City Talk - Mobilising Communities and Citizens

(6.30pm 16 August 2011, City Recital Hall)

Thank you, Adam Spencer, MC. Welcome to our City Talk on mobilising for change - mobilising as individuals and as a community. I would like firstly to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, and I pay my respects to the Elders, both past and present.

I also welcome our panel for this evening:

  • Brett Solomon, executive director of Access Now
  • Simon Sheikh, national director of Get Up
  • Anna Rose from the Australian Youth Climate Coalition
  • Amanda Tattersall of the Sydney Alliance
  • Darryl Nichols, executive director of the Garage Sail Trail and
  • John Dee, representing Do Something

If you are committed to something you can make change happen.

No matter how overwhelming the forces, or daunting the challenge, I know from experience that individuals and communities can bring about change.

INVOLVEMENT AND ACTION IN DEMOCRACIES

In my early political life I had a colleague who described our democratic system not as "government of the people by the people for the people", but more aptly "government of the people by the party for the faction". In NSW, we've had many years of that!

Political parties are increasingly captured by powerbrokers whose aim is getting power and keeping it. Then there's the spin doctors manipulating information, paid lobbyists infesting the corridors of power, and sections of the media or unelected shock jocks who don't stand for election, sneering at new ideas.

This promotion of vested interest over public interest makes governments risk-averse and unwilling to be agents of reform—unless compelled by expert opinion and public pressure—mostly public pressure.

So how can we, the people, penetrate this byzantine log jam of our democratic processes?

It can and is being done. Reform has been carried out by governments. Leaders emerge out of a groundswell of concern and they organise, publicise and recruit people to a cause.

There wouldn't be much left of Paddington and Glebe had residents of the day not recognised the valuable built forms of their suburbs and fought state-sponsored motor way building plans.

And right now, when government should be planning for highest and best use of land and water resources, it is the farmers who are challenging the degradation of arable land and pollution of water supplies by mining companies.

As a community-based independent, I work to open up our political systems and provide leadership on the critical issues of our environment, human rights and city liveability.

Inevitably, reform demands that people stand together so their voices are magnified—whether it is the campaign for lesbian, gay and transgender equality; or securing humane treatment of animals; or strata reform for the growing numbers of people living at high densities.

At a previous City Talk, theatre director Neil Armfield criticised the rules that impeded setting up small bars in NSW and cited their value to cultural life in Melbourne.

The City took up the challenge, and worked with music and arts groups and "Raise the Bar", a new group formed to lobby for change. As State Member I introduced Legislation into Parliament.

The AHA, which donated substantially to the major parties, was vociferous in opposition, but misread the public mood when its president claimed "people didn't want to sit in a bar with a book sipping chardonnay".

After a public outcry the government relented and included an amendment similar to my bill in its liquor act review, and there are now over 40 small bars just in the City of Sydney local government area.

The passage of time, which provides for gradual increase in public understanding, can also be an important factor in change.

This is especially so with social change, where it takes someone brave enough to dip their toe into the water. After the initial outrage, the issue is out there for people to discuss and think about, and attitudes do change with time.

My same sex adoption bill narrowly passed State Parliament last year, supported by a former and current premier. When I presented a similar reform ten years before, not one member supported it.

MY ROAD TO POLITICAL LIFE AND COMMUNICATING AS AN INDEPENDENT

My career in politics was unplanned, so beware community involvement!

I was a young mother at home for the first time with two small children. Our inner Sydney neighbourhood was rundown with fast moving traffic, few facilities and neglected parks.

We settled in Redfern after living in London, where I had used many wonderful services for children and families. But back here, I was shocked to find nothing of the sort available!

I first tackled the issue of the local playground - all asphalt and rusting equipment, surrounded by an ugly chain-wire fence topped with barbed wire. The fence had gaping holes, but the gates were locked at sunset by someone quaintly called the "lamplighter"!

I wanted grass, but was told by my Ward Alderman that it made broken glass too hard to sweep up. The Labor blokes of the time cite that small playground as their nemesis: if they'd given me grass I'd have gone away.

When I moved on to tackle speeding traffic in Bourke and Crown Streets, I was told I needed 500 signatures on a petition. So I walked the streets, pushing the pram with my young daughter by the hand, and got the signatures.

I formed a community group and, when local elections came round, I stood for council when I couldn't find anyone else to do it. So I got grass in that park and many others!

From little things big things grow, and in the grass department I legislated to preserve the former Sydney Showgrounds, part of the Governor Macquarie bequest of public land for the people of Sydney.

I am proud of our new and renewed open space including improvements to major City parks such as Paddington Reservoir Gardens, Rushcutters Bay Park, Prince Alfred Park, Harmony Park in Surry Hills, Redfern Park, Victoria Park, Pyrmont's Pirrama Park and Sydney Park where I recently planted a tree for National Tree Day, mixing with people and families in beautiful surroundings.

CHANGING COMMUNICATIONS AND MOBILISING COMMUNITIES

I started out by knocking on doors in Redfern, and that experience of visiting people at home and asking what matters to them is still at the core of what I do.

It's important to go where people are; to find out what they think; and to inform and involve them in the issues that affect them.

I started producing newsletters to reach people in a varied demographic. Years later, that is nearly a standard practice for elected representatives, with Parliaments now funding newsletters.

But times have changed and new technologies form an essential part of the tool kit.

When I was first elected in 1980, there was no internet or mobile phones, and few people had photocopiers or computers. Press releases had to be hand delivered.

Over a decade ago, I started a weekly e-news (It's now at issue 560) and I was one of the first members in Parliament to have a website. It lets people know what I am doing on their behalf and alerts people about emerging issues.

I also now use Twitter and Facebook. Social media is where a growing number of Sydneysiders are, and it's where they feel free to talk and share ideas.

It's like 'digital doorknocking'—an opportunity for two way conversation. And like doorknocking and public meetings, it's mainly but not always positive.

CITY CONSULTATION AND COMMUNICATION

At the City of Sydney, we constantly explore ways to interact with the widest spectrum of people. The challenge when I became Lord Mayor was to ensure that a big bureaucracy connects and responds.

We reshaped our phone contact and correspondence sections to address concerns promptly and in a helpful fashion. The Council newsletter, which read like an in-flight magazine, was re-focused on major city issues and local interests.

Our website is constantly updated; we hold area meetings on a cyclical basis; and run public workshops to develop projects.

In 2006, we initiated unprecedented and innovative consultation to plan for the City's future. We spent a year talking and listening to what people wanted Sydney to be like in 2030.

Some 12,000 people were directly consulted at more than 30 forums. A further 4000 people were involved through City Talks and 2000 people gave oral comments on the 2030 "Future Phone" at events, schools and educational institutions. We went to schools and asked primary students to draw the future, and went to the streets to survey visitors.

The result was an extraordinary consensus around the City's future. It led to the work you now see across the city, including cycleways and leading environmental programs to address climate change.

This year, we've built on that approach with our Late Night City policy development.

Alongside traditional forums, we've done "vox pops" to gather ideas from people visiting the city at night, and run an interactive online forum that attracted over 6000 visitors and 679 ideas.

The breadth of input and enthusiasm is exciting. It is the kind of engagement that can cut through political inertia and vested interests. It helps generate the innovation and cooperation we will need to create a thriving, safe and sophisticated night-time economy.

The methods and technologies are changing, but the aim is the same—to give people the chance to know about the issues affecting them, to get involved and to have a say.

Ultimately as an elected representative, and as a Council we need to evaluate the often competing views and needs, and always act in the public interest. But knowing what the community really wants, gives us the strength to hold firm, knowing that the work we do is for the long term and a better future.