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Frankston Council facing a perfect storm during its 2020 COVID election - by Claire Harvey

It was the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg who said that “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made”. I believe it to be true. Especially here, in Australia, in the 21st century. 

Nominations have now closed for local government elections in Frankston City and we seem to be facing a democratic crisis. Of our 9 councillors only 3 are female. Those watching the final Council meeting last night (and following the 900+ page agenda!) might have noted that none of these women is nominating for re-election in 2020. One Councillor broke down in tears in response the trauma she experienced during her four years on a Council that has been characterised as being "hostile, disrespectful and aggressive". In addition, current restrictions around campaigning provide a natural advantage for current incumbents, along with those seeking to make a return to Council after a period of absence. Unfortunately familiarity wins votes, often over character and competence. As things currently stand, with more than three quarters of the nominating candidates being male, Frankston Council looks increasingly likely to have no female representation for the next 4 year term. This is deeply concerning (especially for a Council that has received more than its fair share of attention, for the wrong kinds of reasons). Yet this is also one of the primary reasons I am running for council despite COVID-19 giving me every reason not to. In fact, there are days that my candidacy seems almost ludicrous, especially as a single parent - already feeling ‘worn down’ from two terms of juggling remote working on top of schooling at home. To be brutally honest it would be far easier to read a book, walk on the beach, grow veggies, or Netflix binge. But I love Frankston and am deeply passionate about its untapped potential: if I can help to bring positive change then I will.

Women make up half the population, and democratically, it makes sense that they should - on average - fill half the spots on boards and councils. But they rarely do. Still. In 2020. Clearly barriers remain to equal participation, despite mounting evidence that women bring a different perspective, demeanor and skill-set to their leadership contexts, making valuable contributions when they do break through glass ceilings and find themselves in positions of influence. 

Indeed, it is now 100 years since Mary Rogers was elected to Richmond Council, through a bi-election. She was the first woman elected to local government in Victoria; a widow, a mother of five (though one died in infancy), a union activist (the Women Office Cleaners Union, among others). She was someone who carried deep concern for neglected children (baby clinics and milk supply was an issue that captured her attention), and whose work in the community left lasting legacies. I can’t think of a better way to honour her memory than, in some small way, to attempt to emulate her commitment and contribution.  

So what can we do? Wherever you are in Victoria, you could do your research and make it a priority to vote for suitable, capable females in your local council elections. Even better, support females in their campaigning: ask them how you might help in a unique year when campaigning is really hard work. Stop and appreciate the fact that those who gain a strong public presence through leaflet dropping, expensive mail-outs, signage and posters are often able do so because they have deep pockets and/or the backing of a major political party. And be mindful that many exceptional female candidates chose not to run this year because campaigning was just so hard: the consequences of this will work themselves out over the next four years unless we work hard to take corrective action. 

Here in Frankston, over the past three elections, approximately 3 in 10 locals have not even bothered to vote. Perhaps another way to change the game, and level the playing field, is by encouraging those you know to actually step up and make their vote count? Another one in 20 here are generally ‘donkey voters’, whose votes don’t count because they don’t number the boxes correctly (intentionally or unintentionally). This is an unhelpful trend we could try to reverse too. 

It is said that a crisis presents us with opportunity, so let's use this opportunity to re-imagine our communities. My hope is that together we can work to create cities and shires that recognise and value diversity and that see females as equal participants with valid contributions to make in every sphere of society.

As we re-make our world in the wake of COVID-19 let’s make sure that women are well represented in local government, as it’s certainly a place where decisions are made.

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