NOOSA - At an International Women’s Day luncheon in Noosa last month, I spoke along with seven other women on the topic of ‘Dare to Challenge’, drawing on my recent experiences as the only woman councillor on the Noosa Council in south-east Queensland.
Newly elected in 2016 after a long career as a manager and consultant, I had expectations of a pleasant experience in local government and felt well prepared for the role.
I also had an appreciation of how an appropriate relationship should be conducted between citizens and their government.
My parents had migrated to Australia following a decade living through the Nazi occupation and capitulation to Communism in their native Czechoslovakia. From this, I had inherited an abhorrence of lies and propaganda and an understanding of the slippery slope that leads to authoritarianism
After my first few months as a councillor, I began to observe that things were not as I expected. I discovered the council was not very community oriented. And I discovered it was not very transparent.
Most meetings were closed to the community and kept no official records. Furthermore, many decisions were made on the basis of opinion and often behind closed doors.
Money seemed to be siphoned off for pet projects, some of which had the whiff of favouritism and cronyism. An intense environmental ideology was pursued in preference to meeting balanced community needs.
‘Spin’, rather than straightforward information, was par for the course. And I was dismayed at the innate nastiness towards residents and to small business.
I had not expected to discover this and to find myself fighting for democracy. But here I was, struggling for a voice, for transparency, for evidence-based decisions, for priorities based on community needs, for merit-based selection and procurement, and for a fair go for residents.
I learned how to conduct myself in this struggle. To be polite and calm, no matter how intimidating the behaviour of others. To always do my homework and ask penetrating questions so I could pin down the truth of matters raised at council meetings.
I learned the best ways of taking a stand on behalf of people in the community. Against considerable opposition, I utilised social media to inform the community of facts about council matters they should know. And I told my readers about the stands I took, and why I had taken them.
Like me, the other six councillors were elected as independents, with no party allegiance. But they usually worked together as an informal ‘team’, often referred to in the community as ‘the boys’ club’.
When the boys’ club realised that I would pursue an independent role and not join its ‘team’, it expressed its annoyance and began to push back at me at private meetings and in public.
There were many attempts made to stop me speaking, mostly unsuccessful, and I was shouted at behind closed doors.
At one secret meeting, a premeditated verbal attack was made on me by each councillor in turn. It was a concerted attempt to bully me to join the ‘team’. Six men against one woman. Ugly.
But I had anticipated something this and armed myself with a lawyer’s advice about the rights of a councillor to voice an independent view. I knew the relevant local government laws and I knew the councillor code of conduct. I was prepared and the attack, although unpleasant, was repelled.
Unlike my male colleagues, I was denied inclusion in Noosa Council’s media releases on substantial shire issues. The releases in which I was quoted were on ‘female’ issues such as Easter Bunnies riding free holiday buses and making pretty art out of recycled rubbish. Until I sat down with the mayor and made a fuss about it.
But then the pushback and intimidation got really bad.
Two councillors and some unelected mates made formal complaints about me under the Councillor Code of Conduct. There were 10 complaints in all over a period of time accusing me of invented wrongdoings and seeking to prevent me from providing substantial information on Facebook.
The complaints were made to a government body that deals with allegations about councillors – the Office of the Independent Assessor.
In each of the 10 cases, after some months of deliberation, I was found to be blameless. Indeed, the assessors found some of the complaints frivolous and vexatious, and the complainants warned not to do it again.
I had to employ a barrister to assist me deal with the allegations against me and spent many days preparing my response each time a complaint rolled down. I found this stressful. But there was a benefit.
As I fought for greater openness and accountability and the better governance of the shire, increasingly the community got behind me.
People became outraged at the lack of transparency and were furious at the way I was treated by other councillors and their cronies.
In the second half of my four year term, with the community’s support I could feel I was getting the traction required to bring about change.
I succeeded in getting council meetings videoed and livestreamed for public viewing. Meeting minutes were improved. More detailed financial information was made publicly available at council meetings.
There were losses too. Perhaps the main one was my failure to win support for public access to all meetings and workshops. The amount of council business conducted in secret is astounding.
Looking back, I believe my lasting contribution to the community might well be that I paved the way for greater representation of women on Noosa Council.
At the March 2020 elections, eight women candidates stood and three – including the first woman mayor, Cr Clare Stewart – were elected. That wasn’t quite the end of the boys’ club, but it was significantly undermined. What an important change that was!
Why is it that women often don’t dare to challenge? Women have for a long time been encouraged to fit in, play second fiddle and remain subordinate and silent.
This can lead to a kind of imposter syndrome – especially when you’re inexperienced in elective politics. You can feel intimidated and isolated. Even if elected as an independent, as I found out this independence can be threatened.
Now Noosa Council’s seven councillors include three women. This was a considerable breakthrough for our community.
Intrinsically, I think, is that women in politics, perhaps more than men, want to please and to be liked. I had to challenge this feeling. Sure I wanted to be liked and respected by my fellow councillors and council staff, but not at any cost.
I constantly had to remind myself that I was elected by the community not by fellow councillors, and that I had to take a stand for the community. Always.
My advice to women wanting to serve through political office is, first, stay true to your values. Do your reading. Be accessible to the community. Muster your courage. Remain gracious and empathetic.
And never ever sell your soul.
Ingrid Jackson MBA was a Noosa councillor from 2016-2020 after a career in change management, communications, performance management and executive development in both private and public sectors