Matt Levinson, city of Sydney
Matt Levinson, front right

Long-term communications manager at City of Sydney Matthew Levinson is leaving after seven years, including a break of two years with GetUp!

As Levinson prepared to join a quite different media organisation – public relations consultancy SenateSHJ – it was hard to resist trying to prise open a few insights into life behind the big timber doors at Town Hall, not to mention what goes on at the feisty grassroots political organisation that seems to have an entire army of conservative politicians trying to shut it down.

But if you think these two jobs were worlds apart try Levinson’s former gigs, as geophysicist and seismologist for CSIRO in Canberra, which is how he started his professional life before discovering he had a talent for feature writing on science and climate, eventually moving to the ABC to work in production for the science show Catalyst.

But then again, Levinson is one of those people you meet and know instantly is highly talented and capable of turning his mind to a wide range of tasks. Change has kept him interested, he says.

In the new gig he’ll again be doing something almost completely different – at least from a sector-specific point of view. He’ll be a consultant to big corporates. The drawcard, he says, is understanding at close range how big business works and how it can influence and action change.

Stirring his interest is the front foot taken by big investors and institutional behemoths on the side of tackling climate change and resilience.

The city is in good hands

In a quick conversation with The Fifth Estate last week Levinson reflected on an interesting few years. Though he was sad to go, it was not related to concern for the future of the City’s strongly progressive policy under lord mayor Clover Moore, as others might be, given the length of time Moore has been in office at Town Hall (since 2004) and given the ructions that have seen her destabilised from within and consistently undermined by Macquarie Street.

In fact, Levinson said, the City was in excellent hands and nicely positioned for the future.

He considers himself lucky to have worked in the job as long as he has. Moore, he said, was a “once in generation leader and one of the most successful political leaders this city has ever seen, and one of the most successful in the country”.

“Her 40-year track record of reform is astounding across so many issues.”

First of these is how to make cities work better for people, climate change, social justice and including elements such as public transport, “a whole bunch of these things – creative culture and social bonds to build communities, she’s been at the forefront of all that.

“Working with her is not the easiest job by any stretch, but we see the result of her work on the street, on the ground, in the streets around you. It’s been fantastic.”

The council is not just about Moore, he says. She sets the vision but then delivers it by attracting great people.

What’s also great, he says, is the new talent coming along to fill the eventual but inevitable departure of Moore, in the form of the “two Jesses” – Jess Miller, the deputy lord mayor, and Jess Scully, both elected on Moore’s ticket at the last election. Both are young but clearly, despite their scant prior experience, growing in their roles.

They’re “stellar women”, he says, and what they are doing is building their understanding of the operation of council and the city with a view to taking more of the reins themselves and take a “more muscular role in creating the city we want”.

He also pays tribute to staff members such as chief executive Monica Barone and sustainability director Chris Derksema. And he nominates councillors Robert Kok, who has been “fantastic”, and Philip Thallis, who is “an absolutely eminent man” that is “considerate and thoughtful” in decision-making.

He wants to remind also: “Clover wasn’t always Clover with 40 years of experience.” At first she was a young mum who wanted to get some green areas.

Amongst “all those very substantial people”, Levinson can imagine any one of them stepping up with the capacity to lead.

How GetUp! really works

Levinson is wide-awake to the power of the big corporates to change the world and his time with GetUp! demonstrated to him the power of grassroots movements.

GetUp!, he says, has gone from strength to strength under the leadership of Paul Oosting, national director and campaign director.

He doesn’t think much of the conservative politicians’ declaration to emulate the grassroots activist organisation in the sense that it will bear any worthwhile fruit.

“They periodically say they want to emulate it and raise some money and they never do because they’re not actually interested in the members-focused stuff.

“A lot of people see GetUp! as external public campaigning but most of it is focused inward to their members and is about harnessing member enthusiasm and giving (members) energy to have agency, to be able to have an influence on the public debate and decision-making processes.

“That’s what’s so powerful.”

Some people will support one or a few issues, and a few will support many.

“It’s not always the same people”.

The underlying concept is for people to become more engaged in their democracy.

“Some people are a bit nervous about calling their local MP and are not quite sure if they are allowed to. GetUp! empowers them that’s it’s okay.”

Yes, this does upset some people, he says, especially on the conservative side, particularly in the previous Queensland election, which showed that a tightly focused strategy could have a serious impact, as observers said GetUp! did. This is the election that knocked out Campbell Newman as premier against all the forecasts.

Much of the work bore fruit, but not all, he reflects. For instance, an idea for scorecards of candidates was found after testing to be not significant. What did work very well was “how to vote” cards, in this case double-sided, with one side showing how to vote from a Greens perspective, and another from Labor if you wanted to rid the state of Newman (who banned the words climate and sustainability and decimated the public service, starting with climate and energy efficiency related issues).

Climate change the number one issue

As to the issues that will occupy him in future, Levinson sees climate change as “Number One”.

The city will always have its challenges, like every big city, but climate “is such a big threat”.

“I look at my social media feeds and I get a lot of news from different sources and there is a lot that is very positive. The way business is stepping up is so hopeful and the rate of innovations on solar and storage, sometimes month on month, is great,” he says. But the scale of the challenge is so massive.

A Guardian late last year article, The three-degree world: the cities that will be drowned by global warming, showed the inundation from 3°C of warming and the massive impact that would have on cities such as Shanghai, Miami and Osaka.

Then there are the Australian scourges such as heatwaves, bushfires and storms, threats Levinson says will get “more significant”.

“I’m fundamentally a quite hopeful person and I look at the rate of innovation in this space,” he says.

“We’ve got a pretty good chance and a sense that people are finally getting the urgency of it. And the large machinery of our society and big business particularly are factoring it into their planning and the way they do business.”

But Levinson says that anyone who says they have a clear understanding of climate is “talking through their hat”.

“It’s an extremely complex system and we don’t know how it’s going to play out, so I’m hopeful, and deeply nervous.

“Since I was working at CSIRO in climate there has been a paradigm shift in the way we talk about and act on climate change but we’re now also seeing the impacts of climate change, so there are both grounds for optimism and grounds for terror.”

Not a bad set of contradictions to be aware of as he heads into the corporate world.

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