Childcare now, as a relatively new mother who turned 40 this week, is not quite as simple. So her partner, Pat Armstrong, a designer on full-time paternity leave, joins us for lunch along with baby Elinor, who turns one this month.
“As a City of Sydney councillor you don’t get maternity leave, it is a job designed for retired blokes,” she jokes.
Jess Scully holding her sister Cass with cousin Christian in Fairfield.
As well as two significant birthdays, September was meant to be a big work month for her as the City of Sydney elections were slated for next Saturday. Because of COVID-19, they have been pushed back to September 4, 2021.
But it’s Scully’s first book, Glimpses of Utopia, real ideas for a fairer world, we are here to digest, along with our Chilean delicacies, starting with handmade piping hot cheese empanadas. The food, like the décor, hasn’t changed since she first came here as a child. It’s a world away from the sandstone majesty of Sydney Town Hall, where she shares a front corner office with another councillor called Jess Miller.
“We have this ridiculous room which is beautiful, but you can feel the weight of history … it’s an aesthetic that’s not really designed for a couple of young women with young children,” she says. “Our decorating style would have been different.” Most cities, she says have been designed with the needs of the Victorian-era male in mind.
Sydney’s deputy lord mayor Jess Scully at lunch in La Paula, Fairfield.Credit:Wolter Peeters
Scully, who was the curator of the Vivid Ideas festival for nearly a decade before she became a councillor, is all about reimagining everything from cities, to childcare, finance and urban planning, to make them more equitable. She was approached by publishers Pantera Press to write this book as a sort of manifesto. She Skyped, wrote and spoke to people all over the world, from Iceland to Taiwan, Bangladesh to Kenya, who are redesigning their communities using tools from micro-financing from non-profit public banks to lands’ trusts and co-ops.
Empanadas as entrees. Credit:Wolter Peeters
Her book begins in Fairfield “squarely on the ‘have-nots side of the Quinoa Curtain” and ranked as the most disadvantaged suburb in Sydney, with unemployment almost double the state average and a constantly renewing community of new arrivals.
In the 1970s her parents, Anglo-Indian father Bryan, who migrated with his parents from Bangalore, and her Chilean mother, Trish, who fled the Pinochet regime, were among them. They met at the Westpac bank in Burwood; he was the foreign exchange teller, she was the one with the best English of the group of recent South American arrivals elected to help with transactions. Trish had arrived in Australia with her parents Rosa and Pablo, who used to tailor suits for the elite in Chile. As a university student during the 1973 coup, Trish was detained by the military. Her parents called one of the army generals they made suits for to get a pass to go visit her 1000 kilometres away, where she was being held. They fled the dictatorship soon after, arriving illegally as tourists.
Jess Scully as a baby with her mother Trish aunt (tia) Loly and cousin Christian.
After setting up shop in Fairfield, the Scullys then moved over the Blue Mountains to Lithgow, as a sort of tree change so father Bryan, who was selling clothes to country stores, could cut back his travel. She remembers excitedly awaiting her grandparents’ visits, the car packed with Chilean treats from La Paula.
In 1990, they went on a family holiday with her grandparents back to Chile. It was the first time her dissident mother had been allowed back into the country after the first democratic elections when the military junta stepped down. They liked it so much they stayed two years and ran a nightclub called Excaliber in a coastal resort town called Vina del Mar.
“It was a bit of a culture shock going from Lithgow to Vina del Mar – which is a bit like Noosa. I remember being in a back room aged about 10 peering through the double sided glass into the disco because Mike Patton from [US rock band] Faith No More was there. It was bizarre, but cool.”
It may go some way to explaining Scully’s interest on council in Sydney’s night-time economy.
Vivid Ideas director Jess Scully in 2013 with creative adviser Ignatius Jones and festival director Fergus Linehan. Credit:Edwina Pickles
Our mains arrive; I have a lomito (a Chilean sandwich) the others have a completo (Chilean-style hotdog) while Elinor has a few bites of pastel de choclo (a shepherd’s pie with corn).
Scully, whose fluent Spanish was honed in her final years in Chilean primary school, explains most traditional food is smothered with avocado and mayonnaise, or manjar (caramel).
“Chile is an unequal country. There are the really, really wealthy people and then everybody else. Living there changed the way that I thought about the relationships we have with each other based on money. I had never engaged with wealth before, I’d never seen that growing up in Australia.”
Completo at La Paula Cafe in Fairfield. Credit:Wolter Peeters
While in Chile, both her mother and grandmother were diagnosed with breast cancer within two weeks of each other. They decided to return to Sydney for treatment.
“We packed up quickly and came home with nothing. We were living in one room of my cousin’s house in Campbelltown … it was a really hard time because we didn’t have any money.”
Her mother and grandmother had treatment at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and survived cancer. She sat the selective test to go to Hurlstone Agricultural College and passed.
“Again, it completely changed my world view. You had these Anglo country kids mixing with the super nerdy, ethnic suburban kids like me.”
Lomito at La Paula in Fairfield.Credit:Wolter Peeters
She studied sciences and had wanted to become an oncologist. Until she began catching the train to the city and getting off at Newtown.
“I never really saw much visual art or creative production until I jumped on that train and ended up in Newtown. There I discovered this whole world of alternative culture … music and fashion and even though fashion had always been a thing in my family, I’d never seen it made by young people. And there were all these sub-cultures who were into the music I was into. I was immediately seduced.”
It was a love affair with the inner city that has not faded for Scully, who now lives in Glebe with her new family after several obligatory share-house experiences as a university student at UTS, where she studied law and journalism. Before the Vivid job she imagined she’s become a political journalist, but became a politician instead after meeting lord mayor Clover Moore while interviewing her on radio.
“When her team heard I had always wanted to have a role in city making, they invited me in for a chat.” She was elected to council as a member of “Team Clover” in 2016 and became deputy lord mayor in 2019.
Before coffee and cakes her mother Trish appears wearing a red beret and whisks baby Elinor away to a high chair with some friends she’s meeting. Childcare solved.
As a Sydney City councillor in 2018, encouraging more women to take up cycling.Credit:Nick Moir
“We need a 21st century upgrade to the way we do politics and democracy,” says Scully.
“Your average Australian politician is a guy named Andrew who’s a 51-year-old married man from an Anglo-Saxon background with two children and two houses and a law degree. And that’s not actually what Australia looks like.
“People elected to office need to start looking like the people they represent, who are younger, probably not as well off and are maybe a little bit more diverse and female.”
Does she want Clover Moore’s top job? Or if, as is widely tipped, independent member for Sydney Alex Greenwich runs for lord mayor after 74-year-old Moore leaves politics, would she run for his federal seat of Sydney?
‘We need a 21st century upgrade to the way we do politics and democracy.’
“If I go back 10 years I could never have imagined what the next 10 years of my career would have looked like, so I guess I can’t say with any certainty what the next 10 years are going to be.
“But I’m committed to Sydney and I know that I’m really passionate about making a city that works. That doesn’t mean moving jobs or moving cultural institutions. It means creating new jobs and stimulating the incredible talent and resources that are in each place.
“Land value in Sydney is like a sacred cow that will never be tackled, because there are so many political disincentives to actually addressing it, but that is counterproductive. So let’s actually have an honest conversation about what can we do about it.” Her book canvasses multiple solutions.
“At the moment, we’re painting in black and white and it’s about putting a full box of colours on the table in terms of the policy choices that are open to us.
“We have a federal government pumping a $700 million hard hat stimulus into the economy but studies show the best bang for buck comes from investing in the care economy. Imagine if people like me and my friends didn’t have to lie awake at night thinking about how we’re going to take care of our kids, or our parents as they age. People would be able to work harder, women would make more money, pay more tax, kids would have better early childhood experiences and education. So the compound benefits of investing in care, whether it’s caring for the planet or caring for each other, would have a huge impact.”
With a mother’s instinct she recognises the distant sound of banging on the table as her daughter’s, and it’s time to go. She and Pat leave with a sleepy baby in a stroller, and stomachs filled with the taste of her childhood.
Bill for lunch with Jess Scully.
Glimpses of Utopia, real ideas for a fairer world, is available now from Pantera Press.
La Paula, 9 Barbara Street, Fairfield, 9726 2379. Open weekdays 8.30am -4pm and weekends 7.30 am-4pm.
Helen Pitt is a journalist at the The Sydney Morning Herald.