In 1902, Australian women were finally granted the right to vote. Now, 110 years later, women make up 51% of the population, but only 27% of councillors in NSW local government. With a female prime minister at the helm, it might look like women are running the country, but the participation of women in government is still far from being an adequate representation of the total population. Out of the 11 councillors on Lismore City Council only two are women, and on Byron Shire's nine-person council, again only two are women. Last year, Lismore Mayor Jenny Dowell set about increasing women's participation in local government and established a network of women interested in finding out more about what it takes to be a councillor.
In NSW the date for local council elections has been set for September 8, and while this date may seem distant, if you have ever entertained the idea that you'd like to run for local government, now is the time to start preparing yourself. You have until August to enrol as a candidate with the Australian Electoral Commission, but in the lead up to an election, there is still a lot of work to be done. Raising your profile within your local community is the key to ensuring that people know who you are and what you stand for and having a support network to see you through is just as important.
"A big part of profile raising is about name recognition," Jenny said. "You need to write letters to the editor, have a presence at local markets, drop leaflets into letterboxes and get involved with community organisations."
Mayor Dowell's advice to women considering running for a local government election is to start reading the council business papers and attending council meetings.
"Women bring something special to council," Jenny said. "Most women I know are juggling full-time work with family responsibilities. They often deal with fractious kids and are good at time management and people management - this makes them good at dealing with challenges in the community."
Jenny believes that women are under-represented in local government because "women doubt their abilities".
"When someone suggested to me that I should run, I thought I wasn't smart or thick-skinned enough. I was prepared to be placed number five or six on a voting ticket. After going to my first council meeting, I was hooked. I saw these were ordinary people and I thought 'I could do it'. I asked my team if I could run as one or two on the ticket and started a door knocking campaign."
During her door knocking where she met people face to face, not only did she get hassled by dogs, but the first house she knocked at, the resident screwed up her leaflet, threw it in her face and slammed the door.
"I could have given up then, but I pressed on and visited 8000 houses," Jenny said.
Jenny then went on to be voted Mayor of Lismore Council and became one of the 20% of female mayors in NSW.
Mayor Dowell wants to encourage women interested in running for council to join together and run on a 'ticket' with at least four other women so that the combined votes for all of the candidates will hopefully ensure that at least one person listed at the top of the ticket will be voted in.
Lismore local Kate Olivieri is 30 years old and is "strongly considering" running for election as a councillor in the upcoming local government elections. With a background in equity, diversity and social policy, she wants to "give something back to the community" and would like to see Lismore promoted as a cultural centre with more transport options for young people. As a young woman she believes she can bring some diverse views into the council chambers.
"I'm hoping to run on a ticket with a number of women, so we need as many women as possible to get involved and help with the campaign. There's no pressure to be affiliated with a political party - we are promoting women's participation in civic life and making it easier to have a space to do it," Kate said.
In the age of Facebook where so much of our private lives are already available for public scrutiny, Kate has no fear of public exposure.
"I know there are costs and benefits. I say what I think," Kate said. "You will never get anything done if you are not making someone uncomfortable."
Being a part of local government means representing the voice of the community and making decisions about how our communities are governed. While a lot of it is about roads, rates and rubbish, the role of councillor is also a diverse one involving meetings, social engagements and lots of background reading. In NSW, the yearly allowance for a local government councillor is $16,000 while a mayor receives $50,000. In Queensland, the allowances are much higher, with an allowance of $100,000 for a councillor and $120,000-$200,000 for a mayor, depending on the size of the council. While a councillor is expected
to work at least 10-15 hours per week, Mayor Dowell regularly puts in 60-80 hours per week working for the local community.
"Most of it is my choice," Jenny said. "Being a councillor, you are expected to have another life and many have full-time jobs on top of their councillor duties. You need to have a flexible workplace and an understanding family."
Despite the workload, Mayor Dowell loves her job and feels lucky to have it.
"When I represent people's views, I see things that need to be changed that are wrong and also see fantastic things in the community that are going under the radar. It's such an honour to have this position."
Lismore Greens councillor Vanessa Ekins is a single mum who juggles study and raising her two boys with her responsibilities on council. She has networked with many community groups over the years and became involved in local politics after she lobbied council about local environmental issues and realised she wanted to do something more. Being a councillor is sometimes a "tough assignment" she said, but since being voted into office in 2004, she has represented the views of the local community to council with the support of her family and friends.
"They have been really good, looking after the kids when I'm away from home a lot of evenings, attending sub-committee or council meetings," Vanessa said. "My kids now have an extensive knowledge of civic affairs and realise the importance of being involved in civic life. I enjoy it and I have a real understanding of the potential of this city. I feel proud to be able to have a say in some matters and I often take a different viewpoint to other councillors."
When Vanessa attends Rous Water meetings, she is the only woman at the meeting, and aged in her 40s, she is also the youngest person in the room. She wants to encourage more young women to stand up and get involved in running their towns.
"When a lot of young women are starting out in their careers, or have young families and little time, they are keen to get an income and set themselves up - and local government doesn't pay very well. You need to be comfy on a low income, or juggle jobs."
Page MP Janelle Saffin has been involved in politics for 30 years and now, as a federal parliament representative, believes it is "the best job in the world".
"But it is more than a job, it is like a calling, a vocation," Janelle said. "It is not for everyone, but if you are tempted, give it a go."
Janelle believes the adversarial nature of politics can put off not only women, but men too, from getting involved. Byron Mayor and NSW Upper House Greens representative Jan Barham believes that encouraging "a more respectful style of politics" is one of the keys to tempting more women into politics.
"Some women may fear the invasion of privacy that comes with public life," Mayor Barham said. "They are concerned not just for themselves, but for their families too."
In 2004, as the first popularly-elected Green mayor in Australia and the first female mayor of Byron Shire, Jan came under public scrutiny when she was dubbed 'emotional girl' by prominent businessman Gerry Harvey after she shed a tear at seeing the destruction of an endangered tree.
"Rather than say the wrong thing, I shed tears," Jan said. "He said I was unfit for office and rather than confront him I responded by getting a t-shirt made with 'emotional girl' written on it and a heart on the sleeve. A part of being in local government is about having passion and emotion and attacks may come from self-interested people when you act for the whole of the community."
As a result of the way Jan handled the attack, the community rallied around her and said that was why they voted her in.
"The real joy of being an elected representative is not being in the headlines for the things you do, but in meeting people, seeing the results of your contribution and knowing how fantastic and diverse your community is. In public life, while negative slurs are hard to deal with, you have to live with them and not allow them to have prominence. If you are criticised, you need to be clear about the importance of your decision-making and know you've done the right thing."
As a member of local government as well as a representative of the state government, Jan believes her position can only be of benefit to the people of the North Coast and hopes more women will look at politics as a career option.
"If you care about community, it's a great experience and an opportunity to gain skills and add value to your life," Jan said.
If you'd like more information about running in this year's local government elections, you can visit your local council's website or the website of the Australian Electoral Commission. You can also contact Lismore Mayor Jenny Dowell by email at jennydowell @hotmail.com and be put on an email distribution list so you can network with other women interested in campaigning. If you don't want to run for election, you can help contribute to the campaign in many ways, from handing out fliers to providing administrative support.