Editor-at-large Gary Nunn meets Sydney Deputy Lord Mayor and impassioned Clover Moore Independent Team member, Jess Scully, to talk politics, Instagram, ‘YIMBYism’ and effecting change, ahead of the NSW local government elections on 4 December.
Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney Jess Scully says she first ran for office because she wanted to represent people not usually seen or heard in local politics.
Until purchasing a home two years ago, she was a long-term renter. She’s spent a career freelancing, she loves live music, has a non-English speaking background and began the journey into politics when she was under 40: “I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me in elected office,” she said at the time.
In the last 12 months, she has published a book, Glimpses of Utopia through Pantera Press, and is now gearing up for the NSW local government elections on 4 December, with an eye on implementing some of the big picture ideas she explores in the book – a manifesto of sorts.
“Politics tends to be exclusive,” she tells the Sentinel.
“Very dedicated community action groups have their say, as do those who understand how permissions work, can read an environmental impact statement and know how to make a submission. The problem is: that’s not most people,” she says.
“Most people are so busy spinning plates, doing all the things you need to do to survive in a big city, they just don’t have the time, the political literacy, or both.”
It’s those other people she’s passionate about bringing into the fold in innovative ways.
“The other key thing they don’t have is a sense of entitlement,” she says. “I’ve spoken to people who thought they couldn’t vote in local elections because they’re renters. I tell them 55 per cent of people in Sydney are renters: they absolutely can vote, and we need to hear from them more!”
Politics by sliding into DMs
Scully worries that such people aren’t in the ‘politically engaged’ networks that dominate discourse.
One of the ways she includes them is by engaging and replying to people who DM her on Instagram, and by making her role as Deputy Lord Mayor transparent by posting Instagram stories about her day and duties.
“I hear on Instagram from young women working in creative fields, councillors in other cities and one 15-year-old who told me she was inspired to get into local politics and get elected and work with me. It’s exciting to connect with people like this,” Scully says. “I tell them their point of view is needed and they have just as much right as anyone else to have their say.”
What does a Deputy Lord Mayor do?
First there are the official duties, often concomitant to those of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore.
“Clover gets invited to everything and she can’t make every event so sometimes I’ll deputise that way,” she says.
Then there’s the community participation and outreach component.
“That’s listening, responding to people who reach out to me and advocating on their behalf.”
And the third component is proactive.
“That’s self-initiated work. It’s me taking advantage of the fact I have this really nice email signature which means people will answer my email in a way they haven’t before. I’m using that to push the boat out a little bit further.”
Examples she gives include lobbying the state government for pandemic disaster relief payments and grants for sole traders and freelancers on less than $75,000 a year, and asking the Student Accommodation Association if they’d temporarily donate empty student flats as supply for those experiencing domestic violence when women’s refuges became full.
“That actually came from a Twitter conversation I was having with Benjamin Law,” she says. “I thought, ‘I know, I’ll just email the association and see if we can just get access to those properties.’ And it’s taken nine months! But we finally got a pilot over the line. I think it has happened in part because I had that nice email signature,” she says.
Whilst posting Instagram stories helps her dispel the idea that City Hall politicians are aloof, there’s a deeper message she’s keen to convey.
“I don’t want to just show people what I’m doing. I want to show them what they can do. As much as it’s important to vote on December 4 – it’s also all the stuff that happens in the time between elections that really matters,” she says.
“So if you want a cycleway instead of car parking in that spot, we need you to stand up. Because your big ambitions can be eroded if you don’t get backup from the community in the time between elections as well.”
“Sometimes you have to just test things out to convince people”
We’re sitting on Stanley Street at a cafe within one of the new outdoor areas on the road, separated by colourful barriers. She motions to it as she speaks.
“In the four years before this happened, I’d talk to businesses about trying to reclaim outdoor space. But businesspeople would say to me, ‘The most valuable thing I can have outside my business is a car space, because I know someone can pull up, buy a coffee and get back in the car,’” she says.
“But now they’re realising the most valuable thing they can have outside it is people spending money … There are some 260 businesses that’ve taken this up so far in the City of Sydney. 90 per cent of them say they’ve increased their revenue.”
What does this tell her?
“It wasn’t just the regulation. It was also the mentality. Sometimes you have to test something out.”
This is why she wants to give people more opportunities to make their voices heard. “I guarantee you, I’m going to hear from every person who doesn’t like this. And I won’t hear a peep from everyone who does.”
It was this mentality that led her to start YIMBY Squad Sydney. ‘YIMBY’ is an acronym for ‘yes, in my back yard’. Amongst other things, it encourages quieter voices, rather than the usual suspects, to have a say.
It’s an antidote to the ‘NIMBYism’ which sees live music nights shut down in Kings Cross from a single resident’s complaint.
A night time economy is something Scully is passionate about – she was a partygoer in her 20s and grew up above a disco her parents ran in Chile – but she concedes that in an expensive city like Sydney it isn’t easy.
“You could dance every night of the week when I was younger in Sydney. I don’t want to live in a city where I can’t dance. That gives a city its life, character and soul,” she says. “But with lockouts then lockdowns, Sydney has been kicked in the guts.”
She cites changing late night trading regulations to enable businesses to trade with extended hours and also the planned creation of a new nightlife district in North Alexandria: “There are these beautiful art deco warehouses, no residential nearby; it’s eventually going to be a 24 hour nightlife district. Within five years, you’ll start seeing performance spaces, clubs and venues. And the Metro Station is opening there so you’ll have 21 hour a day public transport.”
What the government can’t do, she says, is run a club for you.
“What government does is enable and support by creating incentives, and hopefully remove barriers. For nightlife to thrive, you need the right kind of buildings, the right kind of planning controls and good transport options.”
On the planned Oxford Street regeneration, she says: “My colleague, Philip Thalis, has this long view of history as an urban designer and historian, and he discusses how Oxford Street has had just nothing but booms and busts over and over. But every time there’s a bust, when the incentives are right, it’s cheap enough for new things to get a foothold and for bohemian culture to prosper and to thrive.
“It’s like Manchester or Chicago or Detroit being the birthplaces of electronic music; it’s because they had the right building stock, a great cultural milieu and young people having something to rebel against,” she says. “I’m hoping to set the commercial and cultural conditions for that boom time to be around the corner in Sydney.”
“Australia gets a bit lazy sometimes”
Coming from a migrant family – Scully’s mum is from Chile and her dad is from India – gives her a unique perspective.
“Australia gets a bit lazy sometimes,” she says. “In the past, we’ve only learned from America, or the UK. We need to learn from every city in the world: Bangkok can teach us about using their streets’ space differently over the course of a day, Tokyo can teach us about beautiful little neighborhoods in the middle of this 14 million person metropolis and Latino culture [can teach us] about nightlife and enjoying yourself!”
Like an Australian version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Scully is a fresh voice, full of verve. Who inspires her?
“My natural instinct is to go look at Instagram and tell you the last 10 people I liked. But I love Clover. She’s such a fighter and has stood up for Sydney for so long with commitment, passion and integrity, and I’ve seen close up that she lives it – she’s actually constantly fighting battles people don’t even know about on our behalf.”
She also names independent Member for Sydney Alex Greenwich, and at this point, she gets choked up and slightly tearful.
“He’s so principled and committed to making a substantial change. I love that a gay man is responsible for decriminalising abortion in NSW and hopefully soon, voluntary assisted dying, too.”
We finish on the million dollar question. Will she run for Lord Mayor as Clover Moore’s successor after the next term?
She won’t be drawn on this one.
“If you told me eight years ago I’d be in local politics, I wouldn’t have believed you. I’ve learned so much in the last five years that I don’t know where I’ll be eight years from now. I just want to keep learning and contributing. And I don’t know what that looks like; I don’t really see myself as a long term politician,” she says.
That trademark excited glint returns to her eye.
“But I do know I want to have impact and influence and, you know, spark some things.”
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