were all equally committed to “revitalising” Melbourne amid COVID-19.
But while the pandemic has caused a great deal of devastation on the city, Cr Ball said it had presented new opportunities to do things differently.
“Revitalisation of Melbourne is our biggest priority. I won’t use the word ‘recovery’ because it implies going backwards. I don’t want to go back. A lot of what he had before wasn’t working. We have, in fact, worsening inequality,” she said.
“We have just finished a community consultation and the number one issue is health and wellbeing, which is hardly surprising in these crazy times. If you haven’t got your health, what have you got?”
“But the number two issue, is climate. We [the council] have declared a climate emergency and we need to make that part of our everyday activity on council. Economic revitalisation is primary, but we don’t have an economy without the environment.”
“I know we [councillors] can work together and grow to understand and listen to each other. I’m adamant that we have to work together – I’m not interested in party politics for its own sake. I want to get the outcomes.” •