The well-worn adage ‘women need to work harder’ remains an unfortunate truth in the workplace. Anecdotally, many women still lament the difficulty in winning influence or being heard in male dominated working environments. And this is possibly truer on the political stage.
So how do our local female politicians fair? Do they get the voice they need?
Interestingly the make-up of our local councillors in the Bellingen Shire is four males to three females. This is the highest female representation in the history of our local government. Councillors Jennie Fenton, Desmae Harrison and Toni Wright-Turner are strong women with firm ideas on what is best for the region. They come from varied corners of the political spectrum but all agree that a desire to work closely with the community is their primary driver.
It is only a year until Council elections- what better time to meet our local female representatives and to flesh out the highs and lows of their term as Councillors. This interview with Councillor Jennie Fenton is the first in the series ‘Women in Politics’- a local perspective.
Jennie why did you choose to be a councillor?
I had always thought this was something I would do. Mind you, I thought I would be a little older before taking on this challenge. I worked with local and state governments in the area of water and waste management for 18 years prior to my time in the Shire. I had a very good idea about what local government does and the challenges they face. And the opportunities to get things done.
The Bellingen Shire is unique. This place makes you want to be part of the community and work for the community. It’s a primal thing that people yearn to be a part of a community. And we actually have that here. It may not be perfect but we have it.
As an Environmental Scientist and Greens Councillor obviously I have a passion for the environment. I’m here because the next few years will be crucial for making the necessary changes towards ameliorating climate change.
Since my daughter was diagnosed with a disability it has made me aware how much work there is to do to achieve quality of life in communal spaces. I recognised that being a councillor would afford me the opportunity to advocate for people with a disability.
What was your role in the community before becoming a councillor?
Prior to running for council elections I was heavily involved in the Northbank Community Garden and community childcare. I was also volunteering in disability advocacy. Council contributes in some way to 100s of community projects- it is just looking at things from a different angle.
So do you see being a Councillor as an effective way of advocating for issues that are important to you?
I know I’ve raised the profile of the conversation around disability. This is now part of every conversation from playgrounds to street access to the way we consult. All civil rights movements happen this way – people raise issues; the issues become part of normal conversation and then become normal practice. Despite the controversy around the Bellingen streetscape- anecdotal feedback from people with disability and older residents is that it is now 1000 times better.
Prior to being elected as a councillor you must have had expectations of the job. How have your expectations compared with the reality of the role?
It’s not for everyone but it has certainly been a really good fit for my skills and interests. There have been difficult moments, but in general the role has surpassed my expectations.
Before going into the role my main worry was that a lot of the content we would be dealing with would be boring. But instead I have found it really interesting. I’ve enjoyed the processes and learning how things work. We are fortunate to receive workshops and presentations by government organisations, council staff, community leaders and experts in their field. This information then informs our monthly meetings. I’ve found the process and information fascinating.
Councillors have a role to act as intermediaries between council and the community. How do you achieve this personally?
I like the opportunity to engage with the community on a wide breadth of issues. I get to see a broad spectrum of the community. I’m perhaps more vocal than some of my colleagues and very active on social media platforms. This has certainly opened me up to criticism at times. But I see it as my role to get the message out.
Do you think that your being a woman has drawn a greater level of criticism at times?
Unfortunately yes. I copped a lot of personal attacks over the removal of the Camphor Laurels in town. Mind you, the decision to remove these trees was in place long before I became a Councillor. Some of the personal attacks were blatantly misogynistic.
So would you recommend the job to other women with political aspirations?
Yes. We need true representation. We need women, people of colour and people who represent different socio-economic backgrounds. How wonderful would it be to have Gumbaynggirr representation? I’m 47 years old and the youngest Councillor. This in itself doesn’t reflect true representation.
There is poor female representation across the state in local government. I would encourage women to stand and have their voices heard. We bring different life experiences to the job. Personally I’ve had to manage the juggling of childcare around my council duties. I’m a single mum, full-time carer for my daughter and I home school. It is important for councillors to be living the issues that affect their community and to be a voice for the challenges faced by families.
Which aspect of your role has been the most satisfying?
I’ve been able to forge an intensified connection to the broader community and a greater appreciation for how amazing it is. I have had the chance to see and engage with all members of the community. And it has been satisfying being a part of an effective team with a strong leader, committed to getting jobs done. We are bold in making decisions and getting things done. In this current climate we don’t have a choice on this.
What aspect of your role has been the most challenging?
I think that dealing with members of the community who are not aware that the role of Council has changed over the past 40 years. The traditional focus moved from services to property to services to people, which isn’t always well understood. Council only had a role servicing roads, rates and rubbish. The shift 40 years ago means that social services are now a major focus of local councils, which makes it so much more complex. We are now partners in services to youth, older residents, people with disability, tourists, businesses and the list goes on.
Unfortunately a largish portion of the local community still believes that roads, rates and rubbish should be our primary focus. This is a gross misunderstanding of the role of councils in local communities and seems to take up a lot of time with justifying our position on issues. We shouldn’t be fighting this fight 40 years on.
The sport of ‘Council bashing’ is also difficult. Unfortunately, Council can be seen as the scapegoat for all ills. There is a misunderstanding of the complexity of the business model that councils need to work within or the legislation that governs councils. Representatives are basically volunteers trying to do the right thing by the community.
A lot of this misunderstanding is based around council budgets. This Shire is a relatively large shire with a small population, which means that the budget for getting things done is low. We know what the community wants but we don’t want to be bankrupt. The current Council management has managed to balance the books while we still achieving our goals. There has been a lot of organizational change to make this happen and with that comes pain. But I have so much respect for the staff at Council. This is a truly talented group of people. One example is the Planning Department- what they have done with affordable housing and housing strategies going forward is wonderful. It is award-winning stuff.
So will we see you stand at the Council elections in 2020?
Absolutely. I’m there for the outcomes. Its bigger than even the local community. What we do now and over the next 12 years is crucial to the survival of the planet and its entire species. This motivates me to see what we can do.
Working towards 100% renewables and zero emissions is one of our greatest but most important challenges. We hope to set tough targets for Council and then will work as leaders with the community to facilitate target setting for the community as a whole.
I live and breathe the four pillars of the Greens Party, which are about sustainability, social justice, grassroots democracy and peace. Whether I retain my seat or not, I will continue to work on those principles to protect the planet’s integrity and build equality for its future occupants. That’s integral to who I am.