A Few Other Things About Mary: The People's Mayor, in Conversation.
"Towards the end of the sixties, things changed, but when I was growing up, people didn’t really think to say 'You could be PM one day!' to a little girl."
Pictured: Mary Lyons-Buckett, Mayor of Hawkesbury City.
Photograph: Paul Baker
On Monday at 10:24am, I shoved my keys into my pocket and took in the sight of a remarkable hand-sewn wallhanging that adorns the wall of the council chambers. It had been patched together by locals to commemorate two hundred years of European settlement.
I took a moment to mentally honour each volunteer crafter, by eyeing every stitch and patch of the great blanket that covers the full wall from ceiling to floor. I wondered who was behind its overall design, and about the cute ways humans conceptualise memories and symbolism. I could even faintly detect its worn fabric smell; something like the smell of my mother’s old sewing cupboard. Quiet. Comforting.
I thought about the many young hands that had taken part in piecing together a tangible representation of a history they only half-understood. Heck, I still feel like I only half-understand it even after years of university. The last time I explored these rooms was when I was a child in my uncomfortable shiny shoes at Sister City events, shaking hands with another Mayor, Wendy Sledge, whose large golden square-flapped necklace I thought was a little over-the-top.
I gazed at the fabric woven with colour and colonial imagery and reflected on the knowledge that those times are never to return. This wallhanging is an artefact of an era that is arguably in its twilight. No longer are phrases like “two hundred years” bandied about quite so cheerfully. An increased community awareness of the Dharug land upon which our homes are built has blessed us with a socialised bloom of understanding that our community is complex, diverse, and in a period of increased understanding. That understanding bleeds over into other layers of social complexity, spurring more and more challenges to oversimplified or misinformed views on things. Gradually, a community’s understanding of itself evolves, and so must its representatives.
No more keenly was this indicated than when Hawkesbury communities elected for change. Dissatisfaction and perceptions of somewhat dormant elected representatives - let alone long-neglected operational and fiscal concerns – had turned to disappointment and anger when Kim Ford angrily spat a homophobic slur, which made national headlines and drew attention to the attitude of the sitting Mayor of the time, reflecting poorly upon the entire organisation.
We knew when Mary Lyons-Buckett landed in the big chair, because surveys, parks, road repairs, footpaths and better access for people living with disability suddenly began to roll out. This of course came after Hawkesbury City Council’s biggest 21st century challenge. No, that wasn’t the rainbow flag. It was rates reform. An uprising of anger from People Who Can Afford To Be Outraged At First World Problems prompted a wave of shouty community hall meetings. One Oakville resident even felt it appropriate to yell incoherently and repeatedly jab his finger menacingly close to Mary’s face at one particularly unpleasant meeting. Since the benefits of the healthier balance sheet began to visibly improve communities Hawkesbury-wide, however, the waves of frothy mouths have receded.
One of the most noticeable changes on what I’ve dubbed “Hawkesbury Facebook” in Mary’s time in the role has been a swell of misogynistic abuse and bizarre comments online not just directed at the Mayor but at other women on Council of all political persuasions. Despite all this, Mary has quietly restored the Mayorship to something that once again is characterised by a face-to-face connection to community, and not so much the perfunctory trail of cut ribbons, ICAC murmurings and defensive retorts that Hawkesbury residents had previously been told to settle for.
Most notably, she’s the first woman to be Mayor of Hawkesbury City since social media use for everyday sharing and news has become a norm. She has been tasked with holding a public leadership role in an extraordinarily difficult time in the history of the region, and at a time when global discussions on gender equality and sexism are undergoing enormous metamorphosis.
Today, Mary welcomes me to her senate-red armchair and observes with some amusement as I set about unpacking my laptop, clattering my camera gear to the floor and searching for my glasses. I’ve brought everything but the kitchen sink, and it’s because I’m not sure what to expect. This is a woman whose cheerful-but-no-nonsense rise from budget hell to what the community has affectionately named her - “the People’s Mayor” - indicates to us an innate resilience and all-round acumen that I’m determined to investigate.
Born in 1961 in northwestern New South Wales, Mary Lyons was the seventh of nine children born to parents who were both journalists; her mother also spending significant time as a teacher. Before embarking on the journo life, her father had served in the Navy, including deployment to Japan, and her mother was originally from a farming family. Mary describes her home life as busy and happy, but always peaceful. Mary’s mother was “someone who unconditionally loved and accepted people”, and her five sisters also were role models; each had a different but rewarding relationship with her. Mary’s also somewhat surprised during our interview by a realisation that other important role models in her early life were Catholic nuns who taught her in highschool, because she’s naturally “rebellious” and “anti-authoritarian”, but says that these nuns instilled in her a sense that women were able to achieve anything.
Locals who “dunked the Mayor” at the Richmond swimming pool last summer will be relieved to know that during these same years, Mary was a competitive swimmer as a young person, and travelled the state competing with others of her age. Swimming certainly wasn’t her only passion as a teen, because she did well enough in senior school to study microbiology at university in the late seventies. She worked as a researcher for a number of years before meeting her husband and moving to the Hawkesbury to begin a family of her own. She has three children; a boy and two girls. In the late eighties, she began a Hawkesbury chapter of Amnesty International.
Mary returned to university later in life, first becoming a lawyer, then later studying a Master of Laws (legal practice) by night. For a mother of three children, that’s no easy task, but even beyond her years in practice, Mary has found her university education infinitely useful. She explains, “So much of what you learn is applicable to situations in everyday life such as human rights and international law. I did some criminal law, and then I did a Masters and focused on climate law. After that, I did a mediation course. I’m a problemsolver!”
Was the word “leadership” something that was mentioned to you a lot by the people around you, such as teachers or parents? For example, teachers in primary school said to me, “You’re going to be PM one day!” Did people say things like that to you?
“Not overly, although, I have to say I was always mindful of people who were leaders. Towards the end of the sixties, things changed, but when I was growing up, people didn’t really think to say 'You could be PM one day!' to a little girl. I went to senior school later on, but that was an era when many girls left after year ten to go to tech college to do secretarial courses, and even that was still quite radical, for women! Looking back on how I viewed leadership; I know that in our town, the Mayor was a very respected person. They were someone who was held in high regard. If the Mayor came to your school, it was exciting. It’s not really the same now, but I can’t make the distinction as to whether that’s because I grew up in a country town, or if it’s because the whole politicisation of local government has made it fall into the pool of politics. When I was young, it was about being someone who was a civic leader; someone who would go to the town hall and did things. It wasn’t a political thing.”
In 2012, Mary was elected to Hawkesbury City Council, running as an independent after years of being dissatisfied with how decisions were being made. She says she had felt frustrated with the growing fragmentation of the community.
“There was big pressure coming as Sydney grew, and I always just valued this place as a really special sort of place. I wondered to myself whether it would just be swallowed up and become part of Sydney, or retain its character and grow to become the place it could always possibly be.”
Mary says the decision to run for council “wasn’t a big lifechanging choice” for her, and becoming Mayor wasn’t originally on her agenda. However, she takes the role seriously and says, “A Mayor is a role. Not a person. When I go out and attend an event, I’m not ‘me’. I’m the head of an organisation, and I have a deep respect for that role.”
Have you felt that you’ve been able to restore the public’s respect for the role of Mayor?
“I know that I’ve had a lot of people say that it’s very meaningful that I’ve turned up to their thing. I went to something the other day, and someone said, ‘It is so great that you take the time to come along!’, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. It might be the AGM of a community group, or it might be the Eisteddfodd... but it's important to them, so it's important to me. I went along to the Eisteddfodd a number of times, because I love to see kids perform, but also I know that it means so much to the people who put in all that volunteer work. It’s an acknowledgement to those people when they’ve had someone come; not because it’s me personally, but because that’s the role of Mayor.
“That hands-on community attendance and involvement is important, but ultimately, they’re all the things I love anyway! I love to see that we’ve got so many dedicated people. I love the Eisteddfodd, because the kids learn so much from something like that. If it means something to the kids, their teachers and their parents, to have the Mayor sit with them and watch all the performances, that’s really important. The other thing that is one of my main motivations is to rebuild community, which is why I’ve taken on a lot of work with the resilience-building. Our community was very fragmented politically, and over a number of issues, but also I think we’ve lost that sense of people knowing who lives next door to them.”
Does the experience of raising your own family here still inform your decisions?
“Totally. I mean, my kids are all grown up now, but they had such great experiences of growing up here. They’ve had the country life, but still able to do city things. They’ve been exposed to a lot of things; music, theatre, all of that. Mainly, I taught them how to think, because I think that’s been lost. I will say though that they weren’t exposed to a lot of racial diversity, which I thought was a bit problematic. But what was interesting was that my daughter went to Penrith High School, and as an ethnic minority she got to experience many other cultures and see things from a different perspective. That was interesting for me. I guess I just always thought there was something a bit skewiff about treating someone differently because of colour. Just in my own mind, it doesn’t sit right, and I guess I was always the person at school who always stuck up for the underdog if someone was calling them names. I just hate that. I just don’t like nastiness. I’m a questioner. I ask myself, ‘Is that the way it should be?’ Then, by the time I went to university in the late seventies, there was a lot happening. It was the start of Mardi Gras, for example. Seeing that there was a group of people who were vilified and had legal restrictions on their sexuality was to me quite bizarre, and an intrusion. I think it was the realisation that a government can intrude on a person’s individual rights in quite a significant way.”
I was in a Council meeting a little while ago and was surprised to see a councillor commenting that a local council’s role is to concern themselves with roads and rates, and that they should stay out of social and community issues. What’s your response to that?
“Well, we’re elected by the people for those core functions. I mean, that is why we exist. But then we have a voice and we have access to the public, and we can transfer what the public are thinking, so I think that we have a responsibility to care about community. But also I think everyone should do that. So I just think that’s an appalling attitude. The other thing is that people who say that would soon flip that around if it suited them! Why would we not reflect all the views of the people? We should engage in the debate and we should discuss the social issues, because the social issues are what make our community the sort of community it is. If we don’t know those things, how can we deliver the services appropriately? We have to give people the services they expect, and that isn’t restricted only to roads and rates. That’s relevant to access and equality and that sort of thing as well, so of course we have to speak out.”
When did you come to understand that you could lead, or be an influencer?
“It’s never something that I was particularly geared for. I didn’t do student politics or anything. I was always in there; I spent years in the Cold War period, attending demonstrations, but I wouldn’t say I was a leader. I’ve always been a strong advocate for women’s rights and equal and fair treatment of asylum seekers. I was prepared to throw my voice in and I was quite outspoken, but I was never a big player. I have always been happy to just be a part of it all.”
This Lyons-Buckett woman before me in the other council-issue armchair has a rebellious streak that doesn’t take long to pry out; there’s a gleeful wickedness in her eye that somehow works harmoniously with her deep and sincere affection for all kinds of people. I have no idea how that works, but it does. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what we need.
Pictured: Mayor of Hawkesbury City Mary Lyons-Buckett, with DiverseHawkesbury.net Project Founder Rozzie Chia.
Photograph: Paul Baker
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