The Mayor Reinventing Australia’s Loneliest Capital
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s revamping her city — when she’s not posting selfies.
By Laura Secorun Palet
Looking at Lisa Scaffidi’s Instagram, one would think she’s a Hollywood A-lister. Comments read: “You look fab in red,” “Loving your dress” and “Looking very glam!!!” But this selfie-loving blonde is the mayor of Perth, the isolated capital of Western Australia, also known as “Dulltown.”
Scaffidi is on a mission to kill this nickname. Western Australia’s economy is booming: Between 2013 and 2014, mineral and oil sales rose 20 percent, to $122 billion. And Perth’s first-ever female mayor thinks it’s time for a makeover. Since she first took office in 2007 with the slogan “Get Perth Moving,” she has focused on revamping the city’s image with ambitious architectural projects such as a $342 million waterfront redevelopment, raising its cultural profile with events like the Perth Fashion Festival. Crowned the eighth most livable city in the world, according to the 2015 Global Liveability Ranking from the Economist Intelligence Unit, Perth, though remote, is automatically part of the international conversation about how to make cities into their best selves: sustainable, safe and desirable places to settle down. Within Australia, Perth is fast booming, with data from the country’s bureau of statistics showing that the city may quadruple or grow to six times its 2012 population by 2061.
Clearly, Scaffidi believes sophistication should start with oneself — and social media is her runway. The 56-year-old tells us that constant interaction with her constituents makes for good governance. So she posts nonstop, whether it’s about meeting the Chinese ambassador, shopping with her husband (#hubby) or commenting on how cute Liam Hemsworth is.
“So what if I like doing girlie stuff? I have earned my stripes,” she says of the haters who find her social media–drenched lifestyle unappealing. We’re looking out at the construction site of the Elizabeth Quay, a mixed-use development by the river that will feature retail space, luxury accommodations and the city’s first Ritz-Carlton hotel. “We are transforming the city,” she says.
But there’s a wrinkle in her narrative of radical transparency: The last 12 months of Scaffidi’s tenure have been dominated by a scandal over a failure to disclose a hospitality package that took her to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. She wrote OZY in an email that she has been “thoroughly investigated and cleared,” and has nothing more to add. It would seem her constituents don’t either, as she was re-elected for a third term just months after the scandal broke.
Scaffidi never dreamed of being mayor. After dotting her résumé with eclectic titles including dental therapist, air hostess and business manager for a Bahraini sheikh, she landed in charge of an economic think tank for a decade before becoming a city counselor. Then a friend convinced her to run. “I didn’t want to at first, but then thought the city needed a bolder vision for the future,” she says.
She claims to be completely “apolitical,” and doesn’t belong to any party. She fights for banning tobacco with the same passion she lobbies for making street begging illegal. “Being nonpartisan in city-based politics is an asset,” says David Denemark, a professor of political science at the University of Western Australia: “Federal governments come and go, and a partisan mayor would regularly be at odds with a government from the ‘other party.’”
These days, Scaffidi’s focused on making over the city, building its tourism industry and caring for the big moneymaker in the region: mining. Scaffidi wants to turn good old Perth into a honeypot for companies like Chevron, which will have its new headquarters in Elizabeth Quay and will need local talent. She sees it as a chance to improve the so-called knowledge economy of her region.
But building a city up, especially the state capital with the fastest-growing population (3.2 percent), requires more than bringing in companies. It needs, much like her mayoral majesty herself, a new look. The council hired famed urban designers Gehl Architects to produce a public spaces plan and is supporting the Swan River development, a colossal $342 million project that will turn 10 hectares of riverfront into 460,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, huge parks and avenues, and 1,700 apartments. Like so many cities worldwide — from Pittsburgh to Pune — seeking to shake off their reputation as second-tier, Perth has to balance a come-hither appeal with some basic sense: Beautification that’s irresponsible won’t last long.
As for tourism? Competing with the east coast allure of Sydney and Melbourne isn’t easy. So Scaffidi’s using some hometown guilt, taking to social media to rain on bad customer service and asking the citizens of Perth to be clean and kind to visitors. “All the infrastructure won’t make a difference if people aren’t polite,” she says. Tourism revenue to the state increased by $45 million between 2012 and 2014, to $467 million, and a $544 million airport renovation is underway to accommodate more domestic traffic. It doesn’t hurt that the distant Western Australian city is deeply picturesque, and only a hop and skip away from Southeast Asia, giving it a global tinge. From the plain to the coastline to the beachy sunsets, Perth has tourist appeal going for it.
This triple-threat plan has all the elements to make activists angry, of course: Housing prices are spiking, and the council hasn’t managed to fix the traffic congestion crisis, which infuriates Perth’s commuters. And Scaffidi herself pisses people off, with her penchant for international travel. “There’s no reason for her to be on the international stage at this point; she should be in Perth for the day-to-day running of the city,” says local entrepreneur Tessa Bontempo. And yet her supporters might say a mayor with a desire to internationalize belongs nowhere else but in cosmopolitan sister cities and, yes, Instagram.
J.Y. Lee and James Watkins contributed reporting.