Shaping our city

Capping off six years in city’s top job: Farewell Lord Mayor Sally Capp AO

28 June 2024

It was a Monday morning in May 2018, when Sally Capp breezed into Melbourne Town Hall for the first time with her signature verve and vigor.    

Three days earlier, she was declared winner of the 2018 Melbourne City Council Lord Mayoral by-election. Her authenticity and “people and purpose, not politics” approach had resonated with voters, following the resignation of former Lord Mayor Robert Doyle.  

With the support of husband Andrew Sutherland and their children Will and Nic, Sally Capp campaigned on a two-part platform – to better manage the current issues of waste removal, safety, homelessness and delivery of the Queen Victoria Market Renewal Project, and the big, bold aspirational ideas that reflect an ambitious Melbourne like the city-shaping Greenline Project. 

Sally Capp with husband Andrew Sutherland and children Will and Nic

“It was very exciting to win because campaigning is hard-fought, and a lot of energy goes into policies and the change you want to bring about,” she said.  

“After winning the election on the Friday, I arrived on the Monday to get initial briefings from City of Melbourne officials. No one was brave enough to tell me I wasn’t meant to be there yet and to come back on the Thursday for the swearing-in ceremony. 

Sally Capp was sworn in as the 104th Lord Mayor of Melbourne on 24 May, 2018

“One of my very clear memories of that first morning is knocking on the doors of the magnificent Melbourne Town Hall and then security saying ‘there’s a strange lady here and she says she’s the Lord Mayor of Melbourne and wants to come in’.  

“They opened the doors and I stood on the steps with the red carpet looking up at the marble tablets on the walls with the names of 103 lord mayors chiseled into them. Whether it’s portraits or statues, plaques or name boards there’s a permanence that comes with them. I looked at those 103 names and thought ‘oh my gosh, my name is going on that board’. I realised there were only two women out of 103. Now there are three women out of 104 – and it’s just not good enough.” 

As the first publicly elected female lord mayor, and third woman to hold the office, it quickly became evident Sally was a role model for women herself. She spent the past six years speaking to crowds and crowds of women of all ages, demographics, careers and different lived experiences about “being what you can’t see”.

“I am a serial have-a-goer. It’s a core part of who I am and how I go about things and something instilled in me by my parents. Having a go has led to some of the most extraordinary experiences in my life, like being the Lord Mayor of Melbourne. 

“Having a go helps you test your own abilities, boundaries, passions, interests, but also tests what you like and what you don’t like, what you’re passionate about or not passionate about. You don’t know unless you have a go – and you never know what’s possible. 

“Having a go also tests the boundaries, advances and progresses institutions, processes and society. Before I put my hand up in 2018, I hadn’t properly understood or recognised that simply putting your hand up has massive impact because other people may then also feel they can have a go.”

It’s important for women to “be what you can’t see” because it creates change

It’s not the first time Sally has broken through glass ceilings. She was the first woman to hold the post of Agent-General for Victoria in the UK, Europe and Israel.   
She also served as the CEO for the Committee for Melbourne and Victorian Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia.  
And she made history in 2004 as Collingwood Football Club’s first female board member.  

Combining her two loves – Collingwood Football Club and Citizenship Ceremonies

There’s a quote by Edward Everett Hale that Sally likes to come back to when faced with a challenge. 
‘I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something and because I cannot do everything, I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.’ 

“This focus on what I can do over my career has meant that in my mind there is little I can’t do.”  

City of Melbourne’s premier events like Melbourne Fashion Week are key drivers of the city economy

When Sally took on the city’s top job, Melbourne was booming. It was the fourth-fastest growing city in the developed world and the engine room of the state’s economy – which had just topped a record $104 billion in Gross Local Product. Almost one million people a day were pulsing through the city centre, we recorded almost half a million jobs, and almost 50,000 international students were studying here. The challenge then was to successfully manage the growing pains of a decades-long booming economy.  
“My recollections in the moment were about how we harness the growth and prosperity to create more equity and fairness and ensure we are investing in areas that are often overlooked when things are going so well. Housing and climate change were examples of that. But when everything is going so well, we take a lot for granted and we don’t give urgent attention to those things. I also realise that we weren’t necessarily listening as deeply and as actively as we could have been,” the Lord Mayor said.

“I liken it sometimes to being on a galloping horse. You know, it’s great fun and everything’s moving at a pace, but you’re really trying to steer that horse through a narrow gap because you can see what’s coming and those things are more difficult to address.”

Celebrating the installation of solar panels on the Queen Victoria Market rooftop

From Australia’s fastest-growing city to the most locked down city in the world, no one could have predicted a global pandemic creating a health crisis and decimating our economy. 

“The ongoing lockdowns were hard. I came into Town Hall every day. To see our beautiful city empty of people and energy and vibrancy was heartbreaking,” the Lord Mayor said.

“I remember that feeling of deflation. It felt like things were tumbling down, not physically, but metaphorically as those pillars for which Melbourne was so highly regarded, and are part of Melbourne’s identity, were just not possible. It was a real sense of the floor dropping out from underneath us.”

There was, of course, no playbook. The Lord Mayor along with the councillor group and the executive team were mindful of the consequences the decisions they were making would have economically, culturally, and socially.

City of Melbourne staff supported the community to stay safe and well as the city emerged from lockdown restrictions

“Early on it was a case of asking what do we need to do to actually care for people? What role do we have? What do we need to do to make sure we’re being a proactive part of the health response? And what are the essential services that nobody else does, that have to be provided in lockdown conditions? We’ve got to make sure that rubbish is still collected, for example.

“Providing leadership to address the pandemic issues but also creating a sense of stability and continuity where possible was so important.”

Among so many examples of the City of Melbourne “pirouetting” to support the city and its people, the Lord Mayor lists employment programs for people who lost their jobs, starting the Business Concierge to support small businesses, the outdoor dining program and Melbourne Money to support the hospitality sector, and the food voucher system for international students who “literally couldn’t put food on the table” as initiatives that provided immediate results.

Melbourne’s international students fill the city with vibrancy so it was important to support them during the pandemic

“We found new ways of doing things and I hope we’ve retained as much of that as we can. Of course, we are regulators and we have responsibilities, but we are also doers. We are a city of ‘yes’. That attitude and approach is something I will take away with me as a very strong memory of the City of Melbourne during that time,” she said.

“Our people did all of that during the most extreme circumstances when all of us were personally facing uncertainty about what was happening to family members or juggling remote schooling while working online.   
“It’s hard to even comprehend how everybody coped and managed.

“But that sense of perseverance and the tenacity of people overcoming the challenges to continue delivering for community will never be lost on me.”

And for all the challenges and heartbreak, the Lord Mayor said it was important to celebrate the positive achievements during that time. The community needed confidence and optimism. 
One example that stands out is how City of Melbourne, the State Government, charities and housing agencies joined together to provide a safe place to sleep, support services and three meals a day to the inner city’s cohort of rough sleepers.

“People think that addressing homelessness is too difficult, too complex and too costly to make it happen. But this was one of the most inspirational things and it’s changed the paradigm of what we know we can achieve and what we should expect as an outcome around housing,” the Lord Mayor said.

“I get into trouble for saying it – but there are silver linings to come from COVID. And there should be because we shouldn’t be leaders if we don’t take the learnings and make sure we’re better because of the crisis.”

Funding for major events like Lunar New Year was a key to bringing people together and revitalising the city

Another success story was the $300 million Melbourne City Recovery Fund (MCRF) (which would later become the Melbourne City Revilitalisation Fund) a joint partnership between City of Melbourne and the State Government. MCRF was set up to support festivals, events, public infrastructure works and upgrades to bring people back into the city. It was the only one of its kind in Australia and was a fund the Lord Mayor negotiated directly with then Premier Daniel Andrews.  

“I remember very distinctly the meeting with the Premier. I was able to provide evidence to show the certainty and confidence that a fund like MCRF could deliver for the city. A lot of that was about the importance of Melbourne, the Melbourne economy and Melbourne as a capital city, and the leadership that is needed and expected of a capital city.  

“It was a big ask. But it was a game-changer for us.”

MCRF funded initiatives like the Melbourne Money dining rebate, the rollout of outdoor dining parklets, Queen Victoria Market food vouchers for international students and the Creative Laneways project that supported artists while bringing vibrancy back to the city.

“I remember the first laneway that we officially unveiled. The artist cried and revealed that she would not be eating if it wasn’t for this program,” the Lord Mayor said. 
“Those were extraordinary times and MCRF demonstrated both levels of government were investing together and had aligned strategies to support and activate people in the city. I think that gave a real boost to psyches and to morale.”

Lord Mayor Sally Capp with Anthea Loucas Bosha and Karen Martini celebrating the Melbourne Money dining rebate initiative

Amid the lockdowns there were also local government elections. The Lord Mayor was re-elected in November 2020. If campaigning was hard-fought the first time around, campaigning during lockdown brought new challenges.  

“I hope people never have to go through that again. In fact, in NSW, they delayed the elections because they didn’t feel that democracy could be properly served in lockdown. But in Victoria we went ahead and I’m glad we did because we could show that democracy can flourish whatever the circumstances,” she said.

“It was strange though. How do you create a sense of presence in the community when everyone is at home? We had cardboard cutouts of me made. I would drop them on my daily walks – outside supermarkets and cafes where people would be getting a coffee. I ended up with mustaches and missing teeth which was all fun. Would I have thought about doing that in a normal campaign? No. Would I do it again? Maybe not. But these are the things that you do, you innovate.  

“During the campaign we were able to show people that even in lockdown we could focus beyond immediate issues. We could still plan for the future – a brighter future. It was really important to show that government, local government in this case, had plans, resources, ideas and vision for Melbourne post-pandemic. It gave some certainty, even in times of instability.”

Elbow bumps all round as Melbourne’s famed dining and bar scene reopened following the world’s longest lockdown

After a total of 262 days across six lockdowns, stay-at-home orders were lifted at midnight on 21 October, 2021.

“We’d just been through our longest lockdown at that point. There were so many bars, so many restaurants and little businesses that opened at midnight just because they could. What an incredible demonstration of not just human spirit but Melbourne spirit,” the Lord Mayor said.

“There was a wonderful sense of spontaneity that we hadn’t been able to have. I remember it very, very fondly. We all collapsed later that day but it was worthy of that celebration.”

The work to revitalise the city hasn’t stopped since. This four-year council term has been big on delivery.

“Melbourne still has its challenges but changing our plotline from being one of the world’s most locked-down cities, to a global success story once more is something we should all be proud of,” the Lord Mayor said.

“Melbourne pirouetted from pandemic pandemonium into the most liveable and fastest-growing capital city in Australia. Our GLP is a record $115 billion, shopfront vacancies are among the lowest in the country at 6.5 per cent, 622,000 jobs, and almost 177,400 people now call Melbourne home. 
“People from the outside looking in don’t realise just how much goes on at Town Hall. People see the representation roles, the advocacy and championing, but they don’t see underneath the breadth and complexity that goes into ensuring the city is governed well and functions well.”

Keeping the city clean is one of the key priorities to revitalise the city following the pandemic

It was with “mixed emotions’ the Lord Mayor announced she wouldn’t contest the next council elections in November.  

“It’s really important for me that I’m leaving an organisation I obviously love, with a smooth transition and in good shape,” she said.

“After this, I am looking for ways in which I can continue to make a contribution, particularly to agendas like the housing crisis, like climate change, where I’ve learned so much. 

“Government can’t solve big issues on its own, and private sector can’t solve them on its own. If I can add value through my experiences by leveraging cooperation, coordination and collaboration between the sectors, I know we can achieve more, we can achieve it more quickly and we can achieve it more effectively.”

The Lord Mayor taking a moment to enjoy the Melbourne vibes in Bourke Street Mall

When she hangs up the ceremonial robes for the last time this month, it won’t be the last we see of Sally Capp around town.

“Andrew and I have said to each other that we are not going to disappear from the Melbourne community. We live in Melbourne and we’re going to continue participating in all the amazing forums and activities. I’m going to be at cultural festivals, I’m going to attend lots of sporting and cultural events and I’m going to turn up at community forums,” she said.

“I feel more connected and involved than ever. It’s completely electrifying and I don’t want to lose the sense of belonging and joy that comes with being engaged with community and the City of Melbourne. I want to make sure I’m an active part of that going forward, but in my role as a proud resident.”

Melbourne is a caring city and much of the Lord Mayor’s energy has gone into supporting the most vulnerable members of the community

Reflecting on the achievements of the past six years, the Lord Mayor said “there’s an incredible sense of purpose in this organisation”.

“I’m very proud to have been part of all of it. I will miss it terribly.

“When I took over office initially in 2018, the Queen Victoria Market Renewal Project was suffering major delays and a lack of transparency. We’ve now just broken ground on constructing the new Trader Shed – on top of opening the refurbished Queens Food Hall and completing the heritage shed restoration works. Work is underway by Lendlease on the transformational Gurrowa Place development.    

On site during construction of the Queens Food Hall at Queen Victoria Market

“Also at QVM, we delivered narrm ngarrgu Library and Family Services. I love libraries and I think this library is the best in Australia. The First Nations storytelling that weaves throughout the carpet and walls and onto the roof – and then the rooftop garden itself. The breadth of community services available, like makerspaces and family health services – and it’s on top of a pub.

The Lord Mayor says narrm ngarrgu is the best library in the country

“Make Room was one of my 2020 election promises. I was proud to visit the first completed studio apartment in May, ahead of the project completion in a couple of months’. This is a project I wish I could open as Lord Mayor. Considering the hurdles the construction industry has faced in recent years, I’m still proud to know that it’s almost complete.

Inside the first completed apartment in Make Room which will become a home for someone who is currently rough sleeping

“Even as recently as last week, creating the City of Melbourne’s first ever Future Fund, through the proceeds of the sale of the Citywide waste business. This is a gift from our Council group to the future of the city and I am very proud to be part of such a forward-thinking group.”

Construction has begun on the city-shaping Greenline Project along the banks of the Yarra River – Birrarung to create 450 metres of new boardwalks, promenades, native habitats and greening along the river’s edge. 

Work has officially begun on the Greenline Project – a big, bold vision Sally Capp had for Melbourne when she was first elected

The first Power Melbourne battery has been switched on accelerating the city’s transition to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030, helping Council achieve net-zero emissions by 2040 – while improving access to more affordable renewable energy. 

It’s this strong stewardship and drive to ‘get things done’ that led Sally Capp to being appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in the King’s Birthday Honours List in 2023 for distinguished service to the people of Melbourne, to local government, to business, and to the community through various organisations. 

Creating a harmonious and caring culture is one legacy from the Lord Mayor’s time at Melbourne Town Hall

This follows being named the McKinnon Emerging Political Leader of the Year in 2019 for outstanding leadership, stabilising presence in Town Hall and for fostering collegiality among councillors and for advancing impactful policy agenda. She was recognised for her role on the national Council of Capital City Lord Mayors where she’s worked with interstate counterparts to escalate advocacy and action on homelessness.

“It’s an honour and very humbling to receive those awards and recognition,” she said. “It’s very personal and I do get a sense of pride from that. Also, for my family, because this is not an individual effort – it’s a reflection on them. And to everyone in Team Melbourne, all the accomplishments and accolades are a reflection of our team – extraordinary outcomes in extraordinary times.”

While many will remember Sally Capp as the effervescent cheerleader for Melbourne, willing to give just about anything a go to spruik the city (think riding an e-scooter in high heels, ziplining across the Yarra – Birrarung or unveiling solar panels atop QVM), those who have been the beneficiaries of her time and leadership know there’s much more to the 104th Lord Mayor of Melbourne. 

“I hope people remember me as an empathetic, positive, optimistic, energetic and inclusive leader,” she said.

“It’s been a big deal to create, particularly among councillors, a culture of respect and inclusivity that then has an impact across the organisation. 

The Lord Mayor with some of her fellow councillors celebrating Melbourne’s diverse and inclusive community, one of hundreds of community celebrations she has attended over the past six years

“I will also be known for being very determined to see some things get done. Whether that was the MCRF to ensure Melbourne received its fair share of resources to support and then recover from the pandemic, through to work on Queen Victoria Market, Greenline and what we’ve been through to get Make Room almost opened in my time.

“Lately, I’ve been asked about my legacy for the city and in contemplating an answer. I realised the biggest impact has been the other way around. It’s this role that is leaving an enormous legacy on me. This role has made me a better person through the learning, a more responsible citizen through the engagement and a more activated person through the experiences.

“It’s been an honour and a privilege to serve the people of Melbourne.”  

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