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Abused in the workplace: councillor speaks out

"Council meetings are without question the lowest point of my week": Marrickville councillor Melissa Brooks. Photo: supplied.

By Melissa Brooks

I have been a councillor since September 2012, when I was elected to represent the community of Marrickville. At council meetings I face verbal abuse week after week.

Last week we were discussing a fairly contentious land use issue with a long history. During the course of the debate, a fellow female councillor was monstered at length by a Liberal councillor – the provocation seemingly some comments I had made.

Despite my protestations, he was allowed to continue his off-topic, insulting rant. When it came time for her to give a right of reply, a Labor councillor tried to prevent her from even having the right to respond.

This isn’t particularly remarkable – I find it hard to recall a meeting where I haven’t been heckled, interrupted or shouted at by a colleague. Without exception it is a man. I would say, although it’s hard to be sure, that female councillors bear the disproportionate brunt of this behaviour. It’s become a sad fact of my life that council meetings are without question the lowest point of my week.

And to be clear, I’m no shrinking violet. But nothing in my life so far could have prepared me for the grind of a weekly meeting where I’m subjected to a torrent of aggression by men nearly twice my age. It’s no wonder then that the most common feedback I get from residents who attend council meetings is not anything to do with the variety of issues that bring them to such a meeting, but on the way some councillors treat others. They are usually shocked by what we put up with, week in, week out.

I’m sure the last thing people want to hear are politicians complaining about other politicians. But I also believe that what I and other councillors endure at meetings every week is precisely what sees decision making restricted to a small pool of people. Their attitude is that people like me, who have no appetite for this kind of aggression, should harden up or shove off.

At the last local government election, every single incumbent woman councillor on Marrickville Council retired. Around the state, barely a quarter of all councillors are women – and the most common age of councillors is 50 to 59. The next most common age group is 60 to 69 years old. Most councils fail even worse on any other diversity measure such as ethnicity.

I’m 25 years old. I ran for council because I know that young people and young families are often those most touched by council decisions in day to day life, but are incredibly poorly represented in decision making about local communities.

While my experience on council has confirmed for me that young women’s voices need to be heard at a local level, I find it very hard now to encourage other young women to consider contributing to their communities in this way. I certainly find it hard, less than halfway through my term, to stomach the idea of re-nominating myself.

If we want decision making to be more inclusive and to incorporate the views of a group wider than just the usual suspects, then some really deep cultural change is required.

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