Coral Ross was first elected to the City of Boroondara in 2002, since then she has been successfully re-elected four times, and served three terms as Mayor. In 2015 she was elected national president of ALGWA.
My journey as a Councillor is similar to many women – I was involved in community organisations and was also annoyed by some of the things Council had done. I had been a Kinder President, on a Council working party and involved as a parent at the local school. I have the philosophy of “put up or shut up”. I also thought I would always regret if I did not stand. I stood and surprised myself at not only being elected but not needing to go to preferences.
I became actively involved in the Australian Local Government Women’s Association (ALGWA) when I became the only woman on Council. It was my third term and I was conscious that it would be very difficult to be the only woman if it was my first term. I decided to do what I could to help others in the same situation. I found ALGWA to be a tremendously supportive organization. I have also enjoyed meeting women councillors from around the State and because we are a national organization, from other states. I had the privilege of becoming the Victorian President and we developed good relationships with Local Government Ministers and our peak bodies. I represented Victoria on the National Board and became Vice-President and in 2015 I was elected the National President. I was re-elected in April. Again, as well as supporting women in local government, I believe an important part of being President is fostering our relationships with our peak bodies and Federal Government.
The part I enjoy most about being a councillor is being able to help people.
I love being able to make a difference to people’s lives and I love seeing on the ground something you advocated for on Council.
Often, it is the smaller things which mean the most to people – a park seat or a fence. But it is wonderful to see a kindergarten or playground and know you played a part in it being constructed. I also love being involved with the community. I get frustrated by politics and when the best outcome for the community is sacrificed by politics.
As a new Councillor, be true to yourself and your values. Think if you really want to make deals. The first decision a new Council will make is who will be the Mayor – it is easy for someone to say you support me and I will do X next year. If a week is a long time in politics; a year is an eternity. Do your own research- don’t just accept what another councillor tells you. Don’t fight every battle. Be strategic. Try not to be emotionally involved in a vote – or at least don’t show it! Be wary of cliques. The may appear strong but during the course of a year or so they will fracture. You need to have good relationships with all councillors. The Council Plan is very important as are strategic policies. Look to those higher level plans to get your issues up.
The challenges faced by women councillors are the same in every State and overseas. Local government can sometimes be seen a male domain. Women tend to think differently to men.
We tend to be more collegiate, ask more questions and talk through issues.
Some males find this difficult. Some examples include; sexism, sexist name calling; lack of respect; talking over; bullying; decisions being made in the male toilets; male councillors who will not support a woman councillor because of her gender; unwanted advances; abusive letters, texts, tweets; either no child care reimbursement or councillors made to feel guilty if they claim child care costs.
Call out inappropriate behaviour for what it is. If someone is having another conversation while you are speaking, you can stop speaking – it often results in them stopping. Get to know your Council’s meeting procedure and use it. If someone calls “point of order” – ask them to name the point. You have to actually say which “point” you wish the person to be brought to “order” for. It cannot be an ambit or wishful claim – or the vibe! Use the Council Code of Conduct. If someone is in breach, follow the Code as to how that is dealt with. Don’t forget to enlist support of others. If a councillor is behaving badly, speak to the Mayor. If it is the Mayor, speak to him (or her) and then use the Code of Conduct. And don’t forget you can always question the decision of the chair. Be assertive, but not aggressive – don’t forget that you will be working with your fellow councilors for four years!