More women and Aboriginal people on councils would improve democracy and make local government more diverse and effective, say female and Indigenous leaders.
- At the last round of local government elections, the typical candidate was an English speaking male aged 60-69 years
- No mayors in NSW have identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander since 2012
- Only 32 per cent of elected representatives in local government are women
Wiradjuri elder and former deputy mayor of Dubbo Regional Council Rod Towney said having greater Indigenous representation on local council would also help tackle racism.
Mr Towney’s comments follow the widespread condemnation of Dubbo councillor Kevin Parker, who was last week caught sending out a racist email with derogatory comments about Aboriginal Australians.
Mr Towney is calling on his people to “step up and be counted” ahead of September’s New South Wales local government elections.
“When you’re on council you’re there for everyone, but when issues do come up, like the email, you can talk on behalf of Aboriginal people and nip issues right in the bud,” Mr Towney said.
Mr Parker’s email alluded to the children’s tale Snow White where the seven dwarves’ character names were replaced with offensive stereotypes about Indigenous employment, productivity and crime.
He has since been stood down from his workplace, The Bank of Queensland, but has retained his position on Dubbo Regional Council.
Mr Towney said his people defied the stereotypes portrayed in Mr Parker’s ‘joke’.
“There are Aboriginal people here who are very well educated, have degrees, have worked in public life, and they can get up and debate with the best of people,” he said.
“We need to stand up and be counted as best we can.”
No Indigenous mayors in NSW
Data from the NSW Office of Local Government shows that in the last round of NSW local government elections, the typical candidate was an English speaking male aged 60-69 years with a professional occupation.
None of them identified as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander or as having a disability and had not served as a councillor before.
Also, since 2012, there hasn’t been a single mayor in NSW that has identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
Dubbo Regional Council’s deputy mayor Stephen Lawrence said it was time things changed.
“Local government is the grassroots level of government and Aboriginal people are entitled to participate and be represented,” Mr Lawrence said.
Despite Aboriginal people making up 14 per cent of Dubbo’s population, there were no Aboriginal people elected to the city’s regional council.
Nationally, Indigenous people make up 3.3 per cent of the population.
“It is not at all unreasonable to think that we, as a council, would have three Aboriginal councillors,” he said.
“I certainly hope this event [the email scandal] acts as a catalyst for Aboriginal people standing for council.”
But Mr Towney said if non-Aboriginal councillors were serious about increasing candidate diversity, they should consider stepping aside to make way for them.
“Calls from councillors to better support Aboriginal people are nothing new, this has been happening for years,” he said.
‘Everyone needs support’
With the next round of local government elections in NSW taking place on September 12, all candidates must nominate by August 12.
The Australian Local Government Women’s Association president Marianne Saliba said it was critical more women put their hands up.
In NSW, there are three councils that don’t have any female councillors: Berrigan, Blayney and Wingecarribee.
“We do have a significant gender imbalance in NSW when only 32 per cent of elected representatives in local government are women. In fact, female representation on councils is below fifty percent across all jurisdiction in Australia,” Ms Saliba said.
She said women were helping make politics a better place.
“We know when women are at the table it changes the tone of the debate. Arguments turn to discussions and agreements and it becomes less personal.”
Ms Saliba, who is also the mayor of Shellharbour Council in NSW, understood the pressures of balancing family and professional commitments, but said “everyone needs support”.
“It can be done,” she said
All male at Wingecarribee
According to mayor of Wingecarribee Shire Council, Duncan Gair, running for local government takes confidence and commitment.
His council of elected representatives does not include any women, nor Indigenous members, nor any councillors whose first language is something other than English.
It’s made up of himself and eight other men.
“At the end of the day it’s up to members of the community to put their hand up for election,” Mr Gair said.
Mr Gair, who has been on council for 25 years, said he would like to see a greater diversity of councillors at the next election.
One way to achieve this, he said, was to stop candidates aligning with political parties.
“Once you’re nominated by a political party you are virtually guaranteed a position on council, regardless of your ability and qualifications,” he said.
“I think it would make it a much more democratic process and would give us a more diverse representation of the community.”
He supported calls for law reform to pay councillors superannuation — something he agreed would encourage more women to nominate.
“The allowance per councillor is about $20,000 a year, so for people to do community service at this rate for a four year term is significant. That’s why, I believe, you often get an aged group of people running for council.”
The Office of Local Government has issued a discussion paper to seek the views of councils and their local communities on whether councillors should receive superannuation.