Desmae Harrison reluctantly wears the title of ‘elder’. But she is keenly aware that her lifetime of experiences coupled with being a woman brings an important and different dimension to her role as Councillor at Bellingen Shire Council. “I know others see me as an elder. I don’t see myself as one but I have lived life- it’s been both hard and good. I realise this gives me wisdom and a different perspective on things that I can bring to the role,” says Desmae.
This 76 year young dynamo combines a sharp intellect with her passion for contributing to her community. “I take my governance responsibility as a Councillor seriously but it is the community engagement that drives me. I work best relating to the people,” says Desmae.
Desmae how long have you resided in the Bellingen Shire?
We bought the Providore in Bellingen in 1986. We didn’t know the area, but my husband Richard wanted a change from school teaching, so we answered an ad in the paper. We weren’t aware of the beauty of the area or the strength of the community. We came from an area of the Blue Mountains that was very conservative, so Bellingen’s progressive nature was a bit of a shock. We moved in on January 16th and before the first school term even started Bellingen had experienced three floods- quite an eye opener!
We owned and worked the Providore for 10 years, 7 days a week, 15 hours a day. It was a crazy time. During floods we would be open even longer hours – but really felt we were part of the community.
In the end it was a big relief when we sold. We were exhausted. Being a rural girl all my life, I felt a spiritual connection to Dorrigo and its smaller, tight-knit community. So we moved to Dorrigo as soon as we sold. After a year there we bought 100 acres on which we developed a native plant nursery, raised cattle and we were the first people in Dorrigo to grow organically certified garlic.
Have you always been involved in your local community?
Always. I’ve been volunteering in some capacity in my local community since year 9 at school. I’m always happiest in smaller communities- I can slot straight in. I certainly fitted straight into the Dorrigo community.
After moving to Dorrigo I became involved with the Dorrigo Chamber of Commerce and continued to serve on the Chamber for 16 years, only retiring when it became apparent that serving on the Chamber while being a Councillor was a possible conflict of interest.
Why did you choose to be a Councillor?
I actually call myself the ‘accidental Councillor’. I was third on Mark Troy’s ticket at the Council elections in 2012. I was assured no one gets elected from third on a ticket. Well I’m here to tell you differently.
Mind you, I have always been interested in local politics and always been heavily involved in my local community. Dorrigo is my home and I’m very aware that Dorrigo’s interests need to be represented at the local government level. I’ve relished my time as Councillor over the past 7 years. I’m a voice for Dorrigo. However, I am serious about standing for the whole of the Bellingen Shire community.
Which aspect of your role as Councillor has been the most satisfying?
Definitely working with the community. I’m proud of our achievements in the time I’ve served. I believe one of the greatest things we did was our response to the NSW Government’s local government reform agenda with the Bellingen Shire Council’s ‘Fit for the Future’ proposal. We were able to stave off merger with Coffs Harbour Council.
I’ve been pushing for the Dangar Falls infrastructure and walkway into town since becoming a Councillor. I’m really excited about this. We now have support from Council and our local member to secure the grant money. A concept plan is now in place. The walkway from Dangar Falls is essential to bring tourists into town and past the shops. Agriculture is struggling in this region. Tourism will be the future of this town.
But there have been so many satisfying moments. I feel warm and fuzzy when we get things done for the community.
What aspect of your role has been the most challenging?
The vote on equal rights for the LGBTQI community was very difficult for me. I have relatives who belong to this community. I witnessed their struggles at school and in the community. It was a conscience vote and I voted with my conscience. Unfortunately, I felt the anger of a portion of the Dorrigo community for voting this way. Dorrigo tends to be a more conservative community. Change can be difficult for people- particularly in the Dorrigo region. It is difficult to change set ideas. However, I won’t be bullied but I always invite polite discussion.
Dorrigo folk were angry about the Bellingen Beautification project, but for different reasons than the Bellingen people. The Dorrigo community believe we are neglected. I can assure them we aren’t overlooked. Projects are most commonly funded by grant money and I’m there to ensure Dorrigo gets its slice of the pie. The Dangar Falls pathway and bridge improvements are just some of the big ticket items that I’m proud we have secured for Dorrigo.
The rates variation was also very contentious. The community didn’t understand the need for this. I am always explaining that the Bellingen Shire is a large area with a relatively small number of rate payers. The Councillors are like a Board of Directors to ensure that we stick to the budget- I take this as seriously as anyone. We voted for a budget and I see it as our responsibility to stick to it. This is where my black and white comes in.
Do you believe that being female has affected your time in the role?
Being the sole female Councillor during my first term was particularly hard. There were times when I was either completely ignored or picked on. It was a horrible feeling and a very lonely time for me. I would describe the Chambers back then as a ‘boys club’. They did apologise in the end though.
When Jennie Fenton and Toni Wright-Turner were elected I was determined that I wouldn’t let them sit in the Chambers feeling left alone and ignored the way I was in my early days. I worked hard to include them.
Do you think it is important to have female representation on Council?
Yes. I think by nature women talk more and get more involved with the public. Women’s mindset is very different to men’s. One plus one is two but we can see behind the two. We look further into the issues so bring a different perspective to the role.
For you personally has the role been satisfying?
It has filled an enormous void in my life. I could have been sitting at home in my tweed skirt. I’m not a lady to fill my days crocheting.
The role involves a lot of work- I think about my role almost every hour of my waking day. I’m a great believer in reading copiously and understanding issues and this role has afforded me a sense of responsibility to gain the knowledge required to be able to vote on issues. This role has staved off dementia.
So will you be a candidate at the next council election?
You’ll have to wait and see. It is a difficult decision. I see myself as young for my age but I’m cognizant that a councillor needs to be of sound body and mind. I’m 76 years old- how will I be 5 years from now? There is certainly local pressure to stand again. I will miss it so much if I decide to stand down at the next election. And basically we need more elders and the wisdom that brings.