Promoting gender-balanced leadership in the bush
“You don’t stuff with bush people,” said a jubilant Moree Mayor Katrina Humphries in relation to her heroic legal win against Standard and Poors in February 2016.
Mayor Humphries stated the legal battle was one of the first things to come across her desk when she became Mayor in 2008, and with the help of council they agreed to fight. Local government has changed, as mayor you have to fight and match your skills to the role – all the way.
Katrina is part of the few colourful and strong female Mayors representing regional Australia, other prominent names include Balonne (Qld) Mayor Donna Stewart, and West Wimmera (Vic) Mayor Annette Jones. All demonstrate strong and distinctive leadership in their communities.
However, there are too few women stepping into these leadership roles. In 2014 women held just 21 per cent of the Mayoral roles in Australia. The Australian Local Government Women’s Association’s goal is to reach 50/50 representation for women and men in local government leadership.
Have things changed since the first female mayor in Australia, Lilian Fowler was elected Mayor of Newtown, NSW on 7 December 1937?
Yes – but there is still a way to go.
In 2014 Tasmania went to the local government poles with new rules, and a surprising number of women were elected; nine mayors and nine deputy mayors – that’s 10 per cent higher than the national average, with 31 per cent of mayoral roles going to women.
In comparison, in the 2016 Queensland local government elections 57 women are going for mayor roles in 46 councils, across 76 areas, ensuring that they are only possibly able to represent 59 per cent of Queensland local government areas.
Interestingly when compared to the entire list of candidates, women are still only 21 per cent of the option in regional areas. A light of hope is shown in the Aboriginal Shire Council’s where women account for 26 per cent of candidates.
If half the population are women, then we should be seeing greater than 21 per cent of women leading at our local level across Australia. Not because of a quota, but women can have different skills which might be better suited to the breadth of roles local government now needs to take on.
Recent work in Australia shows that local government leadership needs to be more than roads, rates and rubbish, leaders have to be able to;
- provide the resources and governance structures necessary for sustained community dialogue;
- facilitate the engagement process and bring people together in a variety of ways to encourage active participation across the community;
- act as a catalyst by providing new ideas and knowledge for change to engaged community members through the use of experts, study trips, etc.; or
- act as an ally and/or advocate, providing support and encouraging solidarity throughout the development process and use their political networks to champion the outcomes to other tiers of government to attract the necessary recognition and resources.
Local government is a great opportunity for everyone to get involved and vote for the people who have the skills required to fulfil the role of a local leader. Regional Australia has a responsibility to support greater female participation in local government leadership roles across Australia and work towards gender parity at a local level.