Local government needs to reflect those it sets out to serve. More women on councils will help to build a more robust democracy.
Tips, stories and wisdom from past and current women councillors and candidates
Newly elected women councillors, like all new councillors, often need support to ensure their contributions are sustainable. Learning from the experience of others is always helpful, so we have sought the views of women councillors on how to survive and thrive in local government.
Australian women are under-represented at all levels of government. Following the 2016 elections in Victoria, women make up 38% of local government councillors in Victoria. Local government needs to reflect those it sets out to serve. More women on councils will help to build a more robust democracy.
The VLGA maintains and updates this information and wishes to acknowledge all material generously provided by current and former councillors and others who work with local governments.
Because of Her, We Can: Make a difference - Aunty Alice Solomon
Aunty Alice Solomon is a proud Yorta Yorta woman who stood as a candidate in October 2012 in the Shire of Mitchell for the second time.
The 2012 election was my second time standing. There was a Think Women for local government forum in Euroa and if I hadn’t gone to that I probably wouldn’t have stood. I was already very involved in the community and that would have been enough.
However, I considered it my duty to stand as I was an Indigenous leader in my community. And no one else was around who wanted to stand. I believe that there needs to be an Indigenous presence in all councils across Australia.
One of the most important things for me during the campaign was speaking at the Darebin Aboriginal Women’s Local Government Leadership workshop to other Indigenous women who thought they might become candidates. It was a lovely day and it was so nice to be among like-minded women. Attending this workshop was so important to me, just to know that I could reach out for support and to know there were other women putting up their hands to be leaders in their community.
Knowing I could have reached out really made a difference. The Facebook page was also really useful because I could reach out to other women and get their feedback. I learnt a lot from them. They were a force to be reckoned with!
One thing I would like to tell others is – if you have a mentor that is willing to support you, really make good use of them.
There were eight people running for three positions in my ward but I wasn’t elected this time. I won’t run again, but if there’s someone out there who wants to run, particularly an Indigenous woman, I’ll be there for them. I’m not saying it wasn’t a good experience and there were some really great spin-offs from my campaign.
During my candidacy, I had noticed that there weren’t Aboriginal flags in the council chamber and I asked Link Up, an organisation that brings families back together, to help out by sending me some. When I got the flags, I asked the new Council if we could present them at a council meeting. But instead we had a special event with the Mayor and more than 70 people came along. I was really quite overwhelmed that an idea for an event I’d thought of came to fruition. It was really empowering. It opened the door for other Aboriginal candidates and also to the whole Aboriginal community
The only thing I would do differently if I were to stand again would be to ask for a lot more help and guidance. It was there, but sometimes it was hard to ask for it. I really think it’s important to have particular programs to encourage Indigenous women to run.
When I think about local government, I believe that councillors need to be aware that there are Indigenous men and women out there who might want to run and they need to make them welcome by important things such as acknowledgement to Country at every council function. My running for council made an inroad even if I didn’t win. It made council aware of me and the needs of Indigenous women and men.
Local Government: the most important tier - Cr Jackie Fristacky
Jackie Fristacky was elected in October 2016 and is a representative of the Nicholls ward. She is an independent Councillor. Cr Fristacky has represented the City of Yarra since 2002, including serving as Mayor in 2005/06, 2012/13 and 2013/14.
Sometimes local government is referred to as the ‘third tier of government’ or as a stepping stone to the other tiers - State and Federal. I regard it as the first tier of government which grew out of communal needs. Indeed, local government developed before the creation of nations or states, including the Melbourne and Adelaide City Councils.
As someone who had a career in both Federal and State Governments, in law and public policy, my firm view is that local government is the most important tier of government. It is the tier closest to the community, to understanding and dealing with key issues and the tier that gets things done. It is also the source of new ideas and policies that originate from community and community needs and aspirations. These are embraced by local government and articulated to other sectors through civic leadership.
Councillors, in engaging with and reflecting community needs and in policy setting for Council, help to make Council respond to community expectations in a way that does not apply to the other tiers. My 15 years as a Yarra councillor, including three terms as Mayor, has reinforced the importance of this link with community as strengthening the democratic process from bottom up, as well as being a key means of reinvigorating the Council organisation.
It should be noted that no other organisations have as diverse a range of responsibilities as Councils. No private sector organisation, nor Federal or State governments compare with the complexity and range of powers and responsibilities of Councils. Although Ministerial decisions on roads and planning get headlines, it is Councils who do the heavy lifting as the quiet achievers in the many areas of services to the public.
On top of the wide range of local government functions, there is the further major task of advocacy for communities. This can occur on a whole range of levels – planning controls responding to the impact of social and other changes, public transport, affordable housing, sustainability, building regulations, or advocacy for those who are disadvantaged by the decisions and policies of Federal and State governments. It seems to me that a lot of Council work arises from policy failures at State and Federal level, where their policies serve sectional interests rather than the broader public interest. This applies to big issues – the failure to address public transport and social housing deficits, and to respond to the imperative of environmental sustainability. Our biggest challenge is how to prompt the other tiers of government to act in the interests of the whole community, rather than benefitting sectional interests.
A fundamental role for local government is driving the agenda for other tiers of government. There are many examples where Councils have led policy changes to the State. In my time on Council these include: bike parking in new developments, increased pensioner rate rebate, improvements in planning and public transport, including new designs for accessible tram stops, and funding for the arts and social sectors.
Through engagement with citizens and representing community needs and aspirations, local governments are key to building strong and successful communities and sustaining democracy in our nation.
The decision-making process: the basis of good governance - Cr Barb Murdoch
Barbara was first elected to the Shire of Indigo in 2005. She has been re-elected several times since, including a term as Mayor. She shares some practical reflections about good governance.
Good governance is about the process of decision-making. It’s not about making "correct" decisions, it’s about developing the best possible process to arrive at those decisions. Good governance and good decision-making go hand in hand with local government. Both have a positive effect on consultation, policies and practices, meeting procedures, service quality protocols, councillor and officer conduct and role clarification. Getting it right makes for good working relationships with everyone, from community right through to their elected councillors.
Councillor Barbara Murdoch says there are two things you need to keep close at hand to succeed as a councillor – the Good Governance Guide and the Local Government Act. You should download them onto on your iPad or computer, carry them with you and make a habit of checking your facts.
“I was part of the development group for the Good Governance Guide, and in my view, if you don’t use it you are likely to slip up. There is a lot to get your head around in local government and legislation is changing all the time. However, even for a new councillor, ignorance is no excuse and you need to do your homework.
The Good Governance Guide will help you interpret the Local Government Act. It is there to help manage your relationships with other councillors and the community and support you to work in a fair and open manner and follow the rules.
It is critical to familiarise yourself with the Local Government Act, especially the areas in which you have a special interest. The Act is your lifeline as a councillor, you must know the Act or have access to it so that you are aware of your statutory responsibilities.
For effective community engagement, you need structure, or you will not get a positive result. Even those who are passionately opposed to your views will respect you if you act in a proper and logical way. The rules and processes of local government are there to ensure you act honestly and equitably.
Most people are not interested in council until there is an issue that affects them. That means councillors are often dealing with people who are not happy. If you follow the right processes you are halfway to a compromise and people will understand, if not accept, your position.
Councils are a complicated business. Our council plays a vital role in promoting tourism, which in turn means jobs. It provides access to health care and community services, is a conduit to the State Government as well as dealing with the traditional tasks of roads, rates and rubbish. Council plays a big role in the lives of residents and if it runs smoothly, then for most people it goes virtually unnoticed.
To develop your governance skills, it’s important to attend as many learning opportunities as you can, especially in the areas of planning and running meetings. Take the opportunities offered by our peak organisations, MAV and VLGA, or join ALGWA (Australian Local Government Women’s Association) and chat to other councillors – it is smart to seek advice and be alerted to the pitfalls, don’t tackle a problem on your own.