‘Timing is everything’: Inside Sally Capp’s race to the polls

By Bianca Hall

On Tuesday, the City of Melbourne's councillors settled in front of their computers for yet another Zoom meeting. They've been a weekly occurrence since the city first went into lockdown but with the October 23 election weeks away, the looming poll was on everyone's minds.

Minutes after the meeting wrapped up, individually addressed emails lobbed into inboxes across the city titled "I need your help". The emails sought support from "passionate Melburnians", including financial donations. The sender? Lord mayor Sally Capp.

The timing of the missive raised a few eyebrows and, according to one colleague, "put a few noses out of joint" (someone at Town Hall later made a complaint to the Local Government Inspectorate about the email).

Capp shrugs. "Timing is everything," she laughs. "We went into caretaker at midday, and I was off and running."

Melbourne lord mayor Sally Capp, photographed at her front door (candidates are prevented from campaigning outside their homes under stage four restrictions).Credit:Simon Schluter

Fight for city's heart

The City of Melbourne, like 75 other Victorian councils, will go to the polls next month. With a CBD largely shuttered and the city's economy battered by two waves of lockdown and forecast to contract by $23.5 billion this year alone, this could be the most important council election since the 1990s recession.

It will also be an unusual election, conducted in the shadow of the pandemic. Under stage four restrictions, candidates are banned from campaigning outside their homes and cannot conduct letterboxing. If – as expected – metropolitan Melbourne moves to stage three or even stage two during the campaign, candidates will be allowed to letterbox but will still be banned from holding public meetings and community events, from doorknocking potential voters or handing out leaflets.

To succeed, candidates must have big pockets or big donors to help them reach voters through mailouts. Businesses, which under the City of Melbourne's unique structure have two votes while residents have one, will be harder to reach, particularly small businesses in the CBD.

Business is vitally important to the City of Melbourne. In addition to the municipality's 61,370 registered residential voters (at last count), there are 75,795 "business" voters, who either own or occupy rateable property or are appointed to vote on behalf of corporations. Voters include people who aren't citizens of Australia, let alone living in the city.

Business owners will be looking to candidates to offer local solutions to the economic crisis gripping the city. Modelling conducted by accounting giant PWC earlier this month forecast a $110 billion hit to the City of Melbourne's projected economy over the next five years.

For candidates, donors will be vitally important. Here, Capp has enjoyed an advantage over her rivals. During the 2018 byelection, she collected more than $332,000 in donations from a who's who of Melbourne donors, including members of the Fox family, Pratt Holdings, Roslyn Kelly, Ann Peacock and Nelson Alexander.

Last month, City of Melbourne councillors narrowly voted in favour of a bid led by Councillor Jackie Watts, and backed by deputy lord mayor Arron Wood, to encourage candidates to disclose their campaign donations in real time rather than abide by the status quo, which makes candidates' donations public 40 days after the close of polls. Almost half the council, including Capp, voted against the measure.

The state of play

Nearly four weeks out from the election, Capp's closest rival is deputy lord mayor Wood, with whom she's had a sometimes difficult working relationship. Wood, who was elected in 2012 and has served as deputy lord mayor since 2016, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Deputy lord mayor Arron Wood helping collect donations at a North Melbourne mosque during the hard lockdown of high-rise housing towers in July.Credit:Joe Armao

Also in the mix is Labor's official candidate for lord mayor, Phil Reed, and its unofficial candidate Jennifer Yang, who is backed by the party's increasingly muscular industrial left faction.

The Greens, who traditionally poll well in City of Melbourne elections and hold the state and federal seats of Melbourne, are standing Apsara Sabaratnam for lord mayor.

So far, only the Greens and Wood's team have lodged their donations in an online disclosure log.

With Wood running his own race, Capp has put forward one of her allies on council, long-term Labor member Nicholas Reece, as her candidate for deputy lord mayor. She's also running a cross-party team for her councillor ticket, including current Labor and Liberal Party members as well as former Team Doyle members.

Capp, 53, has copped some criticism from within the Liberal Party for her solid working relationship with the Andrews government through the pandemic. But she has also been criticised by some in the left for her ties to the "big end of town".

"It's been much louder over the last few months, obviously, as there has been an escalation of emotion as a result of the pandemic and the lockdown," Capp says of such criticism.

"When they call and contact me to criticise me for not doing enough to represent one side of politics or the other – that is not why I'm in this role. I'm in this role to represent the best interests of the ratepayers and constituents of the City of Melbourne."

Capp, who was briefly a member of the Liberal Party before entering Town Hall, says she has worked hard to build strong relationships with the Labor state government and Coalition federal government.

"I have been more resolved to that than I ever have been as a result of this experience during the pandemic," she adds.

"People have wanted me to be the loudest voice at a time when we've actually needed to be the hardest-working towards those goals. People have wanted me to take pot shots from the outside, when actually my role is to make sure that I'm on the inside; so that I am speaking with state government and with federal government to get every single dollar, investment, program that we can to reactivate our city, which has absolutely unequivocally been the most negatively impacted by the pandemic."

A different road

Capp came to the top job in a roundabout way. Having held a number of high-powered positions, including as Victorian executive director of the Property Council of Australia, in 2018 she was persuaded to run for lord mayor halfway through a Town Hall term in the byelection triggered by Robert Doyle's resignation amid sexual harassment allegations.

Capp was elected in May that year on 25 per cent of the primary vote (her nearest rival was Yang, who ran as Labor's official candidate and polled 15.39 per cent), winning the two-candidate vote with 53 per cent after preferences.

She promised to be a a safe and steady pair of hands and a healer. Even some of those running against her in next month's election have voiced admiration for the way she worked to bring a divided council together.

As well as working to end the turmoil of the final months of Doyle's reign, Capp nominates working with the state and federal governments to generate funding and focus attention on the city's shattered economy through the COVID-19 recovery as her major achievement in recent months.

But she also points to the controversial Queen Victoria Market renewal plan as a win. Among the works are restoration of the heritage-listed sheds, at a cost of $30 million.

Queen Victoria Market activist and deputy lord mayor candidate Mary-Lou Howie.Credit:Eddie Jim

Community activist Mary-Lou Howie, president of the Friends of Queen Victoria Market and also running for deputy lord mayor on pollster Gary Morgan's ticket for Town Hall, is not a fan.

"Self-promoting" is Howie's frank assessment of Capp's leadership style.

"I think she's controlled by the Labor Party," she says. "I don't think she has been innovative, really. Look, I don't want to bag her. I just think we can do better."

Asked about other achievements in her two years as lord mayor, Capp points to her "passion project", a so-called "Greenline" for Melbourne. Technically less an achievement than a grand vision advanced into pre-planning stage, Greenline would be a 10-kilometre trail linking Royal Park with Port Philip Bay through North Melbourne, Docklands, the CBD and Southbank Boulevard.

People along High Line in Manhattan. If Sally Capp realises her "passion project", Melbourne could one day get its own version of the famous park.Credit:Shutterstock

Capp went to the 2018 byelection promising to build an earlier version of the plan, High Line – modelled on New York City's High Line Park – which would have created elevated cycling and walking tracks over rail lines.

The plan was mocked as pie-in-the-sky stuff. But Capp is resolute.

"There's no doubt that there's been a stymieing of the Greenline and its advancements over the last two years," she says.

"But despite that, the sheer scale and, I think, transformative elements of this idea have meant that it has been embraced deeply into our organisation and also broadly across many stakeholders.

"After two years of consultation and work to bring the plan together, we are now at a point where we can say phase one will be Northbank. And we will get on with it. We're at that stage where we can actually start putting budgets around detailed plans and start work, so if I get in for a second term that project that captured the imagination of so many people in the 2018 election is something that can become a reality, that will generate jobs, and is one of those projects that creates a legacy."

City of Melbourne councillor and deputy lord mayor hopeful Nicholas Reece.Credit:Luis Ascui

Her running mate, Reece, says despite having little experience of politics, Capp has put a broom through Town Hall.

"I've worked under Robert Doyle and under Sally Capp," he says. "She's been a breath of fresh air … she has helped professionalise the management of business at Town Hall."

Reece, who worked as an adviser to Julia Gillard when she was prime minister, says there are similarities between the two leaders' treatment by their foes.

"I do think female political leaders face an additional set of factors compared to the blokes, and Sally Capp has not been immune to this."

For her part, Capp says she realised quickly that it was not going to be enough to take a "business" approach to Town Hall.

"When I came in, I'd been pretty focused on using my business experience and my experience about getting things done. I was confident about that. But I learned when I stepped into the first couple of meetings, particularly meetings with councillors and senior team members, that I was also going to be drawing on other experiences.

"When you're sitting with a group of elected representatives, you need to draw on your skill base of being able to lead without having those formal levers in place."

In the past fortnight, as the days ticked down to nominations closing, Capp rolled out announcement after announcement.

There was an outdoor dining package, negotiated over weeks and months, that came with a $100 million funding boost from the Victorian government. The council approved a COVID-19 Reactivation and Recovery Plan as well as a sustainable buildings strategy. Capp spoke at the Melbourne Press Club and the McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership Oration.

Her critics within council grumbled that she was effectively in campaign mode already, but she shows no sign of slowing down. As she says: "Timing is everything."

Moomba Festival 2020 monarchs Julia Morris and Nazeem Hussain with Lord Mayor Sally Capp, just over a month before Melbourne went into its first lockdown.Credit:Eddie Jim

Capp was born in Rabaul, scene of a famous World War II battle, and spent her early childhood in Papua New Guinea. After the family moved to Melbourne, Capp attended the prestigious Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne's leafy east before graduating from the University of Melbourne with an honours degree in law and economics.

She has since served in a number of high-level positions, including as the first woman to sit on the board of Collingwood Football Club; the Victorian Employers' Chamber of Commerce's chief of operations; and the Committee for Melbourne's chief executive.

Capp is the first woman in almost 30 years to lead Melbourne Town Hall, and only the third woman to take the top job, following Alexis (Lecki) Ord in 1987-88, and Winsome McCaughey in 1988-89.

Reece describes Capp as being an empathetic leader, who can read a room, and an excellent negotiator. Capp describes herself as a good listener and someone who is patient. But she cautions that she is no pushover. "I am somebody who is equally tenacious and determined, and ultimately that determination is about actually seeing an outcome and a result."

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