Whittlesea women rap council over backdown

Saturday, August 14, 2010
Photo by the Council of Single Mothers Action Group.

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.]

From GLW issue 849

Comments

How should GLW refer to people who they quote?

I have had a discussion with Emma from GLW about how people are named when they get quoted in articles. Currently GLW always calls a person by their surname when the paper quotes them, regardless of who they are or what they said and in which context. I would like your editorial policy to be more flexible as this would be advantageous in building a rapport with people who we seek to recruit to the organisation.

I suggest GLW adopts the policy:

1. refer to enemy-politicians/bosses by their surname, as this is how they are known and fits their impersonal role eg PM Gillard, the Gillard government, etc unless you are trying to belittle them by showing their ordinary everydayness eg "Julia".

2. refer to grass roots community leaders, workers and comrades by our first names. This builds humanness and rapport with the reader, as ordinary everydayness is our strength - workers are going to unite to get rid of the rich filth of the earth and then the meek shall inherit the earth - we are proud to be amongst the millions and not the millionaires, so we reach out to each other in a more familiar way and use our first names and this familiarity with each other makes us feel respected. This is not belittling as we want and expect to be called by our first names. We only get called by our surnames in unpleasant and impersonal situations like when someone doesn't like us, when someone is casting a slur on our family name and stereotyping us as coming from troublesome families, when we are being summonsed to obey in the military or prison, during role call, etc - and women especially don't like being called by our surnames, it's like we have no personality and makes us feel disliked. Using first names makes the ordinary people who get written about, especially women, feel far more humanised and comfortable when we read about ourselves in GLW. I see myself and my daughter being called by our surnames in GLW articles and I think, "What sort of organisation did I join?" And I won't show the article to my daughter Alana because when she sees herself being called "Stewart" she is likely to ask me, "Why are they being so weird?"

3. Refer to friendly people who hold official positions, like Sam Wainwright, Tim Gooden, etc by their surname when they are functioning in their official roles and by their first names when they are talking eye to eye and heart to heart with the reader. So use "Wainwright said such and such at the council meeting", but "Sam's an ordinary worker who knows what it's like to live on a budget" or "Sam cares about refugees", etc. In some contexts he needs to appear on a par in rank with others who hold official roles and in other contexts he needs to appear on the same level of humanness as the reader. This means editors use discretion in deciding whether to use surnames or first names, as this is in the best interests of building links with working class people.

4. If in doubt, ask the person who you write about, say Ms Joanne Citizen, "how would you like to be referred to when we quote you in GLW: as Joanne, Joanne Citizen, Citizen, Ms Citizen?" etc. This is what people do in everyday life if they are unsure what is appropriate and the person's choice is respected. In everyday life people have a say about how they want to be referred to. Equality doesn't mean treating everyone in a strictly identical fashion - that kills diversity.

The aims of GLW in building a mass movement should not be subordinated to the culture or convenience of the people who edit the magazine. GLW has to be more responsive to how people feel instead of imposing upon us one blanket grey socialist nightmare society rule for portraying our identities. This is where the ordinary people have to be listened to, have to be alllowed to exercise leadership, because we can see how socialists come across to the public.