Article by Katherine Smyrk
After the federal election led to a record number of women elevated to positions of power, Licia Heath is hoping to see an impact on a local level.
- Wangaratta was identified as one of 30 areas that had low numbers of women in local government
- A fellowship is being offered to 60 women this year, to help them get elected
- A forum will be held in Wangaratta, and one will be held online, to explain the fellowship to local women
“Regardless of which party you follow, the fact that you see a big injection of women in the House of Representatives and in the Senate has a positive feedback loop,” said Ms Heath, CEO of Women for Election.
“More women feel like they are able to get involved. And it’s clear more than ever before that voters are looking for women’s names on ballots.”
Ms Heath and her organisation are part of a partnership delivering the Women Leading Locally fellowship, a Victorian government initiative aiming to help more women run for public office.
The 2022 fellowship will give 60 women support to stand for election in local government in 2024.
A further 60 fellows will be selected for next year.
The program targets people from the 30 council areas that had the lowest representation of women after the October 2020 local government elections.
The rural city of Wangaratta was one of those with low numbers of women, as were Benalla, Campaspe, Mansfield, Moira, Towong, and Wodonga shires.
That is why Wangaratta will host of one of a series of seminars being held around the state to spruik the fellowship this Wednesday. An online seminar is also being held next weekend.
Ms Heath said they ran an equivalent program in NSW, which at the time had the worst representation of women in local government in the country, sitting at just 29 per cent.
“But after their local government elections in December last year they had an unprecedented lift in the number of women in local government, and now they’re the third best in the country,” she said.
“We really want to try to achieve the same sort of lift in Victoria.”
A broad set of lived experience
Ashlee Fitzpatrick was in high school in 2013 when the Wangaratta City Council was fired and went into administration.
She had been on youth council in her last years of school and was paying attention when the new council was brought in.
“I noticed there was no youth voice at the table whatsoever and I thought ‘how can you have that?'” Ms Fitzpatrick said.
“You’re making decisions that are going to impact the next 10, 20, 30 years in the community. We really do need a different perspective.”
She was elected to council in 2017, at just 19 years of age — then the only woman on council and the youngest person to ever stand in Wangaratta.
She was re-elected in 2020, along with councillor Irene Grant.
Ms Heath said they run the fellowship to ensure a broad set of lived experience is in the room.
“Those who have run a business, those who have had kids in the area, those who source aged care, those who’ve used Centrelink,” she said.
“Those voices mean decisions are made that better the community for everyone.”
Ms Fitzpatrick said the current Wangaratta councillors all have different career backgrounds which means there is a spread of knowledge.
“We all have different skills and attributes. We’re quite lucky in that diversity of profession,” she said.
“Diversity of gender and culture, not so much. But we want to see it.”
Politics in Colour is running additional sessions as part of the Women Leading Locally fellowship to give extra, tailored support to women of colour who want to run for council.
“We have worked with the government to ensure that politically under-represented communities — be that women of colour, women from the queer community, women from First Nations communities, as well as differently abled communities — are really prioritised in terms of being awarded a fellowship,” Ms Heath said.
‘You’ve got to see it to be it’
Victoria has the highest number of women in local government in the country at just under 44 per cent. But the numbers do not tell the whole story.
“It’s very fragmented depending on which part of the state that you are looking at, and in the regions in particular there aren’t as many women standing,” Ms Heath said.
Mayor of Strathbogie Shire Council, Laura Binks, believes it was partly a problem of visibility.
“As that saying goes, ‘You’ve got to see it to be it’,” she said.
Ms Binks said it took her a while to be comfortable with the concept of power, but now she realised it was vital to have many different voices and leadership styles.
“It’s important that council reflects the community, and we’ve still got a long way to go in Strathbogie,” Ms Binks said.
“Don’t shy away just because your council possibly doesn’t have someone that looks like you on it, yet. You can be that change.”
Ms Heath said one vital aspect of the work they do is showing women that many of them already have most of the skills they need to take on the challenge.
“They might be involved in the local kinder fundraising committee, or doing flood relief for their communities, or running a business in the main street,” she said.
“We just want to show how those existing skills they have are so transferable to local government, where you can also have a great impact for your community.”
Ms Fitzpatrick admitted she had not been sure what she could bring to the table, but over these two terms she had been shown just how much she can achieve.
“So show up. Have a go. Give your opinions, give your perspective,” she said.
“If we want things to change, we have to be proactive.”
This article was originally published on abc.net.au.
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