Sydney Failcon

(10am 7 June 2012, MCA Rooftop, 140 George St)

Hello, everyone. I would like firstly to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the traditional custodians of our land, and to pay my respects to their Elders. I also acknowledge the people of 200 nationalities who live in our City.

How often do we get to talk about failure, to deal with it honestly and up-front?

In our world of celebrity and success, we find it as difficult to deal with failure as death. So congratulations to Vivid for featuring this event, and to the organisers for putting it together.

FailCon seems to me to be a very welcome opportunity to bring failure out of the shadows and put it where it belongs - as part of the cycle of living and striving. It doesn't need to be glorified, or even welcome - but it does need to be acknowledged, and accepted as something we can learn from.

I know, from my own experience, how difficult failure can be. But I also know from long experience that it can take you in unexpected directions that it can teach you a lot about your own strengths and weaknesses, that it can help you find new allies and new ways of doing things.

I never intended to go into politics. I was a teacher, just back from several years living in Europe with my husband and two small children. Peter was from Canberra, and neither of us wanted to move there. I grew up in Gordon, on the leafy north shore, and both of us knew we didn't want to live there, either. So we found a terrace on Bourke Street, in Redfern.

It was very different then. After our years in London, with its civilised inner-city living, community facilities and green parks, I found the state of the children's playgrounds in Redfern and fast through traffic in every local street soul destroying. The playgrounds were run-down, dangerous, littered with broken glass, surrounded by barbed wire fences and padlocked for a good deal of the day by someone called the lamp lighter. But when I protested I got nowhere. I wrote letters and took up petitions that made no difference so when it was time for elections for the council I decided to run. Greek women of the neighbourhood were at my elbow, saying, "You speak for us."

There had never been a non-Labor Alderman in Redfern. It was intimidating. To give you a sense of inner Sydney Labor, the local Federal member Peter Baldwin had just been bashed, which eventually forced a clean up of the inner city branches.

In the beginning, I'd go out door knocking by myself. It was daunting, going public stuffing flyers with my address into the mailboxes of dangerous squats. I walked into the local chemist and explained I was running for Redfern ward. The pharmacist reached down under the counter. He stood up, holding a shotgun, and said, "You'll need one of these." Much to the surprise of the dinosaurs - and to my own surprise - I was elected.

Walking into South Sydney Council was like stepping into a Hogarth painting. Back then it was a closed shop. People told me that as an Independent I wouldn't have any power. But when I got into the council, no one else was interested in the things I was concerned about. So I was free to go around with the Head of Parks and get trees planted and improvements made. Slowly - very slowly! - I began to make some headway

Some years later, the Labor Mayor said, "I wish we'd given her the grass for the park - then she would have gone away!"

So that's lesson number one: Persistance - Don't go away at your first failure.

As a councillor, I had to deal with numerous amalgamations and boundary changes, as each successive government tried to gerrymander the council to get their person in. When South Sydney was amalgamated into the City of Sydney, along with other like-minded community Independents, I was again forced to contest - and win.

For some years, we worked away on the larger canvas, until 1987, when the State Government sacked us and appointed Commissioners to run the City. If you think the vagaries of the market place are a challenge, try dealing with the NSW Government! I was so angry with the government's arrogance, arbitrarily sacking the democratically elected council, that I decided to run as an Independent for State seat of Bligh. People said: "You're mad! Independents never get elected." "You don't expect to win, do you?"

At the time, Bligh was considered a safe Liberal seat, but I spent six months door knocking the entire area, walking door to door through Paddington, Kings Cross, Surry Hills, Darling Point, Woollahra and beyond! The Liberals won in a landslide in 1988, but Bligh was so tight that the counting went on for two weeks. What a sight it was - the Liberal cabinet doing the scrutineering, while my team was a band of amateurs! But in the end I won the seat - and despite numerous boundary changes in an effort to unseat me, I remain there still.Though not for long, since the current State Government has introduced legislation that will prevent me acting in a dual capacity as State member for what is essentially the City area, and as Lord Mayor.

This latest assault on democracy will finally force me to surrender my parliamentary seat - because while I can advocate for change in Parliament, as Mayor I can effect change. It's all too predictable. In fact it's this kind of gerrymandering that convinced me to run for Lord Mayor in the first place.

Eight years ago, the Labor Government sacked the City of Sydney council, notifying then Lord Mayor with a fax hand delivered under her door. With a couple of weeks to run until the elections, the ALP's candidate was seen as a shoe-in. Until that point I was reminded that I had never lost an election, and although I was incensed by the government's action, I was told that there was a real risk of failure. But I decided to do it because of the political manipulation in sacking the council and bringing in an outsider. I believed it was the right thing to do. I had been a councillor before, but never run a government. I had no campaign money and no team.

But I couldn't help but think of the quote from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:

"There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;"

"Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries."

"On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures."

As an independent I was used to working alone. I had just weeks to pull together a team of people I didn't know or who were no more than acquaintances and weld it into a governing team.

Moments like these, on the cusp of failure, can be the spur to achievement. It's how you manage that moment.

As Brutus said, "We must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures."

Sometimes you may be ahead of your time, or ahead of your peers. Don't lose heart, you can bring people with you. And in doing so, you can help create a strong, new community.

The campaign for small bars was a classic example, and in the face of some of the strongest vested interests in the state. Remember former AHA President John Thorpe's comment that, "People in Sydney don't want to sit in a bar and drink chardonnay and read a book."

But people did want a warm, friendly alternative to the big pubs and clubs we've traditionally had in Sydney. I gave notice of a private members bill in Parliament to change the law.

The grass-roots movement, Raise the Bar, soon showed how many people out there actually wanted to catch up in a small bar rather than drinking in a beer barn with a blaring sports screen! Since the law was changed in 2008, more than 55 small bars have opened across the City. And people have flocked to them - importantly there has been a renaissance of the live music scene.

It doesn't always happen as quickly. My first attempt to allow same sex couples adopt children in 2000, wasn't supported by any other member of Parliament.

For children in families with same sex parents, this law ensures legal protection for their relationship with both their parents and hopefully removes discrimination so that school, friends and the community see their family as "normal". Same sex couples have a long history of fostering neglected, abused and seriously disadvantaged children - children often from dysfunctional families with heterosexual parents. These are often children that no-one else wants. When I tabled Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2010, MPs of all parties worked to get the bill passed. Just a lightning ten years to get it through!

The lesson - If at first you don't succeed, sometimes you just need to stick with it. And sometimes, failing to find an easy answer can paradoxically lead to a better result.

When I became Lord Mayor, a proposal was afoot to move the Surry Hills Library from its Crown Street site into the basement of the former St Margaret's Hospital redevelopment on Bourke Street. Everyone said the existing site on Crown Street was too small for the proposed library/community centre. I didn't think the basement was the right place for such an important community facility and so began the search for another site. We looked throughout the area, but ultimately failed to find anything suitable and available. Eventually we ended up back where we started, on the Crown Street site.

Locals told me they needed much more than just a library, they needed space for community groups and events, long day child care - it needed to be a hub for the community. So we decided to go down as well as up and found a solution to the site in the form of a brilliant architectural team from FJMT architects. The difficulties inherent in the site demanded truly imaginative and innovative solutions. It's now a wonderful building that has not only transformed that part of Crown Street, but won numerous design awards and brought five times as many new patrons into the library.

Redfern Park was another site that was rundown and neglected with an oval enclosed by besser blocks topped with barbed wire. I was committed to renewing the park and opening it up for the community, but there was huge opposition from George Piggins and the Souths rugby league club who wanted to put a big private club on public land.

I attended some very ugly and threatening meetings and it looked like the renewal would be lost. Then Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes à Court stepped in at Souths, asking members why they were fighting me when Council wanted to spend $32 million on a great facility for their team and community. Clearly there was a parallel battle within the club, but it shows the value of persevering. Stick around and allies will often appear from the most unlikely quarters. Previous governments postponed projects like this. The short term pain of consultation and construction was too much. But you need to take those short term challenges/risks if you want long term gain.

Closing Town Hall for two years and suspending the historic building on a bridge so we could do essential plumbing and restoration and install new plant for a 21st Century venue, was a huge engineering (and political) challenge.

Restoring the derelict Paddington Reservoir as a beautiful public space was, but its full potential for interesting cultural events is still yet to be realised.

These projects involved lengthy consultation and construction, and have delivered great facilities for the community.

Almost by definition, doing something new means taking a risk; and if you're going to take a real risk, there's always a real chance of failure.

As a city, we want to give people space to take risks, to feel that a failure along the way is not a failure for life, but rather a chance to pause, reassess, and look for a new way forward.

We want people to feel safe in sharing their new ideas, and to help provide the supportive environment they need. So, for example, we run our "101" workshops for would-be small bar and food truck owners, to highlight for them some of the pitfalls and share some of the real stories of people already working in the scene - not the glossed up hype, but the stories of what it's really like.

A year ago, I asked the Council to run a trial using City properties on Oxford Street as affordable work spaces for creative projects. The idea was to provide affordable space for start ups - places where our creatives could afford to take risks. We received well over 200 applications for spaces in our 58-72 Oxford Street properties. 16 tenants moved in at the beginning of the year, including web start up AroundYou.com.au, textiles design house Rouse Phillip, the shopfront gallery space Platform 72, and two co-working spaces, Home/Work and Fishburners. People started collaborating almost as soon as they moved in - it was quite remarkable to walk around the building hearing the stories.

A huge challenge for Sydney's emerging entrepreneurs is that paying for accommodation is just too expensive to risk failing. That's where these kinds of spaces come in. They give artists and creative start-ups a space where they can risk failing. And we are pursuing a similar venture on William Street.

We value all that our smart, adventurous, creative people have to offer. We know it's in the nature of the beast that sometimes you will fail. From that may come an even better, and maybe an even more adventurous idea.

I hope you too will be bold!

Thank you.

Click HERE for images.