By Sean Car
After a decorated 15 years on council, which included being the first woman to ever be elected Deputy Lord Mayor of Melbourne, the much-loved Susan Riley has said farewell to Town Hall ahead of the October 24 elections.
Having served under three different Lord Mayors and been a pioneer for women and cultural change at Town Hall during her four council terms, Cr Riley announced her resignation this month citing now was the time for fresh voices and ideas for the city.
While “heartbroken” about the state that the city currently found itself in amid the devastation of COVID-19, she said she departed council with a great sense of pride in what she had been able to achieve during her 15 years.
Foremost, she said she had always been a businesswoman. Entering politics off the back of a successful career in media and publishing which has spanned 30 years, perhaps her greatest legacy as a politician is having opened up Town Hall to women.
Working a majority of her career under the city’s two longest-serving Lord Mayors in John So and Robert Doyle, she said the two men had “very different” styles, but had been equally influential to her success in local politics.
Describing John So as a “humble” man who she “adored” working under, she said he had seen potential in her that “she never knew she had”.
“I left school at 14,” she said. “My passion for Melbourne made up for lack of experience in local government and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity John gave me.”
“John asked if I could bring women into Town Hall and I did not know any business women. I had never walked into Town Hall before the first day I was elected. Even though I operated my business out of the Block Arcade, no one had ever asked me to go into Town Hall.”
“When he said ‘we’ve got to get women into the city’ he asked if I would do a business lunch and I could sit 10 people around his boardroom table. The truth is, I didn’t even know 10 women! But from that lunch, history was made.”
“Reaching out to businesswomen in the city became quite easy, because they wanted it.”
Since then, the City of Melbourne has hosted the Women in Business Lunch that now, with the exception of 2020 due to coronavirus, welcomes around 400 people to Town Hall each year and has culminated in the creation of a women’s business network.
Through her leadership roles in small business, retail, hospitality and major events, she was also instrumental in establishing events such as Melbourne Fashion Week, the Lord Mayor’s Commendations, the Melbourne Awards and many others.
While she didn’t run for council following her first term working under John So for business reasons, she was approached by Robert Doyle in 2008 to run again as his deputy in what would become known as Team Doyle.
Describing Mr Doyle as a “true statesman” who could sell Melbourne better than anyone, she noted that his demise following allegations of sexual misconduct in 2018 had marked a “devastating” low point for her personally.
“One of my very low points, on a very personal note, is the demise of Robert Doyle and the circumstances through which he lost everything. That was another break-your-heart moment because I did admire him as a Lord Mayor,” she said.
“That Team Doyle, us as Team Doyle, we felt like we were branded on our forehead and it was only one man that did wrong, not us.”
Despite this, she said she had experienced “enormous satisfaction” working as deputy under both leaders, who had both encouraged her to travel and help transform Melbourne into the world’s most liveable city.
While she wouldn’t be drawn into commentary on current Lord Mayor Sally Capp, she did note that her friend and current Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood had not been afforded the same privileges she had during her time as deputy.
“Arron took my place as Deputy Lord Mayor so I helped him understand what a deputy does and it’s very time consuming,” she said. “Under Robert Doyle, I was a face of Melbourne because he had so many other duties to do, he would just flick me anything that he couldn’t possibly fit in his diary.”
“I don’t think our current deputy has had that privilege to get out there as much as I did with Robert, but that is just the nature of how it has unfolded. I respect Arron. I think if he gets through this election, he would make a sensational Lord Mayor. He has great empathy and is in touch with the real people, the ratepayers.”
“She [Sally Capp] is the Lord Mayor of Melbourne and I don’t want in any way to take that away from her. But I do think that whoever our next Lord Mayor is, they need to be authentic and be there for our ratepayers.”
“They [Lord Mayors] are there for the people and I think just of late there has been a bit of party politics, but I don’t want to be unfair to the lady.”
She also noted the “sheer joy” of working with “real people’s person” Cr Beverley Pinder, and said she couldn’t have asked for two better Greens councillors to have worked with than Rohan Leppert and Cathy Oke, who has also announced her retirement from council.
And on current CEO Justin Hanney, she said he was the best she had ever seen.
“Honestly, Justin is the best in my eyes,” she said.
“He listens to councillors. Whereas some CEOs thought we [councillors] just needed a pat on the back and told us what we need to know. Justin is superb in listening and acting on our advice.”
“I couldn’t wish for the council to be in better hands knowing that Justin is there, and a fantastic leadership team that he’s got behind him.”
While she leaves council with a heavy heart knowing the uphill battle the city faces to rebuild from COVID-19, she said she had also been proud to have played a role in the council’s response to the pandemic. Namely, the establishment of the council’s business concierge hotline, providing a one-stop-shop for support and mentoring.
And it’s in that direction where she plans to head next, flagging her desire to mentor traders at the Queen Victoria Market, as well as the next generation of female business and political leaders in our city.
“We’ve [the council] gone through the worst nine months, all of us, trying to rescue businesses, so with new ideas, new councillors and a refreshed council is one of the reasons why I decided that it was my time to retire and let that new blood come in,” she said.
“But I’m not leaving Melbourne by the way! I still have my apartment in the city and somewhere I’ll fall into a position where I can continue to still serve Melbourne.”
“Town Hall door might close on me, but Melbourne is open.”
Congratulations on a wonderful career Susan. The team at CBD News wishes you the very best for whatever’s next! •