Councillor Ernie Bennett speaks about the importance of women being on council with his alter ego Ebennie Trent.
Councillor Ernie Bennett speaks about the importance of women being on council with his alter ego Ebennie Trent.

Female shortage on councils

KYOGLE councillor Ernie Bennett reckons there should be more women on councils.

“They certainly bring a different point of view – which is probably why we argue so much,” he added jokingly.

Yet in the end, Cr Bennett said, it’s up to the community to elect whoever – male or female, young or old, white or indigenous – they think best represents them.

This week the Department of Local Government released a report that found councils across the state were dominated by ageing, white middle-class men.

“Even though women make up about half the NSW population, they only make up about a quarter of councillors,” Local Government Minister Barbara Perry said.

Kyogle councillor and deputy mayor Lynette Zito is not surprised by the report. She was elected at the last election when the representation of women in Kyogle’s council chambers doubled to two.

“I suppose you could say that was an improvement,” she said, “but there’s still not enough.”

Cr Zito was so concerned about the under representation of women, young people, Aboriginals and people with a disability that she raised the issue with the minister at a recent meeting.

“Councils should be representative of the population they represent,” she told The Northern Star.

“The problem is you can’t make a career out of it so you have to be self-employed or retired to put the time into the job.”

“Employers don’t really like you taking time off work to attend numerous meetings.”

Cr Zito, who is self-employed, said she was mentoring two young women to enter local government but they baulked when they realised that they just couldn’t do it without support.

Their problem was underlined by the report that found the most common age group of councillors was 50-59 years, followed by 60-69.

Recently elected Lismore councillor and deputy mayor Isaac Smith, 35, understands the barriers young people face.

As a father of four children under 12, including a one-year-old, he has to juggle his responsibilities as a community representative with that of a father and husband.

“There are some meetings I’ve had to miss, but I have always said my family comes first,’ he said.

“At Lismore we have our meetings at night, which is an impost on people with families.”

The alternative is daytime meetings that prevent people with full-time jobs from attending.

Cr Smith said cynicism towards politics was another reason young people were reluctant to run for council.

One of the least-represented community groups in council chambers is people with disabilities.

“The broader the cross section, the better the council,” said Ballina mayor Philip Silver, who has served on the council for 16 years and has been wheelchair-bound since he was involved in an accident in 1968.

He said despite some political sledging when first elected about his ability to perform his role, people had come to accept his paraplegia did not affect his council performance.

Council creation

27 per cent of all councillors are women

77 per cent of all mayors are male

Most councillors are aged between 50 and 59, followed by 60 and 69

1.6 per cent of councillors identified as Aboriginal

47 councillors said they had a disability

Nearly half of all councillors were professional and self-employed

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