One councillor walked out of Ballina Council’s recent meeting during an emotional discussion about speakers at an upcoming IWD event.
Mayor David Wright said Cr Phillip Meehan had been requested to speak about women on council at the International Women’s Day luncheon organised by the Ballina Chamber of Commerce at Ballina RSL this Thursday 4 March, and Cr Wright had approved that.
Cr Sharon Parry said it sent a really poor message to the community when a male spoke on behalf of women and women’s issues. ‘I have my own experience on council and it’s quite different,’ she said.
She said she had spoken at past events about domestic violence and salary differences between men and women across their lives.
‘These are real issues for women, and I believe women should be speaking for women,’ said Cr Parry.
Cr Eoin Johnston said it was not Cr Meehan’s fault he was invited. ‘Maybe they want a bloke up there to throw eggs at them?’ he wondered.
Mayor Wright said he had ‘delegated two Sharons [Crs Parry and Cadwallader] to speak on his behalf in recent years – but at the moment the invitation was for Phil to speak.’
No one mentioned that the president of the Ballina Chamber of Commerce is Phil Meehan’s wife Susan Meehan, herself a former councillor.
We need to look at ourselves
In his defence, Cr Meehan said he was invited by the board of the Chamber of Commerce to speak, and intended to address issues of women in local government and lack of equality of representation. ‘We need to look at ourselves here,’ he said, addressing the room of mostly men.
Cr Meehan said his comments would be designed to encourage women to attend the forthcoming forum in Lismore about getting more women into local government.
He said it was ‘quite disappointing to be having this gender discussion’.
Council’s General Manager Paul Hickey weighed in, saying he was surprised a male was asked to speak on behalf of council, which was sponsoring the event, ‘but he was invited’. Mr Hickey said it was a serious issue that everyone needed to consider carefully.
The GM said that there had been much discussion among his own staff about the issue and he thought it was unfair for male councillors to use their numbers to outvote female councillors on the decision. ‘We would not do that at an operational level,’ he said.
At this point, Cr Meehan walked out of the room and didn’t return, saying he was ‘extremely disappointed’.
Cr Ben Smith switched his mic on to say democracy was best represented when there was as much of the demographic as possible in the room making decisions.
‘Councils used to be a bunch of old retired famers and real estate agents,’ he said.
‘No disrespect to the old guys around the room, but they’d make the decisions. They were the only people with the opportunity. Those dynamics are changing.
‘The women had a bloody hard time just to get one woman on council, it was tough for them. We are in a situation where our democracy is best served by a representative council.’
Cr Smith said that in the case of the Ballina Chamber of Commerce event, ‘maybe it’s better to have a woman there. On that basis it would make more sense. But it doesn’t invalidate the male perspective.’
While the discussion between the men continued, Cr Sharon Cadwallader pressed her right to speak, and finally got the opportunity after some delay.
Cr Cadwallader’s view
She said it was a sensitive issue which she had discussed with Cr Parry. They had decided ‘it would do women an injustice if they didn’t say something.’ Cr Cadwallader asked what sort of message it would send to the many young women who would be present to see a male representing council at an IWD event?
She publicly acknowledged her own husband’s assistance with family and business commitments so she could do her community work, and also thanked GM Hickey for his demonstrated support of women.
‘I’m not saying women are better than men but we need a balance,’ said Cr Cadwallader.
‘That’s how we get better decisions over all. Through diversity and balance.’
Council finally decided to ask the chamber to invite a woman to speak. This is now likely to be Cr Cadwallader.
The keynote speaker at the event will be Cate McQuillen, the creator of Dirtgirlworld.
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