A farewell to Michelle Mackenzie

| By Royceton Hardey, Longest-serving Shelter WA Employee

As outgoing Shelter WA CEO Michelle Mackenzie leaves, quite rightly, we’ve drawn attention towards the strong and viable future she leaves our peak body in.

Shelter WA’s Chair Kieran Wong points to the substantial expansion of ongoing funding and grant revenues resulting in growth of staff to support the sector across a range of issues and projects – from Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) to Infection Control Measures.

“Michelle steered Shelter WA through the pandemic (it’s not over yet!) and was agile to support the sector through advocacy and tireless championing of the community housing sector and homelessness service providers,” Mr Wong said.

I completely agree.

When I started at Shelter WA in late 2018 Michelle had been CEO for almost a year. To be exact on Wednesday, 21 February 2018 she became CEO stepping up from the Manager of Policy and Strategy role at Shelter WA. Prior to this Michelle was an Executive Director at the Department of Regional Development, led the regional community relations team at Rio Tinto, and was an Executive Manager at the WA Local Government Association (WALGA).

It would appear – at least according to our archives – Michelle began way before this at the bottom. This is the earliest photo I can find and interestingly she is captioned “volunteer”.

Volunteer Michelle Mackenzie @ the Clothesline Exhibition (2016)

We Were Small

When I look around the office I cannot believe how quickly we’ve grown. When I joined their were just four employees including my mere part-time existence. A look at our current staff page and you would be forgiven for thinking we were always like this but it has grown expediently in Michelle’s hands.

“You would be forgiven for thinking we were always like this.”

Fearless Campaigner

There have been many examples of Michelle’s fearless work but my favourite is “that tweet”. It was something which took on a life of its own and was my first real taste of how Michelle’s absolute defence of the vulnerable guides everything she does. I had just taken over managing social media when one Sunday morning my day turned upside down.

Seeing a tweet from then-Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi Michelle told WAtoday she was “outraged” and said the lack of compassion shown in the tweet was “appalling”.

“Not respecting their privacy, is totally unacceptable.”

“Taking photos of people who have clearly fallen on hard times, and not respecting their privacy, is totally unacceptable,” she said.

It was a masterclass in advocacy which filtered out through the media opening up a discussion on the need for greater supports and housing for those experiencing homelessness. My phone would not stop pinging throughout the day as the tweet circled around the community. Then the media started calling.

In the aftermath Ms Scaffidi appeared on 6PR the next day (as reported by SBS News): “I would probably say I was deliberately provocative and I apologise to anybody that may have been offended,” she said.

“I do have respect and great compassion for these people.”

COVID-19

I believe when the next volume of Shelter WA’s history comes to be written – not by me, I’ve already done the first 40 Years – COVID-19 will be seen as a major watershed moment. We had an actual crisis. A crisis where lives were genuinely at risk and needed to be prioritised given the fact that people who are experiencing homelessness are more likely to have pre-existing health issues. There was no rule book, and as CEO Michelle was in the middle of it all.

We reflect now on the challenges and how well Shelter WA handled it all amplifying the concerns of the homelessness sector and the myriad of issues the pandemic raised.

While they were thirteen hour days for us for Michelle probably 20-plus.

And it has not just been COVID-19. Reflect on the tent cities (East Perth, Fremantle), Homelessness Weeks, Residential Tenancies Act, the rise of Airbnb, sex-for-rent, METRONET, social housing developments, urban infill debates and regional housing.

The Camera

Now Michelle has a bit of a love–hate relationship with my camera. Over the years I’ve got some pretty good shots of her that she just hated.

So now she’s gone, well maybe, just maybe one will see the light of day.

“Alright, I’m ready for my close up Mr. DeMille.”

And here are some taken by me and others we were actually allowed to publish.

Michelle’s last day was Friday, 21 October 2022.

Everyone at Shelter WA thanks Michelle for her years of dedication and service and wish her all the best for her future endeavors.

[L-R] Shelter WA CEO Kath Snell and Michelle Mackenzie