Profile

Since becoming the deputy lord mayor of Sydney, Jess Scully has continued her fight for social equality. As she pushes for affordable housing and investment in the ‘caring economy’, she remains hopeful of instituting long-lasting change. “I think there’s an opportunity for us right now to make sure that participatory democracy and the care economy and affordable housing are some of the things that become practical, real projects.” By Steve Dow.

Sydney deputy lord mayor Jess Scully

Jess Scully at the 2020 Sydney Mardi Gras.
Credit: City of Sydney / Jack Begbie

Jess Scully and I are walking purposefully along Rozelle Bay near her home suburb of Glebe in Sydney’s inner west. The Sydney deputy lord mayor and purveyor of ideas for a fairer world wants to show me the Tramsheds, a restoration of a former tram depot, now a growers’ market buttressed by restaurants and free wi-fi alongside 1300 new apartments where the Harold Park paceway once stood.

The development includes some affordable housing, discreetly tucked in and as desirable as the rest of the dwellings: her city, in concert with other authorities, trying to eke out a tiny piece of equality around the affluent urban escarpment. The superyachts moored on the opposite bank catch Scully’s eye and ire, however. “The 1 per cent telling the rest of the people what they can do,” she says, smiling ironically.

She points to the historic Glebe Island Bridge, a disused early 20th-century swing bridge rendered redundant by the adjacent Anzac Bridge and decommissioned more than two decades ago; if reopened, however, it would provide pedestrians and cyclists a thoroughfare between Rozelle and Pyrmont. But there are influential forces who do not want the slightest temporary obstacle to their cruisy passages through life.

Scully devotes her career to surmounting obstacles and co-opting and proposing reform ideas. She is wearing thick-rimmed spectacles and is wrapped in a woolly grey scarf and cream jumper against the winter cold, and her mood lightens now as we pass the Jubilee Park playground, where Scully, who turns 40 in September, takes her nine-month-old daughter, Elinor, named for the late American political economist Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the equivalent of the Nobel prize in economics. Scully’s creative-thinker husband, systems designer Pat Armstrong, has taken a year off work to care for their child.

We reach the rustic, airy Tramsheds, although by this point Scully is sporting white earbuds and has dialled in on her mobile phone to the city’s Nightlife and Creative Sector Advisory Panel, which she co-chairs, and is answering the panel’s questions and suggesting ways to communicate to a sector hit by a double successive whammy of lockout laws and Covid-19, while she simultaneously points out urban and natural landmarks to me.

I previously sat down with Scully and had a proper yarn in 2012, when her life was very different but on this same, clear trajectory of setting out to rattle complacency. She was a resident of “Downton Shabby”, a crumbling double-storey, six-bedroom house shared with other young creatives opposite the Eveleigh railyards, where the recently saved Carriageworks arts facility is located. Scully was then 31, single, and three years earlier had founded Creative Sydney, describing herself as an “armchair activist” who believes creativity can disrupt social inequality. She had just gained a new title, director of Vivid Ideas, after Creative Sydney had been subsumed into part of the Vivid festival.

Scully is inspired by the rise of the Green New Deal, formulated in Britain in the 2000s as a shift to a zero-carbon economy, a notion that had been gaining worldwide momentum again prior to the coronavirus pandemic. She advocates, among a raft of other ideas, a doubling of investment in the “caring economy”, and is infuriated by the low regard for the sector because it is widely considered “women’s work”. She defines caring broadly as “educating children, caring for infants, children, the elderly and people with disabilities, caring for our planet and restoring natural ecosystems”.

Many of the ideas Scully has gathered over the years form part of her new book, Glimpses of Utopia, published by Pantera Press and subtitled Real Ideas for a Fairer World, an analytical but also entertaining read on how to redesign politics, work, finance and civic conversations for greater public equity and to restore trust in the political process. A believer in political change at a local level, Scully now has a prominent seat at the policy table, since becoming deputy Sydney lord mayor in 2019.

At the City of Sydney, Scully practises what she preaches, trialling or effecting policies such as giving preference to local goods and services, a citizens’ jury, ratepayer participatory budgeting, advocacy of nightlife and creativity, affordable space and housing, co-ops and community land trusts.

Has Covid-19 slowed or stymied the reforms she’s been championing? “It remains to be seen whether we go the whole hog,” she says. “In Sydney and beyond, the Overton window – the window of what is socially acceptable in a period of time – has been thrown open. Bernie Sanders, for example, shifted the whole Overton window. He may not have become the [Democratic presidential] nominee, but he got everyone to talk about Medicare for All as a base requirement on the left in the US, which hadn’t been the case previously.

“In Australia, I think that’s beginning to change as well. I’m hopeful. I think there’s an opportunity for us right now to make sure that participatory democracy and the care economy and affordable housing are some of the things that slip through the window and become practical, real projects.”

A Green New Deal – or a “just transition”– cannot be taken for granted given the Covid crisis, however. “I think there’s a risk people will be able to say, ‘Oh, no, we can’t risk a recovery being innovative and renewable; we have to put a guy with vested interests in gas in charge of our Covid recovery’,” says Scully, a reference to former Fortescue Metals boss Neville Power’s appointment as chair of the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission and the promotion of gas as a key means to boost the economy.

“That’s the big danger. The choices the Morrison government is currently making – prioritising hard-hat projects over the caring economy, ending JobKeeper for childcare and pumping $700 million into projects for wealthy people – are going down the wrong path.

“We have the opportunity to arrest that now. The huge opportunity is one that fixes the problems that were pre-existing in our system, and helps us get out of this hole. And it’s entirely possible.”

 

Jess Scully was born in Liverpool, in Sydney’s south-west, and raised in nearby Fairfield with one sister, Cass. Their father, Bryan, a furniture salesman, came from India, seeking economic opportunity in Australia, and their mother, Trish, an interior decorator, fled Chile with her family during the time of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule, entering Australia on transit visas and overstaying.

“I was one of the last to benefit from the golden days of Australia’s social welfare state,” Scully writes in Glimpses of Utopia, acutely aware of the growing disparity between rich and poor since she grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, not just in Australia but also during a formative period in Chile.

As a journalism and law student at the University of Technology Sydney when the millennium ticked over, she got so waylaid editing indie design, fashion, music and social issues magazines “that I forgot to graduate”, she writes. “Whoops.”

We sit at a cafe where Scully drinks a couple of soy flat whites. “My parents are this energetic, enthusiastic, optimistic pair of people who see something exciting just over the next hill, all the time,” she says.

Trish was a university student in Concepción, living in a share house with people with radical political views, when Pinochet’s coup struck and the military took over universities and detained people. Trish was held and interrogated. She hid in Santiago for the next two years, and was later smuggled by her family out of the country.

Scully notes in the book that the subsequent “repressive” neoliberal era led to an “erosion of civil-society institutions” in Trish’s land of birth. When Scully was 10, her family moved back to Chile for two years in the post-Pinochet era. Her mother’s cousin, uncle and aunt still lived in the same Santiago house where her mother had been born, and had to walk several blocks to pay to use a telephone in a private house. Her mother’s uncle was an ambulance driver and the local public hospital was so under-resourced that patients had to bring their own medical supplies to be treated.

It’s an experience that attuned Scully to the “self-interested neoliberal mindset”, one she blames in her book for the Coalition’s 2019 federal election win in Australia despite Labor’s progressive pre-election proposals such as winding back negative gearing on investment properties and ending franking credits. Labor’s subsequent backtracking on moves towards greater fairness was a misdiagnosis of the causes of the loss, Scully says now: the issue was not the policies but that Labor failed to sell them.

Scully admits in her book that she subsequently “cried more than once” over the polarisation of the electorate, although the federal election result has strengthened her belief in “bottom-up” politics. She writes in Glimpses of Utopia: “When you start by working on improving people’s day-to-day lives by influencing wages and conditions, improving access to credit and generating local economic activity, citizens can begin to see the benefit of political engagement or the difference between ideologies on offer.”

Among other examples, Scully cites Australian Luca Belgiorno-Nettis’s New Democracy Foundation and its collaborative proposals of citizens’ juries to review parliament’s agendas – though she does not want elected officials replaced entirely – as well as open-government participatory processes in Taiwan. She sees hope in the United States, where the leftist Sunrise Movement mobilised young people to lobby Democrats to refuse donations from fossil-fuel companies and executives.

Scully sees a possible new working future, despite the erosion of workers’ rights in the gig economy. She sees worker-owned businesses as being the opposite of the extractive neoliberal mindset, because co-operatives give back to workers and communities. One heartening example among several she provides is a local one, The Co-operative Life, a Sydney care social enterprise offering health services in the home that has overcome the private sector’s tendency in this area to shortchange clients in the quest for profit.

Scully has a keen eye for economics and the analytical, supporting a unitary tax that would “wipe away the corporate fiction that Apple or Nike or Google shell companies are all separate entities, for tax purposes” and instead tax companies as a whole to overcome tax avoidance. She does not hold back her scorn for News Corp, which somehow managed an $882 million refund from the Tax Office in 2013: “That one really stings, because News Corp is one of the main causes of our climate-denialist political culture in Australia, and this means we’re actually paying Murdoch to poison our media landscape.”

But Scully also has an eye for the lyrical: “It’s nothing out of the ordinary to wake up to a heavy haze of smoke sitting over our cities and the powerful smell of eucalypt,” she writes. “It seeps into everything; you wear the smell in your hair all day. The ash falls like snow and settles on cars, leaves and fences … We think of this as normal, but it’s actually a sign of dysfunction, a sign the country isn’t being cared for.”

Scully’s book thus turns its attentions to Indigenous history of management of land, waterways, flora and fauna, and to Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu, which forced her into a reckoning of “how little I knew” about this country and prompted her to support the empowerment and centring of Indigenous knowledge.

Scully also sees investment in childcare as paramount: not only does it unlock children’s futures, but it also helps childcare workers – who are paid about half of what metal fitters earn – and frees up families.

“The best stimulus is investing in care,” she says now, proposing an overhaul of the Morrison government’s present priorities. “But we’ve got a political dialogue of a very narrow, neoliberal, blokey ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. That stuff’s important, but it’s very limited, and it doesn’t have ongoing benefit.

“Whereas investing in childcare will first and foremost connect those kids with their potential, but it’s also investment that is generative and has multiple impacts. That’s what we should be asking for.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2020 as "Caring in mind".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.