Fears all-male councils could return in Victoria’s local government elections

There are fears October’s local government elections could see a return of all-male councils in Victoria, with concerns fewer women will stand because of coronavirus impacts.

The Colac-Otway Shire in south-west Victoria is one of 14 councils in the state with only one woman — for the past four years that has been Kate Hanson.

“Sometimes I feel like I really stand out because I am the only female on council, but most importantly I feel women need a voice on council,” she said.

“So I’m really proud to fulfil that role.”

A birds eye view of sheep being herded through yards into shed, three people can be seen herding them.
The Colac Otway Shire covers coastal areas through to fertile farming country further inland.(ABC News: Jess Davis)

Being the only woman can be a gruelling job at times.

“The culture of the council when you only have one female councillor is — it’s male-dominated, our management is male-dominated,” Ms Hanson said.

“I’ve never encountered sexism, but what I have encountered, I guess, is at times the male voices love to be heard first, and it can be tiring trying to push back against that.”

Despite encouraging other women to stand, she was concerned the Shire could return to an all-male council.

“With the election only sort of six or seven weeks away, and not a lot of females putting their hand up, there is a real risk that we’ll return to being an all-male council,” Ms Hanson said.

A woman in blue jeans and purple jacket walks through a muddy paddock with her two sons at her side, wind turbines in background
Kate Hanson is a farmer, accountant, mother and councillor.(ABC News: Jess Davis)

Gender equality going backwards

That is a fear also held by gender equality expert and former councillor, Ruth McGowan.

“Women are negatively impacted by COVID-19 to a greater degree, because of additional childcare responsibilities and the financial stress that’s been caused by job insecurity,” she said.

A woman with short brown hair, glasses, wearing a blue jacket and white scarf.
Ruth McGowan says there will be less women standing for local council elections this year, because of the impact of coronavirus.(ABC News: Jess Davis)

Ms McGowan was also concerned that with many women councillors stepping down this election, female representation could go backwards.

In the east of the state, Gippsland has lower numbers of female representation than the rest of Victoria — about 27 per cent.

“I’m quite worried about what’s going to happen in Gippsland,” Ms McGowan said.

“I’d hate to see we drop below 25 per cent, but that’s a fear.”

Sexist culture

In the East Gippsland Shire, both women councillors are stepping down, including Natalie O’Connell who has served just one term.

Ms O’Connell said during her time as mayor, she was criticised by other councillors, who thought she was not up to the job because she was a young mother.

“You know, prior to that, I probably never experienced any sort of sexist comments like that. You hear about it on the news, but it never happened to me,” she said.

A young woman wearing a white shirt. She has short, curly blonde hair.
Natalie O’Connell is stepping down from the East Gippsland Shire in October’s elections.(ABC Gippsland: Sarah Maunder)

Ms O’Connell said it only made her want to work harder.

“[To] show my community and other young women, or young people for that matter, who might be considering taking on local government that it can be done,” she said.

But Ms O’Connell also wanted to see a widespread change of the system.

“I believe there needs to be significant changes to be able to attract and retain the right people in local government,” she said.

Not free and fair

President of the Municipal Association of Victoria and long-serving councillor for the City of Boroondara, Coral Ross, said the elections were not a level playing field.

“I don’t think that there will be free and fair elections and I don’t think that we will have the diversity of candidates that we’ve had in the past,” she said.

“Not only will it affect women, but it will affect people who are from diverse backgrounds.”

A woman with a dark blue velvet jacket, blue shirt, blue rimmed glasses and short hair, green bushes blurred behind.
Coral Ross says it will be impossible for Victoria to reach gender equity in local councils if the number of women decreases in October.(ABC News: Jess Davis)

Women currently make up 38 per cent of councillors in Victoria and the State Government has a target to reach 50-50 by 2025.

But Ms Ross said it would be unfeasible to reach that target now.

“If the numbers go down, as seems to be what everybody is predicting, it will be impossible to in one leap to go from 33 per cent, 35 per cent to 50 per cent,” she said.

Ms Ross said despite local government and women’s groups lobbying the Government to postpone the election, it was announced last week they would go ahead.

For Victoria to achieve gender equality in local government Ms Ross said a long-term campaign needed to be implemented.

“You can’t just do it within a few days or a few weeks before an election,” she said.

“It needs to be something which is done years before the election and needs to be done continually.”

A black and white picture of a woman in the early 1900s wearing a black dress and necklace.
Mary Rogers was the first woman councillor in Victoria in 1920.(Supplied: City of Yarra)

Inner-city councils not immune

It has been 100 years since Mary Rogers was elected to the Richmond City Council, becoming Victoria’s first woman councillor, but a century on, some city councils continue to have a gender problem.

In the north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, the Banyule Council is one of the ‘fragile 14’, with just one woman councillor.

That is something first-time candidate Emily Bieber is hoping to change.

“I’m just a mum, I like netball and I work at a primary school,” she said.

“That’s something that I want to show my kids and my girlfriends and my neighbours, that ordinary everyday people can be leaders in the community.”

But she agreed that to increase diversity on councils more needed to be done.

“I think more needs to change deeper in the community to see good representation across the council in terms of age, race, personal history,” she said.

“When you don’t have kind of broad interest in the local politics landscape, it’s really tricky to get people interested.”

Emily Bieber on her back porch, playing uno with her 3 kids, sitting on wooden planks, green plants behind.
Emily Bieber is running for the Banyule Shire Council, which currently only has one woman councillor.(ABC News: Jess Davis)

For Colac Otway councillor Kate Hanson, having leadership from women is more important than ever.

“Council’s role is never going to be more important than it will be coming out of coronavirus,” Ms Hanson said.

“Having female representation will be very important, really to hone in on those the impacts that the pandemic has had on females.”

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