A dozen women filled the public gallery of Whittlesea City Council chamber on July 27 to oppose an ALP council back-down on the appointment of a part-time women’s policy officer.
The women were mostly part of the council-sponsored “Women Matter Two” network, which seeks to enhance women’s participation in public life and politics in Melbourne’s working-class, outer-north suburbs.
In June, council voted almost unanimously to set aside $50,000 in the council’s annual budget to create this part-time position: 2010 is the Year of Women in Local Government.
But, to the dismay of progressive councillors and local women, Whittlesea mayor Mary Lalios, from Labor, and her conservative colleagues changed their votes in response to a letter from a disgruntled male resident.
The letter, from Darrell Sinclair, was hand-delivered to council on July 8. Sinclair declared that the creation of a women’s policy officer was “discriminatory”.
“Council is saying women matter more than men. Is this fair?”, he continued.
Whittlesea is one of the most ethnically diverse municipalities in Melbourne. It covers some of the poorest suburbs, including Thomastown and Lalor, country areas and urban fringe housing estates where women are isolated and lack basic services.
And yet Sinclair asked, “What is trying to be achieved here? Is it only a ‘fashionable idea’ so that council can say it is doing things for women? … [A]s there are women … on council, this position is not necessary.
“Once you start separating classes of people and only making laws for them and only looking after them, it creates segregation; differences and inequity.”
Councillors debated the matter for two hours. Local residents had no right to speak, but the women in attendance clapped those councillors who supported the position.
Lalios temporarily adjourned the meeting twice in response to this pressure. Local women had also submitted written questions to the mayor prior to the meeting, hoping to move her to take a principled stand.
Councillor Kris Pavlidis told council that she had sought advice from the Equal Opportunities and Human Rights Commissioner as to whether hiring a women’s policy officer was discriminatory. The commissioner could barely believe such a question needed to be asked, she said.
Pavlidis pointed to ongoing differences in pay, community participation and rights between men and women.
She was backed up by three male colleagues, while the other two women on council, Lalios and Pam McLeod, repeatedly argued against funding a women’s policy officer, despite having voted in favour the previous month.
Councillor John Fry said council funded numerous employees to cater for different sections of the community. To be consistent, he said, council would also have to oppose aged care services, children’s services and disability services, as these also targeted separate, specific groups of people.
“We’ve got ethnics on council”, he said. “Does this mean we no longer need the multicultural officer?”
Lalios was unable to explain her changed position. McLeod tried to put a progressive spin on her back-down, declaring: ‘It’s not time for policy. It’s time for action.”
With eight councillors present and a tied vote, Lalios cast a second, deciding vote to axe the budgetary allowance for the position, and another to push through the amended budget, before addressing written questions.
Lalios refused to read out questions relating to “latch-key children” and single mothers’ poverty, branding these as “statements”, which council doesn’t allow. On questions relating to violence against women, she said the issue was already being addressed.
Lalios finally expelled the women and journalists from the public gallery for a confidential segment of the meeting. A number of women remained outside the glass doors of the chamber, in full view of the mayor, loudly expressing their disgust to local journalists.
Refugee settlement worker Sofia Kotanidis said: “Look how many women support this and the mayor changed her vote on the strength of one man’s letter.”
I said there were plenty of policy matters affecting single mothers in the municipality, which warranted policy research. I mentioned a substandard boarding house scandal in Thomastown, single mothers’ poverty, and a lack of after-school and holiday care for secondary school children.
Seventeen-year-old Alana Stewart went to Whittlesea Council Offices after school to fill in a question time form to have her question answered by the mayor. Stewart asked: “How can our council do anything about sexism, discrimination and violence against women unless it has a women’s policy [officer] and funding?”
Stewart said a women’s policy was important because she knew girls as young as 14 who were left at home to look after younger siblings while their parents worked because their families were poor and there was no weekend childcare.
[Helen Said is a member of the Council of Single Mothers Action Group.]