Sallyanne Atkinson, the Ceremonial Naming Lady for the Australian Border Force cutter Cape York.  Pictured with Richie Ah Mat, chairperson of the Cape York Land Council
Sallyanne Atkinson, the Ceremonial Naming Lady for the Australian Border Force cutter Cape York. Pictured with Richie Ah Mat, chairperson of the Cape York Land Council

Sallyanne's memoir chronicles a woman of substance

WHEN A friend read Sallyanne Atkinson's recently released book - No Job For A Woman - and told Sallyanne she thought it was an easy read, the friend was immediately contrite.

Sallyanne Atkinson AO is, after all, a woman of considerable substance.

She was the first (and only, to date) female Lord Mayor of Brisbane and a woman with a legacy of political achievement, someone you might expect to write a heavyweight tome rather than an easy read.

"She (friend) was embarrassed to tell me that my book was easy to read but I was delighted,” Sallyanne said. "I did not want to write a book that was bogged down in politics, I wanted it to be engaging, easy to read. I've always had the philosophy of 'you take your job seriously, you don't take yourself seriously'.”

A memoir that goes right back to Sallyanne's wartime childhood in Sri Lanka, to her first jobs as a Brisbane journalist and television presenter, through all the challenges, pitfalls and triumphs of a long life devoted to public service, No Job For A Woman brims with personal anecdotes, humorous self-deprecation, and delightful vignettes of her home life, including all the trials of a woman raising five children while forging a career.

While her myriad achievements over four decades leave most people overwhelmed, Sallyanne takes it all as a matter of fact.

She says she fell into most of her jobs/roles by accident and wasn't always very interested in politics.

"I wish I could say my political life began with a great and noble cause,” she says in her book. "It actually began in a laundromat in Edinburgh.”

She was living and raising a family in Scotland in the 60s with her then husband Leigh, a neurosurgeon studying in Edinburgh. She met a woman in the laundromat who invited her to a Conservative Party Young Mothers' Group.

It was not the enticement of the group's guest speakers that interested Sallyanne, more the offer of babysitters during the meetings, something any young harassed mother would jump at.

"I never really planned anything in those days, just fell into them,” she said. "I always knew there was no point in planning, if anything happened (sickness) to the children, I'd be the one to stay at home. I was always concerned about committing. Back in those days, the choices for women (for a career) were either a teacher or a secretary.”

MANY ROLES: Sallyanne in Paris during her time as Senior Trade Commissioner to France.
MANY ROLES: Sallyanne in Paris during her time as Senior Trade Commissioner to France.

After Edinburgh and back in Brisbane in the 1970s, it was a burst drain-pipe in her Indooroopilly street that really ignited Sallyanne's interest in politics. She was asked by neighbours to contact the council about the drain-pine. She did, had it repaired, enjoyed the sense of power it gave her, and went on from there to enter local politics and eventually become elected as Lord Mayor of Brisbane in 1985.

Her achievements during her time as mayor include overseeing Expo 88, which was the springboard to begin Brisbane's metamorphosis from small Queensland town to grow into one of the country's most vibrant and liveable cities.

To list every one of Sallyanne's achievements is almost impossible: she was Queensland's special representative in South East Asia, chairman of Queensland Tourism, Senior Trade Commissioner to France, Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Deputy Mayor of the Athletes Village at the Sydney Olympics, a member of the Olympic Bid Teams for Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. She has an arts degree in history and political science, honorary doctorates from three universities and has been on boards of nine public companies.

She was awarded the Australian Catholic University's highest honour, Doctor of the University, for her extraordinary contribution to Australia's international reputation as a location for sporting events, even though, as she admits, she was never interested in, or good at, sport.

In 1993 she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia.

She considers her greatest achievement, among so many, her role with others in the development of South Bank.

"Because I live on it (South Bank), I look at it every day,” she said. "I had to fight so many battles (for its development). It is an ongoing legacy for the people in Brisbane. The old buildings along the river all faced away from the river. It wasn't attractive. We didn't realise what we had with the river. Expo 88 was the turning point. We were lucky in the sense we developed after that. We came to recognise our city rather late. In a way that is a good thing. We learnt from the mistakes of other cities.”

While Sallyanne's book closely follows her career and chronicles her innumerable achievements, it is peppered with charming insights into her personal life along with insider peeks at some of the famous people, including royalty, she encountered during her global career.

When she met Gina Lollobrigida, Sallyanne's impression of her was "she was old and lined with far too much make-up”. But when she later saw a photograph of herself with the Italian superstar she realised the power of heavy make-up. "She looked gorgeous, I looked drab.”

Now at age 74, life is just as busy for Sallyanne. She is on the boards of the Queensland Brain Institute and the Waltzing Matilda Centre, she is in demand as a public speaker and is in equal demand as a mother of five and grandmother of 14. She has no plans to stop working.

"My great hero is Sir Edmund Hilary, not just because he climbed Mt Everest but because he went back to help the people.

"He continued to help the people. His message is - you have to keep doing it. As chairman of the Brain Institute I understand one of the great preventions for dementia and for having a happy old age, is just to keep doing, keep doing.”

Brisbane has always been Sallyanne's great love and now as she sits on her balcony overlooking the river to the Botanic Gardens she reflects on how much the city has changed and evolved. Just like her own life.

Sallyanne Atkinson will be guest at a literary lunch on the Sunshine Coast on March 15. Details on: 54482053.

No Job For A Woman is published by UQP and is in bookshops now.

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