Story & photo Melissa Hargraves
Although the climate has never been better for women to enter politics they may still find themselves being unfairly criticised in the media. Germaine Greer’s remark about Julia Gillard’s and Alan Jones’s comments about ‘women [in politics] ruining the joint’ are just two that spring to mind. And this, of course, is if you are lucky enough to be voted in by a society that has to date been predominantly represented by white middle-aged males.
Over 50 per cent of the Lismore Local Government Area (LGA) is female yet women only represent 16 per cent of the current Lismore City Council (LCC) councillors. The statistic only grows to just 27 per cent across of NSW. Many other areas of the Lismore LGA are not represented, including populations of Indigenous, young and disabled peoples.
So what to make of a group that – taken on face value – has as its sole ostensible aim getting more women into local government?
Girls in Government (GIG) are a team of five women of differing ages who are passionate about social justice and equity and are hoping to bring some balance into local council. Echonetdaily caught up with four of the team to reflect on the path thus far and tap into the feedback received from their campaign.
‘A lot of great things have come out of this campaign. We now have GIG Incorporated set up, which will build on the knowledge from the workshop I did with mayor Jenny Dowell to involve more women in government,’ Kate Olivieri explained.
‘We want to engage women, not just in NSW, but Australiawide and internationally, to stand for local government.’
This is the first campaign for GIG and Kate confirmed what she already knew to be the barriers of women participating in government.
‘We experienced these barriers, including lack of time, care and responsibilities, getting money to live etc. Our ticket purports balance and that is exactly what we had to balance for this campaign!’
The party name includes a gender reference for the purpose of bringing back balance, but Kate found people tend to get stuck on that.
‘One thing we do have to keep addressing is people getting stuck on the women-only message. We are not about women at all costs. The fact is, if I get on to council next week, it is most likely that there will be three women and eight men, instead of the current ratio of two women and nine men. So that is the balance we are addressing here.’
Although LCC acknowledges Indigenous peoples, there is no representation on council.
Kate added, ‘Not a lot of people like to talk about this and I have mentioned this a few times. We do not have enough racial diversity on council. You can tap into community groups – some people try – but there hasn’t been a big push to do it. We care about this.’
At the age of 20, Scout Symons is the youngest on the GIG team. She is one of the youngest females worldwide to be involved with Rotary and took out the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards. This year she was also named Miss Lismore Beauty Queen 2012. Scout admitted openly that not too long ago she didn’t engage with the voting process, a view that may be held by many newcomer voters.
‘Before this campaign, I didn’t care about local government. I saw elections as something that you go to every four years and vote for whoever you thought was the nicest. I’m now studying law and one of the subjects is local government. Through my research and the statistics that Kate has shared with me, it really put into perspective for me that things need to change, as it is not representative.
‘I think that through this election we are setting a tone. When I tell people that I am running for council, they look shocked. When I say I am third on a ticket, a lot of people don’t understand that. I am hoping that other young people might get inspired.’
In response to Alan Jones’s comment about ‘women ruining the joint’, Scout commented via social media that ‘women will ruin the joint in the best way possible.’
Representing women over 50 on the GIG team are Vicky Findlay and Terry Lawrence. Vicky has been involved in local government for many years and is well aware of its impact on our daily lives.
‘Local government is the most important level as it affects us on a day-to-day basis. I have been involved for a very long time in people having a say. It is an area that I am passionate about. My work with the North Lismore Progress Association and the Banyam-Baigham Landcare group has seen partnerships with local Aboriginal people and has [made] real attempts at reconciliation.
‘I am an older woman who would like to see a younger woman on council. As an older woman, I have flinched a few times at what a younger woman’s perspective might be. That is why I am doing this, as younger women have valid points and need to have their say. My biggest concern is having a progressive local government.’
The responses to the campaign have varied in their polarity.
Vicki added, ‘The comments are polarised. We receive extreme support or extreme negativity.’
When asked if they received more support from women, Kate responded.
‘It is pretty balanced. A lot of support comes from the age factor, more so than gender.’
Angela Mathew is the mother and advocate of children with disabilities and stands for social justice and equity.
‘I have enjoyed the human experience of this campaign. We are serious about running for politics but we are not stodgy. Things like [pictures of] Kate dancing on Facebook the other day lighten things up a bit.’
Regardless of the council election outcomes, GIG Incorporated will continue to develop and enhance opportunities for women in government.
Vicky added, ‘we will create more diversity in our group to cultivate that, including other cultures’.
Angela put a call out ‘for any females interested in running for the next elections in four years’ time’ to join their organisation.
Image from left to right – Vicki Findlay, Scout Symons, Kate Olivieri, Angela Mathew
(Terry Lawrence was unable to attend)