This week our social innovation community leader Michelle Williams interviews the Lord Mayor of Sydney – Clover Moore. This is one of our best interviews yet – a must-read/bookmark for all Sydneysiders and city/government 2.0 geeks. 

Clover Moore

Clover in Sydney Park

Clover Moore has created a city where people have a voice, can have go at being innovative, creative and entrepreneurial, to pursue their passions and, most of all, to have a good public, community life.

“Creating a good public life nails what it’s all about. That’s what my whole career has been about. Started off trying to stop traffic and to do something about local parks. Now I just do that on a bigger scale.”

What was your background before you became mayor? Did you have political aspirations from an early age?

Years ago I did something risky, something right out of my experience and comfort zone – and it completely changed the direction of my life. As a mother at home with two small children, I was dismayed that my Redfern neighbourhood was so run-down, with fast moving traffic in every street and children’s playgrounds that were derelict and dangerous. I wrote to my state and local rep who either didn’t get the problem or who flicked my letter onto some uninterested bureaucrat. So then I did something. I went round to my neighbours, gathered community support and ultimately founded Redfern Community concern. “You be our voice,” my Greek neighbours, mainly women urged. And without any background in politics, I stood for the Labor dominated South Sydney Council as an Independent. I was elected to the South Sydney Council in 1980.

After four years the council was amalgamated with Sydney City and three years later sacked by State Government. I was so angry at this blatantly undemocratic act that I stood for the 1988 State election as an Independent, becoming first the Member for Bligh and then, when boundaries were changed, the Member for Sydney. Then, in 2004, when South Sydney Council and the City of Sydney were both sacked and amalgamated in another attempt by the NSW Labor Government to take control of our city, I was urged by a team of like-minded independents to stand as the Lord Mayoral candidate to provide community leadership for Sydney, I agreed – at first reluctantly.

As well as mayor, you were also an Independent State MP for Sydney. What have been some major achievements or changes during your time in politics?

Our election and my position as Lord Mayor has given us great opportunities to improve life for our residents, our businesses and our visitors. We’ve beautified the city villages, created a series of award-winning parks and community gardens, and provided design leadership in award-winning bars, introduced bike lanes and provided affordable spaces for creatives and digital startups. We provide great services and a strong financial position – no debt. When I was forced to choose between Parliament and the City by the Coalition O’Farrell government last year, I left Parliament as the longest-serving woman in the history of NSW parliament.


Clover when she got the FOI bill through in NSW Parliament

I have been told continually from those first days in Redfern that it was not possible to get elected as an Independent, that I needed a party machine behind me, and even if I was elected, I wouldn’t be able, as an Independent, to achieve anything. But I found I could achieve a great deal by working hard for my community and representing them in Parliament.

Clover’s achievements in parliament are numerous. From 1991-1995 with two other Independents, they held the balance of power introducing the ground-breaking Charter of Reform, which included the Royal Commission into police corruption, and was described as the most progressive reforms in any Westminster system in the 20th Century.

I introduced private member’s bills that became law, or were included in Govt legislation, including anti-vilification legislation, making it illegal to incite hatred against gay men and women; to allow for same sex couples to adopt; and ended Kings Cross streets being used as de facto car sales yards; South East Forests protection bill and the small bar bill. Achievements in a Parliament dominated by major political parties and with my beginnings so unlikely.

“I’ve always been progressive, parliament thought I was radical. I was just doing what was needed.”

You are well known for listening to your community. How have you been doing this more via digital? What can we look forward to?

It’s always an important part of what I do. Always progressive about technology and communication. When I was first elected to South Sydney Council, we put out enewsletters that were very amateurish at the beginning, but have became more professional. I was the only one doing it at the time and it was handed around to party MPs who were told to copy it. Always held meetings with community and sought community views in most effective way. Now, of course, the most effective way is through digital media. A good example of is our Open Policy our strategy to revive Sydney’s late night economy, is ready to be finalise. We’ve had 20 roundtables and 11,000 people have talked to us. We did vox pops at 2am to hear from people in Kings Cross. We do what we need to do to talk to people who want to talk to us. The majority of people in this city are young and use social media. We still do the meetings, some people still like it. People don’t hold back in telling me what they think [which brings a laugh to both of us]. Doing community consultation means you know the majority wants this. You always do get the vocal minority, the naysayers. If you listen to them you never do anything.

What are the key ideas the City is implementing to enable a more liveable and green Sydney?

The 2030 plan is the overarching policy (for the City). It guides everything that we do. Environmental aspects are our top priority because we know that the future of the planet is important. We’ve got lots of ticks on that including photovoltaic panels, retrofitting, water harvesting and getting on with policies to do with tri-gen. Carlton Brewery site on Broadway is a tri-gen site that’s going to power a precinct. It’s part of the 2030 plan and that’s being done by the private sector. This also plays into the social sustainability plan and community networks which mean we’re more resilient as a community. We need to have long-term sustainable business and that’s one of the main reasons we’re so supportive of the startup community. We like to support communities doing stuff rather than doing it for them. Our grants program is an example of that.

It’s great to see City of Sydney supporting entrepreneurs and creatives through providing subsidised space and workshops. How did this come about and what other initiatives are you engaging in?

It originated from a Cultural City Talk in 2007. Three speakers from different creative perspectives and backgrounds, said we had great cultural institutions but what we really needed was to support our young creative talent. I don’t think they discussed it prior but there was a common theme. What really stuck out for me at this talk was Neil Armfield explaining that a troupe had gone to Melbourne but had not come back. They loved the small bar scene and the opportunities for musicians and for visual artists. Small Bar licensing in Sydney in 2007 was very expensive – $30,000 compared to $500 in Melbourne and we’d been waiting for years to see any sort of change in NSW parliament. In the 70s, Melbourne was dead and part of it’s renewal was built on creatives, to do with allowing people to do their thing whether that be grafitti in a laneway or musicians performing. And I said right, I’m going to do a small bar members bill, I’m tired of waiting for (former NSW Premier) Bob Carr. The two major parties had a problem with it but then there was a strong community reaction, the whole thing just took off. The government had nowhere to go but to agree with it and we got the laws changed. And we have 68 (small bars) in the city area now. Creative studios are a part of that too. We’ve supported setting up like Oxford St, the soon to open William St and 107 Redfern St, Redfern.

The strong message was we have to support creatives. It’s an expensive city, it’s hard to get going. That was the best way we could support creatives to get going and that’s how it all started. And it’s going so well.

Queen Street Studio is another example. During the five years it was available, 20,000 creatives used it. And support for things like GreenUps is another example. Everything we do in this area is well received and taken up.


Launch of the artwork on Foley St on Friday night from Clover’s Instagram account

Why, in your own words, do you think this is so important?

[Said with a big genuine smile] I think it’s about our soul, about who we are, and supporting the cultural life of a city like Sydney is probably one of the most important things that you do. We have 200 nationalities here, what is our cultural identity and how interesting are we? How is that reflected back to us?

Do you draw inspiration from any other cities or governments from around the globe?

Portland is a city that inspired. I was encouraged that they started their bike lanes in ‘94 and they had the same backlash I met. Same with their light rail. They were doing a lot that we’re now doing. It seems a very civilised city. Copenhagen too. At the Mayors conference for COP15 people gathered for Earth Hour. It was freezing and 6,000 people gathered. I had a great sense that the people know who they are, very content with themselves. I was amazed that after, everyone dusted the snow off their bike seats and rode off! In Scandinavian countries the royalty sends their children to public schools. I was shown street after street where cars had been and now they’re for people. And people gathered there, sitting in outdoor cafes, in freezing temperatures, wrapped in blankets. I was struck that they know who they are and what sort of government they want. And they know what sort of contribution they want to make. Very impressive. What’s the difference to here? Good government. I despair about Barangaroo and how corrupted that process is. It’s one of the most beautiful sites. I think good cities are about visionary government and making sure that’s what people get.

People, politicians, media and vested interests haven’t made your path easy in achieving progressive outcomes (challenges many of us face in trying to build businesses). How do you overcome these?

Do your homework so you have the confidence in what you’re doing. Be brave and bold and stand your ground. Stand your ground!

My whole career I was told: “You’ll never do that”. It’s about believing in what you’re doing. That’s critical. It’s about being bold. My husband has said to me “This is a big risk for you” and I’ve said “It’s the right thing to be doing now”.

Do you have regrets?

No regrets, although always sacrifices in what you do. This has dominated my life and my family’s life. I always thought it was worthwhile. You only get one go at life. My CEO says to me “Sleep when you’re dead”. You pay your rent, you make your contribution.

Where can we go for info on how to make it easier for us to develop businesses? Are there any special grants or events the community should know about?

This is so important for us, we see if we can help support, facilitate and empower. We have an economic development unit and this is one of their most important areas of work. When we identify a need, we respond and do something about it. The Economic Development Unit work closely to support in a number of ways. For example, little cafes, we coach through the process and offer grants. When the first small bars opened we worked with them to give some clear guidelines. 101 Startups is another great example, also our Let’s Talk Business Seminars. These bring people who have experience, are inspirational and can offer practical advice. We know (for entrepreneurs) it’s about having the energy and enthusiasm to do it and then you need the practical advice, you need encouragement too.

[Clover, the City of Sydney and Alex Greenwich MP are interested in hearing from you, your ideas on how they can help, what you need and what would make it easier. Please leave a comment below or tweets us @thefetchSYD]

What’s your favourite thing to do in Sydney? How do you switch off? How do you clear your head, stay fit, maintain your general sense of wellbeing when you are busy with your Mayoral duties?

Walking in Sydney’s beautiful parks is one of the things I choose to do most often, with my Staffies and my husband. This is also how I switch off. I get to talk to my husband, and talk to everyone else, they never hold back!

What is your vision for Sydney?

Sustainable, equitable, culturally vital city. The reason we chose to live in Redfern, when no one else would, was because it’s where we could afford. One of the reasons is we’d lived overseas for a while and the Greek families sat on captured milk crates in their street, and kids played in their back lanes, a sense of community, street life. So much more important than in the suburbs where people drove to their houses, only seeing people when they invited them over. I’m really thrilled that over the last eight years because we’ve beautified streets, added wonderful facilities and great parks – there is a whole lot of street life that did not go on before.


Clover crossing the rainbow crossing on Oxford St for Mardi Gras

The beginnings were with the migrant communities, now everyone engages with that. Gays with their dogs, young families or an older couple. Suburbs don’t engender that. In the city you may live alone but because you go to this park. If you’re not lucky enough to have a personal family you can have this other family. We tap into, support and provide opportunities to connect. We do it through creative support but also our bike and pedestrian paths, wonderful parks and public communal spaces. We create a good public life, rather than just a good private life. In suburbia you may have a private life around your pool but how much better is it if you have a good public life? Creating a good public life nails what it’s all about.

That’s what my whole career has been about. We started off trying to stop traffic and do something about local parks. Now I just do that on a bigger scale.

About our ambassador // Michelle Williams is the CEO & Founder of Ideaction. She’s a connector, collaborator, communicator and innovator for systemic change. Follow her on Twitter as @MiA_Will.