Mrs Kathy Harbison was the Lady Mayoress of the City of Adelaide (married to the Lord Mayor) from 2003-2010.

Early Life and Career

"He had me up on a high-wire” says former Lady Mayoress Kathy Harbison as she affectionately relates how her husband Michael ‘coerced’ her into aerial ballet stunts in the ‘New Circus’ he founded in the budding days of the romance of their youth. “Michael was a sword swallower and fire-eater”, she recounts, "but the last time that occurred was at my sister’s wedding and I decided that was the last act!”

As the history of this remarkable husband-wife team unfolds in the family room overlooking their large back garden, these fiery, dare-devil beginnings are no doubt the forge which shaped much of their lives and prepared them in part for life, decades later, as the highest office bearer team at the Adelaide Town Hall from 2003 to 2010.

Born Kathy Haines, with Gawler poultry farmer parents, her family were intertwined with the Harbison family from the very beginning. They went to the same church, both were involved with the Gawler swimming pool and the school-aged Kathy and Michael were ferried down by train to the city where they attended Wilderness and ‘Saints’ respectively. Both sets of parents still live at Gawler –Kathy’s father has just ‘put a pool in’ while Dr Harbison, at 89, still works at Gawler Hospital 2 days a week.

Between Michael’s studies at Flinders and Kathy working her way around Europe and later running the shop in the original ‘Jam Factory’ artist collective on Payneham Road, New Circus travelled around with gigs as far away as Newcastle. But the days of swinging from the trapeze and swallowing swords soon gave way with co-partner Tim Caldwell re-badging the outfit as Circus OZ.

Kathy and Michael married in 1980, renovated houses in Norwood, and co-purchased the iconic South Australian Woodroofe softdrink company at Norwood with the Hartley family. Kathy was involved in making the lemonade and chocolate syrup along with checking trucks.

As we move towards discussing the Lady Mayoress role, a car bearing a trailer emerges through a garden gate. The tall sturdy frame of Michael Harbison exits the vehicle. Clay pavers are methodically unloaded. He’s building a pizza oven for our number two son’s marriage coming up later this year, explains Kathy. A garden wedding here in the grounds.

The Harbisons have four children: Jack, Adelaide, Will and Lizzy. The two boys ran a café named Not Coffee in the former Malcolm Reid building during Michael’s tenure as Lord Mayor. Kathy could often be seen lending a hand behind the counter but “I never quite got the knack of being a barista as such”, she laughs.

"Now you can make your mark" were the initial words of encouragement from Pat Moran, husband of long-term councillor, Anne Moran, at the function when Lord Mayor Harbison was declared the winner of 2003 vote.


When asked how she felt on her very first day of being Lady Mayoress, Kathy replied,

I was terrified actually! I was used to mixing with all kinds of people but the thought of chairing the Lord Mayor’s committee was daunting as I had never run a committee as such before. 

The committee was rebadged as the Lord Mayor’s committee from its traditional ‘Lady Mayoress’ title during the term of Jane Lomax-Smith as Lord Mayor, but essentially remained the same, consisting of around 20 members. Kathy inherited stalwarts of the calibre of Sue Marshall, Karen Dunsford, Steph Clampett and Silvana Zerella.

Silvana was always exceptionally warm and generous 

commented Kathy when a mutual link was discovered. It was Sue, Karen and Steph who met with Kathy early in the term and suggested she 'step up to the plate' and immerse herself in the role.

Amid the plethora of activities was the Mothers Day Morning Tea, held over a number of years in the auditorium of the Town Hall on the Friday before the big day. Entertainment and high profile emcees or speakers including TV presenter Jane Doyle and columnist Amanda Blair drew larger gatherings, thus raising money for numerous charities the Lady Mayoress was involved in. 

Catherine House was always dear to Kathy's heart. As a shelter for women suffering various forms of abuse, the emotional and financial needs were considerable. Kathy was a member of the charitable committee which raised funds, also visiting the centre with Sue,Karen, Steph and others from the Lord Mayor's Committee. There was active engagement with the women who often spoke with the Lady Mayoress about their various predicaments. Focus was placed on the homeless and disadvantaged and associated charities such as Fred's Van, The Big Issue, Anglicare and the Smith Family. 

Fred's Van is a mobile food truck operated by the society of St Vincent de Paul which serves food to homeless people from various CBD locations at regular times throughout the week. The Big Issue also engages homeless and vulnerably housed people in directly selling this magazine which is packed with highly informative and evocative well written articles. The street vendors retain a sizeable percentage of the price of each magazine.

The Smith Family centres its activities around extending educational opportunities for disadvantaged children while Anglicare supports a wide range of services involved with new arrivals, refugees, youth, parenting, Indigenous services and aged care. Lynn Arnold AO, former premier and now a minister in the Anglican Church, was CEO for a number of years. In her role Kathy Harbison was involved with these organisations and thus often met with people at director level as well as the recipients of the services. Her committee also oversaw the donations and distribution of Christmas gifts placed under the Christmas tree at Lord Mayoral functions in the lead up to the festive season.

Fundraising for these ventures was aided by 'Comedy for a Cause' which Amanda Blair also lent her services to in attracting comedians to perform on a Sunday afternoon during the Fringe Festival in the Town Hall auditorium. Kathy recalled how "Amanda managed to coerce Premier Mike Rann into a dollar for dollar arrangement for proceeds from this event being directed into various charities. 

Personal Note

While fundraising was a serious cause, fun was a necessary element for the greater cause. Exotic cocktail events in the Queen Adelaide Room and film nights at the Piccadilly all swelled the coffers with money thus allocated for selected causes.

In other facets of the role which were often ceremonial, Kathy Harbison embraced them with active participation. Not content with just handing out medals, she actively took part in the Lady Mayoress Golf Day, handing out medals and trophies at day's end. Fortunately, she never had to award the number 1 trophy, in the form of an ornate silver rose bowl, to herself. Interestingly though, one recipient, obviously not understanding the practicality and heritage of the century old accompanying flower frog, threw this element of the trophy in the bin!

A degree of international 'diplomacy' also featured with "relatively casual" exchanges between hosts or guests of Adelaide's sister cities at the time: Austin Texas; Himeji, Japan and Georgetown, Penang in Malaysia. Adelaide was gifted Himeji Garden in the South Parklands by Himeji Council while there were once very vibrant relationships between the other two cities, with the Penang relationship forged by Premier Don Dunstan in the 1970s with a spirited attempt from both cities to revitalise the annual Penang Week during Lord Mayor Harbison's term.

Numerous overseas dignitaries and celebrities were feted at the Town Hall with Kathy Harbison and the LMCC spearheading some of the hospitality arrangements. When the World Police and Fire Games were held in Adelaide in 2007 Kathy Harbison took various representatives, including an American photographer, up to Chamber's Gully in the Adelaide Hills, counting 120 koalas on the day! The baton was passed to New York in 2011 and in the handover process Kathy met the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the United States.

A special highlight for Kathy Harbison was the annual event organised by the National Council of Women at the Pioneer Women's Garden behind Government House. Each year on Australia Day a commemoration of the very significant contribution made by very feisty South Australian Catherine Helen Spence, Muriel Matters, among many others who have followed in their footsteps, often projecting onto the national stage. 

So for six action-packed years Kathy Harbison graced the halls of the Adelaide Town Hall and met with people from all walks of life. 

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Interview with Kathy Harbison.