City News

Robyn Kemmis dies: tireless community leader, advocate for women, ‘wicked’ sense of humour



Robyn Kemmis, the Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney, died suddenly while visiting family in Queensland at the end of December. She was 72.

Esteemed both within council and in the community, Robyn Kemmis had a particular passion for social equality and the advancement of women in management. Her career in council was dedicated to helping those in social housing, women, and reducing inequality.

Before joining Council in 2004, Kemmis had a successful career spanning the NSW Public Service, university administration, asRobyn Kemmis winning the "Koala Cup" in 1960, a long running  competition between Canberra and Parramatta High. well as publishing and tourism in London.

Kemmis was born in Grafton, Queensland. Her family later moved to Sydney, where she lived for a brief time in Surry Hills in the social housing block Northcott.

Kemmis attended Parramatta High School, graduating in 1960. She was one of two school captains.

This early experience of leadership and representing others would become her life’s work.

Her co-captain, Bob Porter, remembers her as a quiet young lady who was “resolute in what she needed to do”.

“As school captain, she was very quiet and unassuming, very efficient, very positive in her interactions with the student body and the staff,” Mr Porter said.

He said from early on she had a presence that attracted people to her, as well as the ability to be a leader.

Her unassuming manner and commitment to the service of others would become a hallmark of her accomplished career.

Another classmate remembers meeting her again at the school’s 50th reunion. Heather Finch remarked that despite her accomplished career, she was still the modest girl she remembered from her school days.

In the City of Sydney Council, Robyn Kemmis will be remembered for her formidable capacity for community work as a strong Deputy Lord Mayor who managed council politics while working tirelessly for the needs of the local community.

“This is an enormous loss for the City of Sydney and our communities. Robyn was a dedicated and skilled elected representative, a tremendously effective and committed councillor who earned the respect and love of our residential, business and education communities,” Lord Mayor Clover Moore said in a statement.

Robyn Kemmis joined the council in 2004 until 2008 as one of Clover Moore’s independents. She returned in 2012 as Deputy Lord Mayor. Kemmis will be missed not just by her own party, but other councillors across the board.

Greens Councillor Irene Doutney said Kemmis always put others first. She said that Robyn was like “a big sister” to councillors, and “ensured that I had a lift home after council meetings”.

She had a reputation within the council of helping new councillors with protocol, and taking them under her wing.

Her deep commitment to social equality meant that she did things quietly with the local community.

“Robyn did things behind the scenes that weren’t attention grabbing but community building,” Clr Doutney said.

“Robyn and I worked on the mural group at Redfern, to support the housing mural. She has helped me with notices of motion, she helped to wordsmith them. She used her influence with Clover to get things up.

Doutney said Kemmis was vital in helping her getting a No Business in Abuse motion through council last month.

In 2002, Kemmis was awarded an honourary doctorate from UTS for her outstanding contribution to the university’s mission.

Shirley Alexander worked with her in the mid-to-late 90s at UTS, when Kemmis was Deputy Vice Chancellor. She remembers Kemmis for mentoring and promoting women into management positions at the university, at a time when university administration management was a male dominated field.

While at UTS Kemmis founded the Women in Executive Development network.

Shirley Alexander said Kemmis was a woman who was an “absolute hive of energy”.

“She was nearly always multitasking. She would be at a meeting, participating in the meeting, but at the same time going through paperwork and taking phone calls. She was a bundle of energy, always brimming with lots of ideas.”

“She had a wicked and very dry sense of humour. She was very quick, very bright,” Ms Alexander said.

Upon receiving her honary doctorate in 2002, Vice Chancellor Ross Milbourne said she had built invaluable networks within and beyond UTS, and was her contribution to higher education was “unsurpassed by any other senior woman in Australian higher education”.

He said she quickly established herself as an able administrator and she was quick to grasp the nature and purpose of the administrative functions of a new university.

During her time at UTS, she was responsible for leading the development of a precinct network, which linked UTS with its neighbours including the ABC, the Sydney Insitute of Technology, the Powerhouse Museum, the Sydney Harbour

Foreshore Authority and Sydney City Council.

“She gave a new strategic focus to the University’s financial and capital planning and was instrumental in promoting and implementing long-term campus development planning.”

It was this talent for administration which would prove successful at council. There, she quickly earned a reputation as a councillor with formidable capacity, as well as generous with offering her expertise.

She will be missed as someone who was deeply involved in community groups, working behind the scenes to get grants and write proposals.

Perhaps more so in Glebe, where Robyn lived with her partner Lynn for the past 35 years.

Christina Anthony of the Glebe Chamber of Commerce said that her untimely passing has left the Glebe Community shell shocked.

“I have known Robyn for the past 30 years and all throughout that time she has been the most gracious, giving and kind person I have ever known. She has been such a vital component of this community and people around the village are just so devastated to lose her.”

She said that Robyn helped fund and finish the new community website, personally helped make the Glebe Parklet project come to life, addressed the 2015 Glebe Street Fair launch, helped bring the Loco Project art gallery to

Glebe for six weeks and celebrated the Glebe Chamber’s win at the NSW Business Chamber Awards.

In the last few months, Kemmis had expressed concerns to friends she was unhappy about the move of the Powerhouse Museum. She had also participated in rallies against the WestConnex project.

Robyn Kemmis was working up until council broke for the Christmas break. Her death was unexpected.

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